by Andy Keane

China’s record-breaking Tianhe-1A supercomputer – just confirmed this week in the Top500 list of the world's most powerful supercomputers – is no publicity stunt or state-sponsored play for mere pride. Delivering 1.4 times the performance of America’s fastest supercomputer, it’s a leading indicator of where computing is going.

Tianhe-1A supercomputer 
China is not chained to the anchor of legacy CPU-based computing. And while part of China’s innovation is in the networking interconnect to link processors together, their achievement is based on a new and more pragmatic vision about how to deploy hardware effectively. China has made the great leap into next-generation, hybrid supercomputing by using GPUs to drive far better efficiency and performance, more economically.

It’s not just about the hardware. Educating the next generation of researchers and scientists is critical. But computing capacity and infrastructure are being critically overlooked and under-invested in. Most supercomputers are already 2X over-subscribed at our current level of demand . And in this decade our level of science will see a 1,000-fold increase in its computational demands.

More broadly, there’s hardly a major sector of the economy that isn’t being impacted daily by supercomputing. Computer design, imaging and simulations have become critical to transportation, consumer products, healthcare, energy, telecommunications and financial services – to name just a few.

Faster computation generates the innovations and competitive edge so critical to growth and improved standard of living.

Step back from the immediate contest for hardware supremacy for a minute. Consider the consequences of falling behind in computing innovation over a longer horizon. A direct line can be drawn between the tools societies develop and the advances they make over time — in science and technology, in product development and innovation, and in economic growth.

As you trace that line – from the observations of ancient astronomers and mathematicians, and through the experimentation of the past two centuries – it’s clear that the third and most vital wave of human innovation in this century is now being driven by computation.

We evolve and prosper precisely to the degree that we hone our tools to empower the minds behind them – extending our capacities in domains and dimensions constrained only by our imaginations.

Ten years from now, if we find ourselves looking back at 2010 as the year American technology was enlisted to beat us at a game we invented, it will not be a failure of technology. It will reflect a deficit of imagination.