by Ken Brown

They are the world’s fastest computers – capable of a million billion calculations per second – but what are they used for?

Most of us don’t really know. For those who don’t have a computer science degree, we created this short video for you.

To produce this story, we spoke with directors of two prominent supercomputing labs, in Berkeley, California, and Beijing. They said supercomputers are used for:

  • Developing better products, like more efficient engines and batteries
  • Developing alternative energy sources
  • Improving the efficiency of existing energy sources
  • Climate research
  • Researching cures for cancer and diseases like the H1N1 virus

It’s clear from our interviews that supercomputers aren’t just used for theoretical research. They’re boosting national economies by enabling companies to compete on a global scale, and improving the efficiency of their energy sources.

That’s why nations like the US, China, Japan, France, India and the European Union are racing to build faster and more energy-efficient supercomputers. The research being done at these facilities will have a direct impact on the economies of those regions.

In addition, supercomputers underlay the data centers and social networks that power our digital world.

These massive systems, which have thousands of processors and require huge amounts of electricity, are in use 24×7, 365 days a year. There is a constant demand to make them both faster and more energy efficient.

Graphics processors – originally developed to blast pixels in video games – help speed up these systems and increase their energy efficiency. GPUs are currently deployed in three of the world’s fastest supercomputers, and the adoption rate of GPUs in supercomputing centers is increasing dramatically.

We hope this video dispels some of the mystery around these systems. It’s important to know what they’re used for, because your next car, jet engine, energy source or medical device will likely be developed by one. And when you retweet this story, those messages ricochet worldwide, instantly, thanks to computers like these.

Special thanks to Professor Wei Ge of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Professor Katherine Yelick, the Associate Laboratory Director for Computing Sciences and the Director of the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.