The term “supercomputer” gets thrown around a lot by the media, but what exactly defines a supercomputer, and what do they enable scientists, governments and businesses to accomplish?
While the definition of a supercomputer is about as relative as the definition of the word “super,” we can describe a supercomputer as a computing machine that has one of the most powerful and speediest processing systems in the world given a certain year. Supercomputers develop at the speed of technology (that is, at a break-neck rate), and quantum computers may even make them irrelevant in as little as a decade. However, for now they are the top-tier, most useful, valuable, and reliable computers we’ve got. Read on for more information about what supercomputers are and what they do for society.
Supercomputers have existed since World War II, when Britain needed to up their computing game in order to crack German codes. While that “supercomputer” could now barely work as a satisfactory calculator, it did set the stage for supercomputers to come not only technologically, but in terms of assuring governments that maintaining access to top-tier computing technology is strategic in times of war and in times of peace.
While supercomputers were originally developed as a tool of war, they’re now used for everything from the purposes of IT companies to expanding human knowledge in general. Of course, the United States National Nuclear Security Administration and Purdue University collaborated on using a network of supercomputers to simulate nuclear weapons capability just four years ago; world powers will use computers for war for as long as there is war, often with astounding and devastating results. That said, supercomputers are also utilized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Operational Supercomputing System to forecast the weather and track atmospheric activity. Supercomputers are even used to maintain the necessary processing power for the popular online game World of Warcraft, which is often played by millions of people at a time. Some supercomputers are even made to be able to play games themselves, like IBM’s Deep Blue, which famously beat chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. The supercomputer Watson beat Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings more recently. Watson is currently being utilized by a health insurer to predict patient diagnoses and treatments, according to recent articles. This is an interesting demonstration of the way that scientists and engineers can make computers simply to see if something is possible, then begin to put that new-found potential to important uses. Such is the development of technological devices in general.
NASA uses supercomputers to calculate factors of the universe after and during the big bang; it even uses supercomputers to find other planets in the galaxy that resemble Earth or seem like they would be able to support life like that on Earth.
So there you have it: supercomputers help us with everything from playing games to making war, and help us better understand our surroundings from our own atmosphere to deep space. And while many may mark the technological revolution by the dependency on the masses on smartphones and personal computers, the real technological progress might be better examined in terms of the increasingly incredible feats achieved by state-of-the-art supercomputers. While the impact of these incredible processors might take years to trickle down to normal people through the availability of the technology on the market, in terms of the effect these computers have on military defense, weather, science and health research, they definitely make immediate impacts on our society. Hopefully the supercomputers will serve more to maintain health than to destroy the health of “enemies of the state,” but in times of such cultural and technological turmoil, only time will tell.