David Yates, PhD, is an associate professor in the computer information systems degree program at Bentley University
More powerful supercomputers can accomplish some incredible things. These devices hold the key to improving health care, making transportation safer and giving a more accurate weather forecast. But how does it all happen?
David Yates, PhD, an associate professor in the computer information systems degree program at Bentley University, says a supercomputer’s power is based on how many instructions they can carry out per second. Some of the most powerful computers today can complete 20 quadrillion instructions within that time span. That’s a number with 16 zeros. To put that into perspective, if you devoted all of your time to counting right now, you wouldn’t reach 2 billion by the end of your lifetime. These computers can complete over 10 million times that amount of commands in a heartbeat.
Yates would know. He’s made a living in the computer science field and earned some impressive awards with Bentley University’s information technology degree students in the process. Just last year, they came in first place in a cluster computer competition in the Supercomputing Conference in Colorado. The victory earned them a spot in the 2014 International Supercomputing Conference in Leipzig, Germany.
But what’s the point of building a computer that can do quadrillions of things in a smaller and smaller amount of time? How exactly can it make our lives better? The applications are near-infinite, but here are four specifics with huge potential to impact your life:
1. A more accurate weather forecast
Meteorologists don’t always get it right. Sometimes that means a wedding planned on a rainy day. Other times, it can put lives in jeopardy by misjudging the time or place a storm is predicted to hit. But supercomputers are closing the gap between forecasts and actual weather events.
Today’s meteorologists depend on incredibly powerful supercomputers to predict where a storm is headed. The more powerful the computer, the more equations it can solve simultaneously and the more accurate the prediction will be. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has recently announced a $44.5 million investment in supercomputing to increase forecast accuracy.
“We continue to make significant, critical investments in our supercomputers and observational platforms,” Louis Uccellini, PhD, director of NOAA’s National Weather Service, says. “By increasing our overall capacity, we’ll be able to process quadrillions of calculations per second that all feed into our forecasts and predictions. This boost in processing power is essential.”
2. Preventing the next Great Depression
In 2030, we may suffer a disastrous population decline and economic collapse. At least, that’s what research by Australian physicist Graham Turner predicts in his study based off of a 1972 academic report that used supercomputers to predict outcomes according to changing populations and resource consumption.
In 2012, Turner said that the economy is right on track for disaster as predicted more than 40 years ago. However, there’s still time to commit to more sustainable practices and delay catastrophe. If the economy really is on track for collapse, the supercomputer predictions could serve as a valuable warning sign.
3. Making transportation as safe as possible
According to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, more than 30,000 people die in car crashes every year in America. To a large extent, collisions occur when unsuspecting drivers come face-to-face with unexpected obstacles. But what if a small-scale supercomputer in a car could sense these things and immediately maneuver away?
That’s exactly what autonomous car hopefuls aim to create, and they’re already making great strides. An autonomous vehicle recently drove from Silicon Valley to Las Vegas — a trip more than 500 miles long — using an autopilot feature.
The system relied on two laser scanners, a front-mounted 3-D camera, four side-mounted cameras and a main supercomputer. The supercomputer would constantly predict driving outcomes on the road and react accordingly, dodging any potential dangers at the same time. It’s just one more step toward the self-driving cars of the future that will rely on supercomputers, which are immune to distractions on the road.
4. Improving health care
Since the outbreak of avian flu 10 years ago, scientists have used supercomputer simulations to understand the efficacy of different vaccinations against the most threatening and most common flu viruses.
“These simulations can take days or even weeks to complete. Therefore, having more processing power is essential to making routine flu vaccinations more effective and protecting the public against the most deadly strains of the flu,” Yates said.
Some supercomputers are becoming successful diagnosticians, too.
If you missed the “Jeopardy!” showdown between renowned champion Ken Jennings and IBM supercomputer “Watson,” here’s the gist: man was no match against the machine. Watson crushed the competition, collecting $77,147 compared to Jennings’s $24,000. IBM also understands the massive impact that computers can have on our collective health. After its 2011 win, Watson left showbiz and took up a career in medicine. Two forms of Watson can be rented by hospitals and insurers: one which siphons through thousands of health records to help diagnose and treat lung cancer, and another that helps insurance companies make decisions.
Supercomputers, which give actual diagnostic and treatment advice to doctors on top of displaying numbers and facts, will be an important part of improving health care in the near future.
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