Six Ways That the World’s Fastest Computers Have Changed Your Life 

Bella Dippenaar
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Bob Dylan wisely observed that one does not need the services of a meteorologist to determine which way the wind blows. If you want to do long-term forecasting, estimate the path of a Category 5 hurricane, or recreate the devastation caused by decades of climate change, you’ll need a supercomputer. 

These machines are exactly what their names suggest: they are made up of thousands of processors that work in parallel to perform quadrillions of operations per second on inconceivable amounts of data. 

Scientists are using these electronic animals to tackle the most difficult challenges facing humanity. Machines like the Sierra at Lawrence Livermore Lab calculate the explosion radius of thermonuclear bombs, and these machines also create precise models of the human heart.

The Summit at Oak Ridge National Laboratory is being used to develop better batteries and to simulate supernovas. Aurora, the upcoming exascale system at Argonne National Laboratory, may enable researchers to monitor the human brain and manipulate nuclear fusion. 

The vast majority of us are unaware of how supercomputers are already influencing our daily lives. Many of our daily activities, such as checking the weather, going to the doctor’s office, watching a movie, or managing our bank accounts, have benefited from advances made possible by high-performance computers (HPCs). 

The following are some of the most common 

Should I bring an umbrella because of the weather? 

Every second, 2 x 1044 molecules (that’s a 2 followed by 44 zeroes) collide with one another in the earth’s atmosphere, resulting in the phenomenon known as weather. Billions of calculations are required to accurately predict the interactions of even a small portion of these particles. 

The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer at the University of Pennsylvania made history in April 1950 when it produced the first accurate forecast of the weather for the next 24 hours. Many people believe that the ENIAC was the first general-purpose computer and that it was built during World War II to calculate ballistics trajectory. 

By the mid-1950s, it was common practice to generate forecasts using a computer. The National Weather Service has received a pair of room-sized supercomputers from IBM and HPE Cray, each of which is approximately 10,000 times more powerful than the device you are currently using to read this.

Weather forecasting accuracy has steadily improved over the last several decades. The forecast for the next five days is normally accurate 90% of the time; however, the forecast for the next ten days is only slightly more than half of the time. If you’re going on a long vacation, you should bring an umbrella in case it rains. 

Automobiles: Exploring the highways and back roads 

For more than three decades, supercomputers have been helping the automotive industry develop vehicles that are faster, safer, and more energy efficient. HPCs were first used by Japanese automobile manufacturers in the late 1980s. Mazda used an $8 million Cray supercomputer to design the aerodynamic “Aero-Wave” roofline featured on the 1993 RX-7 sports vehicle. 

Furthermore, in 2004, General Motors invested a supercomputer to simulate the outcomes of car accident tests. When we enter the era of self-driving cars, high-performance computing systems will play an even larger role in teaching a car’s artificial intelligence systems to distinguish between a trash bag in the middle of the road and a baby carriage. 

You can also thank supercomputers for the ability to pull into a gas station and fill up your tank. Three-dimensional seismic models are being used by petrochemical companies to improve their ability to forecast the locations of oil deposits. When you finally decide to ditch the gas guzzler in favor of an all-electric vehicle, it’s possible that a supercomputer played a role in the development of batteries that allow electric vehicles to last longer. 

In terms of medical attention, the AI physician will see you right away 

Have you gotten your flu shot yet this season? The use of supercomputers greatly aided the discovery of vaccines against avian and swine flu, and researchers are currently working hard to find treatments and cures for COVID-19. 

Researchers in the medical field are using artificial intelligence (AI) and supercomputers to create digital twins of human organs. The goal of this project is to learn how these digital organs react to therapies before administering them to their human counterparts. Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s Blue Brain 5 is currently contributing to the mapping of the 88 billion synapses found in the neocortex of mice. This is a critical step toward understanding the human brain. 

Finally, it is expected that high-performance computing will usher in a new era of personalized medicine. Patients would receive therapies tailored specifically to their genetic make-up in this type of medicine. 

You can have faith in our financial services 

Have you ever used your credit card in a foreign country and then received a phone call from your bank asking you to verify the purchase? What happened, if so? This is because a machine learning algorithm running on a high-performance computer has your back.

To detect the possibility of bank fraud as it occurs, a significant amount of processing power is required. MasterCard, for example, processes 165 million transactions per hour while applying roughly 2 million different rules to each of those transactions. And it does it all in a matter of seconds. 

In addition to detecting and defending against cyberattacks, financial services institutions use supercomputers for credit risk assessment, investment evaluation, regulatory compliance verification, pricing prediction, and management of high-speed trades. And the next time you call your bank’s customer service line, the phone may be answered by an AI-driven bot that can analyze how you’re feeling and connect you with the appropriate representative. 

What kind of entertainment do you have planned for tonight? 

It is difficult to find a major motion picture released in the last few years that did not use computer-generated imagery of some kind. In 2018, computer-generated imagery (CGI)-only films grossed approximately $6 billion at the global box office.

Furthermore, the amount of computational power required grows in direct proportion to the level of sophistication of the animation. A supercomputer with 55,000 cores was used to simulate 10 billion rays of light bouncing off each object to create the image of Baymax, the doughy white protagonist of Disney’s “Big Hero 6” (2014). This image was used to create Baymax. 

Computer-generated imagery films, on the other hand, have been around for much longer than you might think. During WWII, anti-aircraft targeting computers were used to create the opening title sequence of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958). It wasn’t until 1984’s “The Last Starfighter” that supercomputers were given starring roles in a film. A Cray X-MP was used to create 27 minutes of special effects footage for that film. 

The only limit in astronomy is the sky 

When we look up at the night sky with our eyes and sometimes a telescope, we are looking back into the recent past. It’s like looking back 13 billion years when astrophysicists do it. They use supercomputers to simulate what the universe looked like just after the Big Bang and piece it together. High-performance computing systems have been used to forecast galaxy formation, investigate the inner workings of black holes, and shed light on the mysteries of dark matter. 

The ability to change our understanding of how the universe was created, as well as our role within it, maybe the most significant and far-reaching impact of supercomputing.