High performance computing is super important to Singapore’s digital economy – and so are the talents who can harness it.
By Jo-ann Huang
Artificial intelligence (AI) has the power to transform industries. But have you ever wondered what powers AI applications?
The answer is high performance computing (HPC), or the use of clusters of computers. Through this use of aggregated computing power, HPC can solve complex problems quicker and more easily than a single computer.
Essentially, HPC is the infrastructure that enables AI applications to handle complex workloads such as running advanced application programs, and provides the power for machine learning and deep learning algorithms to identify patterns and trends in data.
At the SupercomputingAsia 2018 (SCAsia 2018) conference, experts discussed how the convergence of AI and HPC could transform the way people live, now that more countries within the region are shaping up to become digital economies. It was held at Resorts World Convention Centre from 26 to 29 March.
Topics broached in a series of workshops and sessions at the conference included AI and HPC architecture, HPC green technologies as well as HPC trends in medicine, fintech, biotech and automation.
The need for speed
Guest-of-honour Dr Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Communications and Information and Ministry of Education, said Singapore has invested in and benefited from supercomputers since 1998.
“These have generated academic research and economic dividends by providing problem solving and data analysis solutions that would be otherwise impossible,” Dr Puthucheary said.
He added that in today’s disruptive economy, accelerating Singapore’s digital transformation requires speed – the kind of speed that HPC can provide.
“The type of transformation that we want to undergo is something that Singapore has undergone several times before in its past, whether it was on marine off-shore, defence, independence, bio-medical initiatives, or in our finance sector,” he said.
“But the transformation has never moved at such speed, and has never needed to move at such speed, as it has to in today’s digital, disruptive economy. With the requirement for speed, we need some very hefty computing capabilities,” Dr Puthucheary added.
One of the more recent and famous HPC case studies is Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE)’s space project with NASA to send a powerful, specially hardened high performance computer – dubbed the Spaceborne Computer – into space last August.
The mission: Test how supercomputers perform in space.
Spaceborne Computer is now at the International Space Station, where it will remain for a year-long study to test its hardiness in the harsh conditions of space, such as high radiation events or lower power and operating speeds.
The results could pave the way to building space-ready supercomputers.
Dr Goh Eng Lim, HPE’s vice president and chief technology officer (HPC and AI), and the Singaporean principal investigator behind the Spaceborne Computer, explained that computers in space need to be self-sustaining as they are a long way from home.
“It takes almost one light second to get a message from the moon back to Earth to ask for help. It takes almost 10,000 light seconds or 20 minutes … from Mars to Earth. You need to be more self-sufficient the further away you go from earth,” said Dr Goh.
Nurturing a strong talent pipeline
The National Supercomputing Centre Singapore (NSCC), which organised the event, hopes that SCAsia 2018 would help to promote a vibrant HPC ecosystem in Asia. But creating a vibrant and sustainable HPC ecosystem requires a robust talent pipeline.
“We need that long, multi-decade horizon of talent development in order to fulfil the vision that AI Singapore is part of,” said Dr Puthucheary.
Recognising people is also important in maintaining a talent pipeline. As such, SCAsia 2018 rewarded some of the best talents in HPC with the SCA18 Awards.
Categories included the Asia HPC Leadership Award and the Asia HPC Outstanding Innovation Award.
Dr Satoshi Sekiguchi, vice president of Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, bagged the Asia HPC Leadership Award. The award recognises his work in initiating the world’s fastest supercomputer for AI research, known as the AI Bridging Cloud Infrastructure.
Professor Lam Khin Yong, vice president for research at Nanyang Technological University, was honoured with the SCAsia 2018 Singapore Distinguished Service Award for his dedication to shaping the HPC landscape in Singapore since the 1980s. One of his many efforts was the establishment of the Centre for Computational Mechanics at the National University of Singapore in 1994.
Last but not least, Dr Goh was awarded the Singapore Visionary Award for launching Spaceborne Computer into space.
Singapore on the supercomputing map
NSCC aims to make SCAsia the gold standard event for HPC in Asia – and it seems to be on the right path.
Gilbert Thomas, a technical sales specialist at a global computing firm, said SCAsia 2018 allowed customers to see the latest HPC trends in the market. “HPC customers are always looking for the latest advancements in server technology that can help them run their increasingly demanding workloads faster,” said Mr Thomas, who was one of the event’s exhibitors.
SCAsia 2018, which welcomed 500 delegates and featured 18 exhibition booths, is the new and improved edition of its predecessor, the Supercomputing Frontiers conference, which began in 2015.
Established in 2015, NSCC manages Singapore’s first national petascale facility with HPC resources to support science and engineering computing needs for the academic, research and industry communities.
Note: Petascale refers to a computer system that can perform a quadrillion (one followed by 15 zeroes) calculations per second, which some estimates suggest would take a human 32,000,000 years to complete.
For more information about NSCC, visit www.nscc.sg.
1. Selected images of SupercomputingAsia 2018 courtesy of SCAsia 2018 website.
2. Image of Spaceborne Computer courtesy of NASA website.