Proof that supercomputers can see and build the future

Scientists have discovered a new type of chemical bond thanks to the Abe and Ember supercomputers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This may be insanely nerdy for our web-loving readers, but for anyone investing in the future of technology, this is big. Not only because new chemical bonds mean new materials or products that could change the world, but because it shows exactly how supercomputers and big data are becoming the microscope of the future.

The availability of cheaper yet powerful computing helps scientists crunch massive amounts of data that can lead to new discoveries. Last month, I spoke to a researcher at Johns Hopkins about this. Dr. Alex Szalay, of Johns Hopkins said:

“In every area of science we are generating a petabyte of data, and unless we have the equivalent of the 21st-century microscope, with faster networks and the corresponding computing, we are stuck,” Szalay said.

In his mind, the new way of using massive processing power to filter through petabytes of data is an entirely new type of computing which will lead to new advances in astronomy and physics, much like the microscope’s creation in the 17th century led to advances in biology and chemistry.

This is why the search for exascale supercomputing matters. But compute in isolation isn’t enough. The other elements that are coming together are faster networks to move data around (although they aren’t fast enough) and a more collaborative culture in science and technology across geographies and disciplines. Broadband helps with that of course. The use of open-source software in scientific computing and of cheaper ways to harness massive compute power, either though the cloud or through GPUs, also allow more people to play with machines that are akin to the top-of-the-line supercomputers of 5-6 years ago.

So the democratization of compute, data analytics, the data itself and fast networks are changing how deeply scientists can look at a problem. And it offers a wider lens to put research in context thanks to collaboration and interdisciplinary studies. Today it’s a new form of chemical bonding, but next it could be a revolution in energy production inspired by the new bond. And with these new tools, discoveries will happen faster and be applied in more places. That’s cool even if chemistry isn’t your thing.


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