RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK  President Trump announced Sunday evening that the federal government is deploying the world’s most powerful supercomputer in what he has described as a “war” with an “invisible enemy” – the coronavirus. And IBM is a big part of the effort.

Big Blue, which employs several thousand people across North Carolina and operates one if its most power data “cloud” centers at its large RTP campus, is partnering with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the U.S. Department of Energy along with others such as MIT in the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium.

The effort includes the Summit which is the “world’s most powerful supercomputer today is Summit, built by IBM for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee,” according to The Top 500 project. It ranks the world’s leading supercomputers.   “I[Summit] occupies the equivalent of two basketball courts and achieves an impressive 148.6 petaflops thanks to its 2.41 million cores,” according to the OpenMind website.

IBM isn’t the only Triangle firm tackling the coronavirus with supercomputer power. Lenovo, which is the world’s top supercomputer seller and operates one of its two headquarters in Morrisville, recently teamed with Intel and a Chinese genetics technology firm to use high-performance computing in the search for the secrets of the virus.

“Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic we have been working closely with governments in the U.S. and worldwide to find all available options to put our technology and expertise to work to help organizations be resilient and adapt to the consequences of the pandemic, and to accelerate the process of discovery and enable the scientific and medical community to develop treatments and ultimately a cure,” says Dario Gil, director of IBM Research, about the US effort.

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He said the consortium brings “an unprecedented amount of computing power—16 systems with more than 330 petaflops, 775,000 CPU [central  processing unit] cores, 34,000 GPUs [graphis processing units], and counting — to help researchers everywhere better understand COVID-19, its treatments and potential cures.”

A petaflop is a unit of computing speed equal to one thousand million million (1015) floating-point operations per second’ notes Wikipedia. “In computing, floating point operations per second is a measure of computer performance, useful in fields of scientific computations that require floating-point calculations. For such cases it is a more accurate measure than measuring instructions per second.”

[So where do supercomputers stand in comparison to a human brain?  “For now, exactly simulating a human brain is simply not possible,” Scientific American reported in 2018. “An advanced machine …  can still manage only a fraction of the communication performed by a human brain, and supercomputers have a long way to go before they can think for themselves,” the magazine added in a report about a machiencalled SpinaKKer.]


Gil says the computing power will  “allow researchers to run very large numbers of calculations in epidemiology, bioinformatics, and molecular modeling. These experiments would take years to complete if worked by hand, or months if handled on slower, traditional computing platforms.”

He notes in a blog that the Summiy “already enabled researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee to screen 8,000 compounds to find those that are most likely to bind to the main ‘spike’  protein of the coronavirus, rendering it unable to infect host cells. They were able to recommend the 77 promising small-molecule drug compounds that could now be experimentally tested. This is the power of accelerating discovery through computation.”

Gil notes that the goal of the program is to evaluate proposals from around the world and also to grant access to “projects that can have the most immediate impact.”

“What began just days ago with one conversation with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has solidified quickly into an unprecedented effort that can make a real difference,” he adds.

“In a time of uncertainty, I want to offer this promise: IBM will continue to explore everything in our power to use our technology and expertise to drive meaningful progress in this global fight.”

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