Mar 30, 2022 - Technology

Supercomputing vet named Turing Award winner

Jack Dongarra, in 1980 at Argonne National Lab, with a Tektronix 4081 Workstation

Jack Dongarra in 1980 at Argonne National Lab, with a Tektronix 4081 Workstation. Photo: Courtesy of Association for Computing Machinery

This year's Turing Award, often dubbed the Nobel Prize of the computing industry, is going to Jack Dongarra, a pioneer in the field of supercomputers.

Why it matters: The arrival of supercomputing — machines that put massive numbers of processors working in parallel to tackle complex scientific problems — has paved the way for everything from the sequencing of genomes to modeling weather patterns to simulating nuclear war.

The award, given by the Association for Computing Machinery, comes with a $1 million prize and highlights breakthroughs that have reshaped the industry. Past winners include World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee and Douglas Engelbart, inventor of the computer mouse.

Between the lines: While supercomputer talk often focuses on the number of operations per second that the hardware can do, Dongarra's work has centered on how to develop software and write algorithms that can efficiently harness that computer power.

What they're saying: "I think of the supercomputer as the race car," Dongarra said in an interview. "That race car can’t go anywhere unless it is fueled correctly." Often, he said, applications are only using a single digit percentage of a supercomputer's theoretical maximum performance.

  • Dongarra’s work has helped shift that calculus, by creating open source libraries that more efficiently use massive amounts of hardware, in some cases by using linear algebra as an intermediate language.

To extend the race car metaphor, Dongarra has seen the industry move from the equivalent of a Model T to today's Formula 1 racers.

  • And even that is an understatement. To get a sense for the power of the latest exoscale supercomputers, Dongarra says, try to imagine everyone on earth doing one calculation per second. It would take us all four years to do what an exoscale computer can do in a single second.

What's next: Dongarra is still a professor at the University of Tennessee, but plans to shift to emeritus status later this year, continuing to work with some doctoral students but giving up his teaching responsibilities.

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