The TITAN supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, currently one of the most powerful such systems worldwide. Photo: DOE

The Energy Department, Intel and subcontractor Cray Inc. announced Monday an agreement worth "more than $500 million" to provide Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois with the country's first "exascale" computer system.

Why it matters: When it begins operating in 2021, the new system, to be called Aurora, will be the most powerful supercomputer in the U.S. — more than five times faster than the current leader, which is the Summit supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

  • The transition to exascale computing involves a thousandfold increase in computing power from the petascale systems installed during the past decade, and it promises to open up a broader array of applications, such as precision medicine and AI.

Details: The Aurora computer will have the performance of one "exaFLOP," which is equal to a quintillion floating point computations per second, according to a press release and briefing from Intel.

The potential uses for this computer include:

  • Complex cosmological simulations to better understand the universe.
  • Precision medicine, such as testing new approaches for drug response prediction to treat cancer and other diseases.
  • Climate and extreme weather prediction.
  • Mapping the human brain down to the neural level.

Context: There's a race heating up between the U.S. and China for who has the most powerful supercomputer.

  • While it will be the most powerful system in the U.S. when it goes online in 2021, an Argonne National Lab spokesperson said it's not clear whether it will be the fastest computer in the world at that time.
  • Raj Hazra, vice president of Intel's enterprise and government group, told Axios that leading in computing power isn't nearly as important as what that nation does with its capabilities.
"From the perspective of winning the race, it’s not just getting to exascale, but what does exascale get you to that is important. The race matters in terms of stoking innovation. To compete you have to be able to compute."
— Hazra

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