US Intelligence Wants Superconducting Computer in Five Years
The reflection of Roland Germann, manager, Nanotechnology Center Operations at IBM Research – Zurich in the clean room with a silicon wafer. (Photo by Michael Lowry, courtesy of IBM)

US Intelligence Wants Superconducting Computer in Five Years

Government kicks off “high-risk, high-payoff” R&D program, enlists IBM, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon

U.S. federal agency that invests in “high-risk, high-payoff” research to advance capabilities of the government’s intelligence agencies has started a five-year program to develop superconducting circuits for the most powerful spy computer to date.

The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) has signed research contracts with IBM, Raytheon-BBN, and Northrop Grumman Corp. to support the program called C3, or Cryogenic Computing Complexity.

The promise of superconducting processing is to take computing far beyond limits of the currently used complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) technology. If the technology proves to be effective and possible to manufacture at low enough cost, it will greatly reduce power and cooling requirements of supercomputers and data centers as well as the amount of space required to house cooling infrastructure.

“The power, space, and cooling requirements for current supercomputers based on complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) technology are becoming unmanageable,” Marc Manheimer, C3 program manager, said in a statement.

Superconducting circuits make quantum computing possible. Quantum computing takes advantage of the special property of subatomic particles called qubits to be in more than one state at once, which theoretically can deliver much faster computing than the current binary paradigm.

Besides the spy computer research program, there are multiple ongoing R&D projects around superconducting computing in academia and the public sector, including efforts by researchers at MIT, University of California Santa Barbara, Google, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Some superconducting circuits have been clocked at 770 gigahertz, according to a report by MIT News. For comparison, Intel’s fastest processor to date, Core i7-4790K, clocks at a maximum of 4.40 GHz.

Tianhe-2, the Chinese system currently considered the world’s most powerful supercomputer, runs on 2.2 GHz processors, albeit it runs on more than 3.1 million processor cores. The system requires nearly 18 MW of power.

Superconducting circuits have no electrical resistance and thus produce no heat. This is achieved by cooling the material down to a point where the atoms stop moving, allowing electrons to pass without bumping into them and producing heat as a result.

A recently published paper by MIT researchers describes superconducting circuits made of niobium nitride that operate at minus 257 degrees Celsius. They are cooled to that temperature by liquid helium.

These circuits need about 1 percent of the energy a conventional chip needs.

Another major ongoing supercomputing research effort by the federal government is the Department of Energy’s program focused on reaching exascale computing. An exascale computer can perform billion billion calculations per second (this is measured as 1 exaFLOP/s).

The aforementioned Tianhe-2 system’s maximum theoretical performance is about 54,900 teraFLOP/s. To do what a 1 exaFLOP/s system can do in one second, one would have to make one calculation per second for about 31.7 billion years, according to the website of Indiana University.

IARPA’s program is looking well beyond exascale. C3 administrators expect to have the technology needed to demonstrate a small superconducting processor, and in five years a “small-scale working model of a superconducting computer.”

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