Supercomputers: what can they be used for?

Supercomputers: what can they be used for?

Article by Johann Mifsud published in The Sunday Times of Malta on 4.12.2022

The supercomputer is a type of computer capable of very high performance with its horsepower or performance commonly measured in floating-point operations per second (flops). These machines provide computing power that is hundreds or even thousands of times the power of more commonly available computers. Naturally, the investment required to purchase and maintain such large machines is substantial and is, therefore a domain of computing reserved to entities such as whole nations, large corporations or well-funded universities and research facilities.

The obvious question is why we need such machines and why should we bear their cost? The answer to that is; essentially, they are very useful tools at our disposal that give us the capability to model complex systems, and with that comes the power to make predictions with a high levels of accuracy.

Examples of such complex systems come from a diverse array of fields such artificial intelligence, drug and material design, bio-engineering, climate change, weather forecasting, geological systems and so on.

Let us take an example whereby a digital model of hurricane is simulated, the computer uses observational data that comes from satellites, weather balloons, buoys, radar etc. From this data, the supercomputer is able to help predict how the storm will evolve and which is the most likely path it will take, in essence, the model permits us to peer into the future. Based on that, warnings can be issued in advance by authorities to affected areas and resources mobilized to where they are needed most. This in turn saves lives.

Another type of natural disaster, to which supercomputers have been put to good use is, volcanic events which are notoriously unpredictable. A supercomputer-based model is fed information from sensors situated strategically around the affected volcano with the computer providing the possible eruption scenario,
lava flow and fumes direction etc. Again armed with this information hours or days ahead, authorities can take action such as evacuations or diverting traffic, reducing loss of life and material losses.

In the next example, we can mention viruses. Scientists can simulate the physical structure of proteins in viruses, and gain insight into how the virus works, with scientific visualisation tools and advanced graphics. These make it possible to study how a potential vaccine would interact. It is also possible to track the mutations of the virus, permitting scientists to keep vaccines effective as the virus changes.

So many examples of similar applications exist, ranging from those in natural phenomena like earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, landslides etc. And also, in biology, such, epidemics, pandemics and other a disease can be studied. These tools give us tangible outcomes capable of saving lives and are also a strategic asset that promotes the technological growth derived from industrial applications. From so many gains that affect our lives, it is easy to see the justification behind the investment in these systems.

This article was prepared by collating various publicly available online sources.