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Rise of the supercomputers: Gulf invests its oil profits in big tech

Supercomputers operate at a much higher level of performance compared to a general-purpose computer Creative Commons
The term "supercomputer" was first used in the 1960s
  • Supercomputers are 1 million times quicker than the fastest laptop
  • Middle East hosts eight of the world’s top 500 machines; China has 173
  • A cutting-edge data science lab will open in Abu Dhabi in December

Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, the world’s third-largest sovereign wealth fund, has revealed plans to launch ADIA Lab, a centre dedicated to cutting-edge research in data science, artificial intelligence, machine learning and quantum computing. 

From its base in the UAE capital, ADIA Lab will start work on December 2, supporting projects on climate change and energy transition, blockchain technology, financial inclusion and investing, automation, cybersecurity, health sciences, education, telecommunications and space.

The lab, along with Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s proposal to build a new supercomputer for Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI), represent a major drive to put technology at the centre of the Middle East’s growth ambitions.

Supercomputing is seen as vital to delivering AI at scale and driving global innovation, industry competitiveness and economic growth.

It is core to helping solve the most difficult scientific and engineering challenges, from accelerating vaccine discovery to fight a pandemic to advancing clean energy systems.

Experts say supercomputers will become more commonplace in the Middle East as the UAE and Saudi Arabia prioritise tech advances.

Dubai-based Victoria Mendes, research manager of enterprise infrastructure at IDC, told AGBI: “In the past few years, high performance computing (HPC) has become very important and a priority for many countries in the Middle East region and we are seeing several supercomputers emerge as a result of businesses and industries striving to maintain their standing in this technological race. 

“Governments across the region are increasing their investments in HPC as they see it as a strategic priority in achieving their national visions.

“Supercomputers are being used in several applications these days and new requirements are driving the advancements of innovative products and solutions.”

Mendes said supercomputers were increasingly being used in the Middle East for big data analytics and AI workloads while, in the field of energy, they are being employed for achieving efficiencies in oil and gas exploration. 

Face, Person, Human
Victoria Mendes says supercomputing has become a priority in the Middle East

“We have also seen supercomputers being used in the healthcare industry in the field of genomics, biology and medicine, including accelerating drug breakthroughs to fight Covid-19,” she added.

“Weather monitoring and analysis is another area where we see supercomputers play an important role in predictions and forecasts.”

Paolo Pescatore, a tech, media and telecoms analyst at PP Foresight, said he expected supercomputers to be a “growing trend given everyone’s insatiable appetite for more data” in the Middle East and globally.

“Everything we do is in the cloud and this will require more processing power,” Pescatore said.

“Technologies like artificial intelligence will enable more personalised offerings.

“New technologies on show at GITEX [computer expo in Dubai] underline the shift towards a future blending the physical and virtual worlds.”

The GCC hosts only eight of the world’s 500 most powerful supercomputers: six in Saudi Arabia and two in the UAE. China has 173 and there are 128 in the United States.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise said its supercomputing and AI technologies would significantly enhance Mohamed bin Zayed University’s ability to run complex models with extremely large data sets, and increase predictability in research in fields including energy, transportation and the environment. 

The new supercomputer aims to help MBZUAI support the UAE’s National Strategy for AI, which aims to bring together academia, government and industry to strengthen the country’s competitiveness.

It will also expand resources for larger projects to allow the university to attract global talent and create new opportunities for the UAE, a statement said.

MBZUAI is already contributing to initiatives such as the Emirati Genome Program, which uses AI-based tools to extract and interpret large amounts of complex data resulting from DNA sequencing, and the Abu Dhabi Health Services Company, which uses AI algorithms to predict heart attacks.

“Supercomputing plays an essential role in unleashing AI to achieve significant breakthroughs for organisations worldwide, across public and private sectors,” said Justin Hotard, executive vice president and general manager of HPC, AI & Labs, at Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

“MBZUAI’s campus supercomputing centre is demonstrating this capability to unlock new possibilities in AI and strengthen UAE’s position as an AI-driven nation to advance key initiatives in healthcare, sustainability and engineering.”

Officials say ADIA Lab will make a key contribution to the development of Abu Dhabi’s digital ecosystem, with a focus on projects that could lead to the creation of startups.

Dr Horst Simon, who recently served as senior adviser to the director of the Office of Advanced Scientific Computing Research, in the US Department of Energy, has been appointed director of ADIA Lab.

Computing power in the Middle East

Group 42, an artificial intelligence and cloud computing company that was founded in Abu Dhabi in 2018, hosts the UAE’s most powerful supercomputers.

Artemis and DOM3 drive the company’s development of AI industries in the government sector, healthcare, finance, oil and gas, aviation and hospitality.

Saudi Aramco has five of the kingdom’s six supercomputers, including Damman-7 – the most powerful in the Middle East. When Aramco and Saudi Telecom Company announced the launch of Dammam-7 last year, they described the supercomputer as the next step in Aramco’s digital transformation.

It has 55.4 petaflops of peak computing power. Supercomputing is measured in floating-point operations per second (flops). Petaflops are a measure of a computer’s processing speed equal to a thousand trillion flops. Supercomputers can have 1 million times more processing power than the fastest laptop.

Dammam-7, named after the first oil well discovered in Saudi Arabia, runs detailed 3D earth models, improving the kingdom’s ability to discover and recover oil and gas while reducing exploration and development risks. 

Last month, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal announced that it had selected Hewlett Packard Enterprise to build its next-generation supercomputer, Shaheen III. 

Expected to be 20 times faster than the university’s current system, Shaheen III is set to have more than 100 petaflops of power, making it the most powerful supercomputer in the Middle East by far. It is scheduled to be fully operational in 2023 and will tackle problems that affect society and the environment. 

History of the supercomputer

Supercomputing has evolved over decades since the Colossus machine was put into operation at Bletchley Park as part of the Allies’ efforts to win the Second World War.

The term came into use in the early 1960s, when IBM rolled out the IBM 7030 Stretch, and Sperry Rand unveiled the UNIVAC LARC, the first supercomputers designed to be more powerful than the fastest commercial machines available at the time.

World’s top five most powerful supercomputers

  1. Frontier was built by Hewlett Packard Enterprise and is housed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, US
  2. Fugaku is installed at the Riken Centre for Computational Science in Kobe, Japan
  3. LUMI is another HPE system crunching the numbers in Finland
  4. Summit is an IBM-built supercomputer also at Oak Ridge in Tennessee. It is used for climate change projects and to predict extreme weather
  5. Sierra is system installed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. It is used for testing and maintaining the reliability of nuclear weapons

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