World’s Fastest Computer May Be Working On Nukes


The US government says China is using the world’s largest supercomputer for nuclear-related activities. It’s banned Intel from supplying chips to expand Tianhe-2’s capabilities.

The computer has been listed as the world’s fastest since June 2013 when it took top spot on the bi-annual TOP500 list. Housed at the National Supercomputing Center in Guanghzhou, it’s listed as achieving a peak speed of 33 petaflops: that is, 33 thousand billion floating-point operations (calculations in effect) every second. It’s double the fastest speed recorded by any other computer as of last November.

Chinese officials had hoped to increase that speed past the 100 petaflop mark. While it already uses 80,000 of Intel’s Xeon chips, it had agreed to buy “tens of thousands” more as part of the upgrade.

However, that’s been blocked by the End-User Review Committee, which spans several US government departments, and decides when to block US firms from selling to a specific organization.

That list now includes the National Supercomputing Center in Guanghzhou along with three other defense and computer organizations in China. Explaining its decision in the Federal Register, the committee said “The TianHe–1A and TianHe–2 supercomputers are believed to be used in nuclear explosive activities as described in § 744.2(a) of the EAR.”

That description is as follows:

Nuclear explosive activities, including research on or development, design, manufacture, construction, testing or maintenance of any nuclear explosive device, or components or subsystems of such a device.

There’s some debate about whether US officials genuinely believe the Chinese are using the supercomputer to work on nuclear explosives; it’s a political move trying to pressure China to change other policies; or a combination of the two.

The most likely consequence appears to be that China will simply take the opportunity to ramp up its own chip production, with the added bonus that it doesn’t have to worry about the security implications of importing computer parts from foreign suppliers.

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