By Steve Hamm
In an event that some observers say marked a shift in the history of computing, China has for the second time placed a machine atop the list of the world’s highest-performing supercomputers. The MilkyWay-2 system was designed and developed by China’s National University of Defense Technology.
For a group of legislators and science and technology leaders gathered in Washington, D.C. today, the news of China’s triumph, which came on Monday, served as a wake up call about the importance of investing in national competitiveness. “American national security and competitiveness depends on the US not falling behind in this critical area of science and technology,” said Congressman Randy Hultgren (IL-14).
Hultgren was one of a group of Congressmen who are crafting the American Supercomputing Leadership Act, a bill aimed at funding research in high performance computing at the national laboratories. Yet it was clear from remarks made by a scientists and government officials at the event, “Cognitive Computing: A New Way of Thinking,” that for the United States to retain its leadership in computing a collaborative effort involving not just government but academia and industry will be required. Eric Isaacs, director of the Argonne National Laboratory, cautioned that science and research “should not be funded in stovepipes.” He called for the creation of co-design centers, where people from multiple government agencies, universities and private companies can work together on the most challenging problems facing humanity.
To read more about the era of cognitive computing, download a free chapter of the coming book Smart Machines, by IBM Research Director John Kelly, at http://www.cup.columbia.edu/static/cognitive.
IBM is one of the leading developers of cognitive computing technologies—starting with the Watson machine that beat two past grand-champions at the TV quiz show Jeopardy. Today, the company is busy bringing cognitive technologies to numerous industries, starting with health care. In each area, the company is forging alliances with other organizations. David McQueeney, a vice president at IBM Research, highlighted a couple of them: Smarter Energy Research Institute, aimed at creating the advanced energy utility of the future using wind and weather simulation; and the Sun Shot Initiative, aimed at using analytics to manage integration of solar energy into power grids. “The investments by the federal government are key to advances in cognitive computing,” he said.
One of the most important examples of how different types of institutions and scientific disciplines will have to work together is in the area where neuroscience and computer science overlap. The Obama administration has announced a goal of using supercomputing technology to map the human brain to help figure out how it works; a similar exploration is already underway in the European Union. “The breakthroughs will come at the intersections of the fields,” predicted James Olds, director of the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University. Olds urged government leaders and scientists to be bold and be willing to take risks. “If we want to succeed, we have to be willing to occasionally fail,” he said.
While investing in education wasn’t on the official agenda at the cognitive computing event, it was recurring theme. Selmer Bringsford, chairman of the Department of Cognitive Science at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, advised people in the room to urge their children to study computer science and cognition. “Machines won’t design themselves and build themselves and makes themselves smarter. People will do that,” he said.