Very large computers (ORNL/U.S. Dept. of Energy)
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory unveiled Summit, the world’s most powerful and smartest supercomputer, in June. (ORNL/U.S. Dept. of Energy)

The world’s most advanced supercomputer is called Summit, and it recently powered up at a federal laboratory in Tennessee.

Built by a team from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and American companies IBM and Nvidia Corporation, Summit sports eye-popping performance. At its peak, Summit can calculate 200 petaflops. That’s 200,000 trillion calculations per second, using the standard measure for supercomputer power. According to the TOP500 List, which ranks world supercomputers, Summit was the fastest on the planet as of June 25.

“It is faster than anything the world has known,” IBM chief executive Ginni Rometty said at an event celebrating the new supercomputer.

Computer circuit board (Jason Richards/ORNL/U.S. Dept. of Energy)
Inside the Summit supercomputer (Jason Richards/ORNL/U.S. Dept. of Energy)

“I think we’re all searching for analogies so that everyone can understand that,” she said. “Actually, if you think about it, it is millions of times faster than what would be a really, really good, high-end desktop [computer].”

Rometty said it’s not just about power — it’s about smarts. Scientists designed Summit to be the first supercomputer to handle advanced artificial-intelligence applications. Its architecture combines raw computational power, graphics processing units, and innovations in memory and data movement. Thomas Zacharia, the director of Oak Ridge National Lab, said Summit can automate critical steps of scientific discovery.

What can the world do with 200 petaflops? Early projects will tackle models of quantum materials, fission and fusion energy, bioenergy and astrophysics, Zacharia said.

Supercomputers and health

One of Summit’s most promising applications is cancer research. The supercomputer will analyze a massive amount of health data to tease out hidden relationships between genes, biological markers and the environment.

“We’re essentially training computers with large volumes of data to read medical documents and extract important information,” said Gina Tourassi, a cancer researcher at Oak Ridge National Lab. “Such information is used to help doctors determine the best treatment for each patient and improve population health outcomes.”

Other researchers are using Summit to understand the traits that influence complex health challenges such as Alzheimer’s and addiction. By combining health data with underlying genetic information, scientists can home in on risk factors that no human could calculate, computational biologist Dan Jacobson said.

One thing is clear: Supercomputers have come a long way in the past few decades. Zacharia said today’s smartphones are more powerful than the supercomputers that decoded the human genome in 1995.

In this era, Summit will change people’s lives, U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said at an event celebrating the new supercomputer on June 8. “This is about changing the world,” he said.