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Technology

Japan's Fugaku retakes supercomputing crown from US and China

Riken-Fujitsu system clocks in nearly three times faster than top IBM machine

The Fugaku supercomputer is shown off to the media on June 16 at the Riken Center for Computational Science in Kobe. (Photo by Tomoki Mera)

TOKYO -- Japan's new government-backed supercomputer ranks as the fastest in the world, breaking the U.S.-China duopoly for the first time in over eight years, international rankings released Monday show.

The Fugaku supercomputer developed by Fujitsu and Riken, Japan's national research institute, led the TOP500 list at 415 petaflops, or quadrillions of floating point operations per second. This was nearly triple the speed of IBM's second-ranked Summit, which came in at 148 petaflops.

The third-ranked supercomputer was also from the U.S., while Chinese machines took the fourth and fifth spots. The ranking, compiled by an international panel of experts, is released every June and November.

The national efforts to build ever-faster computing capabilities bring benefits beyond bragging rights. Supercomputers have become a crucial part of modern infrastructure, facilitating development of new medicines and materials and enabling innovations in artificial intelligence. They also have national security implications due to their use in nuclear test simulations.

Fugaku, which came partly online in April, features 150,000 high-performance central processing units designed and developed by Fujitsu, efficiently networked together to optimize performance. It is now being used to identify potential coronavirus treatments from among 2,000 types of existing drugs.

Fugaku, which is another name for Mount Fuji, highlights the supercomputer's high performance and broad usage base -- just as the Japanese icon is the tallest mountain in Japan and has a vast base, according to Fujitsu.

Fugaku is the successor to the K supercomputer, also a Riken-Fujitsu collaboration, which led the world in speed in November 2011 and was the first system to achieve double-digit petaflops speeds. The new supercomputer can handle experiments in a matter of days for which K needed a year, and it can test tens of thousands of substances in a week.

Other applications include disaster preparedness. Fugaku can model the impact of an earthquake and tsunami on a city spanning dozens of square kilometers and map out escape routes.

The 130 billion yen ($1.22 billion) system is set to become fully operational in 2021, with hopes that it will bolster Japan's research and development capabilities as well as the country's industrial competitiveness.

But Tokyo's long-awaited return to the top marks only the newest chapter in an international race to achieve unprecedented speeds. The U.S. and China, in their battle for tech supremacy, are expected to build systems that can achieve speeds in exaflops territory -- or thousands of petaflops -- within a year or two.

Though Tokyo has beaten Washington and Beijing to the next generation of supercomputers, it lacks the resources to keep competing on their level for long. Japan faces the question of how best to use what is, for now, the fastest computer in the world, and how to keep developing its digital technology over the long term with quantum computing on the horizon.

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