The race for the world's fastest supercomputer is on and the United States is now in the lead

The United States just built the world's fastest supercomputer

The race for the world's fastest supercomputer is on.

China held the lead for the last 5 years, but the United States has surged ahead with Summit. It's a $200 million government-funded supercomputer built for Oak Ridge National Laboratory in partnership with IBM and Nvidia.

What is a supercomputer?

Today's supercomputers are made up of thousands of connected processors, and their speed has grown exponentially over the past few decades. The first supercomputer, released in 1964, was called the CDC 6600. It used a single processor to achieve 3 million calculations per second. While that may sound impressive, it is tens of thousands of times slower than an iPhone.

The Lab Director of Oak Ridge, Thomas Zacharia, says, "I've always thought of supercomputing as a time machine, in the sense that it allows you to do things that most other people will be able to do in the future." As he explains, smartphones today are more powerful than the supercomputers used in the 1990s to work on the Human Genome Project.

Summit consists of over 36,000 processors from IBM and Nvidia that can perform 200 quadrillion calculations per second. Zacharia says that what a typical computer can do in 30 years Summit will be able to accomplish in just an hour.

Summit takes up 5,600 square feet of floor space and has nearly 200 miles of cable. It uses 4,000 gallons of water per minute to stay cool and consumes enough power to run 8 thousand homes.

Supercomputers are used for functions like forecasting weather and climate trends, simulating nuclear tests, performing pharmaceutical research and cracking encryption keys. Some initial projects on deck for Summit include researching possible genetic predispositions to cancer or opioid addiction.

Faster supercomputers on the horizon

By surpassing China, the U.S. has escalated the tech rivalry between the two countries.

As Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang told CNBC, "There's no question the race is on, but this is not the space race, this is the race to knowledge."

But faster supercomputers are already on the horizon. The European Union, Japan and China are all developing machines they say will outperform Summit. The next big frontier is exascale computing, that is, computers that can perform a billion times a billion calculations per second.

John Kelly, IBM Senior Vice President of Cognitive Solutions and Research, says, "Think about what you can do with a system that every billionth of a second it does a billion calculations. We can model and simulate systems that we can't model and simulate today, and we can discover from the world's data insights into major breakthroughs in the area of healthcare, science, materials, etc."