Nvidia pledges to build Britain’s largest supercomputer following $40 billion bid for Arm

Key Points
  • Nvidia has announced plans to build a £40 million ($52 million) supercomputer in Cambridge, England.
  • The supercomputer — named "Cambridge-1" is intended for artificial intelligence (AI) research in health care.
  • The announcement comes just a few week after Nvidia said it intends to buy British rival Arm for $40 billion.

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The University of Cambridge.
Oliver Benn | Getty Images

LONDON — U.S. chipmaker Nvidia pledged Monday to build a £40 million ($52 million) supercomputer in Cambridge, England, weeks after announcing it intends to buy British rival Arm for $40 billion.

The supercomputer — named "Cambridge-1" and intended for artificial intelligence (AI) research in health care — is being unveiled by Nvidia founder and Chief Executive Jensen Huang at the company's GTC 2020 conference on Monday.

"Tackling the world's most pressing challenges in health care requires massively powerful computing resources to harness the capabilities of AI," Huang will say in his keynote. "The Cambridge-1 supercomputer will serve as a hub of innovation for the U.K., and further the groundbreaking work being done by the nation's researchers in critical healthcare and drug discovery."

Expected to launch by the end of the year, the Cambridge-1 machine will be the 29th most powerful computer in the world and the most powerful in Britain, Nvidia said.

Researchers at GSK, AstraZeneca, Guy's and St Thomas' NHS (National Health Service) Foundation Trust, King's College London and Oxford Nanopore will be able to use the supercomputer to try to solve medical challenges, including those presented by the coronavirus.

"There are scientists that need a state-of-the-art computer and we are going to build one," said Nvidia Vice President of Healthcare Kimberly Powell on a press call ahead of the announcement, adding that they'll be able to do "large-scale research" that they otherwise "wouldn't be able to do."

Nvidia said Cambridge-1 will have 400 petaflops of "AI performance" and that it will rank in the top three most energy-efficient supercomputers in the world. A petaflop is a measure of a computer's processing speed.

Matt Hancock, Britain's health minister, said "accelerating drug discovery has never been so important" and that the investment can "make a real difference." 

"Nvidia's new supercomputer will aid the U.K.'s best and brightest to undertake research that will save lives," said Hancock in a statement. 

Nvidia's Cambridge-1 supercomputer will be used to power AI research in healthcare.

The supercomputer, which can be set up in a matter of weeks, will be powered by 80 Nvidia systems that are connected together.  

Asked if Nvidia expects to generate any revenue from Cambridge-1, Powell told CNBC that Cambridge-1 is "not a commercial endeavor."

A.I. overhyped?

AI has so-far played a relatively minor role in tackling the pandemic. While there have been some successful niche applications, the likes of DeepMind, OpenAI, Facebook AI Research, and Microsoft, which have their own supercomputers, have remained relatively quiet as the coronavirus has spread around the world.

"This (pandemic) is showing what bulls--t most AI hype is," said Neil Lawrence, the former director of machine learning at Amazon Cambridge, back in April.

"It's great and it will be useful one day but it's not surprising in a pandemic that we fall back on tried and tested techniques."

Cambridge-1 isn't the only supercomputer Nvidia plans to build in Cambridge.

When the Arm acquisition was announced on Sept. 13, Huang said Nvidia would set up a new Arm-based supercomputer at a yet to be established AI research center in the city.

Academics at the heart of the Cambridge tech scene questioned Nvidia's commitment to the center last week, saying the lack of communication between Nvidia and the university was odd.

Powell said Cambridge-1 is "completely independent" of Arm, adding: "This is Nvidia building an AI supercomputer for our health care research."

Nvidia's Arm acquisition isn't without its critics and it could still be blocked by either the U.K. government or the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which is responsible for regulating competition in the U.K. Last week, two tech investors told CNBC that they think the deal will be blocked by someone.

The U.K.'s opposition Labour party has said an Arm takeover is not in the public interest and criticized the ruling Conservative Party for failing to protect the British chip designer.

On Sept. 21, Labour lawmaker Daniel Zeichner, member of parliament for Cambridge, called on the government to place clear conditions on the takeover of Arm. He wants legal guarantees on jobs, Arm's Cambridge headquarters, and its business model. Zeichner also said it's important to ensure the U.K.'s tech sovereignty is defended.