One of the World's Most Powerful Supercomputers Uses Light Instead of Electric Current

The computer is one of the top 500 supercomputers around.
Loukia Papadopoulos

France's Jean Zay supercomputer, one of the most powerful computers in the world and part of the Top500, is now the first HPC to have a photonic coprocessor meaning it transmits and processes information using light. The development represents a first for the industry.

The breakthrough was made during a pilot program that saw LightOn collaborate with GENCI and IDRIS. Igor Carron, LightOn’s CEO and co-founder said in a press release: “This pilot program integrating a new computing technology within one of the world’s Supercomputers would not have been possible without the particular commitment of visionary agencies such as GENCI and IDRIS/CNRS. Together with the emergence of Quantum Computing, this world premiere strengthens our view that the next step after exascale supercomputing will be about hybrid computing.” 

The technology will now be offered to select users of the Jean Zay research community over the next few months who will use the device to undertake research on machine learning foundations, differential privacy, satellite imaging analysis, and natural language processing (NLP) tasks. LightOn’s technology has already been successfully used by a community of researchers since 2018. 

Supercomputers have come a long way in the past few years. In June of 2018, it was announced that the United States Department of Energy had the world's latest and most powerful supercomputer called Summit. 

Summit operated at 200 petaflops while at maximum capacity, achieving 200 quadrillion calculations each second. The numbers at the time outperformed China's Sunway TaihuLight's 93 petaflop capacity as well as the U.S.'s previous record-holder Titan. 

Then in June of 2020, it was revealed that Japan's latest supercomputer Fugaku had the fastest computing speed in the world according to the Top500, the same ranking that Jean Zay was featured in. The event marked the first time in nine years that a Japanese supercomputer nabbed first place.

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