China or US - who is really winning the supercomputer race?

According to supercomputer guru, even despite sanctions, China has more supercomputers than the US.
Sejal Sharma
US-China dogfight over tech supremacy
US-China dogfight over tech supremacy


A supercomputer is faster, more expensive, and much bigger than your humble personal computer. They are used by scientists and researchers in tech companies and labs to test theories and models with intensive databases. 

Keeping a tab on which is the fastest supercomputer in the world is the Top500 List, which comes out twice every year – in November and June. It is the most coveted and sought-after ranking of the top supercomputers in the world. However, over the years, the rankings have been affected due to sociopolitical factors.

Speaking to the South China Morning Post, Jack Dongarra, professor at the University of Tennessee and also the co-founder of the Top500 list, said that China has three next-generation supercomputers that are up and running in the country but the world doesn’t know about them because of US sanctions.

US sanctions prohibit China from gaining access to chipmaking and other sensitive technologies. There’s currently a ban on imports of cutting-edge technology that might have military or intelligence applications, including AI.

China has better supercomputers despite sanctions

The No.1 supercomputer in the world, according to the latest June 2023 Top500 list, is ‘Frontier’ which is the only exascale computing system (systems performing billions of computations per second) on the list and sits at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. 

The top Chinese supercomputer on the list is ‘Sunway TaihuLight’ at the seventh position, and has an HPL performance (a way to measure performance of supercomputers) almost one-thirteenth of the HPL performance of Frontier. But Dongarra says China has supercomputers with a higher peak performance than Frontier. 

“It’s a well known situation that China has these computers, and they have been operating for a while. They have not run the benchmarks, but [the community has] a general idea of their architectures and capabilities based on research papers published to describe the science coming out of those machines,” he told SCMP.

The US-China tech dogfight

In 2013, China’s Tianhe-2 system topped the Top500 and uncrowned the US’ Titan. According to the SCMP report, the US put a ban on Intel from selling chips to help in the upgrade of Tianhe-2. The report further said that in 2021, seven supercomputer centers involved in developing China’s next-generation supercomputers were also blacklisted by the US.

The chips that have been banned by the US are essential in running supercomputers and gaining high performance. In fact, last month, the Biden administration put further sanctions, prohibiting US investments in Chinese entities in three sectors: semiconductors and microelectronics, quantum information technologies, and certain artificial intelligence systems.

Although a Stanford study claims that the majority of the world’s significant language and multimodal models are being produced by the US, Dongarra says that China is still the largest producer of supercomputers. 

“However, China is still the country which produces the most supercomputers. With domestic and Western-designed chips, supercomputers assembled in China are sold all over the world, including the US,” he added.

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