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Obama Wants To Build World's Most Powerful Supercomputer

The President signed an executive order to launch a new technology initiative.

Posted on July 30, 2015, at 7:26 p.m. ET

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

On Wednesday, President Obama signed an executive order to launch a technology initiative designed to take American computing through the next decade. Called the National Strategic Computer Initiative, it lays out a plan "to maximize benefits of high-performance computing research, development, and deployment." Which means, in layman's terms, that the President wants to build the most powerful computers that have ever existed.

How powerful? About thirty times more powerful than anything working today, if the order's stated capability goal of an exascale computing system can be achieved. Exascale means a computer that can process a billion billion operations every second — what some scientists theorize it would take to model the human brain. Right now, China's Tianhe-2 holds the world record for most powerful computer at 33.86 petaflops, and there are 1,000 petaflops in an exascale system.

Leaving all the jargon behind, this order is swinging for the technological fences.

A supercomputer at the scale Obama calls for could be used for everything from defense projects to climate change research to drug development. A more powerful computer means, hopefully, that the questions we can answer will get more and more complex. The President's order signals that he wants America to be at the forefront of those discoveries, and lays out a basic framework for how to get there:

The United States must adopt a whole-of-government approach that draws upon the strengths of and seeks cooperation among all executive departments and agencies with significant expertise or equities in [high-performance computing] while also collaborating with industry and academia.

Facing technological challenges that include questions beyond how to build the computer itself, but also how to power it, program it, and find a way to build more of them, the order calls for cooperation — from the National Science Foundation, Department of Defense, and Department of Energy, among others. That spirit of collaboration is not intended to be limited to government agencies, but will include the private sector as well. Which means we might see Silicon Valley pitching in on this supercomputer idea, too.