Powering Artificial Intelligence: Why High-Performance Computing is Crucial

During the pandemic, artificial intelligence (AI), powered by high-performance computing (HPC), was behind many of the crucial breakthroughs in the battle against COVID-19, from rapidly sequencing the genomes of new virus strains to designing drugs and vaccines.

This combination of HPC and AI is also increasingly driving cutting-edge research, from uncovering treatments for cancer to predicting extreme weather and increasing crop yields in our warming world. When it comes to the big questions facing humanity, HPC computing nodes are powering many new breakthroughs in AI and machine learning (ML). These technologies are already helping to produce real-world results which can save lives.

Feeding the world

Many of the crops we rely on, from corn to coffee to chocolate, are set to be disrupted in coming decades as climate change takes hold.  A recent study found that yields of the world’s top ten food crops are already decreasing and that food-insecure countries are the ones who will suffer the most. To keep up with demand, food production will have to increase by 50%, and AI and HPC will be central to solving this problem.

Researchers are in a race against time to design new, more efficient ways to grow food. At present, global food production surpasses humanity’s needs, but in the not-too-distant future, this may no longer be the case. Understanding this problem requires the analysis of enormous amounts of data, harvested from sources such as extremely high-resolution satellite imagery and weather data. To crunch this amount of data requires smart AI, backed by extremely powerful computing infrastructure. It’s a great example of how HPC will power the latest AI research.

Dr. Ranga Raju Vatsavai, an associate professor in computer science at North Carolina State University, and his team perform cutting-edge geospatial image analysis to predict the future of croplands, using HPC clusters as well as AI software tools like the LiCO AI Platform. In future, sensors embedded in crop fields will measure moisture and weather conditions, paving the way for an even greater understanding of the challenges facing the food we eat.

Predicting future climate challenges

As the world warms, extreme weather events from droughts to wildfires are becoming more common across almost every continent, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Predicting the weather is becoming even more important, but it’s a task far more complex than simply forecasting whether or not it’s going to rain tomorrow.

The power of HPC and AI is helping institutions around the world run simulations with unprecedented accuracy. This helps to predict extreme weather before it occurs, from the Malaysian Meteorological Department (MMD) to the Climate Change and Hydrological Extremes Project (ClimEx).

The MMD previously delivered three-day forecasts at three-kilometre resolution. After using an HPC system, it now delivers forecasts up to seven days at one-kilometre resolution.

Genomic sequencing and medical breakthroughs

AI led to many of the breakthroughs which helped to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. In the future, AI, powered by HPC, may pave the way for even more important medical breakthroughs, speeding up cancer diagnosis, battling blindness and paving the way for a new era of personalised medicine.

Researchers at the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre have built and trained an AI model which can detect retinal pathology in less than ten minutes. It’s a breakthrough which could save the sight of millions of people.

HPC is also ushering in a new era of personalised healthcare in the form of genomics, which is driving the potential for faster discovery, greater personalisation, and lower costs within the industry. Until recently, medicine has typically been created to treat and diagnose ‘the average person’. However, a greater understanding of genetics and its role in human disease, alongside advancements in genetic sequencing technology, could enable us to create personalised treatment plans designed to treat individuals.

Since beginning in the 1970s, genomics has accelerated considerably thanks to technological innovation, particularly as a result of the advancements in HPC. The complexity of genomic sequencing means it requires huge amounts of processing power. Typically, it takes data centres around the world 150-160 hours to process a single whole genome, after it has been processed by an expensive gene sequencer. This became the bottleneck of the lab, slowing the progress of research and the introduction of new medical advancements. Because of this bottleneck, researchers limited their focus to single genes or genomes.

HPC is solving this problem by rapidly accelerating the time it takes to sequence a whole human genome, allowing scientists to reduce the processing time from hours to just minutes. In the fast-paced world of healthcare diagnostics and treatments, this is a game-changing development that has the potential to save lives.

Why HPC is creating a bright future

Researchers across the globe dealing with some of the key challenges of the future have turned to HPC solutions to power their research through AI. This spans across a multitude of scientific fields, including how human intelligence can work alongside AI, to how computing and communications can be more energy efficient.

For instance, Chalmers University in Sweden partnered with Lenovo to create an AI environment to deal with these unique challenges, with an integrated graphics processing unit (GPU) purpose-built for research in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

The breakthroughs that will define our future will come from AI and ML – and high-performance computing will provide the power that helps to create a brighter future for our planet.

About the Author

Noam Rosen is EMEA Director, HPC & AI, Lenovo ISG. Lenovo is a US$70 billion revenue global technology powerhouse, ranked #171 in the Fortune Global 500, employing 75,000 people around the world, and serving millions of customers every day in 180 markets. Focused on a bold vision to deliver smarter technology for all, Lenovo has built on its success as the world’s largest PC company by further expanding into key growth areas including server, storage, mobile, solutions and services.

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