Supercomputers, AI and the metaverse: here’s what you need to know

Supercomputers, AI and the metaverse: here’s what you need to know

Ultra-fast data processing brings with it far-reaching and fundamental ethical questions

Since the beginning of this year, there has been a lot of hype, scepticism, cynicism, and confusion surrounding the concept of the metaverse.

For some, it has added to the confusion of an already elusive world of augmented reality and mixed reality. But for the well-initiated, the metaverse is a landmark moment in the extended reality world; a world approaching the ‘second life’ that many have long predicted.

News that some of the world’s top tech firms are rapidly developing AI supercomputers has further fueled that anticipation.

But what will the entry of supercomputers mean for the metaverse and virtual reality — and how can we manage it responsibly?

What is a supercomputer?

Simply put, a supercomputer is a computer with a very high level of performance. That performance, which far outclasses any consumer laptop or desktop PC available on the shelves, can, among other things, be used to process vast quantities of data and draw key insights from it. These computers are massive parallel arrangements of computers — or processing units — which can perform the most complex computing operations.

Whenever you hear about supercomputers, you’re likely to hear the term FLOPS — “floating point operations per second.” FLOPS is a key measure of performance for these top-end processors.

Floating numbers, in essence, are those with decimal points, including very long ones. These decimal numbers are key when processing large quantities of data or carrying out complex operations on a computer, and this is where FLOPS comes in as a measurement. It tells us how a computer will perform when managing these complicated calculations.

The supercomputer market

The supercomputer market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of about 9.5% from 2021 to 2026. Increasing adoption of cloud computing and cloud technologies will fuel this growth, as will the need for systems that can ingest larger datasets to train and operate AI.

The industry has been booming in recent years, with landmark achievements helping to build public interest, and companies all over the world are now striving to outcompete and outpace the competition on their own supercomputer projects.

In 2008, IBM’s Roadrunner was the first to break the one petaflop barrier — meaning it could process one quadrillion operations per second. According to one study, the Fugaku supercomputer, based in the RIKEN Centre for Computational Science in Kobe, Japan, is the world’s fastest machine. It is capable of processing 442 petaflops per second.

Arunima Sarkar Lead, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, World Economic Forum

Nikhil Malhotra Chief Innovation Officer, Tech Mahindra, World Economic Forum


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