Turing’s Mill: AI Supercomputer Revs UK’s Economic Engine

The home of the first industrial revolution just made a massive investment in the next one.

The U.K. government has announced it will spend £225 million ($273 million) to build one of the world’s fastest AI supercomputers.

Called Isambard-AI, it’s the latest in a series of systems named after a legendary 19th century British engineer and hosted by the University of Bristol. When fully installed next year, it will pack 5,448 NVIDIA GH200 Grace Hopper Superchips to deliver a whopping 21 exaflops of AI performance for researchers across the country and beyond.

The announcement was made at the AI Safety Summit, a gathering of over 100 global government and technology leaders, held in Bletchley Park, the site of the world’s first digital programmable computer, which reflected the work of innovators like Alan Turing, considered the father of AI.

AI “will bring a transformation as far-reaching as the industrial revolution, the coming of electricity or the birth of the internet,” said British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in a speech last week about the event, designed to catalyze international collaboration.

Propelling the Modern Economy

Like one of Isambard Brunel’s creations — the first propeller-driven, ocean-going iron ship — the AI technology running on his namesake is already driving countries forward.

AI contributes more than £3.7 billion to the U.K. economy and employs more than 50,000 people, said Michelle Donelan, the nation’s Science, Innovation and Technology Secretary, in an earlier announcement about the system.

The investment in the so-called AI Research Resource in Bristol “will catalyze scientific discovery and keep the U.K. at the forefront of AI development,” she said.

Like AI itself, the system will be used across a wide range of organizations tapping the potential of machine learning to advance robotics, data analytics, drug discovery, climate research and more.

“Isambard-AI represents a huge leap forward for AI computational power in the U.K.,” said Simon McIntosh-Smith, a Bristol professor and director of the Isambard National Research Facility. “Today, Isambard-AI would rank within the top 10 fastest supercomputers in the world and, when in operation later in 2024, it will be one of the most powerful AI systems for open science anywhere.”

The Next Manufacturing Revolution

Like the industrial revolution, AI promises advances in manufacturing. That’s one reason why Isambard-AI will be based at the National Composites Centre (NCC, pictured above) in the Bristol and Bath Science Park, one of the country’s seven manufacturing research centers.

The U.K.’s Frontier AI Taskforce, a research group leading a global effort on how frontier AI can be safely developed, will also be a major user of the system.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which is building Isambard-AI, is also collaborating with the University of Bristol on energy-efficiency plans that support net-zero carbon targets mandated by the British government.

Energy-Efficient HPC

A second system coming next year to the NCC will show Arm’s energy efficiency for non-accelerated high performance computing workloads.

Isambard-3 will deliver an estimated 2.7 petaflops of FP64 peak performance and consume less than 270 kilowatts of power, ranking it among the world’s three greenest non-accelerated supercomputers. That’s because the system — part of a research alliance among universities of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter — will sport 384 Arm-based NVIDIA Grace CPU Superchips to power medical and scientific research.

“Isambard-3’s application performance efficiency of up to 6x its predecessor, which rivals many of the 50 fastest TOP500 systems, will provide scientists with a revolutionary new supercomputing platform to advance groundbreaking research,” said Bristol’s McIntosh-Smith, when the system was announced in March.

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