Computing

The upgrades include changes to make AI programming simpler—and to speed up powerful machines for specific AI tasks....

The news: The International Supercomputing Conference (ISC) kicked off in Frankfurt yesterday with the release of the latest list of the 500 most powerful supercomputers in the world. US machines still top the ranking, but China has the most computers on the list (219 versus 116 for the US).

Supercomputers have already turbocharged some AI applications. For example. the US’s Summit supercomputer (pictured above), which leads the Top 500, has already run a complex machine-learning model for climate research faster than any other machine.

Still, AI researchers say gaining access to supercomputers can be a challenge because they are in high demand, while preparing programs to run on them is a relatively complicated and time-consuming exercise. At this year’s event, supercomputer makers and operators showed how they plan to make that easier. 

Bag it up: Japan’s fastest supercomputer, ABCI, has turned to software “containers” developed by chip maker Nvidia, whose chips it also uses. The containers bundle together an application with the digital libraries and other supporting software needed to run it. ABCI’s operator says that using these containers has enabled the machine to run deep- learning models far faster.

Geospatial AI: Meanwhile, US supercomputer maker Cray unveiled new software that makes it much easier for its machines to run AI programs that learn from geospatial data such as satellite images. It claims a new deep-learning plug-in will significantly reduce the time needed to train models used in everything from weather forecasting to oil exploration.                                

Why it matters: Many AI programs run on banks of less powerful machines linked together in the computing cloud. But if supercomputers can be better adapted for AI tasks, they should power even more advances in the field.

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The social network has published a white paper explaining how Libra will work, although it won't actually launch until the first half of 2020....

Facebook gets into banking: Libra will be available for Messenger and WhatsApp users around the world, and anyone who downloads the (yet-to-launch) app. Facebook says it has the lofty goal of bringing financial services to the 1.7 billion around the world who still don’t have bank accounts. Libra will let you send money to almost anyone with a smartphone, as easily as a text message and at “low to no cost,” Facebook says. 

The details: The Libra team will be governed by a nonprofit foundation called Calibra, based in Switzerland. Facebook already has backing for the project from 27 organizations, including Uber, Visa, Spotify, Vodafone, Mastercard, and nonprofit Women’s World Banking. Each of these partners has agreed to invest at least $10 million in the project.

Is it a cryptocurrency? Facebook dubs it a “new global currency powered by blockchain technology.” But it won’t be truly decentralized (only certain members will be able to process transactions), so Bitcoin purists probably won’t count it as a true cryptocurrency. Libra’s co-creator David Marcus tweeted that it will comprise three components: a blockchain, a reserve-backed currency (the digital wallets will be locally regulated in each country), and a new programming language called Move. But in practice, it sounds a bit like a more high-tech version of PayPal.

Questions: It isn’t clear how Facebook will make money off this, but it’s a safe bet that it will be planning to (although it has promised not to sell targeted ads based on Libra data). And the biggest question of all is whether people will trust Facebook with their hard-earned cash after the company has repeatedly behaved recklessly with their data.

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