The Silver Lining On COVID’s Dark Cloud

From cross-border collaborations to advancing accessibility, supercomputers play an important role in helping the world recover from COVID-19.

AsianScientist (Sep. 20, 2021) – As COVID-19 spread across the globe in early 2020, flights halted, borders closed and people stayed home. But while the pandemic made national borders painfully apparent, it brought countries together, too. Researchers across the world sequenced and shared the SARS-CoV-2 genome; nations sent masks, testing kits and even their own doctors to the hardest hit regions; and millions of dollars flowed in the name of international aid.

Likewise, the pandemic has drawn the high performance computing (HPC) community closer together over the past year, as people rose to the occasion and channeled their supercomputing powers for good. Supercomputers not only sequenced millions of viral genomes, but also helped us model how the disease is spread and what measures could possibly counteract it.

Computing against COVID-19

Coming online several months early to begin working on such problems was Japan’s Fugaku supercomputer, which was originally scheduled to begin operating only in 2021, shared Professor Satoshi Matsuoka, director at the RIKEN Center for Computational Science in Japan. Matsuoka was speaking at the inaugural HPC Center Leaders Forum, an expert panel at the SupercomputingAsia 2021 conference held virtually from March 2-4, 2021.

From screening existing therapeutics for repurposing into COVID-19 drugs, to detailed simulations of droplet aerosols modeling transmission, Fugaku was immediately put through its paces and harnessed to combat COVID-19, Matsuoka said.

“You go from very microscopic atomic levels all the way to societal levels in various simulations in trying to provide solutions to the pandemic.”

Building on this initial success, there are plans to open up access to Fugaku for international research partnerships, Matsuoka continued.

“We have already developed a system that allows for very effective sharing of data across HPC supercomputers. We are testing this to see if we can expand it to Australia, Singapore and other Asian countries,” he said. “With this system, researchers from other countries] will be able to use Fugaku through the cloud. A file can be local to Singapore, with gigabytes of data transferred transparently in an instant.”

Access and awareness

In this spirit of openness, two unlikely partners have also ways to collaborate on HPC. Separated by more than 9,000 kilometers, the tropical island of Singapore and the Scandinavian country of Finland have nonetheless signed a memorandum of understanding to explore a high-speed fiber optic link between the two countries, as well as more secure ways of protecting data transfer through quantum technology, said National Supercomputing Centre Singapore’s chief executive Associate Professor Tan Tin Wee.

“We have also focused a lot more on the societal impact of HPC and the translation aspects into applications, particularly for our research and industry communities,” said Tan.

He added that the ultimate goal is to reach out to as many researchers as possible, including students, and regardless of the amount of HPC needed, so that the access to HPC can be truly democratized.

Concurring with Tan, Dr. Piyawut Srichaikul, chief executive at Thailand’s National Science and Technology Development Agency Supercomputer Center, further emphasized the importance of HPC literacy.

“[In Thailand], public awareness and understanding of HPC—from laymen to authority figures and politicians—is very little. [Lack of] human capital is a major problem that we’ve been facing for years now,” he said. “As a result, it is difficult to determine HPC’s direct impact on our economy and society, because ultimately it is the user who creates the impact.”

This conundrum has made it more difficult for the country to understand the benefits and importance of HPC as a whole, and invest in it, Srichaikul shared.

Love your supercomputing neighbor

While the public might not be aware of how supercomputers are contributing behind the scenes, one thing that has captured public imagination is the need to be environmentally friendly. After all, for supercomputers to truly be a force for good, they must not only benefit people but the environment as well, pointed out Mr. Kimmo Koski, CEO of the Finnish IT Center for Science. He explained how, in deciding on a location for the pre-exascale supercomputer LUMI, the consortium had zeroed in on Kajaani, a part of Finland with an abundant supply of hydroelectric power.

The availability of renewable energy aside, Kajaani’s naturally chilly climate also makes free cooling possible all year round, Koski shared.

“We also want to use the excess heat from the supercomputer to warm up the households in the area,” he added. “This will make it very environmentally friendly and the carbon footprint will be practically [negligible].”

Wrapping up their discussion, the four leaders concluded that HPC will likely continue to permeate across all sectors of society and across borders. Accessibility and collaboration will be crucial going forward, coupled with an emphasis on sustainability, public awareness and support. The pandemic may have brought supercomputers to the forefront, but if they are to stay, they must be well-integrated into society as well.

This article was first published in the print version of Supercomputing Asia, July 2021.
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Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine. Illustration: Oikeat Lam and Alexandra Valino/Asian Scientist Magazine.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Sheryl Lee covers science, business and culture, with a focus on Asia. She reports on topics ranging from climate change and cities to AI and health.

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