UK invests £225M to create one of world’s most powerful AI supercomputers



The UK government is investing £225mn to build one of the world’s fastest supercomputers, as it looks to “lead the world” in AI systems. 

The supercomputer — named Isambard-AI, after the famous 19th-century British engineer Isambard Brunel — will be ten times faster than the country’s quickest machine once it switches on in about six months’ time. It will be hosted at Bristol University in a “self-cooled, self-contained data centre,” developed by Hewlett-Packard Enterprises. 

Equipped with over 5,000 NVIDIA superchips, the supercomputer will run more than 200 quadrillion calculations per second. For comparison, a human would have to make a decision every second for 6.3 billion years to match what this machine can calculate in one second. 

The government’s new Frontier AI Taskforce will have priority access to the new computer to support its work to mitigate the risks posed by the most advanced forms of AI, the government said. Isambard-AI will also offer computing capacity for researchers and industry in fields such as robotics, big data, climate research, and drug discovery. According to Simon McIntosh-Smith of the University of Bristol, the supercomputer “will be one of the most powerful AI systems for open science anywhere in the world” once operational.

The funding injection, announced by innovation secretary Michelle Donelan at the AI safety summit yesterday, is part of a £300mn package to create a new national Artificial Intelligence Research Resource (AIRR). “We are making it clear that Britain is grasping the opportunity to lead the world in adopting this technology safely so we can put it to work and lead healthier, easier and longer lives,” said Donelan at the summit.

The investment will also connect Isambard-AI to a newly announced Cambridge supercomputer called Dawn. This computer — delivered through a partnership with Dell and StackHPC — will be powered by over 1000 Intel chips that use water cooling to reduce power consumption. It is set to be running in the next two months and targets breakthroughs in fusion energy, healthcare and climate modelling.

As it looks to assert its dominance in technology, the UK is planning an even more powerful computer for 2025, to be housed at the University of Edinburgh. This ‘exascale’ machine (of which there is only one other currently in operation — Frontier in Tennessee, USA) will build on the technology and experience from the planned Bristol supercomputer. 

 



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