Artificial Intelligence is the next big thing

The convergence of high performance computing (HP), big data and deep learning is said to be the next game-changer and societies will have to adapt to the changing world order.


The rapidly changing technology landscape is being discussed at the annual Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC) National Conference taking place in Pretoria. The theme for this year’s conference is: HPC convergence with novel applications for better service to research and industry. The theme comes as the HPC is gaining more interest in application non-traditional markets, and largely due to the convergence of HPC to Cloud and the re-emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and strengthening of Machine Learning in broader applications.


Addressing the second day of the event on Tuesday (4 December), Sharad Gandhi said that AI is the “Next Big Thing”. “AI is the most profound innovation by humans, with a far deeper and impact on our lives, than all preceding innovations from the steam engine of 1712 to the internet. AI has the potential to transform the very role of humans in our society.” He said, already its disruptive power is illustrated in the growing number applications like Apple’s Siri and Google maps.


The Department of Science and Technology’s Director-General Dr Phil Mjwara said during his opening address that the Department has done its level best to ensure that South African researchers and scientists have access to modern and relevant research infrastructure, allowing them to conduct world-class research and develop human capital.  He said this is to ensure that South Africa is prepared to meet the demands of the 4th Industrial Revolution.

He added that one of the DST's interventions is the National Integrated Cyberinfrastructure System, or NICIS, which is aimed at promoting computing, and providing network and data technology tools across all sectors.  “With this in mind, the CHPC endeavours to promote an array of vibrant and productive computational research communities,” said the DG.


“It is interesting that high-performance computing is gaining currency in non-traditional market applications, largely due to its convergence with cloud computing, and the emergence of artificial intelligence and strengthening of machine learning in broader applications,” added Dr Mwjara.


The DG said with the Fourth Industrial Revolution upon us, industries will need to use data analytics for accurate and more advanced decision-making.  Their ability to meet challenges and stay competitive will depend on –

  •       the availability of skilled personnel to analyse large volumes of complex data;
  •          access to high-end computing infrastructure so that they can process data quickly, have adequate data storage, and access tools for data security and exploration.


“We have seen many countries preparing to meet these challenges, and developing strategies to ensure that the new industrial revolution does not leave them behind.  South Africa has invested heavily in cyberinfrastructure, and will use these facilities to prepare the country for the future,” he said.


“Our investment in the high performance computing infrastructure has been ramped-up significantly over the past 10 years, as evidenced by our Leadership Machine Lengau, which was installed in 2016 and attained computing capacity of 1.029 PetaFLOPS,” he said further.


“How powerful or fast is a petaflop machine? Currently the fastest supercomputer in the world, as ranked by the Top500 list, is the K Computer built by Fujitsu in Japan is a 10.51 petaflops (10,510,000,000,000,000 flops) machine. To get an idea how fast is petaflop machine, we would need 61 million! iPad 2s to match the processing power of the K Computer - that makes a pile of iPad 2 units about 540 km high or the equivalent of almost 1,700 Eiffel Towers,” he said further.

The CHPC’s Lengau supercomputer is currently number 165 on the global TOP500 list of supercomputers, and could perform quadrillion (or 10 to the power 15) instructions per second. This means that simulations of rechargeable batteries, that used to take 11 days is now reduced to less than 18 hours. “These are performances we need to propel our initiatives for the fourth industrial revolution, for the country to remain competitive,” said Dr Mjwara.


The CHPC’s Director Dr Happy Sithole, said that as a country and a Continent we must prepare for these fast moving technological developments. He said already, questions are being raised about the future of HPC in the face of the Cloud, “as the cloud comes, what happens to HPC. Dr Sithole said that AI also has significant impacts on society. 


The CHPC national conference is also hosting two student competitions, with 20 teams from universities across the country seeking national honors in the Student Cluster Competition and in the Student Cyber Security Challenge. The conference is hosting the cyber security competition for the first time, with an emphasis on network security.

Students will have to solve network security problems and identify security issues such as decrypting passwords, geo-locating pictures, securing website, finding information from TCP traffic and extracting weak security keys.                                                         


The students will also compete in a live having scenario where they have to defend their network infrastructure while attacking their competitor’s infrastructure.


The winners will be announced on Wednesday evening, 6 December, the conference concludes on the following day.


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