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What are supercomputers currently used for?


Meet the Supercomputers
In 2003, Garry Kasparov once again tested his mettle against a chess supercomputer, Deep Junior. The contest ended in a 3-3 draw.
In 2003, Garry Kasparov once again tested his mettle against a chess supercomputer, Deep Junior. The contest ended in a 3-3 draw.
Mario Tama/News/Getty Images

As we said, supercomputers were originally developed for code cracking, as well as ballistics. They were designed to make an enormous amount of calculations at a time, which was a big improvement over, say, 20 mathematics graduate students in a room, hand-scratching operations.

In some ways, supercomputers are still used for those ends. In 2012, the National Nuclear Security Administration and Purdue University began using a network of supercomputers to simulate nuclear weapons capability. A whopping 100,000 machines are used for the testing [source: Appro].

But it's not just the military that's using supercomputers anymore. Whenever you check the weather app on your phone, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is using a supercomputer called the Weather and Climate Operational Supercomputing System to forecast weather, predict weather events, and track space and oceanic weather activity as well [source: IBM].

As of September 2012, the fastest computer in the world -- for now, anyway -- is IBM's Sequoia machine, which can operate 16.32 petaflops a second. That's 16,000 trillion operations, to you. It's used for nuclear weapon security and to make large-scale molecular dynamics calculations [source: Walt].

But supercomputers aren't just somber, intellectual machines. Some of them are used for fun and games – literally. Consider World of Warcraft, the wildly popular online game. If a million people are playing WoW at a time, graphics and speed are of utmost importance. Enter the supercomputers, used to make the endless calculations that help the game go global.

Speaking of games, we can't forget Deep Blue, the supercomputer that beat chess champion Garry Kasparov in a six-game match in 1997. And then there's Watson, the IBM supercomputer that famously beat Ken Jennings in an intense game of Jeopardy. Currently, Watson is being used by a health insurer to predict patient diagnoses and treatments [source: Feldman]. A real jack of all trades, that Watson.

So, yes: We're still benefiting from supercomputers. We're using them when we play war video games and in actual war. They're helping us predict if we need to carry an umbrella to work or if we need to undergo an EKG. And as the calculations become faster, there's little end to the possibility of how we'll use supercomputers in the future.


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