Article originally published on the "Le Monde" website here

In the era of electronic miniaturization, supercomputers are making a comeback, driven by the rise of artificial intelligence. A strategic battle is unfolding among major powers.

They were once thought to be obsolete, but supercomputers are back in action. Today, they are benefiting from a thriving global market, thanks to the exploitation of the 21st-century black gold: data for artificial intelligence (AI). They have even become a matter of sovereignty, to the extent that the United States, in its trade war with China, goes as far as denying its Asian rival microprocessors intended for these machines. In Europe, the survivors are emerging, starting with the French state, which is closely monitoring the negotiations surrounding the dismantling of the Atos Group. In its subsidiary Eviden, there is indeed a gem to be cherished, among the few that survive in Europe: supercomputers stemming from the acquisition of Bull in 2013. A new factory is even expected to be built in Angers by 2027.

These behemoths are being called upon to develop medicines and vaccines more rapidly, particularly against Covid-19, refine weather forecasts in the face of climate change, improve the aerodynamics of aircraft and other vehicles to consume less energy, combat increasingly formidable cyberattacks, or simulate a nuclear explosion in the name of deterrence. Machine learning and quantum computing (massive simultaneous calculations at the atomic scale) need them.

Long confined to academic research or industrial and nuclear simulation (defense), the lineage of supercomputers is gaining strength with artificial intelligence. “Large-scale AI models are growing very rapidly, and new buyers are starting to use high-capacity machines, with selling prices ranging from tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars each. Fighting against cyberattacks will also require major computing power,” predicts Earl Joseph, CEO of Hyperion Research, an American research company specializing in the global HPC (high-performance computing) market. Because the more powerful the computers, the more expensive they are.