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July 8, 2021updated 09 Jul 2021 3:16pm

The Cambridge-1 supercomputer can boost UK’s AI healthcare research credentials

Despite its life science strengths, the UK is falling behind other countries when it comes to AI-driven health research. Supercomputers can help solve this problem.

By Claudia Glover

NVIDIA launched what it says is the most powerful supercomputer in the UK this week. Cambridge-1 will primarily be used for life science research, helping scientists tackle dementia, discover new drugs and map the human genome, and could help the UK boost its credentials when it comes to AI-driven medical research.

Cambridge-1 supercomputer

The new Cambridge-1 supercomputer launched on Wednesday. (Photo courtesy of NVIDIA)

Ranked at number 41 in the Top500 index of the world’s most powerful supercomputers, Cambridge-1 launched on Wednesday and has a maximum performance of 9,682 TFlop/s. Despite its name suggesting it will be based in Cambridge, the HPC has been placed 40 miles from the city at the energy-efficient Kao data centre in Harlow. Launch partners for the system include pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca, King’s College London and biotech scale-up Oxford Nanopore, all of which have been using Cambridge-1 as part of their work.

Cambridge-1 supercomputer: why now, and why the UK?

Cambridge-1 has been in the pipeline since last October, and NVIDIA says it chose the UK above Silicon Valley or Asia because of the country’s medical research prowess. “The UK is really a hotbed of research,” says Craig Rhodes, EMEA industry lead in AI for healthcare and life science at NVIDIA.

Perhaps more pertinently, there are significant reasons for the US company’s investment. It is keen to show its commitment to the UK as it attempts to persuade the Competitions and Markets Authority to give the green light to its planned purchase of British chip design giant Arm. The controversial deal is being investigated by regulators around the world, with the CMA’s initial probe due to close at the end of this month. NVIDIA has also pledged to open a new AI research centre in Cambridge, where Arm is based, as part of the deal, though the company has yet to provide further details of this.

On a technical level, the timing of the launch of Cambridge-1 has enabled NVIDIA to showcase its newly launched A100 GPU, says Chirag Dikate, AI VP at Gartner. “The timing enabled NVIDIA to deliver a state-of-the-art system that includes NVIDIA’s latest A100 80 GPUs integrated with the latest networking, storage, and system stacks,” he says.

How will the UK benefit from the Cambridge-1 supercomputer?

Though it has a strong life science sector, the UK is falling behind other nations when it comes to using AI for medical research according to this year’s International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) report into cyber capabilities and national power. Indeed, the UK doesn’t even feature in the top 20 when it comes to “contributions to AI research in the health sector”, the report says. “If you’re not doing [AI] in medical, you’re probably failing as a government,” argues Greg Austin, senior fellow for cyberspace at the IISS. This is because “the challenges of cost in health research, the challenges of ageing populations, of workforce participation,” can only be met with effective AI implementation, Austin says, which means cutting-edge HPCs like Cambridge-1 will be vital to helping the UK narrow the gap with other nations.

While the supercomputer will be used initially to optimise medical research, its deployments are likely to go beyond the sector as time goes on, says Dekate. “While the initial partner list comprises leaders in the healthcare industry, nothing in the NVIDIA Cambridge 1 architecture limits it to a particular sector or use case,” he says. “Over time I would expect that other industry leaders will also leverage the Cambridge-1 supercomputer’s state-of-the-art technologies to accelerate their digital transformation.”

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One of these different use cases will be to assist the UK start-up ecosystem, says NVIDIA’s Rhodes. “[The UK has] got some of the best start-ups in the world. We want to accelerate the start-up community in being able to scale, to improve the quality of the applications, the algorithms that community is developing, because ultimately some of those organisations, like Oxford Nanorpore, become enterprise leaders in their domains.”

The future of the UK HPC ecosystem

NVIDIA has pledged to build another supercomputer in the UK, more powerful than Cambridge-1, if the Arm takeover goes through. Dekate says the company’s investment could be beneficial to the UK’s fledging HPC eco-system. “NVIDIA Cambridge-1 reinforces NVIDIA’s commitment to building a solid research and development ecosystem in the UK,” he says. “NVIDIA’s public statements indicate that the Cambridge-1 supercomputer is the first among others to follow.”

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