Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Frog in the Boiling Pot...

Once upon a time, oh, about thirty years ago, the US had unquestioned supremacy in high-technology, especially computers. Three decades of free trade later, American dominance in technology is as dead as a doornail. Now the Chinese are advancing swiftly on the one area where American firms still have a slight lead.

A Chinese supercomputer has been ranked as the world’s second-fastest machine, surpassing European and Japanese systems and underscoring China’s aggressive commitment to science and technology.


The Chinese machine is actually now ranked as the world’s fastest in terms of theoretical peak performance, but that is considered a less significant measure than the actual computing speed achieved on a standardized computing test.

The world’s fastest computer remains the Cray Jaguar supercomputer, based at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Last November it was measured at 1.75 petaflops.

Supercomputers represent a somewhat rarefied niche of high technology. Only advanced research and development projects (like, say, nuclear weapons research) require the computational power supercomputers can provide. However, the ability to create such machines requires first rate resources and technical know-how. Countries that build supercomputers are, almost by definition, first tier nations.

The United States continues to be the dominant maker of supercomputers, and is the nation with the most machines in the top 500. The United States has 282 of the world’s fastest 500 computers on the new list, an increase from 277 when the rankings were compiled in November.

Unfortunately, America's current dominance is slipping fast, and the Chinese aren't simply bootstrapping on American technology:

But China appears intent on challenging American dominance. There had been some expectation that China would make an effort to complete a system based on Chinese-designed components in time for the June ranking. The Nebulae is based on chips from Intel and Nvidia.

The new system, which is based on a microprocessor that has been designed and manufactured in China, is now expected later this year. A number of supercomputing industry scientists and engineers said that it was possible that the new machine would claim the title of world’s fastest.

When the US began outsourcing its manufacturing to Asia, the advocates of such "free trade" arrangements assured Americans that only low tech manufacturing was being lost. But after steel and textiles went overseas, auto manufacturing and consumer electronics joined them. By the 1990's lots of high tech manufacturing was being relocated from the US to Asia, including computer chips. By the 2000's, not only was the manufacturing of such devices done in Asia, so too was much of the design. Indeed, the situation is now such that major American brands like HP, Apple, Dell and other high tech leaders, don't actually manufacture anything at all, or manufacture very little themselves. Instead, they design the products and farm out all the manufacturing to Chinese and Tiawanese factories (which they don't own). This has caused Apple some recent bad press.

Asia nations have quickly worked themselves up the technology ladder, mastering basic manufacturing skills (steel), then consumer electronics and now cutting edge computer technology. Having learned how to manufacture these things they are now applying that knowledge to learn how to build other things. Once upon a time, Asia copied the US. Now they know enough to innovate on their own. They haven't completely overtaken American designers yet, but they are closing in fast. Meanwhile, the US is increasingly reliant on Asia - particularly China - for vital computer components and the manufacture of most of its consumer products. And, make no mistake, loss of high tech manufacturing means loss of high tech knowledge. Try building a computer chip factory from scratch without technicians and engineers who have hands-on experience.

Strangely, few American political commentators seem to notice that nothing in their upscale homes is made in the US, or understand the implication of that "Made in China" stamp on their iPad, iPhone, iMac, or virtually any other computer related device. The Right can't admit that free trade has been a disaster and the Left has abandoned meaningful economic policy for useless and counterproductive social engineering.


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