The Cambridge-1 supercomputer may be live, but is the Nvidia tech super for pharma?

By Eric Johansson

Tech multinational Nvidia has switched on its new Cambridge-1 supercomputer, bragging that it’s the fastest one ever in the UK. It’s now attempting to prove its chops by finding new medical treatments.

Let’s get the nitty-gritty details out of the way: the Cambridge-1 supercomputer can deliver 400 petaflops of artificial intelligence (AI) performance. A petaflop is a processing speed measure and represents quadrillion floating point operations per second, or flops. Another way of saying it is that one petaflop is 1,000 teraflops. To give you some idea of the power we’re talking about here: the 2019 Mac Pro’s top speed is at 5.6 teraflops.

While Nvidia boasts that Cambridge-1 is the fastest supercomputer in the UK, it was still only ranked in 41st place in the Top500 June list of the world’s fastest supercomputers.

The Cambridge-1 supercomputer achieves its performance thanks to its 80 DGX A100 systems that integrate NVIDIA A100 GPUs, BlueField-2 DPUs and NVIDIA HDR InfiniBand networking.

Nvidia has splurged $100m into the project, which is located at a facility operated by Nvidia partner Kao Data. The tech titan expects to see a hefty return on its investment, quoting a report by consultancy Frontier Economics that stated that Cambridge-1 has the potential to create an estimated value of about $825m over the next decade. And it will do so in the field of healthcare.

“Cambridge-1 will empower world-leading researchers in business and academia with the ability to perform their life’s work on the UK’s most powerful supercomputer, unlocking clues to disease and treatments at a scale and speed previously impossible in the UK,” said Jensen Huang, founder and CEO of Nvidia.

“The discoveries developed on Cambridge-1 will take shape in the UK, but the impact will be global, driving groundbreaking research that has the potential to benefit millions around the world.”

Nvidia has already inked deals to use Cambridge-1’s processing power in collaboration with AstraZeneca, GSK, Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, King’s College London and Oxford Nanopore Technologies.

These projects include using the AI to better understand brain diseases like dementia, design new drugs and improve the accuracy of finding disease-causing variations in human genomes.

Supercomputers in medicine

The idea of supercomputers have been around since the 1960s, but interest around them has been renewed in recent years, especially since Covid-19 put them front of mind again.

High-performing computers have played a part in tackling the pandemic,” a recent GlobalData thematic research report noted. “HPC helped scientists understand how the virus interacts with the human body and how it passes from human to human. It had a role in genomic sequencing and, importantly, it enabled advancements in therapeutics and the production of life-saving vaccines. All this was only made possible by collaboration between governments, academia, and the private sector.”

It should also be mentioned that it’s not just supercomputers like Cambridge-1 that are using AI to develop new treatments. For instance, Cambridge-based startup Healx is using the data-crunching power of AI to find links between diseases for which there are treatments and rare diseases for which there aren’t. In theory, these links could indicate that the existing treatment that worked for one disease may work for another.

The power of supercomputers have also pushed them into the centre of high-stakes politics, which was made evident in April when the White House banned seven organisations in the sector.

“Supercomputing capabilities are vital for the development of many – perhaps almost all – modern weapons and national security systems, such as nuclear weapons and hypersonic weapons,” said US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo.

The effect of being added to the Entity List is that the listed organisations will no longer be allowed to import or use advanced US technology.