The European Commission announced on Thursday (11 January) that it will invest €1 billion into developing very fast high performance computers by 2020, in a bid to keep up with research in the United States and China.
“China is running, the US is running, we are running. We just have to run a little bit faster,” EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas told a news conference when he announced the plans.
The total €1 billion—€486 million in EU funds and the rest in money from member states—will go towards buying two so-called pre-exascale supercomputers in 2019 or 2020, which researchers and companies can use to process very large amounts of data.
The Commission’s proposal does not include plans to purchase even faster exascale computers, which run at one billion billion calculations per second. But they will go towards research for developing that technology, stretched out until 2026.
China and the US governments have both funded research to develop exascale supercomputers by 2020 and 2021.
Moedas admitted that Europe has fallen behind the US and China in technology research. European countries could have another chance at competing in emerging fields like artificial intelligence and blockchain, and both fields will rely on fast high performance computers, the EU research chief argued.
The Commission has said that it will save EU national governments money by pooling its investments with member states, starting in 2019 and continuing until 2026, to buy pre-exascale computers and support research aimed at developing exascale computers by 2022 or 2023.
Once companies have access to exascale computers and can process huge amounts of data, they could reach new markets worth €1 trillion, according to Commission estimates.
EU Digital Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, who presented the proposal with Moedas, named cybersecurity, medical care and research into natural disasters like earthquakes as areas that might benefit from faster data processing and the kind of complicated analysis that can done by high performance computers. The Commission has also said that research in agriculture, energy and astrophysics will benefit from faster computing.
Researchers in every EU member state will be able to access at least 50% of what the computers process because of the Commission’s funds, or potentially even more if their national government has put extra money into the high performance computing plans.
One EU official said the Commission’s proposal is an attempt to “repatriate” technical applications that are currently operated in the bloc, but that send data to other countries because it can be processed there.
“We have seven times more applications from the EU being dealt with outside the EU. What we’re trying to do is meet the demand. The computers we have in the EU today do not meet the demand,” the official said.
The funding plans are a bid to help researchers and companies do better data analysis, but they also serve the EU’s tech policy interests: the Commission wants to prevent European data from being misused or spied on once it’s transferred abroad, and sees building better European high performance computers as a way of avoiding that.
“Sending sensitive European data for processing in other regions of the world, where the high European standards of privacy, data protection, copyright, etc. are not necessarily respected, undermines the intention to gain sovereignty on European data and its exploitation,” the Commission’s proposal reads.
The public funds will not be limited to buying chips and components for computers that are only from within Europe. But the Commission’s goal is to build a fast network of computers that specifically help European researchers and industry.
“We want this infrastructure to be European in in nature.That’s why we’re starting with the pre-exascale that will allow us to move forward,” Gabriel told the news conference.
“Our objective is to have our own European infrastructure. And then within that infrastructure, we want our industries, our scientists, our SMEs to contribute to this,” she added.
Moedas emphasised that it is not important whether the technology behind the EU-funded high performance computers also comes from European manufacturers.
“To be the best, we have to be open to technologies that come from all over the world and work together. I think here it’s about the ability that we will have to make it together, to put it together in a way that people will want to come to our supercomputer because it’s better than others, because it goes a little bit further,” he said.
The Commission has so far received support for its plans to develop exascale computers from 12 member states—France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Greece and Croatia, as well as Switzerland.
Moedas predicted that more member states will soon back the proposal and commit money to develop high performance computers.
The current Commission’s term ends in autumn 2019, meaning that the funds earmarked for high performance computers under this proposal will only be paid out once a new administration takes office. An EU official said that the Commission’s goal for this term is to get each of the 28 member states to back the proposal and put aside funds to buy and develop pre-exascale computers.