America's Bleeding Edge Supercomputer (Probably) Won't Crack Spy Codes

(Photo credit: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, via  Flickr )

(Photo credit: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, via Flickr)

Capable of a mind-boggling 200,000 trillion calculations per second, the U.S.-made Summit supercomputer is expected to bring the title of world's fastest back to the U.S.

Summit was officially unveiled at the government's Oak Ridge National Laboratory on June 8, the day a researcher there announced that the machine "broke the exascale barrier, achieving a peak throughput of 1.88 exaops." Of course we all know what that means so I won't bore you with the details except to say the researcher seemed pretty excited about it.

On its website, Oak Ridge says Summit "is providing scientists with incredible computing power to solve challenges in energy, artificial intelligence, human health, and other research areas, that were simply out of reach until now. These discoveries will help shape our understanding of the universe, bolster US economic competitiveness, and contribute to a better future."

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But could those "other research areas" include cracking spy codes? After all, there's always a race between complex algorithms that anonymize data and insanely speedy computers that try to "brute force" their way through them to reveal secrets. With Summit, did the U.S. government just elbow code-cracking to the front?

It's a topic Jonathan Haslam, a scholar on Russian history, brought up in a post on his "Through Russian Eyes" blog last week. He cited an interview in a Russian publication with mathematician Boris Chetverushkin, under the headline "Russia is behind the USA by hundreds of Petaflops."

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Haslam says, "Chetverushkin does not mention it, but this has massive implications for cypher warfare. The ability to make calculations at enormous speed simultaneously enhances the prospects for cracking the cyphers of rival Powers, as the Russians are only too aware of, though the academician is too polite to mention it."

But according to Jake Williams, a former Department of Defense official involved in cyber operations, at least this specific supercomputer likely wouldn't be used for that. 

"Supercomputers like this are very significant for research, but I don't think this is an ideal computer to perform cryptography-related calculations on," he told Code and Dagger. Code-breakers would want "purpose-built" processors, while "this is built from more general-purpose hardware," he said.

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Instead, Williams guessed Summit would be used much as it was advertised -- solving complex scientific research problems in the fields of, say, artificial intelligence or genome research. (That exascale breakthrough we all understand so well happened while Summit was "analyzing genomic data," Oak Ridge said.)

For artificial intelligence, Williams said AI gets better as it accumulates training data, but at some point the system may reach the limits of its memory. A supercomputer like Summit could provide a much larger playground.

But that doesn't mean such a supercomputer wouldn't have any applications in the security world. In announcing Summit, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said the machine is "going to have a profound impact in energy research, scientific discovery, economic competitiveness and national security." [Emphasis added.]

Williams laid out one counter-terrorism scenario:

Picture that you are trying to map communications patterns across multiple distinct networks for friends, cohorts, or even terrorist cells. The global set of all communications (phone, email, etc) are a large graph. Determining how a smaller subset of that (terror cell #1’s communication graph for instance) fits into that is a subgraph matching problem.  Graphs are notorious for the amount of memory they use, so having this much memory at your disposal could help you find patterns among these groups you never knew about before.

Connecting those lines and seeing those patterns has been a concentration of U.S. security agencies and a struggle in the deluge of data produced daily in the digital age.

Oak Ridge said Summit will take on a few "select projects" this year, but more research teams will get access to the machine in 2019 "through DOE’s Innovative and Novel Computational Impact on Theory and Experiment, or INCITE, program."

Read More: What Summit Could Do in Astrophysics and Beyond (Oak Ridge)

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