Five-Minute Interview

The Addictive Allure of Supercomputing

Posted in Medical Computing by Camilla Andersson on March 14, 2011

EMDT's series of interviews offers personal perspectives on the diverse industries that serve the medtech sector. Here, we talk to Andrew Jones.


Q If I were not talking to you right now, what would you be doing?
Talking to someone else. I am a great believer in frequent personal interactions as a driver of both business and research. This is especially true in my field—high-performance computing (HPC), or supercomputing—which is a relatively small international community. I talk to users of HPC who have software and skills challenges that we might be able to help with. I talk to other HPC centres and technology developers to explore collaborations and to map the future of HPC. In our HPC consulting work, we find that technical expertise and credibility combined with the ability to interact with senior managers, scientists and nonspecialists is critical to success.

Q What is supercomputing and what has it got to do with medical devices?
 Supercomputing is the use of the world’s most powerful computers to run simulations, model the real world and process data with greater speed, resolutions or complexity than ordinary computers allow. In medical science this might mean enabling real-time processing of much higher resolution scans. It might mean modelling a more power-efficient pacemaker. It might mean running simulations of blood flow, or how new drugs interact with the body or how bones fracture. Supercomputing can be used to accelerate research and design in almost any field of science.

Q How did you get in the industry?
I was originally a scientist (electromagnetics) using super-computers as one of several tools in my research. As my own interests evolved and opportunities arose, I gradually became more involved in the HPC aspects. Eventually, the addictive and exciting world of supercomputing took its hold on me and I joined what was then the national supercomputing centre at the University of Manchester. I have heard a similar story from other HPC people: scientist becomes addicted to HPC.

Q What is the best thing about your work?
 The variety of people and organisations I interact with—HPC is used in academic research, in industry to develop everything from potato chips to Formula 1 cars, in national security and more. Plus the pace of technological development—a thousand-fold growth in performance each decade!

Q What is the biggest misconception people have about your work?
 “Computers will always get faster – I just have to wait for the next processor and my application will run faster.” This is not quite true. Computers will continue to get more powerful, and until recently they did this through increased clock speeds and, thus, brought about “no-effort” speed increases for users. But now increases in capability are delivered as more cores—meaning applications must be rewritten to be able to go faster.

Q What should people give more attention to?
Time. It is the only thing I can think of for which we have no way of controlling the rate of consumption or of creating more. This makes time intensely valuable, and we should all ensure we pay attention to what we use our time for—family, personal, work, play... 

Q What is the most exciting development on the horizon within your specialty?
There are two, but they are really two sides of the same thing. The next decade will see Exascale computing—a factor of 1000 more powerful than now. This will bring huge challenges, but it should also bring huge advances in the computational power on our desktops and handheld devices. It is almost beyond imagination what a smartphone with the capability of today’s supercomputers could do. Thinking medically, what about not only viewing a medical scan on your phone, but also processing the data to extract salient features and cross referencing Internet data sources?



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