Hewlett Packard Labs engineers working on The Machine prototype
Hewlett Packard engineers working on the prototype supercomputer © Hewlett Packard

British chip designer Arm Holdings is teaming up with HPE, the US enterprise computing group, and SUSE, the German software company, in a programme to build three new supercomputers that will boost the UK’s ambitions to become Europe’s leading centre for artificial intelligence.

The Catalyst UK supercomputer programme will install the three machines at the University of Edinburgh, the University of Bristol and the University of Leicester. They will significantly boost the UK’s existing stock of supercomputers, which stands at 15, according to a list compiled by Top500, a research group that maps computing power around the world.

Britain is trying to position itself as Europe’s leader in cutting-edge artificial intelligence research in the face of tough competition from France and Germany, but it has been hindered by a lack of supercomputers that can support the faster processing speeds needed to crunch vast amounts of data quickly.

According to the Top500 list, which was last updated in November, France has 18 supercomputers and Germany 20 — though these numbers are dwarfed by China and the US, which have 202 and 143 respectively.

Arm Holdings, the Cambridge-based chipmaker that was bought by Japan’s SoftBank for £24.3bn in 2016, will supply the chips for the new computers. The machines will be designed and built by HPE, which will maintain them for three years and use SUSE’s open source Linux as the operating system.

The companies declined to disclose the size of their investments.

“We are currently seeing an insatiable demand for compute performance, as companies seek to gain intelligent and actionable insights from their data,” said Mike Vildibill, vice-president of the advanced technologies group at HPE. “New approaches and technologies are needed to tackle some of the key challenges in achieving these levels of performance.”

Ministers have unveiled a handful of investments in academic research and start-ups focused on machine learning and artificial intelligence since the Brexit vote, which poses a significant challenge to London’s status as Europe’s main technology hub because it could affect the city’s ability to attract skilled labour.

The government identified AI as a key area for the future development of the economy in its industrial strategy, published last November. It plans to establish a new “office of AI” that will co-ordinate initiatives between governments and businesses — such as the Catalyst UK supercomputer programme announced on Monday.

The three new supercomputers were first discussed last summer during meetings between HPE and the UK’s department for international trade.

“Today’s announcement marks a major step forward in boosting collaboration between the government and business to harness the power of innovation in supercomputing and AI,” said Sam Gyimah MP, science minister. “The UK will lead the AI and data revolution.”

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