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Computing the Future

March 11, 1985

Computers have become so ubiquitous in the last few years that there is hardly anyone who has never touched one, at least in a digital watch or an automated teller machine. Most of the computers these days don't do much computing, though the original name, computer, remains inextricably linked to those clever devices.

At the other end of the spectrum are much more powerful computers that actually compute things--so-called supercomputers--in which there is great scientific, economic and political interest. These machines, which are hundreds of times faster than their conventional counterparts, help researchers attack problems where the amount and complexity of data overwhelm the run-of-the-mill computers. Because these devices, such as the Cray X-MP, cost millions of dollars apiece, they are used primarily by the government in defense and intelligence applications. A few of them are also used by movie makers to produce dazzling special effects. But academic researchers have largely been left out, to their growing consternation.

Enter the Japanese. Part of their massive push in computer research--a joint venture between the government and industry--aims to make supercomputers faster and cheaper and available throughout the Japanese economy, where, for example, they could be used to improve industrial design.

The worldwide market for supercomputers is expected to reach $1.5 billion in the next five years, a figure that has finally induced the U.S. government to take note and take action. Last year, at the urging of researchers in industry and academe and the National Science Foundation, Congress appropriated $40 million for supercomputer research. Now four universities, including the University of California, San Diego, have been chosen as the country's supercomputer centers, and a total of $200 million will be spent between now and 1990 to develop and put into use new machines using advanced technology to tackle problems in cosmology, particle physics, biotechnology, weather forecasting, economics and industrial design, among others. These applications, and many more not yet dreamed of, will fill an economic need as well as an intellectual one.

The new computer centers (the other three will be at Cornell, Princeton and the University of Illinois) will be assisted by major computer corporations, which are expected to match the $200 million of federal money and to have access to the new machines as a result. Cooperation between industry and universities is hardly new, though its scope continues to expand, and it remains an area demanding diligent attention to propriety.

The project itself, this country's largest supercomputer undertaking outside the military, is a bold and important step that promises to pay dividends in research and in industrial competition. Both the carrot and the stick have prodded the government to act, and it has acted wisely.

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