How to Talk to a Techno-Liberal (and you must)

By Michael Feldman

November 3, 2006

With election day right around the corner, I started to think about what it means to be a conservative versus a liberal and how that impacts one's world view. At the most basic level, conservatives want to support continuity. In general they're happy with the status quo and want to maintain it. Conservatives act as society's buffer for a changing world. Liberals, on the other hand, embrace change. By nature, they're not satisfied with the way things are and want to find new ways to do things. Liberals are the opportunists that move a society forward.

Before I go any further, I have to admit that I'm actually equating liberalism with progressivism — a popular notion, but technically inaccurate. Liberalism is actually more about civil liberties and individual rights. But for the purposes of this discussion we're talking about liberal behavior, not ideology.

In fact, while we normally associate liberalism and conservatism with politics, they really represent socio-cultural perspectives that map to all human endeavors. This includes how we develop and use technology, especially computer technology. I'll get to this shortly. But first let's look at the demographics.

According to the Pew Research Center, in their latest poll among registered voters, conservatives outnumber liberals by a two-to-one margin — 38 percent conservative versus 19 percent liberal. Another 38 percent identify themselves as moderates. By party, 32 percent of Democrats describe themselves as liberals, 23 percent describe themselves as conservatives and 41 percent categorized themselves as moderates. The respective numbers for Republicans are 5 percent, 64 percent and 29 percent.

One of the unfortunate effects of the concentration of liberals in the Democratic party and conservatives in the Republican party is the open warfare that now exists across this philosophical divide. In this culture of two-party tribalism, each party strives to annihilate the other. I say unfortunate because it's detrimental to have a political system dominated by either liberalism or conservatism. As can be deduced from my opening paragraph, I believe both philosophies have important roles to play in politics.

And not just in politics, but in technology as well. I've come to see three basic philosophical approaches to science and engineering, reflected by these common utterances:

  1. “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.” (techno-conservative)
  2. “Let me tweak it a little bit.” (techno-moderate)
  3. “We need a whole new paradigm.” (techno-liberal)

In the technology arena, liberalism maps to innovation and risk-taking; conservatism to standardization and risk avoidance. Without innovation, progress stops. But too much causes chaos and confusion (think the 60s). On the other hand, without standardization and technological continuity, getting anything done becomes impractical. But too much limits choice and kills innovation (think the 50s). Obviously, what we need is some sort of balance.

Do we have balance now? Depends on who you are.

If you're a techo-conservative in IT, everything is moving too fast. Server OEMs are in constant motion trying to keep pace with the latest processor and OS releases. On the software side, ISVs struggle to keep up as new hardware platforms are developed and older ones die off. In the 1980s, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), at the time, the second largest computer company in the world, was swept away when its proprietary VAX/VMS and PDP-11/RSX-11M systems became obsolete after the rise of standard Unix platforms and commodity PCs. Today, Microsoft is trying to reinvent itself as the desktop platform becomes subordinate to the Internet platform. Yes, being a techno-conservative has its downsides.

On the other hand, if you're a techno-liberal in IT, the future can't come soon enough. For those who see the true promise of the Web for multi-media and as a general platform for application software, the Internet is still far too slow and primitive. If you're a neurobioloist who wants to simulate the human brain at the molecular level, it's going to be pretty frustrating until you get the right software tools and the petaflops to back them up. Beyond that, Ray Kurweil, the ultimate tech progressive, envisions molecular computing and spiritual machines to provide a complete redefinition of the human condition. If being a techno-conservative is stressful, being a techno-liberal is discouraging.

You might think that the high-tech crowd, especially the IT industry, would be dominated by liberal-thinkers, since innovation is the foundation of engineering. But that's probably only true for areas that haven't been commercialized yet, like nano-engineering. Today, most computer technology is so well integrated into the commercial realm that the conservative tendencies of businesses drive information and computer technology. Earlier this year in our sister publication, GRIDtoday, Tom Gibbs observed that IT invests around 15 percent in innovation. He thought that was dangerously low, but it probably reflects the natural conservatism of commercial enterprises. And even at this level of investment, IT has delivered enormous value to the economy and has been the driving force behind rising productivity for decades. For better and for worse, commercial IT buffers the rate of innovation.

In our world — high performance computing — it's easy to see the philosophical divisions that define the community. Toward the conservative end of the spectrum we have commodity clusters, the x86 ISA, Ethernet, Linux and the reams of code written in Fortran, C and MPI. On the liberal end we have multi-core processors, hardware accelerators (FPGAs, FP coprocessors, GPUs), InfiniBand, new parallel programming languages, national petascale programs, heterogeneous computing and HPC research.

At last week's HPC User Forum in Manchester, the tension between techno-conservatism and techno-liberalism was in evidence. Just some examples:

  • IDC's Addison Snell reported that about one-third of HPC users are looking at accelerator processors, mainly FPGAs.
  • Numerical Algorithms Group's Ian Reid said the days of the single-core treadmill are over, and multi-core is here to stay. He said that this creates major software issues that will force us to move to hybrid hardware architectures. But software portability must be maintained. He also noted there is considerable concern about whether the HPCS languages will deliver on their promises.
  • Intel's Stephen Wheat talked about the return of hyper-threading, 80-core teraflop chips and silicon photonics, but lamented that the impending petaflop hardware will arrive before the software is ready.
  • Paul Muzio, AHPCRC/NCSI, stressed that GM, Dassault and many other major companies are still using Fortran. He maintained that businesses won't throw out those huge investments. The applications proposed for petascale computing are not the ones companies or the defense establishment will invest in. But there are opportunities for languages like Fortran to evolve, such as Co-Array Fortran.
  • Andy Grant said that IBM is starting to see requirements for accelerators in procurements. IBM is installing a large Opteron cluster with ClearSpeed boards at the University of Bristol. He also talked about the Blue Gene/L successors — Blue Gene/P (for petaflop), followed by Blue Gene/Q (10 petaflops).
  • Manchester's Andrew Jones chaired a panel on whether programming model changes are needed for petaflops computing. Jones noted that scaling to 1,000 processors on homogeneous architectures is difficult today. Petascale and exascale computing will involve many more threads than today, and possibly heterogeneous architectures. He believes we may need a new programming paradigm.

It's actually gratifying to see this tension in HPC. The real danger would be to descend into techno-Democrats and techno-Republicans. As long as the conservatives don't slow innovation too much and the liberals don't send us into chaos, the community will move forward.

I'm Michael Feldman and I approve this message.


As always, comments about HPCwire are welcomed and encouraged. Write to me, Michael Feldman, at [email protected].

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

Supercomputing Helps Explain the Milky Way’s Shape

September 30, 2022

If you look at the Milky Way from “above,” it almost looks like a cat’s eye: a circle of spiral arms with an oval “iris” in the middle. That iris — a starry bar that connects the spiral arms — has two stran Read more…

Top Supercomputers to Shake Up Earthquake Modeling

September 29, 2022

Two DOE-funded projects — and a bunch of top supercomputers — are converging to improve our understanding of earthquakes and enable the construction of more earthquake-resilient buildings and infrastructure. The firs Read more…

How Intel Plans to Rebuild Its Manufacturing Supply Chain

September 29, 2022

Intel's engineering roots saw a revival at this week's Innovation, with attendees recalling the show’s resemblance to Intel Developer Forum, the company's annual developer gala last held in 2016. The chipmaker cut t Read more…

Intel Labs Launches Neuromorphic ‘Kapoho Point’ Board

September 28, 2022

Over the past five years, Intel has been iterating on its neuromorphic chips and systems, aiming to create devices (and software for those devices) that closely mimic the behavior of the human brain through the use of co Read more…

DOE Announces $42M ‘COOLERCHIPS’ Datacenter Cooling Program

September 28, 2022

With massive machines like Frontier guzzling tens of megawatts of power to operate, datacenters’ energy use is of increasing concern for supercomputer operations – and particularly for the U.S. Department of Energy ( Read more…

AWS Solution Channel

Shutterstock 1818499862

Rearchitecting AWS Batch managed services to leverage AWS Fargate

AWS service teams continuously improve the underlying infrastructure and operations of managed services, and AWS Batch is no exception. The AWS Batch team recently moved most of their job scheduler fleet to a serverless infrastructure model leveraging AWS Fargate. Read more…

Microsoft/NVIDIA Solution Channel

Shutterstock 1166887495

Improving Insurance Fraud Detection using AI Running on Cloud-based GPU-Accelerated Systems

Insurance is a highly regulated industry that is evolving as the industry faces changing customer expectations, massive amounts of data, and increased regulations. A major issue facing the industry is tracking insurance fraud. Read more…

Do You Believe in Science? Take the HPC Covid Safety Pledge

September 28, 2022

ISC 2022 was back in person, and the celebration was on. Frontier had been named the first exascale supercomputer on the Top500 list, and workshops, poster sessions, paper presentations, receptions, and booth meetings we Read more…

How Intel Plans to Rebuild Its Manufacturing Supply Chain

September 29, 2022

Intel's engineering roots saw a revival at this week's Innovation, with attendees recalling the show’s resemblance to Intel Developer Forum, the company's ann Read more…

Intel Labs Launches Neuromorphic ‘Kapoho Point’ Board

September 28, 2022

Over the past five years, Intel has been iterating on its neuromorphic chips and systems, aiming to create devices (and software for those devices) that closely Read more…

HPE to Build 100+ Petaflops Shaheen III Supercomputer

September 27, 2022

The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia has announced that HPE has won the bid to build the Shaheen III supercomputer. Sh Read more…

Intel’s New Programmable Chips Next Year to Replace Aging Products

September 27, 2022

Intel shared its latest roadmap of programmable chips, and doesn't want to dig itself into a hole by following AMD's strategy in the area.  "We're thankfully not matching their strategy," said Shannon Poulin, corporate vice president for the datacenter and AI group at Intel, in response to a question posed by HPCwire during a press briefing. The updated roadmap pieces together Intel's strategy for FPGAs... Read more…

Intel Ships Sapphire Rapids – to Its Cloud

September 27, 2022

Intel has had trouble getting its chips in the hands of customers on time, but is providing the next best thing – to try out those chips in the cloud. Delayed chips such as Sapphire Rapids server processors and Habana Gaudi 2 AI chip will be available on a platform called the Intel Developer Cloud, which was announced at the Intel Innovation event being held in San Jose, California. Read more…

More Details on ‘Half-Exaflop’ Horizon System, LCCF Emerge

September 26, 2022

Since 2017, plans for the Leadership-Class Computing Facility (LCCF) have been underway. Slated for full operation somewhere around 2026, the LCCF’s scope ext Read more…

Nvidia Shuts Out RISC-V Software Support for GPUs 

September 23, 2022

Nvidia is not interested in bringing software support to its GPUs for the RISC-V architecture despite being an early adopter of the open-source technology in its GPU controllers. Nvidia has no plans to add RISC-V support for CUDA, which is the proprietary GPU software platform, a company representative... Read more…

Nvidia Introduces New Ada Lovelace GPU Architecture, OVX Systems, Omniverse Cloud

September 20, 2022

In his GTC keynote today, Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang launched another new Nvidia GPU architecture: Ada Lovelace, named for the legendary mathematician regarded as Read more…

Nvidia Shuts Out RISC-V Software Support for GPUs 

September 23, 2022

Nvidia is not interested in bringing software support to its GPUs for the RISC-V architecture despite being an early adopter of the open-source technology in its GPU controllers. Nvidia has no plans to add RISC-V support for CUDA, which is the proprietary GPU software platform, a company representative... Read more…

AWS Takes the Short and Long View of Quantum Computing

August 30, 2022

It is perhaps not surprising that the big cloud providers – a poor term really – have jumped into quantum computing. Amazon, Microsoft Azure, Google, and th Read more…

US Senate Passes CHIPS Act Temperature Check, but Challenges Linger

July 19, 2022

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday passed a major hurdle that will open up close to $52 billion in grants for the semiconductor industry to boost manufacturing, supply chain and research and development. U.S. senators voted 64-34 in favor of advancing the CHIPS Act, which sets the stage for the final consideration... Read more…

Chinese Startup Biren Details BR100 GPU

August 22, 2022

Amid the high-performance GPU turf tussle between AMD and Nvidia (and soon, Intel), a new, China-based player is emerging: Biren Technology, founded in 2019 and headquartered in Shanghai. At Hot Chips 34, Biren co-founder and president Lingjie Xu and Biren CTO Mike Hong took the (virtual) stage to detail the company’s inaugural product: the Biren BR100 general-purpose GPU (GPGPU). “It is my honor to present... Read more…

Newly-Observed Higgs Mode Holds Promise in Quantum Computing

June 8, 2022

The first-ever appearance of a previously undetectable quantum excitation known as the axial Higgs mode – exciting in its own right – also holds promise for developing and manipulating higher temperature quantum materials... Read more…

AMD’s MI300 APUs to Power Exascale El Capitan Supercomputer

June 21, 2022

Additional details of the architecture of the exascale El Capitan supercomputer were disclosed today by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s (LLNL) Terri Read more…

Tesla Bulks Up Its GPU-Powered AI Super – Is Dojo Next?

August 16, 2022

Tesla has revealed that its biggest in-house AI supercomputer – which we wrote about last year – now has a total of 7,360 A100 GPUs, a nearly 28 percent uplift from its previous total of 5,760 GPUs. That’s enough GPU oomph for a top seven spot on the Top500, although the tech company best known for its electric vehicles has not publicly benchmarked the system. If it had, it would... Read more…

Exclusive Inside Look at First US Exascale Supercomputer

July 1, 2022

HPCwire takes you inside the Frontier datacenter at DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Oak Ridge, Tenn., for an interview with Frontier Project Direc Read more…

Leading Solution Providers


AMD Opens Up Chip Design to the Outside for Custom Future

June 15, 2022

AMD is getting personal with chips as it sets sail to make products more to the liking of its customers. The chipmaker detailed a modular chip future in which customers can mix and match non-AMD processors in a custom chip package. "We are focused on making it easier to implement chips with more flexibility," said Mark Papermaster, chief technology officer at AMD during the analyst day meeting late last week. Read more…

Nvidia, Intel to Power Atos-Built MareNostrum 5 Supercomputer

June 16, 2022

The long-troubled, hotly anticipated MareNostrum 5 supercomputer finally has a vendor: Atos, which will be supplying a system that includes both Nvidia and Inte Read more…

UCIe Consortium Incorporates, Nvidia and Alibaba Round Out Board

August 2, 2022

The Universal Chiplet Interconnect Express (UCIe) consortium is moving ahead with its effort to standardize a universal interconnect at the package level. The c Read more…

Using Exascale Supercomputers to Make Clean Fusion Energy Possible

September 2, 2022

Fusion, the nuclear reaction that powers the Sun and the stars, has incredible potential as a source of safe, carbon-free and essentially limitless energy. But Read more…

Is Time Running Out for Compromise on America COMPETES/USICA Act?

June 22, 2022

You may recall that efforts proposed in 2020 to remake the National Science Foundation (Endless Frontier Act) have since expanded and morphed into two gigantic bills, the America COMPETES Act in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act in the U.S. Senate. So far, efforts to reconcile the two pieces of legislation have snagged and recent reports... Read more…

Nvidia, Qualcomm Shine in MLPerf Inference; Intel’s Sapphire Rapids Makes an Appearance.

September 8, 2022

The steady maturation of MLCommons/MLPerf as an AI benchmarking tool was apparent in today’s release of MLPerf v2.1 Inference results. Twenty-one organization Read more…

India Launches Petascale ‘PARAM Ganga’ Supercomputer

March 8, 2022

Just a couple of weeks ago, the Indian government promised that it had five HPC systems in the final stages of installation and would launch nine new supercomputers this year. Now, it appears to be making good on that promise: the country’s National Supercomputing Mission (NSM) has announced the deployment of “PARAM Ganga” petascale supercomputer at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)... Read more…

Not Just Cash for Chips – The New Chips and Science Act Boosts NSF, DOE, NIST

August 3, 2022

After two-plus years of contentious debate, several different names, and final passage by the House (243-187) and Senate (64-33) last week, the Chips and Science Act will soon become law. Besides the $54.2 billion provided to boost US-based chip manufacturing, the act reshapes US science policy in meaningful ways. NSF’s proposed budget... Read more…

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow