Dawn Rises in Cambridge: UK’s Most Powerful AI Supercomputer Begins Operations

February 27, 2024

Feb. 27, 2024 — At the world’s first AI Safety Summit, hosted by the UK in November 2023, the UK government announced investments that would make British AI supercomputing 30 times more powerful, thanks to a pair of supercomputers named Dawn and Isambard.

Credit: Joe Bishop for Cambridge Open Zettascale Lab.

The supercomputers Dawn and Isambard, based respectively in Cambridge and Bristol, are part of the government’s AI Research Resource. These national facilities will underpin the UK’s next-generation AI infrastructure, providing AI-specialized compute capacity to researchers, academia and industry.

Now up and running in its state-of-the-art Data Centre in Cambridge, Dawn is currently the most powerful AI supercomputer in the UK, with more than a thousand top-end Intel graphics processing units (GPUs) operating inside its server stacks.

The supercomputer’s bespoke innovations in hardware and software result from a long-term co-design partnership between the Cambridge Open Zettascale Lab, directed by Dr Paul Calleja, and global tech leaders Intel and Dell Technologies, with support from the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and UK Research & Innovation.

Dawn is now being deployed for use by scientists within Cambridge and across the UK in critical research fields such as clean energy, personalised medicine and climate.

Take a look at how Dawn is being used to support these ambitious goals, starting with one of the major use cases for the new supercomputer: work by UKAEA to design the UK’s prototype fusion energy power plant.

UKAEA scientists and engineers are using Dawn to design the UK’s prototype fusion energy power plant, paving the way for accelerating the use of fusion energy in the UK.

Fusion is the natural process that powers our Sun. The immense force of gravity in the Sun’s core causes hydrogen nuclei to pack together so tightly that they ‘fuse’, releasing staggering amounts of energy. If fusion can be harnessed economically on Earth, it will provide a near-limitless form of clean, safe electricity.

“However, delivering fusion energy is one of the biggest scientific and engineering challenges of current times,” said Dr. Rob Akers, Director of Computing Programmes at UKAEA. “A fusion power plant is a very strongly coupled, very complex piece of machinery – it has to be to contain the conditions of a star down here on Earth. So, to meet the demanding timeline to deliver these power plants for the Net Zero era, we must design the plant ‘in silico’, that is in the virtual world, using supercomputing and AI.”

Dawn will be used to build up complex simulations – ‘digital twins’ – that model fusion behavior and plant machinery, using data gathered over the next two decades. This will ultimately help to deliver UKAEA’s ambitious program to design and build its prototype fusion energy plant, STEP (Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production), at West Burton in Nottinghamshire.

“Dawn is an incredibly exciting project to catalyze what is necessary to design fusion power plants in the virtual world,” said Akers. “This isn’t a theoretical challenge – it will result in a physical power plant that will provide significant national supply chain opportunities for construction and seed high value jobs in AI and ‘digital’ across the UK.”

The idea is that the highly immersive and connected virtual world – an ‘industrial metaverse’ – developed using Dawn will help engineers who don’t have a background in high-performance computing or AI solve challenges quicker, dramatically accelerating and de-risking the UK’s fusion roadmap.

“Having access to powerful systems like Dawn is pivotal to positioning the UK at the forefront of an emerging technology and industry,” added Akers. “The ultimate prize will be ‘bottling a star’ – harnessing fusion energy here on Earth, and shifting the needle towards a carbon-free world.”

Professor Peter Coveney’s work using Dawn will take us closer to digital twins that can help us to stay healthy. A human digital twin is a computer model that is a virtual replica of an individual’s biology – their DNA, molecules, cells, organs, circulatory processes, immunology and so on. Although digital twins of this completeness, complexity and individuality don’t yet exist, many believe the technology is the next frontier of medicine.

“Modern medicine is largely backwards facing,” explained Professor Coveney, Director of the Centre for Computational Science at University College London. “Doctors work out how best to treat patients by looking back at the results of clinical trials on other people. But what if a doctor could use a digital twin of you to check whether a drug will work, or to advise on how you will be affected in a pandemic, or to predict how a lifestyle change could improve your long-term health? Virtual copies of ourselves will usher in a new era of personalized medicine. These digital twins will change the whole notion of what it is to be healthy.”

Coveney is an expert in the complex modeling behind building virtual blueprints of the human body – and he’ll be using Dawn to continue his research. He leads an international collaboration that has previously built a digital twin of the whole human circulatory system – all 60,000-miles of vessels, arteries, veins and capillaries – using data from digitised, cross-sections of a frozen cadaver.

The tough part is scaling to a digital representation of a whole human. It is challenging not just computationally but also because of how society feels about ‘digital doppelgangers’. Coveney discusses these moral and ethical issues in his book Virtual You, written to help bring everyone “from the specialist to the general public up to speed with the progress of the technology.”

Although it might be some time before a trip to the doctor will involve calling up the latest information stored electronically in your digital twin, there will be benefits throughout the journey, said Coveney.

One area will be in drug discovery: “The drug discovery process is slow and expensive, but the use of hybrid-AI and physics-based simulations can accelerate therapeutic drug discovery for diseases such as COVID-19. These highly complex workflows require the most advanced supercomputing capability to provide the high throughput required to screen a vast number of candidate drugs.

“I am excited to see Dawn, the first in a new class of accelerated supercomputer, power up in the UK and look forward to continuing my research with these remarkable national facilities.”

To continue reading, click here.


Source: Louise Walsh, University of Cambridge

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