UK invests $273m to build its most powerful AI supercomputer

November 3, 2023

All the talk of AI risks hasn’t dampened the UK government’s appetite for investing in the technology. It plans to invest £225 million, or $273 million, to build its most powerful AI supercomputer.

The supercomputer called Isambard-AI will be built by The University of Bristol with the help of Hewlett Packard and will be “10 times faster than the U.K.’s current quickest machine.”

The computer is named after Isambard Brunel, one of the greatest British civil and mechanical engineers of the Industrial Revolution.

Isambard-AI will be built using an HPE Cray EX supercomputer powered by 5,448 of Nvidia’s GH200 Grace Hopper Superchips.

It will deliver more than 200 petaFLOPS of double-precision performance. For context, that means it can perform 200 billion floating-point operations per second on floating-point numbers with 64-bit precision.

Training AI models usually requires far lower 16 and 8-bit precisions. Nvidia says it expects researchers will be able to extract 21 exaFLOPS or more for sparsity optimized FP-8 processing.

The investment in Isambard-AI is part of the £300 million the UK government pledged towards its new national Artificial Intelligence Research Resource (AIRR) that it announced at the recent AI Safety Summit.

Professor Simon McIntosh-Smith, Director of the Isambard National Research Facility at the University of Bristol, said: “Today Isambard-AI would rank within the top 10 fastest supercomputers in the world and, when in operation later in 2024, it will be one of the most powerful AI systems for open science anywhere.”

If it achieves 200 petaFLOPS Isambard-AI would rival America’s Summit, which is currently the fifth most powerful supercomputer.

The investment signals the UK’s intent to pursue AI safety by developing its own AI technologies.

Science, Innovation, and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan said: “Frontier AI models are becoming exponentially more powerful. At our AI Safety Summit in Bletchley Park, we have made it clear that Britain is grasping the opportunity to lead the world in adopting this technology safely so we can put it to work and lead healthier, easier, and longer lives.”

Isambard-AI will eventually connect with a new supercomputer cluster at the University of Cambridge, called Dawn which will be powered by more than 1,000 Intel chips.

The first phase of Dawn is currently being rolled out, with it also being touted as the UK’s most powerful AI supercomputer. No performance figures for Dawn have been released yet so we’ll have to wait to see if it will eventually be trumped by Isambard.

Hosting the AI Safety Summit at Bletchley Park was a respectful nod to the groundbreaking work of computing pioneer Alan Turing and his team.

Once Isambard-AI and Dawn are working in tandem will we see more world-changing developments from British scientists?

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Eugene van der Watt

Eugene comes from an electronic engineering background and loves all things tech. When he takes a break from consuming AI news you'll find him at the snooker table.


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