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The race to exascale is on — while Canada watches from the sidelines – CBC.ca

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This column is an opinion by Kris Rowe, a computational scientist working to get science and engineering applications ready for the next generation of exascale supercomputers. Born and educated in Canada, he has worked at major Canadian and American Universities, as well as two U.S. national laboratories. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Some of the brightest minds from around the globe have been quietly working on technology that promises to turn the world on its head, but so far Canada has been watching from the sidelines.

While it is unlikely that people will be huddled around their televisions to watch the power to these incredible machines being switched on, the scientific discoveries that follow the debut of exascale computers will change our daily lives in unimaginable ways.

So what exactly is an exascale computer?

It’s a supercomputer capable of performing more than a billion billion calculations per second — or 1 exaflops.

“Exa” is the metric system prefix for such grandiose numbers, and “flops” is an abbreviation of “floating-point operations per second.”

For comparison, my laptop computer is capable of about 124 gigaflops, or 124 billion calculations per second, which sounds fast.

According to the TOP500 list, today’s fastest supercomputer is Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Summit, which tops out at a measured 148.6 petaflops — about one million times faster than my laptop.

However, Summit is a mere welterweight relative to an exascale supercomputer, which is more than 60 times faster.

To put that speed in perspective, if you took all the calculations a modern laptop can perform in a single second, and instead did the arithmetic non-stop with pencil and paper at a rate of one calculation per second, it would take roughly 3,932 years to finish.

In a single second, a supercomputer capable of 1 exaflops could do a series of calculations that would take about 31.7 billion years by hand.

GPUs

While colloquially a supercomputer is referred to as a single entity, it is actually composed of thousands of servers — or compute nodes — connected by a dedicated high-speed network.

You might assume that an exascale supercomputer could be built simply by using 60 times more compute nodes than today’s fastest supercomputer; however, the cost, power consumption, and other constraints make this approach nearly impossible.

A supercomputer node packs an enormous amount of number-crunching power. (Argonne National Laboratory)

Fortunately, computer scientists have an ace up their sleeves, known as a GPU accelerator.

Graphics processing units (GPUs) are the professional-grade cousins of the graphics card in your personal computer and are capable of performing arithmetic at a rate of several teraflops (ie. really, really fast). And a feasible route to exascale can be realized by not only making supercomputers larger but also denser.

Sporting six extremely powerful GPUs per compute node, Argonne National Laboratory’s Aurora will follow this approach. Scheduled to come online in 2021, Aurora will be the first exascale supercomputer in North America — although the title of first in the world may go to China’s Tianhe-3, which is slated to power up sometime in 2020.

Several other machines in the U.S., China, Europe and Japan are scheduled to be brought to life soon after Aurora, using similar architectures

What exactly does one do with all that computing power? Change the world, of course.

Exascale supercomputers will allow researchers to tackle problems which were impossible to simulate using the previous generation of machines, due to the massive amounts of data and calculations involved.

Small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) design, wind farm optimization and cancer drug discovery are just a few of the applications that are priorities of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Exascale Computing Project. The outcomes of this project will have a broad impact and promise to fundamentally change society, both in the U.S. and abroad.

An artist’s rendering of the Aurora exascale supercomputer, scheduled to come online in 2021. (Argonne National Laboratory)

Exascale and Canada

So why isn’t Canada building one?

One reason is that exascale supercomputers come with a pretty steep sticker price. The contracts for the American machines are worth more than $500 million US each. On the other side of the Atlantic, the EU signed off on €1 billion for their own exascale supercomputer.

While the U.S. and Europe have much larger populations, the annual per capita spending on large-scale computing projects demonstrates how much Canada is lagging in terms of investment. The U.S. DOE alone will spend close to $1 billion US on its national supercomputing facilities next year, a number which does not take into account spending by other federal organizations, such as the U.S. National Science Foundation.

In comparison, Compute Canada — the national advanced research computing consortium providing supercomputing infrastructure to Canadian researchers — has a budget that is closer to $114 million Cdn.

In its 2018 budget submission, Compute Canada clearly lays out what it will take to bring our country closer to the forefront of supercomputing on the world stage. Included is the need for increasing the annual national spending on advanced research computing infrastructure to an estimated $151 million — a 32 per cent increase from where it is now. Given cost of the American exascale supercomputers, this is likely a conservative estimate.

However, the need for an exascale supercomputer in Canada does not seem to be on the radar of the decision-makers in the federal and provincial governments.

Hanlon’s razor would suggest that this is not due to some sinister plot by politicians to punish the nation’s computer geeks; rather, our politicians likely don’t fully understand the benefits of investing in the technology.

For example, the recent announcement by the premiers of Ontario, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick to collaborate on aggressively developing Canada’s small modular reactor (SMR) technology failed to mention the need for advanced computing resources. In contrast, corresponding U.S. DOE projects explicitly state that they will require exascale computing resources to meet their objectives.

This visualization, part of an extremely complex simulation of a Large Hadron Collider event, was done using existing supercomputing resources at Argonne National Laboratory. Aurora will be capable of even more complex computational jobs. (Taylor Childers/Argonne National Laboratory)

Why should the Canadian government — and you — care?

For the less altruistic, a benefit of supercomputing research is “trickle-down electronics.” The quiet but persistent legacy of the space race is technology like the microwave oven found in most kitchens. Similarly, the technological advances necessary to achieve exascale computing will also lead to lower-cost and more energy-efficient laptops, improved high-definition computer graphics, and prevalent AI in our connected devices.

But more importantly for Canada, how we invest our federal dollars says a lot about what we value as a nation.

It’s a statement about how we value the sciences. Do we want to attract world-class researchers to our universities? Do we want Canada to be a leader in climate research, renewable energy and medical advances?

It’s also a statement about how much we value Canadian businesses and innovation.

The user-facility model of the U.S. DOE provides businesses with access to singular resources, which gives American companies a competitive advantage in the world marketplace. Compute Canada has a similar mandate, and given the large number of startup companies and emerging industries in Canada, we leave our economy on an unequal footing without significant investments in advanced computing infrastructure.

Ultimately, supercomputers are apolitical: they can just as easily be used for oil exploration as wind farming. Their benefits can be applied across the economy and throughout society to develop new products and solve problems.

At a time when Canada seems so divided, building an exascale computer is the kind of project we need to bring the country together.

[Note: The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official policy or position of Argonne National Laboratory, the U.S. Department of Energy or the U.S. government.]


  • This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

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COVID-19 in Canada: What a second shutdown might look like – CTV News

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This article was featured in the Nightly Briefing, CTV News’ evening reading recommendation. You can sign up here to receive it each weekday night.

As countries around the world start re-imposing coronavirus restrictions amid spikes in new cases, Canadian politicians and health officials are warning that parts of the country may soon enter a second shutdown.

However, infectious disease physician Dr. Zain Chagla says the second lockdown will not look like the first.

“We’re very different than we were in March, we had no clue how deep this was going to spread into our communities, there was hospital issues in terms of health care utilization, and we really had limited testing and didn’t really understand where this disease was transmitted within our community,” Chagla explained in an interview with CTV’s Your Morning on Thursday.

“So we had to really do something very global to get things to work.”

Now, Chagla said provincial health authorities have a better grasp on what measures work in mitigating the risk of COVID-19.

While Canada’s case numbers are rising, Chagla said the country has access to reasonable testing, healthcare systems aren’t currently overloaded and both the public and officials understand that private, indoor gatherings are largely contributing to the spread of the virus.

He added that having these factors under control gives Canada the opportunity to thoughtfully prepare for a second wave and another possible shutdown.

“We have the luxury of sitting here and actually making some very precise changes to see if we can keep transmission down afterwards, rather than putting everyone through what we did in March and April,” Chagla said.

To avoid a repeat scenario, he explained that policymakers need to keep COVID-19 messaging positive and consistent, plan creative long-term solutions for outdoor facilities, and closely monitor allowable gathering sizes.

“We’re going to have ebbs and flows but these sorts of solutions, what we’re going to be doing for the months and going into the winter and even further than that, are going to have to be sustainable and so that’s where the positive messaging comes from,” Chagla said.

Chagla added that there is a misconception about who is transmitting the virus. He says “there’s a big thought” that recent spikes are all young people that are partying together but in reality, “it’s still families that are having get-togethers” such as weddings and other celebrations where the virus is spreading.

“All of us kind of need to be messaged positively to say ‘OK, [COVID-19] is still here. We can protect our communities. We can do things safely’,” he said.

To help with this, Chagla said outdoor facilities and restaurants need to be better equipped to allow Canadians to safely socialize especially as the country heads into the winter months.

“Making more outdoor facilities gives us the recognition that we need to socialize. We need to actually be around people and there is a way to do it safely with a few more layers, but sparing what’s going to happen to the medical system,” Chagla said.

Additionally, Chagla said policymakers should not impede Canadians’ ability to get tested, but also not encourage over-testing.

As long lines are being reported at COVID-19 testing centres across the country, the federal government has pledged billions in funding to address the issue and improve other pandemic measures.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch told CTV News Channel that the testing wait times stem from a combination of factors, including limited testing capacity and an increased desire from the population to receive a test.

Bogoch said in an interview on Thursday that these factors need to be addressed amid the current rise in cases.

“The capacity currently is significantly better than what it was in for example March or April of this year, but clearly it’s not where it needs to be,” he said.

New testing centres have recently opened in Edmonton and Laval, Que. while another is slated to open soon in Brampton, Ont. However, Bogoch said this still might not be enough.

To address the capacity issue, Bogoch said provinces may have to change their messaging around testing.

“Given the snapshot that we’re in right now, maybe it’s best for messaging to focus on people to get tested if they’re either at risk for getting this infection, if they have any signs or symptoms of infection regardless of how mild, or if they’ve had any possible exposures to this infection,” Bogoch explained.

“Certainly those individuals should be prioritized, but in the same breath of course, you shouldn’t be turned away from a testing centre,” he added.

Amid the testing issues, Chagla says monitoring gathering sizes remains key in managing Canada’s recent COVID-19 spikes.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is expected to announce that the province will lower limits on social gatherings in its hotspots to stem recent increases in COVID-19 cases. Ford said that the “highest fines in the country” will be put in place to stop people from breaking the regulations but Chagla says the move does not go far enough.

“I think that’s a good symbolic gesture, but there does need to be some enforcement unfortunately for some of these people that take things out of control and lead to a significant public health event,” Chagla said.

Bogoch told CTV News Channel that rolling back gathering limits in Ontario’s hotspots is the “right move.”

“We clearly can’t continue on at the status quo, and there clearly needs to be measures to limit transmission, especially in Toronto, Peel and Ottawa. That’s a smart move,” Bogoch said in an interview on Thursday.

He added that the province will see some benefit from the rollback, if the implementation of the new gathering limits are clearly communicated and enforced.

While Ontario rolls back its gathering limit, Bogoch said other provinces experiencing outbreaks should follow suit.

“We’re seeing widespread community transmission in four provinces. Clearly, we need to clamp back down to get this virus under control,” he said.

“What does clamp down mean? It’s not entirely clear. Different provinces are taking different steps, but it’s obvious that we need to take action now to prevent these cases from rising.”

Last week in Quebec, the government said police can hand out tickets, ranging between $400 and $6,000, to those who don’t have a face covering in indoor public spaces or on public transit.

The province also announced several measures in addition to the fines, including the banning of karaoke and obliging bars to keep registers of clients as infection numbers rise.

In response to its increase in cases, B.C. ordered the immediate closure of nightclubs and banquet halls and reduced restaurant hours last week after daily COVID-19 case numbers were consistently above 100.

“I think we need to all start rethinking about what we need to do to get us through the next few months as a community together, and these are some of the things that we’ll need to put aside for now,” B.C. health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry explained at a news conference.

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam reminded Canadians at a press conference on Tuesday to take precautionary measures if they must socialize, including having hand sanitizer readily available, wearing masks or other face coverings, and cleaning common areas before and after the event.

“The key message is that the time to act is now across the board in terms of reducing some of the contacts you’ve had over the summer months,” Tam said.

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Trump says Canada wants to reopen the border. But do we, really? – CBC.ca

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U.S. President Donald Trump’s comments on Friday suggesting Canada is keen to reopen the border with his country stand in direct contrast to statements made by Canadian officials supporting the continued border restrictions. 

“We’re looking at the border with Canada. Canada would like it open, and, you know, we want to get back to normal business,” Trump said at the White House, adding that “we’re going to be opening the borders pretty soon” to take advantage of the renegotiated NAFTA. 

“We’re working with Canada. We want to pick a good date, having to do with the pandemic. And I happen to think we’re rounding the turn,” Trump said. 

Asked by CBC News to respond, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s Office pointed to a tweet from Public Safety Minister Bill Blair earlier in the day, saying the border will remain closed to non-essential travel until at least Oct. 21. 

“We will continue to base our decisions on the best public health advice available to keep Canadians safe,” Blair wrote.

WATCH | Trump suggests U.S-Canada border could reopen soon:

U.S. President Donald Trump responded to a question about the border as he left the White House on Friday. 0:48

When CBC first reported on the extension of restrictions into October — they were due to expire this week — one source said Canadians should prepare for them to last even longer. 

The official stopped short, however, of saying they would remain until Christmas, but that the policy was open to tweaks. 

Three senior sources with direct knowledge of the situation, speaking to CBC News on condition they not be named, have repeatedly expressed — over recent months and again on Friday — how pleased they are with the current restrictions. 

One source said both Canada and the U.S. see them as effective and as strong, co-operative measures necessary to respond to the pandemic.

Keeping Canadians safe

Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., said last week that she speaks with U.S officials about the border restrictions on a weekly basis and there is a general agreement the current situation is working well. 

“The measures are doing what they were designed to do … to allow the flow of commercial goods and essential services while controlling the spread of the virus and reduce the risk to our citizens on both sides,” Hillman said.

“When push comes to shove, our No. 1 goal is going to be to keep Canadians safe.”  

Blair told reporters Wednesday that he’s looking to make adjustments to allow more travel on humanitarian grounds, but that any changes will be limited and that, broadly, he wants to keep the restrictions. 

90% support 

With COVID-19 caseloads still high in many U.S. states, public opinion surveys have also suggested there’s little appetite in Canada for change.

A new poll by Research Co. found earlier this month that out of 1,000 Canadians surveyed online at the end of August, 90 per cent agreed with the current restrictions.

The world’s longest international border has been closed to non-essential travel for months though essential workers — such as truck drivers and health-care professionals — are still able to cross by land. Canadians are also still able to fly to U.S. destinations.

Ottawa has also moved to curb the movement of Americans through Canada on their way to Alaska. U.S. travellers destined for the northern state have been limited to five crossings in Western Canada and they must commit to taking a direct route.

In June, a man travelling from Alaska to the continental United States was charged with violating Canada’s Quarantine Act. He was accused of twice failing to follow COVID-19 public safety rules while in Banff, Alta.

If he’s found to have violated a quarantine order, he could be fined up to $750,000 or sentenced to six months in jail.

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75% of Canadians approve of another coronavirus shutdown if second wave hits: Ipsos – Global News

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Canadians would largely be supportive of another widespread shutdown if a second wave of the coronavirus occurred, new polling from Ipsos suggests.

In a survey conducted on behalf of Global News, Ipsos found that 75 per cent of respondents would approve of quickly shutting down non-essential businesses in that scenario, with 37 per cent strongly supporting the idea.

Read more:
Bars vs. schools? WHO says countries must choose, but it’s not cut and dried

About three quarters said they anticipated a second wave to hit their communities this fall.

The polling comes as Canada sees a dramatic resurgence in the virus, along with long lines for testing in some cities. In the last two weeks, the number of cases being reported across the country each day has risen by nearly 50 per cent.

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0:46
Coronavirus: Patty Hajdu says she won’t rule out another economic shutdown if COVID-19 cases continue to rise


Coronavirus: Patty Hajdu says she won’t rule out another economic shutdown if COVID-19 cases continue to rise

In her most recent update, Canada’s chief public health officer said the uptick was cause for concern.

“With continued circulation of the virus, the situation could change quickly and we could lose the ability to keep COVID-19 cases at manageable levels,” Dr. Theresa Tam said in a statement.

Ipsos Public Affairs CEO Darrell Bricker said as case counts rise, support for lockdown measures similar to what we saw when the pandemic broke out in the spring will likely increase.

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“People are really watching on a daily basis … (the) number of case counts going up, and they’re really worried,” he said.

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The support shown for shutdown measures in Canada is in line with an international trend, Bricker said. Ipsos polling shows people in many countries are generally on board with the unprecedented measures taken to combat the spread of COVID-19, though Canadians tend to show stronger approval.

“There is, generally speaking, a fairly consistent view that we need to be careful, that this is a real problem, that they believe that shutdowns and controls are a way of dealing with it,” he said.

There were, however, some differences across the country when it comes to how well Canadians think their governments are prepared for a potential second wave.

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Nationally, 71 per cent said they’re confident their province is ready, with 29 per cent disagreeing. But the proportion of those critical of their province’s ability to handle another wave of the virus was highest in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, at 42 per cent.

Read more:
Time to stock up again? The likelihood of empty shelves in a second coronavirus wave

Just under two thirds of Canadians are concerned about contracting the virus themselves. Even though those who are older are most at risk, the bigger difference was between genders, the polling revealed. Seventy-two per cent of women said they were concerned versus 55 per cent of men.

Bricker said that result is part of a larger pattern shown in health polling data more generally.

“They tend to pay less attention to their health,” he said of men. “They tend to be less concerned about things that are risky.”

The poll also looked at the issue of mandatory vaccination in the event a vaccine is developed and approved. Almost two thirds, or 63 per cent of those asked, said they thought the vaccine should be mandatory, a figure that is down nine points since July.

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The survey was conducted between Sept. 11 and 14 — after the start of the school year for most Canadian families. There have already been outbreaks reported at schools in a few provinces.

Thirty-eight per cent of respondents said they felt schools were opening up too quickly, while about half — 53 per cent — said the speed of reopening has been just right.

This Ipsos poll was conducted between Sept. 11 and 14, 2020, on behalf of Global News. For this survey, a sample of 1,000 Canadians aged 18+ was interviewed online. Quotas and weighting were employed to ensure that the sample’s composition reflects that of the Canadian population according to census parameters. The precision of Ipsos online polls is measured using a credibility interval. In this case, the poll is accurate to within ± 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, had all Canadians aged 18+ been polled.

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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