Why is HPC important for the UK to become a science and technology superpower?

High-performance and large-scale compute is a key part of the UK’s ambition to remain a world leader in science and innovation. HPC should be seen as nationally important, as essential to our economic future in an information age as steel was in the industrial age. Insight by Laura Foster, Head of Tech & Innovation at techUK for the #FutureofCompute Week 2022

If you haven’t guessed from the events, industry insights and the deluge of social media posts, this week is techUK’s Future of Compute Week. At techUK we believe that access to advanced compute - the ability to process data at scale and solve complex problems at speed through high-performance computing (HPC), a term used interchangeably with large-scale compute (LSC) and supercomputing - is essential to R&D in a range of sectors. This includes healthcare and drug discovery, engineering and manufacturing, financial services and risk analysis, particle physics, materials science and more.

In our response to the Government’s recent Future of Compute Review, techUK argued that high-performance and large-scale compute is a key part of the UK’s ambition to remain a world leader in science and innovation. HPC should be seen as nationally important, as essential to our economic future in an information age as steel was in the industrial age.

That is why techUK is hosting this campaign week: With members, we will deep-dive into how to develop our compute infrastructure to support the UK’s ambitions as a science and technology superpower.

Here we discuss three critical issues that if addressed will help place the UK in a strong position to be competitive internationally. Of course, throughout the week we will be exploring these and other equally important themes in more depth and implore you to read member insights here.

HPC will unlock the value of data envisioned in the National Data Strategy

The growing volume and diversity of data, predicted to be an eye-watering 463 exabytes of data per day by 2025, presents new opportunities for industry and academic researchers to develop new data-driven products and services. For extensive and complex datasets, such as genome sequencing, high-performance computing is essential to process, analyse, gain insights, and extract value. The value that compute can unlock is instrumental but perhaps overlooked outside of the industry: For example, the Japanese supercomputer Fugaku was instrumental for its research during the COVID-19 pandemic, including screening datasets on medications responsive to fighting COVID-19 infection. It is understandable, then, that whilst the European Commission has described LSC as “indispensable” for the data economy, HPC and other forms of large-scale compute remains the unsung hero of the UK’s data strategy.

The key challenge is ensuring that academia and industry have access to this data, and the ability to leverage compute to draw insight from this data. The first aspect of this challenge aligns with Mission 1 of the UK’s National Data Strategy (NDS), which seeks to unlock the value of data across the economy, and stimulate a market of trusted, private sector data sharing. While techUK has welcomed the Mission 1 Policy Framework, we urge Government to make progress in implementing this package of interventions and activities, as set out in our Whitepaper, Data Sharing: Getting the UK back on the right track. Inaction in this area risks the NDS losing its momentum, and further delaying opportunities for growth across the UK economy. The Government should also prioritise the responsible opening up of its own data sets such as healthcare data, which could be a gamechanger in how HPC can be used within the health and social care industry.

The second aspect to this challenge goes beyond regulatory barriers and addresses the technical challenges to access HPC.

Opening access to compute

Barriers to access disproportionately affect SMEs, whilst at the same time this group arguably has the most to gain in terms of innovation from emerging technologies. This is recognised in the UK Innovation Strategy which underscores the importance of improving SME productivity through technology. For SME’s to leverage HPC infrastructure, awareness of the benefits of HPC will be required, as will upskilling their relevant teams to run their tasks effectively. Whilst demand for HPC by SMEs may still be small, it is growing.  The potential of compute for SME’s should be encouraged in the UK as it is through the European partnership programme PRACE that has initiatives free of charge for European SMEs to access HPC. Successful applicants receive support from a PRACE expert, and time on PRACE hardware.

Whilst certainly not the only method for SMEs to access HPC, cloud is increasingly a viable solution to remove barriers to HPC, which in turn helps deliver the ambition set out within the National Data Strategy. Cloud provides access to HPC in a ‘as a service’ model which builds in a level of flexibility for changing workloads and may benefit short specific tasks. Not to be used exclusively by SMEs, larger research intensive businesses who may have invested in on-premise infrastructure will also augment on premise infrastructure with cloud to build infrastructure that works for them.

Whilst I cannot list every industry and sector that will benefit from access to HPC – of which there are many – the importance that HPC can bring to AI researchers and AI businesses should also be recognised. Indeed, the National AI Strategy, which referred to compute as “both a competitiveness and a security issue” and set out the reliance of the AI industry on LSC to train compute-intensive models. The UK is the host of a highly sophisticated AI innovation industry, ranking third globally and first in Europe. With the relationship between HPC and AI critical for supporting AI model training or scaling AI workloads, amongst other use cases, I wonder if continued lack of investment in HPC in the UK could hinder the further development of the AI industry.  

HPC is part of the UK’s technology toolkit

For the UK to be a science and technology superpower, we need to nurture the growing convergence between HPC, AI, quantum and cloud. The biggest challenges facing us in the years ahead, including mitigating climate change and healthcare innovation, will be overcome by exploiting the advantages of these technologies collectively. It is critical to reinforce confidence in the UK’s HPC ecosystem, recognising its clear role as part of the technology toolkit that will make the UK a science and technology superpower. techUK have been vocal about the importance of recognising convergence at a policy level, especially in our Quantum Commercialisation Report published this year. Tuesday’s theme for this campaign week will focus on HPC’s relationship with quantum, AI, cloud, and other forms of emerging technologies that will support the future of compute.

For all these reasons and more, we believe that it is vital to engage the UK tech sector to envision what can be achieved through Future of Compute in coming years. We hope you enjoy this campaign week, and please do not hesitate to reach out if you want to learn more.

Future of Compute Week 2022

You can read all insights from techUK's Future of Compute week 2022 here

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Laura Foster

Laura Foster

Head of Technology and Innovation, techUK

Laura is techUK’s Head of Programme for Technology and Innovation.

She supports the application and expansion of emerging technologies, including Quantum Computing, High-Performance Computing, AR/VR/XR and Edge technologies, across the UK. As part of this, she works alongside techUK members and UK Government to champion long-term and sustainable innovation policy that will ensure the UK is a pioneer in science and technology

Before joining techUK, Laura worked internationally as a conference researcher and producer covering enterprise adoption of emerging technologies. This included being part of the strategic team at London Tech Week.

Laura has a degree in History (BA Hons) from Durham University, focussing on regional social history. Outside of work she loves reading, travelling and supporting rugby team St. Helens, where she is from.

[email protected]

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Rory Daniels

Rory Daniels

Programme Manager, Emerging Technologies

Rory joined techUK in June 2023 after three years in the Civil Service on its Fast Stream leadership development programme.

During this time, Rory worked on the Government's response to Covid-19 (NHS Test & Trace), school funding strategy (Department for Education) and international climate and nature policy (Cabinet Office). He also tackled the social care crisis whilst on secondment to techUK's Health and Social Care programme in 2022.

Before this, Rory worked in the House of Commons and House of Lords alongside completing degrees in Political Economy and Global Politics.

Today, he is techUK's Programme Manager for Emerging Technologies, covering dozens of technologies including metaverse, drones, future materials, robotics, blockchain, space technologies, nanotechnology, gaming tech and Web3.0.

[email protected]

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