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Microsoft builds massive supercomputer for smarter AI

The Azure machine has 285,000 processor cores and 10,000 GPUs to tackle a new class of artificial intelligence tasks.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
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Supercomputers, like this one at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, are designed to tackle the world's toughest computing challenges.

Supercomputers, like this one at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, are designed to tackle the world's toughest computing challenges.

Randy Wong/LLNL

Microsoft has built an enormous supercomputer for artificial intelligence work, a new direction for its Azure cloud computing service. The machine has 285,000 processor cores boosted by 10,000 graphics chips for OpenAI, a company that wants to ensure AI technology helps humans.

Microsoft announced the machine at its Build conference for developers on Tuesday. (For more details on the event, check ZDNet's full coverage of Build.) Supercomputers, the most powerful computing machines on the planet, are typically used for the most taxing problems. That includes jobs like simulating nuclear weapons explosions, predicting the Earth's future climate and more recently, seeking drugs to fight the coronavirus. In Microsoft's case, it's used to develop the AI systems that then can run elsewhere.

A hallmark of supercomputers is a gargantuan amount of memory, and fast connections among processors. That, in effect, lets a supercomputer concentrate on a more complicated single problem better than a larger group of lesser, cheaper machines. Microsoft and OpenAI believe their massive computer will bring new sophistication to AI.

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It's good for AI that "learns from examining billions of pages of publicly available text," Microsoft said in a statement. "This type of model can so deeply absorb the nuances of language, grammar, knowledge, concepts and context that it can excel at multiple tasks: summarizing a lengthy speech, moderating content in live gaming chats, finding relevant passages across thousands of legal files or even generating code from scouring GitHub," Microsoft's site for open-source programming collaboration.

Microsoft announced the multiyear supercomputer partnership with OpenAI in 2019, including a $1 billion investment by Microsoft.

Supercomputers are ranked in speed twice each year by researchers at the Top500 project, which scores machines based on how fast they perform a mathematical-calculation test called Linpack. Microsoft said its Azure machine would score in the Top 5 of such systems, but it didn't release any performance scores or detail the design of the system.