The Nuclear Age: How Supercomputers Ended the Cold War

Student Air Raid

The Cold War & The Creation of the Cyberpunk

Welcome Rootwyrm to the regular contributors for Neon Dystopia. This is his first article, but definitely not the last.

I vividly remember practicing air raid drills during elementary school. An alarm would sound, we would have to leave our classrooms, line up facing the cement walls, and just stand there. I also remember asking why we did this, and never getting an answer why.

I would later learn we were lining up so not only would we be near a solid structure should the Russians attack and avoid debris, but also so we would not be looking at the nuclear blast when the inevitable happened.


Student Air Raid

The Cold War was a real fear in the 1980s growing up. Most lived a lifestyle believing there would be no way anyone would see the turn of the century: the Yankees and the Ruskies would have bombed each other to oblivion well before then. And while we were having a nuclear arms race, we were having just as strong a technology race. We have the Cold War to thank for the space race of the ‘60s and ‘70s, a race that meant creating the best technology possible to put man into orbit and later, onto the moon. And we have the Human Rights Movement of those two decades to thank for shaping the independence and rebellion of the punks of the coming years.

Omnibot 2000

But by the ‘80s and ‘90s, everything was going digital, everything was becoming connected, and with the skyrocketing rise of the microprocessor – allowing every family to have a computer in their home or on their person – there was just as great a fear that technology would take over as there was the fear nuclear annihilation; the rude realization that all things technology were being made in Japan and imported to the United States, left many to wonder what it meant to be “Made in America” anymore.

Take your pick of story that was inspired by both the Cold War and the Rise of Technology: The Terminator, Logans Run, Silent Running, Freejack, Robocop… the list goes on, let alone the arguably de facto novel of cyberpunk: “Neuromancer”. But what best comes to mind of the era, is the movie “Wargames” starring Matthew Broderick.

Growing up, I can’t count the times I’ve seen Lightman hack his way into Crystal Palace, and always wondering just how supercomputers like the WOPR would affect the future of the country, and the world. But this was a question that the entire country wondered. As the film ends, it becomes apparent that there’s just as strong a fear of nuclear destruction, as there was of computers making decisions for the human race that could lead to its ultimate demise.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer had an even stronger impact because it was, in a sense, the first to not only truly be what most consider cyberpunk, even today, but because it properly captured the Zeitgeist of fear, anxiety, and wonder that manifested from the rise of all these wondrous and terrifying world events.

Neuromancer became the story that leeched on the fears of dystopia that the world felt was inevitable. And thus, how fiction influences fact and art imitates life, that which we consider cyberpunk was born.

And why not? It seemed no different than any other punk, rebelling against the system, “sticking it to the man”, yet using all the cheap, inexpensive and abundantly accessible technology around him or her to do so. It made sense to the youth of the Atari & Nintendo generations…

Remember just who these cyberpunk protagonists are: they’re hackers, rockers, and other cultural rebels, forming a cult of individualism in a culture shaped and molded by corporate control and mass conformity. These less-than-model citizens were and are considered to be adept at appropriating the materials of popular culture and making use of them to alternative means, needs and interests.

They also knew how to get the information they needed, tapping into vast databases (today considered social networks, sound familiar?) to access information about the corporate and government worlds. Chasing conspiracy theories, secrets, and spreading the word of resistance so that you too could be a rebel despite the powerful mechanisms of top-down control and the looming fear of nuclear annihilation.

So how, and why, did it end? Why didn’t the world destroy itself? The simplest answer is, supercomputers. The same technology that created such destructive and terrible powers in this world, became it’s salvation.

The Rise of the Supercomputer

Since the beginning of the computing era, researchers and scientists have needed to calculate complex problems that could not be solved by conventional means or with the currently available computer systems. Most of these problems exceed the processing, memory and storage capabilities of average computer systems, requiring vast numbers of floating point computations beyond the specifications of today’s microprocessors. In order to solve these extravagant problems, specialized computers were developed called “Supercomputers”.

ucs_cray1_install

While the rest of the world was wondering how our ultimate demise would take place, scientists like those at Lawrence Livermore or Sandia National Labs in the United States, were chugging away trying to figure out what to do with their giant nuclear stockpile. By the 1990s, the nuclear weapons created by scientists at National laboratories across the United States had become incredibly sophisticated.

But since nuclear weapons testing would be banned by 1992, the questions inevitably arose: how could the reliability and safety of the country’s vast nuclear stockpile be tested if not by using underground testing, which had been a de facto method for 50 years to design, test, and certify such weapons of mass destruction, a destruction that everyone in the country feared and rebelled against?

Ironic that the same government that every cyberpunks feared all the way to the last decade of the 20th century, would become the institution to end the Cold War.

The Creation of ASCI

The Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI) was created in response to the necessity of finding an alternative to such nuclear underground testing. It would bring together the Department of Energy’s National Security Laboratories, Commercial Industry and Academia together in a collaborative and cumulative effort to achieve vast scientific and technological achievements, with the primary mission being to create capabilities critical to the United States’ Science Based Stockpile Stewardship Program, which directly addressed the issue of the country’s aging nuclear stockpile, in a safe and secure manner beginning in 1994.

ASCI Red

The end of nuclear testing presented significant challenges to the stewards of the U.S. Nuclear Arsenal. This mission was given to three National Laboratories: Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia. These laboratories were provided the staff and scientific resources necessary to design nuclear weapons and certify their performance and safety.

The ‘A’ in ASCI – which stands for ‘Accelerated’ – was a critical attribute to the program. ASCI had to accelerate the development of its computational simulation capabilities due to the essential need to safely and comparatively validate the data of actual underground nuclear testing; without the validation, there could be no confidence in computational model simulation, no matter how sophisticated.

A crucial element to this validation, was the creation of the first One Trillion Floating Point Operation per Second Supercomputer, known as ASCI Option RED. Welcome to the real world Wargames “WOPR”…

The First 1 TeraFLOP Supercomputer in the World

Intel’s ASCI Red Supercomputer would be the first teraflop/s computing platform, calculating over 1.06 trillion floating point operations per second on December 4th, 1996 and an MP-LINPACK benchmark of 1.338 TFLOP/s on June 12th 1997.

Also known as “Janus” by its system administrators and operators, ASCI Red was a critical part of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Advanced Simulation and Computing Program Initiative (ASCI). The computer simulation capabilities developed by the ASC program, conducted on systems like ASCI Red, provided nuclear weapons and materials analysis that the NNSA needed to keep the nuclear weapons stockpile safe, secure, and reliable without underground nuclear testing.

The idea behind ASCI Red, and its lineage of systems (ASCI Red, White, Blue, Purple, and subsequent systems) was revolutionary at the time.

As quoted by Intel themselves, “The [ASCI Red] system will be the first large-scale supercomputer to be built entirely of commodity, commercial, off-the-shelf (C-COTS) components – the same processors, memory, disks, and other modules found in millions of desktop computers and servers.”

Developed, designed and assembled solely by Intel’s Supercomputer Division, it was recognized as the fastest supercomputer of the time. With the ribbon cutting ceremony, ASCI Red would enter into a long and distinguished service. Over its 10 year triumph, it made the number one spot in the Top500 Supercomputer List from the years 1997 to the year 2000, where it was ultimately superseded by ASCI White out of Los Livermore National Labs in Livermore, California and its spiritual successor, ASC “Red Storm” in 2004.

A group of Sandia National Lab scientists would win the prestigious Gordon Bell award at the SC|97 conference for their work on ASCI Red, an award annually recognizing the most important contribution to High Performance Computing (HPC).

The fight to develop such advanced computer model simulation systems were paramount to the creating the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), a multilateral treaty signed by over 183 countries and ratified by 162 (of which the US is still to ratify), to end nuclear weapons testing; the treaty outlaws nuclear explosive testing and sets up a global monitoring system to detect any tests.

To date, over 2,000 nuclear tests have been carried out by various countries at different locations all over the world. Signed and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 September 1996, it was only made possible for the United States as a primary nuclear power to sign due to a replacement for such tests having been created: ASCI’s Initiative into supercomputing technologies to model and simulate such necessary and vital tests in order to secure our nation’s withering nuclear weapons and waste stockpile. The significant advance in computer modeling is what allows such a treaty to exist.

Without supercomputers such as ASCI Red, and the Intel XP/S 140 Paragon before it during the late 1980s, the Cold War might still exist today. The United States’ weapons laboratories such as Sandia National Labs – armed with some of the fastest supercomputers on the planet and which hosted ASCI Red – are now used to peer deeper into how thermonuclear explosions occur, gaining understandings well beyond what would have only been learned from explosive tests.

The Post-Nuclear Cyberpunk

Leave it to technology to end a war.

Future generations would merely read about the Cold War in the history books. They watched the Berlin Wall fall, the Soviet Union collapse, and not without a sense of irony, watched as the same government and corporations that cyberpunks rebelled against become the architects of its ending. And, they found movies like “Wargames” to be nothing more than cult classics.

The cyberpunks of today are bred from nostalgia of a bygone era, where fear drove the motives of many individuals who wished to rebel against impending doom looming from a very real threat of nuclear annihilation. Or, were driven to rebel by the tyranny from corporate gluttons who pursued technological domination.

In 2015, the future is not nearly what we expected and yet, has its similarities to the science fiction we envisioned.

Everyone is ever connected to each other through the internet and social networking. We hardly see the dystopia and fight for survival that was portrayed in the science fiction of yesteryear, whether it be Johnny Mnemonic, Neuromancer, Count Zero, Blade Runner, or even stories depicting the war on drugs and money such as Ridley Scott’s “Black Rain” from 1989.

Young Gibson

And yet, we see plenty of similarities: fights for privacy, cyberwars between countries like the United States and China, and local kids leaking the emails of CIA directors. We have found a new world order that has created rebels in their own right with such hacktivist groups as Anonymous, Lulzsec, and others. We now live in a world not driven by the fear of a nuclear holocaust, but from righteousness driven in the name of fighting terrorism.

The world has become more cyberpop than cyberpunk. The world has embraced consumerism, and have given up their sense of privacy. More than not, people today say they have nothing to hide, so why should they be afraid of the government they once rebelled against?

And in this sense, the world has come full circle when the world was driven by the fear of communism. We still have our witch hunts, with technology enabling the immediate spread of information. Who knows what the future will actually bring…

So we must ask ourselves: is fear of the zeitgeist the driving factor of technological change?

References:
Ryan Wolf, “SWCS VCB-P1A ASCI Red Edition”, paper
Ryan Wolf, ” Advanced Strategic Computing Initiative, ASCI Red Supercomputer: How Supercomputers Ended the Cold War”, presentation

This article is by Rootwyrm.

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Veritas is a cyberpunk and writer who enjoys all aspects of the cyberpunk genre and subculture. He also journeys deeply into the recesses of the dissonance exploring his nihilistic existence. If you'd like to contact Isaac L. Wheeler (Veritas), the founder and editor-in-chief of Neon Dystopia, you can do so here: ilwheeler.founder@neondystopia.com
1 Comment
  1. I really appreciate the work to relate the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty and the development of advanced computers! The link between technology and policy is clear to me from this.
    However, the “Cold War,” the nuclear arms race, and the demise of the Soviet Union are not the same thing, even if they’re strongly related. We still have nuclear weapons, and they can be launched very quickly by either Russia or the United States. So, to write “Without supercomputers […] the Cold War might still exist today,” is a simplification, saved by the word “might.” It might be better history to conclude that without the cited supercomputers, one important part of ending the Cold War would not have been possible in the way it was implemented.

    Reply

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