The Final Frontier with NCSA

This article was created by a Technology Services student employee. Our student employees attend, engage, and report on campus events that feature technology. Students provide a unique perspective on how innovations in technology affect campus life.

By Meghan McCoy, English, '18

If anyone has been to the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) before, they would know that it is one of many big reasons to feel proud about attending or working at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. And this year is special: NCSA celebrates its thirtieth year of change, innovation, and world-benefiting contributions in science and technology.

In his Friday talk  “Future of Architectures and Artificial Intelligence,” Larry Smarr, founding director of the NCSA, recounted the center's accomplishments to a packed auditorium, and gave us a glimpse into a future that rivals science fiction. 

Beginning in 1986, the NCSA pioneered scientific visualization when they teamed up with artists and super computer programmers to develop models and programs that could use science as the basis for visualization. This project created what people now see in movies like Jurassic Park and Terminator, and brought together the academic world and companies to create visual projects people had never experienced before.

In 1990, the NCSA spent $15 million for a supercomputer. While that’s a number that would make most people see double, it was actually less expensive than a supercomputer today, which could cost upward of tens or hundreds of million dollars.

Larry Smarr. Image by Meghan McCoy

Today, the NCSA is known as the main center for supercomputing applications, with support coming from the National Science Foundation, the state of Illinois, and campus investment. But for Smarr, what makes the NCSA so successful isn't expensive technology. It's people.

NCSA's success hails from the incredible “ability (of people) to take risks based on the knowledge of where the technology is going that makes all the difference,” said Mr. Smarr. And where technology is going at the NCSA is the final frontier. 

Mr. Smarr explained that while he began his career as an astrophysicist, he has now moved to studying microbiology and genome sequencing.

If you’re now wondering what microbiology and genomes have to do with supercomputers, then consider the possibility that in the near future the world is likely to see the introduction of a brain-inspired supercomputer. Among other things, this human-like supercomputer could be used for medicine and wellness, as it could have an unparalleled understanding of the human body, disease, and disease prevention. People would have the option to control their health in ways almost impossible to believe, and could radicalize how we think about health and wellness. While science at this scale is sometimes hard to fully comprehend, no matter what technologies are produced in the future, you can guarantee the NCSA will be at the forefront of innovation and discovery.  

After thirty years, the NCSA is just getting started.