Mon, Nov 08, 2004 - Page 11 News List

Pioneer's move to China will have major impact

TECHNOLOGICAL SHIFT A search for financing led computer designer Steve Chen to China, a step that could provide a huge boost to Beijing's push to build supercomputers


Steve Chen, a a pioneer in superfast computing, at his hotel in Beijing on Oct. 15. His move to China mirrors that country's push to develop supercomputers, which can have both civilian and military applications.


Add Steve Chen to the growing list of US high-technology exports.

Chen, a Taiwanese-born US citizen who was considered one of the nation's most brilliant supercomputer designers while working in this country for the technology pioneer Seymour Cray in the 1980s, has moved to China, where he is leading an effort to claim the world computing speed record.

The Chinese government is seizing upon supercomputing to help speed the nation's transition from low-cost manufacturing to becoming a more powerful force in the world economy. China's leaders know that high-speed computing is essential to global leadership in scientific fields and advanced design of a variety of sophisticated products.

"Right now the Chinese have started to pay attention; they are catching up, and they learn fast," said Chen, 60, who is splitting his time between China and San Jose, California, where his wife, Kate, and their four children live.

Military intelligence experts in this country have long been concerned that supercomputing capabilities may aid China's weapons development. But many technologists and economists say that blazing computing speeds alone do not represent a particularly new nuclear weapons threat.

Instead, they are more concerned that the Chinese may catch up more quickly with the US in areas that have economic and scientific ramifications.


Chen's decision to set up shop in China was driven in part by an unexpected twist: The opportunity to build a new company looked more promising to him there than in the US, where he was unable to secure financing from US venture capitalists for his latest ideas.

Chen concluded that the fallout from the collapse of the Internet bubble had poisoned the investment climate.

"I saw the crazy stuff going on," he said recently in a telephone interview from Shenzhen. "A lot of people got hurt."

While Chen is not a native of China, his decision has parallels to an increasingly common odyssey by foreign-born researchers, who once would have found the greatest openings to use their skills in the US.

As the spread of capitalism creates opportunities elsewhere, many such talented people are returning to China, India and other developing countries to create or join advanced technology firms.

In May, Chen joined Galactic Computing Shenzhen, which is backed by investment money from a Hong Kong company that supported an earlier Chen venture and by a group of Chinese universities.

His move reflects the fact that the market for high-performance computing is growing more rapidly in China than elsewhere in the world.

The Chinese are not yet a major force in supercomputing, but according to US computing experts, that is changing rapidly.

Today there are 14 Chinese supercomputers among the top 500, ranking the country fourth in the world, equal to Germany and behind only the US, Japan and Britain.

In June, a supercomputer assembled at the Shanghai Supercomputer Center using more than 2,500 chips designed and manufactured by Advanced Micro Devices of Sunnyvale, California, became the world's 10th-fastest computer.

"In terms of momentum they are the most rapidly ascending country in the world," said David Keyes, a professor of applied mathematics at Columbia University, who visited China recently to participate in a conference on high-performance computing.

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