Government Gives Boost To US Supercomputers

By , Cambridge, Mass.

CLINTON administration rhetoric about establishing ``government-industry partnerships'' in high-technology industries is becoming a reality.

Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary unveiled a $52 million initiative last week to develop new business uses for United States-made supercomputers. She predicted that the effort will bolster US computer firms as they face a rising challenge from Japanese companies. But critics call it a subsidy for a few firms not adapting to a drop in demand for supercomputers.

While visiting an initiative participant, Thinking Machines Corporation in Cambridge, Mass., Ms. O'Leary described the joint effort as an embodiment of the administration's economic philosophy. ``In other nations, government and industry are co-joined to be globally competitive,'' she said. ``This will provide for our national security needs and create high-paying jobs.''

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Critics say the Bush administration proposed a similar plan. But it was withdrawn after computer firms complained that it unfairly aided Cray Research Inc. of Minneapolis, which has won two-thirds of the $1.2 billion world supercomputer market. Cray lobbied for both the Bush and Clinton initiatives.

Cray spokesman Steve Conway says the initiative involves 17 companies, including AT&T Bell Laboratories and General Motors Corporation, and will not only benefit Cray. Half of the funding will come from government, half from private industry. ``The primary driver,'' he says, ``is a set of broad problems that key US industries could get at if they had more computing power.''

Under the agreement, industry researchers will work with supercomputers at the Energy Department's Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories to develop programs with commercial applications that will help companies discover oil and natural gas, track pollutants, and develop advanced manufacturing materials. O'Leary said the labs have been primarily used to develop nuclear weapons, and the administration is looking for ways to convert military technology to civilian uses.

Larry Smarr, director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, warned that development of smaller, more powerful computers and large networks could reduce the demand for supercomputers. ``The most important aspect of any government program,'' he said, ``is to make sure the results are economically sustainable in the private sector.''

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