Digital revolution needs generosity to cope with citizens' life-changing challenges - Investment in research and innovative HPC, exascale and quantum technologies is key

23 Mar 2017 Rome - At the Digital Day'17 event, hosted in Rome by the European Commission as part of the celebrations of the 60 years of the Treaties of Rome, Francesco Profumo, President of the Compagnia di San Paolo, during the session about "Europe as a global player in High Performance Computing", moderated the panel that addressed the question of how HPC can be a new drive in the European Digital Economy.

Mark Bressers, Director for ICT policies, Ministry of Economic Affairs, The Netherlands, stated that we have to have a vision for HPC that is transferable in common knowledge. Having the transition to a more data-based economy is really necessary to create growth but also to deal with societal challenges including environment, energy, and mobility. HPC capacity is a pillar to create that. There is a strong commitment for and a lot of attention going to the skills agenda. There has to be a balance in investing in HPC capacity but also in citizens and in the right skills. What we have seen in the Netherlands is the importance of addressing the SMEs too, he said. We are trying to bring the HPC computing potential to SMEs. We have experience with SURFsara. They provide HPC capacity as a service. We have some tradition in water management, because half of the Netherlands is below sea level. A lot of SMEs and consultancy firms are using this Software-as-a-Service provided HPC capacity to bring new solutions to the market. HPC is not only some sort of high-brow thing for research but is also about solving real problems for the people, explained Mark Bressers.

Moderator Francesco Profumo asked whether HPC could be the glue and the driving force for the future in Europe. Sixty years ago, it was about coal and steel, today it is about data and SMEs involving the people.

Stefano Firpo, General Director for Industrial policy, competitiveness and SME, Ministry of Economic Development, Italy, said that Europe has to gain competitiveness in the digital economy. It is fascinating to see that we try to set goals that are very ambitious. It is also very reassuring to see that Europe is not the problem but that it has the solution. Stefano Firpo had two comments. Our lives and the lives of our children will be very much governed by huge amounts of small bits of information. We need to regain the control of these bits of information because most of the quality of our lives, industrial fabric, and services will be determined by the control of these data. This is why Europe needs to regain a new leadership in high performance computing. Today, Europe is not a global player in HPC. Therefore, we need a roadmap and money, investments and commitment, and also determination. Otherwise, this exercise might turn out into some sort of wishful thinking, stated Stefano Firpo. Europe needs to be very practical and concrete in building a business case. That is why in applications such as health care, aerospace, climate change and environment, and factory 4.0, the digitizing of industry, data is becoming the new production factor. Big Data analytics is becoming a new productional function so we need also to work on the industrial application of this infrastructure.

Francesco Profumo summarized that no country in Europe alone is able to compete with the big players. Europe should be the driving force.

Manuel Heitor, Minister for Science, Technology and Higher Education, Portugal, started by giving praise to the women who have helped to build Europe over the last 60 years and their granddaughters who are now doing research. Their is still a big lack of women in the field of advanced computing. Manuel Heitor made three observations about issues that go beyond statistics. The first one was the need to invest in knowledge and science, and in research and development (R&D). Europe has to increase the overall funding in R&D in order to take further the applications for high performance computing. The second issue for Manuel Heitor was openness. We need to go beyond the idea of a closed Europe that is just competing with other regions in the world instead of collaborating with them. The third issue was about cohesion. This requires the promotion of digital skills towards HPC and the scientific applications. There is an increasing degree of diversity within Europe and the investments in R&D are stagnating. Technologies should be used to increase the cohesion across Europe.

Francesco Profumo added four words to the list of driving forces for Europe: gender and the contribution of women to HPC; and investment in research to compete with the big players. Europe has to prepare now for the 9th Framework Programme covering the time-span of 2021-2027. The third big word is openness and the fourth one is the glue to really succeed in this issue related to Big Data.

Thierry Mandon, Secretary of State for Higher Education and Research, France referred to the just signed declaration on HPC cooperation which engaged the signing Member States to make available across the European Union an integrated, world-class high performance computing infrastructure. There are three goals to keep in mind if Europe really wants to succeed. Firstly, the European Commission has to support at EU-level the achievement of this objective in a co-construction process with the Member States. Secondly, there is a strong interest to set up an important project of common European interest (IPCEI) for HPC and Big Data enabled applications, in particular for the development of industrial applications that need an exascale supercomputing infrastructure. Further more, Thierry Mandon stated that we should face the discussion of a possible European governance on the HPC research infrastructure corresponding with the highest-quality international standards for governance structure, including the subsidiarity of the Member States and the independence of industrial stakeholders. This governance structure should include coordination processes with the technology developments and the IPCEI. The exascale supercomputing infrastructure has to be primarily used for scientific excellence.

Francesco Profumo insisted on the importance of the relationship between the European Commission and the Member States: "Brussels is not far from us but part of us". He also referred back to the concept of the IPCEI. The communication of the IPCEI was made in 2014 but now, in 2017, we do not yet have any blue bullet for a project along this line. We have to face this problem because the time is running very fast and sometimes Europe is too slow, according to Francesco Profumo. The last point is related to the investment in the technology for exascale computing. The gap between Europe and its competitors - the US, China and Japan - has become wider in the last years. In the next ten years, Europe has to reduce the gap.

Etienne Schneider, Vice Prime Minister, Minister for the Economy, Luxembourg, said it was important for Europe not to look back but to prepare the future of the digital revolution. He thought the European Commission was really moving into the right direction to make Europe a leader in the digitalisation of its economies. We need these key-enabling technologies in order to make the Internet of Things, Industry 4.0, personalized medicine, autonomous driving, space technology, robotisation, 3D-printing, and artificial intelligence happen. All this will dramatically change our lives. We will have to cope with the challenges. According to the analysts, this industrial revolution will be the first one to destroy more jobs than it will create new ones. Another problem will be the elderly people. How will they cope in a digitised world? Nonetheless, Etienne Schneider was hopeful that Europe would find a way to respond to these challenges.

Francesco Profumo added three issues to the list of challenges for Europe: Internet of Things, precision medicine and social issues. He said that it was all about people. His experience is that during the industrial revolutions people are suffering and it is only the next generation that will benefit from the advantages. In the past the industrial revolutions were longer in years in order to cope with the change. Nowadays, the process is so fast that we need to put the problems on the table and try to solve them in a shorter amount of time.

Krzysztof Szubert, Secretary of State/Deputy Minister and the Government Plenipotentiary for Digital Single Market, Poland, stated that one has to look at the HPC centres from a wider perspective. They are an important part in the Digital Single Market. The areas of Industry 4.0, connected cars, Big Data, and HPC centres are closely connected. The government in Poland therefore has decided to coordinate all this information feed between ministries on a government level. Second, the SMEs are extremely important for Poland because there is a lot of value and innovation created in this group of companies and small institutions. Not only the big science institutes should be the beneficial partners in the areas that we are addressing today, but also the SMEs should have a role to play in it. HPC centres are more becoming a kind of competence centre. They are no longer the high power centre and repository for storing a large amount of data but they are building communities around them for smaller companies that cannot afford the type of experts and investments like in high power computing.

Francesco Profumo indicated the importance of the term excellence centre consisting not only of iron but of young people with brains and the spread-out of the knowledge to smaller companies. The second word he recalled was autonomous driving which is going to change our lives. Currently, there are 1 million people dying in traffic which is an enormous number. It is not only a technical issue but more of a social issue.

Carmen Vela, Secretary of State for Research, Development and Innovation, Spain, expressed her doubts about the role of the HPC ranking. What does it say about the role of HPC and how it is used? To be in the ranking is less important than one might think. When you are in the ranking, it means that you are doing things for academia but not necessarily for companies or for the citizen. Of course, Europe wants to be in the ranking but only because it has the capacity and the technology to be in the ranking. Yes, Europe needs to have its exascale computer and its own technology if it wants to be in the ranking and solve the problems of the European citizen. Spain has been committed to HPC for a very long time. The Barcelona Supercomputing Center has been established and this has been the embryo for all the current and future Spanish work in supercomputing. We need to explain to the citizens that we have built this competence centre to solve their problems. Spain has been participating in PRACE and has secured its position for four years. We don't need to be visionary, we already have the information. The only thing that we need to be is generous and grow together in Europe. Digitalisation is for the citizen. Carmen Vela also insisted that one should pay attention to the topic of gender equality with regard to the future.

Francesco Profumo also wanted to insist on the concept of generosity. Europe has 500 million people. They should not be divided. Generosity is the driving force for the coming years. The second point is to place the European citizen at the centre. People are the driving force of Europe.

Herbert Zeisel, Deputy Director General for Key Technologies for Growth, Ministry of Education and Research, Germany stated that digitising the world affects the people. Germany is very committed to digitalisation and HPC. German Federal Minister of Research and Education Johanna Wanka asked Herbert Zeisel to provide her statement on HPC and how it has changed the way in which research is conducted. In addition to the two traditional methods of acquiring and consolidating knowledge, namely experiments and theoretical information, simulation has long become a third and centre pillar of science. Access to HPC has become indispensable for the science community. Three points are important. Firstly, a broader user community must have access to HPC. It is not the operator of a computer that decides who should have access to it but the science community. Selection criteria are scientific excellence and social relevance. This justifies the great amount of public spending and guarantees a maximum benefit for society.

Secondly, it is not only about the users but also about the manufacturers of hardware and software. Germany supports the initiative of the European Commission and some Member States to attain more sovereignty in the area of designing and manufacturing HPC. Thirdly, not only science but also industry should have access to HPC. It is important to develop models for participation, transparency of access criteria, and selection procedures. Germany is willing to develop a plan for these three areas and to formulate the corresponding common objectives, also with regard to the possibility of an exascale system in Europe. It is important to distinguish between two aspects: the use of high performance computers and the development of software and hardware. The aim is to achieve digital sovereignty in the area of software, and in particular, of simulation software. It is one thing to build the fastest supercomputer but it is quite another to develop software that makes it possible to actually use the full computing capacity.

Herbert Zeisel added a personal point. We are always talking about the best supercomputer in the world but not about how the I/O is used. That is a different topic. There, we are not so bad as some people believe. Performance increases in HPC are therefore achieved primarily by means of intelligent, adapted and specific software environments. Software developments, modelling simulation, scalability of technology, and dependence of standards are therefore the key elements and pillars of the overall system. Further more, Germany focuses on supporting services and networking of data, users and systems. The challenges of global system architectures and hardware have to be equally considered. All these core elements are integrated and can only be considered as a comprehensive package. Such a holistic HPC ecosystem draws the picture of the sovereignty by Germany, the Member States and the European Union in the long term. This plan makes the ambitious aim of establishing Europe as one of the top three global market leaders in HPC in 2020 attainable. Pursuing this approach, we will manage to provide in Europe competitive technology that is mature for application and able to compete with the best worldwide. Co-development in the world market and alternative technologies like quantum and neuromorphic computing must not be neglected in this process.

Today's signing of the HPC declaration is the first important step towards the common strategy of HPC for the future of Europe. Germany will continue to work towards this goal and promote the possibility of HPC for science in the future to the best ability, concluded Herbert Zeisel.

Francesco Profumo wanted to add two final words. Simulation will be more and more important for the future of Europe and for the future of citizens. The second issue is the long-term vision related to quantum computing. We have almost reached the end of the technology we are working with. The new Flagship on Quantum Computing is the real next generation technology to establish a new leadership of Europe for the years to come.

Francesco Profumo ended by communicating the results of the poll that was organized to know about the perception of the citizens related to the issues that have been discussed. The first question was about how important cooperation is between the European countries in HPC. The result was excellent: 82 percent of the citizens thought that cooperation was very important; 10 percent thought it was quite important; 8 percent thought it to be useful but not critical; 0 percent thought it was not important; and 0 percent didn't know. To the question what is the most important item related to this issue, fifty percent answered research. In the long run, exascale and quantum computing will provide answers to the question of the citizen: How much is Europe able to invest in research?

Leslie Versweyveld