The brave new world of supercomputers will open to high school students next year when an American school receives one of the expensive, ultra high-speed devices for two years as the grand prize in a national test of computing skills.
The contest, sponsored by supercomputer maker ETA Systems Inc. of St. Paul, Minn., will culminate with teams of students and teachers from four finalist schools convening for a computing playoff in the summer. The winning school will get free use of an ETA Systems supercomputer for two years.
Computer makers often offer special discounts to schools for philanthropic and market expansion reasons. Many industry analysts trace much of Apple Computers' strong position in desk-top equipment in public schools today to a liberal giveaway program in its early years.
Supercomputers are the fastest class of computers, with some capable of executing up to 10 billion calculations per second. With only about 300 supercomputers in operation around the world, they typically are used in advanced fields such as weather forecasting, aerodynamic engineering and genetic research that require researchers to wrestle quickly with mammoth numbers of variables.
The machine that ETA Systems is offering is comparatively slow, handling about 375 million calculations per second. But still, is the company pushing a Steinway grand to people who can only play chopsticks? Can any high school student really put a supercomputer to good use?
ETA Systems President Carl Ledbetter says yes, they can.
He estimated that several thousand students, with training, would be able to use a supercomputer. He added that young people need to be exposed to the supercomputers in order to develop skills for the coming computer generation.
Recalling the impact that the Soviet Union's 1957 launch of Sputnik had on the U.S. approach to scientific education, he recommended a new push.
"We can help to energize educators, parents and children, and perhaps recreate the technological fervor that the Sputnik launch caused," he said yesterday in a statement at a press conference to announce the program.
Ledbetter said that the giveaway does not constitute unfair marketing, because the contest is open to any school.
Academic discounts for supercomputers have become a trade conflict issue with Japan, where three supercomputer producers offers the only competition to ETA Systems and the acknowledged world leader, Cray Research Corp. of Minneapolis.
Last month, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology canceled plans to accept an offer for a sizable discount from N.E.C. Corp. for a supercomputer after U.S. trade officials expressed doubts about the deal.
U.S. officials said the Japanese company was planning to give the supercomputer to the university at below cost, which would constitute a violation of trade regulations.