Oregon State University plans to build a major supercomputing research center in Corvallis, a $200 million project backed by a $50 million gift from the CEO of semiconductor giant Nvidia.
“Oregon State researchers are going to experience computing as if it were a time machine,” said Jensen Huang, co-founder and CEO of Nvidia and Oregon State graduate, whose gift was was announced on Friday evening. He said the supercomputer will allow university researchers to conduct advanced simulations capable of answering complex scientific questions in a single day that would otherwise have taken a month.
This could enable breakthroughs in climatology, materials science, oceanography and other Oregon State research specialties, Huang said. He said it could draw students and scientists to Corvallis, the same way radio telescopes and particle colliders do at other universities.
“We need instruments to advance science,” Huang said in an interview this week. He and his wife, Lori, met as Oregon State engineering students. Huang said he and his wife spent five years discussing with the university how to make a meaningful contribution to research at Corvallis.
“It’s cool for climatologists, it’s cool for computer scientists, it’s going to be great for students,” Huang said. “It’s going to be great for Oregon and hopefully it’s going to be great for generations.”
The State of Oregon said the Jen-Hsun and Lori Huang Collaborative Innovation Complex — using a more conventional spelling of Huang’s first name than he most often uses professionally — will open in 2025.
The university said it has secured an additional $50 million in donations to help fund the three-story, 150,000-square-foot research building on the northwest corner of the Corvallis campus. But it still needs to raise another $100 million.
It is not uncommon for large fundraising initiatives to announce projects before they have all the money in hand. This can help attract more donors and create a sense of urgency in discussions with other funding sources.
In this case, the state of Oregon said it would seek $75 million in public funding in the next legislative session to cover most of the remaining costs for the innovation center.
“The Collaborative Innovation Complex will be a key part of efforts by federal and state, business and academic leaders to support the competitiveness of Oregon’s semiconductor industry,” said Edward Feser, provost of the State of Oregon, in a written statement.
Oregon’s microchip sector is receiving renewed attention from state government and business leaders as the federal government prepares to distribute $280 million in approved aid by Congress for the sector. The boosters hope to raise the state’s profile as a destination for semiconductor manufacturing and research.
Nvidia develops advanced semiconductors that enable artificial intelligence and other high-performance computing tasks. It is one of the largest IT companies in the world, with a market value of around $300 billion.
That’s nearly three times as much as rival Intel and makes Huang, who founded the Silicon Valley company in 1993, one of the richest people in the tech industry. Forbes pegged his net worth at $11.4 billion earlier this year.
Nvidia will both power and benefit from the new research center. The state of Oregon said it would use Nvidia chips and computer systems in the innovation center’s supercomputer. Nvidia has a small engineering and marketing office in Hillsboro.
Oregon has one of the densest concentrations of semiconductor manufacturing of any place in the country. But unlike emerging computer chip hubs in Arizona, Ohio and New York, Oregon lacks a top engineering school to help anchor the industry.
The Oregon State Supercomputing Center could help solve this problem by making the state a destination for materials research, a key part of future advances in semiconductor technology.
Last month, Huang and Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger had an informal long-distance debate about the status of Moore’s Law, the maxim – coined by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore – which provided exponential growth in computing power at regular intervals even as the price of this technology has fallen.
It’s a pace that has proven unsustainable in recent years as the functionality of computer chips has approached the atomic scale. Intel has suffered crippling delays for successive generations of its new processor technology.
At an Nvidia technology conference in September, Huang said “Moore’s Law is dead,” explaining that the price of advanced computer systems was destined to rise in the future and the speed of innovation would slow down. .
Gelsinger fired back a week later at Intel’s own technology conference, insisting that Moore’s Law is “alive and alive” and promising further advances in computing.
“When something dies, it might reincarnate, but it dies,” Huang said in this week’s interview. He said computer technology will continue to advance, albeit on a different path.
The problem is that conventional ways of increasing computer performance, by packing more transistors into the same space, are no longer physically possible.
“We could keep our heads in the sand, but we have to recognize the fact that we have to do something different,” Huang said in this week’s interview. “That’s really what it’s all about.”
Supercomputers will play a vital role in this new approach, he said. Advanced simulations can help researchers explore new materials that can improve computing power without requiring smaller features on the chips themselves, and Huang said he hopes this will be a way for researchers to use Corvallis’ new innovation center.
Climate science represents another major opportunity in supercomputing, according to Huang. Research centers like the one in Oregon State can help answer questions about the impact of climate change on the planet and how to design solutions to mitigate it.
“Climate science is divisive today. The reason is that people see a different future,” Huang said.
Supercomputers can help people evaluate various solutions to climate change by weighing their benefits against their costs, Huang said.
The technology could also help determine what climate change means in Oregon, Huang said, and in Venice, the Gulf of Mexico, or for someone living along the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. He said it could make the impacts more tangible for people around the world and, in turn, leave them more open to resolving the crisis.
“We need to be able to answer these questions,” Huang said. “What does that mean to you? For him to unite people rather than divide them.
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