Saving the world, one calculation at a time

Supercomputers are being used to fight malaria, simulate oil spills, understand climate change and test renewable energy technology. AMD CSR chief Tim Mohin discusses how it fits in with his company's strategy.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

There are incredible things that supercomputers are doing to help the world.

In fields as diverse as genomics and astrophysics, scientists are using the collective power of thousands of processors to analyze complex data sets in days, hours or minutes that, on paper, could take a human researcher a lifetime to pore over.

That's why the scientific community has tasked supercomputers with its most perplexing problems, including simulating the BP-Transocean Gulf of Mexico oil spill to find a fix, eliminating malaria across the globe, finding the best places to implement renewable energy sources and understanding climate change.

To find out more, I spoke with Tim Mohin, director of corporate responsibility for Advanced Micro Devices, otherwise known as AMD, the company behind the processing chips in everything from supercomputers to your personal laptop.

With a background at the U.S. Senate, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Intel and Apple, Mohin discussed the myriad uses for his company's chips and how that fits in with his company's CSR strategy.

SmartPlanet: What can supercomputers do for us?

TM: Those big vexing problems are still there, maybe worse than ever before. The larger end of the issue is how our technology can really help solve these massive global issues.

The BP oil spill. At the time, they had underwater robots trying to reconstruct the cap, but the flow remained unrestricted. One of the things that AMD processors are doing now [in the "Ranger" supercomputer] at the University of Texas is modeling the oil spill -- a 3D Avatar [the film] look at the oil spill.

They're trying to predict where this oil will end up washing up on the shore. Why does it take a supercomputer to do that? You're dealing with simulation modeling. There are a number of natural variables in the world that are very, very difficult to predict. You have to estimate with algorithms in the lab.

What scientists do is take all of these key variables and find the low and high end of the range. It's not that any particular run of the model is all that taxing, it's running the model millions and millions of times to find out the most likely scenarios. That's why we use supercomputers.

The range of what supercomputers can be put to work for covers a broad range of doing good. There's a supercomputer called Kraken at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. It's working on a few things that are quite interesting. One is predicting the effect of earthquakes; the other is studying supernovas. Neither one of these you can replicate in a laboratory. With the earthquake, they're simulating ground rupture and fault lines on a large scale so it can help reduce human casualties.

For the oil spill, you're talking about unprecedented disaster. Let's take it back to the [Exxon] Valdez. It was much smaller than this oil spill, but you knew the impact. The impact of this may not be known for decades. The better we know the trajectory and likely outcome of this, the better we can prepare. If there are sensitive ecosystems at risk, you can find ways to help out. If you know where the stuff is going, perhaps you can prevent it from getting there.

SmartPlanet: How do supercomputers fit into a corporate social responsibility strategy?

TM: Corporate responsibility has been referred to as the triple bottom line -- people, planet, profit. Mostly, in the area of sustainable development.

What we do is try to align a company's business model with its philanthropic endeavors. Not every company has the same definition of corporate responsibility. I'm sure BP has a different role than us.

For our company, we make semiconductors, graphical processing units and central processing units. They're used for laptops, notebooks, game stations, et cetera. One of our signature programs is called "Changing the Game." Video games [on the market] may not be the best educational use of childrens' time -- we developed a program that helps them design their own games.

Having been in this field for so long...does every company needs a CSR director? The trend has moved that way. In the '80s, not everybody had a senior quality manager. These days, for businesses -- the predominant social institution of our time -- it's not just about mitigating your own impact, but [asking], what has business done for our society?

There are a number of stakeholders. The investment community -- there's a huge amount of money flowing into these funds.

Another is employees. We're in an intellectual-property-based business. If we don't have the best and brightest working for us, we're going to fall behind.

What I love about working here, this is a company that has a very caring culture, that really wants to do good. Part of me wants to put that into action. I heard [General Electric CEO] Jeff Immelt say this once: we have to put the "C" in CSR -- the C is for corporation.

There's good for the world, but there's good for the company. Companies that try to leverage their core competencies into CSR will be successful.

It's not easy because the costs are real. The returns are hard to quantify. You're constantly having this question about return on investment. Some companies will wave the "it's the right thing to do" flag. A huge portion of the Fortune 500 are publishing corporate responsibility reports now.

SmartPlanet: So how does AMD approach social responsibility?

TM: It's the overall impact of our products -- the ultimate good that they do when they are applied. By applying them, we can save seven or eight gigatons of carbon [by 2020].

Unless we modernize and employ technology in some of these sectors, we're not going to get off this carbon track. The benefits are five times the impact.

SmartPlanet: Computer chips are some of the worst things for the environment, no?

TM: We take a pretty broad view of our impact. We do look up and down our supply chain and beyond our control.

When you think about the levels of supply chain from a cell phone to a mine in Africa, there are a lot of levels. Rather than shying away from that fact, our company has taken a fairly active stance -- not only do we trace the metals back, but we find out what the root causes of the issues and how we stay on the solutions side of it. We have a monthly meeting with NGOs about some of these issues.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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