Technology

UK government pledges £225m to fund University of Bristol AI supercomputer build with HPE

The UK government has agreed to invest £225m in the creation of the UK’s most powerful artificial intelligence (AI) supercomputer, which is being overseen by the University of Bristol.

Announced in September 2023, the Isambard-AI cluster supercomputer will be engineered so that it is capable of carrying out 200 quadrillion calculations per second to help support research into complex fields such as robotics, big data, climate change and drug discovery.

It will reportedly be 10 times more powerful than the UK’s current fastest supercomputer and among the most powerful in Europe, and is due to go live in the summer of 2024.

The funding earmarked for the project will form part of a £300m investment package announced by the government at the AI Safety Summit at Bletchley Park to support the development of a national Artificial Intelligence Research Resource (AIRR).

Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (HPE) has also been named as the technology provider responsible for building and delivering the system, which will be located at the National Composites Centre (NCC) in Bristol.

“The new Bristol facility will be used by a wide range of organisations from across the UK to harness the power of AI, which is already the main driver of emerging technologies such as training large language models [LLMs], big data and robotics,” said HPE in a statement. 

Simon McIntosh-Smith, director of the Isambard National Research Facility at the University of Bristol, said the system “represents a huge leap forward for AI computational power in the UK” and will be one of the most powerful AI systems for open science anywhere in the world.

“It’s immensely exciting to be at the forefront of the AI revolution and to partner with industry leaders HPE and NVIDIA to rapidly build and deploy large-scale research computing infrastructure to create one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world,” said McIntosh-Smith.

“Isambard-AI will offer capacity never seen before in the UK for researchers and industry to harness the huge potential of AI in fields such as robotics, big data, climate research and drug discovery.”

Justin Hotard, executive vice-president and general manager of high-performance computing (HPC), AI and Labs at HPE, said the UK government’s funding commitment is a show of how determined it is to take a “global leadership position” in the field of AI.

“The Isambard-AI system will harness world-leading supercomputing, including high-performance networking co-developed at HPE’s Bristol labs, to provide the performance and scale required for compute-intensive AI projects,” said Hotard.

“We are proud to partner with the UK government and the University of Bristol to give UK researchers and industry access to Europe’s largest AI system for open science.”

The government’s Frontier AI Taskforce will have priority access to the system, it has emerged, to support its work to mitigate the risks posed by the most advanced forms of AI, including national security from the development of bioweapons and cyber attacks.

Michelle Donelan, secretary of state for science, innovation and technology, said: “At our AI Safety Summit in Bletchley Park, we have made it clear that Britain is grasping the opportunity to lead the world in adopting this technology safely so we can put it to work and lead healthier, easier and longer lives.

“This means giving Britain’s leading researchers and scientific talent access to the tools they need to delve into how this complicated technology works. That is why we are investing in building the UK’s supercomputers, making sure we cement our place as a world leader in AI safety.”

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