China Wins As We Lose Our Competitive Spirit


If the world was a playground and all the countries were kids choosing sides for a game of sandlot techno-ball, the United States would be one of those kids standing in awkward hope of not being the last one chosen.


It didn't used to be that way. In fact, in the world where we adults grew up, the United States was invariably one of the captains choosing the teams. Now the team captains are more likely to be China and India, because we've lost interest in maintaining that leadership role.


In fact, we're increasingly losing interest in even playing the game, and there's some irony in that. We adults lament the fact that our kids don't play anymore. We remember the days when we'd be outside until it got dark, choosing sides and playing everything from baseball to basketball to games we made up along the way. We're concerned that now, many of our kids hardly even make it out of the house. And yet we adults are doing exactly the same thing in the world of technological competitiveness.


We find excuses not to play outside, like an overweight child who spends all of his downtime in front of a computer or video game monitor. We blame "cheap labor" from overseas for stealing our jobs and tilting the playing field, and rather than adjusting our game plan to accommodate the reality of a global workforce, we simply take our ball and go home. We abandon the technology profession in droves, and we encourage our kids to steer clear of it lest they suffer the indignity of losing a game to a team we always saw as being in the minor league.


The ramifications of that mind-set are becoming increasingly difficult for us to miss, despite our earnest attempts to ignore them. We've managed to convince ourselves that we needn't care, for example, that China already has thousands of miles of high-speed rail service, while we have absolutely nothing that's comparable. The best we can cite is California's plan for such a service, the first phase of which won't be operational until sometime around 2017.


Now our computer prowess is being trumped, as well. TOP500.org, the organization that tracks the fastest supercomputers in the world, announced last week that China has dethroned the United States to take the No.1 spot:

The 36th edition of the closely watched TOP500 list of the world's most powerful supercomputers confirms the rumored takeover of the top spot by the Chinese Tianhe-1A system at the National Supercomputer Center in Tianjin, achieving a performance level of 2.57 petaflop/s (quadrillions of calculations per second).


News of the Chinese system's performance emerged in late October. As a result, the former number one system - the Cray XT5 "Jaguar" system at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility in Tennessee - is now ranked in second place. Jaguar achieved 1.75 petaflop/s running Linpack, the TOP500 benchmark application.


Third place is now held by a Chinese system called Nebulae, which was also knocked down one spot from the June 2010 TOP500 list with the appearance of Tianhe-1A. Located at the National Supercomputing Centre in Shenzhen, Nebulae performed at 1.27 petaflop/s.

So now, we have a choice. We can continue to dissuade our kids from pursuing careers in technology and watch while the rest of the world continues to overtake us, or we can summon the courage and resolve to compete. If we choose the former course, we shouldn't be surprised when the time comes that the world's dominant technology powers are reluctant to choose us to be on their technology teams.