According to Paul Chan's budget speech, at undisclosed taxpayer expense, HK is supposed to produce a machine 3 times more powerful than the world's current fastest, within 2 years, and without using the best chips which were banned by the USA from export to HK following imposition of the National Security Law on HK.

The HK budget supercomputer hallucination
2 March 2024

Deep into this week's HK budget speech by Paul Chan Mo Po at paragraphs 107-109, we find some rather fanciful statements about one of HK's most famous white elephants, the Cyberport:

  1. Cyberport is expediting the establishment of an AI Supercomputing Centre to meet the demand of research institutes and the industry for computing power. The first phase facility is expected to start operating within this year at the earliest. By early 2026 at the soonest, the computing power of the supercomputing facility is expected to reach 3 000 petaFLOPS. The scale of such power is equivalent to the capacity of processing nearly 10 billion images in one hour.
  2. We will allocate $3 billion to Cyberport for the launch of a three‑year AI Subsidy Scheme to support local universities, research institutes and enterprises to leverage the Centre's computing power and achieve scientific breakthroughs. The subsidy will also be used to strengthen the cyber security and data protection of the Centre, and launch promotional and educational activities, etc. to encourage Mainland and overseas AI experts, enterprises and R&D projects to come to Hong Kong.

According to the latest (Nov-2023) Top500 list of supercomputers, the world's fastest machine is "Frontier", in the USA at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), with an Rmax computing power of 1,194 petaflops. A distant second place is "Aurora" at Argonne National Laboratory, clocking 585 petaflops. So Mr Chan thinks that we can beat Frontier by roughly a factor of 3 "by early 2026 at the soonest" - in other words, 2 years from now "at the soonest", HK will lead planet Earth in supercomputing power, assuming the rest of the world doesn't grow computing power even faster. We're also assuming that the FLOPS (Floating-point Operations Per Second) that he's talking about are the 64-bit precision (FP64) of the Top500 list and not the less precise FP32, FP16 or even less.

Although there's an allocation of HK$3bn for a subsidy scheme for users of this facility, nowhere does the budget state the expected cost of the facility itself. Frontier at ORNL is reported to have cost US$600m (HK$4.68bn). It is also unclear why taxpayers should fund such a facility, given that if there is demand from "the industry" then the private sector will fund it, either overseas or in HK, and HK institutes and businesses can rent such power in the cloud.

Secondly, how is HK supposed to build this world-beating machine given that the US has prohibited exports of the most advanced chips to mainland China and Hong Kong? There was a time when HK might have been granted an exception to such prohibitions, but those days are gone. In Dec-2020, HK was removed as a separate destination under the US export administration regulations, following the President's Executive Order 13936 of 14-Jul-2020, in response to the imposition of the National Security Law on HK. Of course, they could just build it out of earlier-generation chips using larger scale and energy, but that would be less efficient.

Hence the use of the weasel words "at the earliest" and "at the soonest" in Mr Chan's speech. One might be forgiven for thinking that this part of the speech was written by a hallucinating AI chatbot.

©, 2024

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