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The AMD-Chinese connection

By David M. Brown
web posted August 4, 2003

On July 28, 2003, Advanced Micro Devices admitted that it is cooperating with the Chinese to help them build the world's third-largest supercomputer.

AMD's Opteron processor
AMD's Opteron processor

The Chinese firm Dawning Information Industry will use a new 64-bit Opteron processor produced by AMD and intended for the corporate server market. If all goes well, the Dawning supercomputer will spit out as many as ten trillion operations per second. For the first time the Chinese will be able boast access to a supercomputer among the few very most powerful in the world.

Hints that such a deal was in the works had leaked out earlier. On July 7, CNET News reported that AMD had accidentally made public, by email, an internal document revealing its "press release schedule."

For CNET the most important revelation was the date AMD would unveil a new edition of its Athlon desktop processor. Buried in the story was one of the "other interesting tidbits," that the company was "expected to announce that it is working with a Chinese organization to build the world's fastest supercomputer in China."

When I asked the bylined author, Michael Kanellos, whether such a computer might be used for, say, military applications, his response was the email equivalent of a shrug of shoulder: "Sure. But these chips fall within the export regulations as permissible. You can make a notebook with them too." Kannelos went on to suggest that even without the help of Advanced Micro Devices, "Dawning could get all the technology they wanted by buying it in stores. AMD's involvement is selling the processors mostly. The company itself is really doing the design work. It's scary, but there is no way to stop anyone in the world doing this."

I guess that means that if the Chinese government ever launches nuclear missiles against the West with an Opteron-enhanced guidance system, the survivors can tell themselves that the American assistance that helped make it possible was provided in full compliance with U.S. regulations and oversight, and it all could have been done with parts off the shelf anyway.

Leaving aside the issue of whether the U.S. government should be approving an American firm's active cooperation in a supercomputer project that could easily increase the military capacity of an enemy government, the question remains why any American firm would want to actively cooperate in a supercomputer project that could easily increase the military capacity of an enemy government.

Contra Kanellos, there is a huge difference between letting the Chinese cobble together whatever computer they can from available chips of the sort that go into any laptop—and actively helping them to build the world's third-largest supercomputer with a brand-new top-of-the-line chip. But all that Advanced Micro Devices conveyed about the matter in its July 28 press release is that the project has a go-ahead from China's Ministry of Information Industry and that Advanced Micro Devices is "committed" to obtaining any necessary approval from the U.S. government.

My inquiry to Advanced Micro Devices yielded the following response from Dave Kroll of AMD's public relations department:

"First, know that our agreement with Dawning specifically stipulates that the Dawning 4000A supercomputer be used for non-military purposes (e.g., scientific research, education, geographic research, biochemical research). It is intended to be used by scientific research institutes, universities, computing centers, commercial establishments and private enterprises only. This could have been emphasized more strongly in the announcement.

"AMD is studying the export license requirements and has already engaged in preliminary discussions with the Departments of Commerce, Defense and State. This deal indeed may require approval from the U.S. government, including the issuance of an export license from the U.S. Bureau of Industry and Security."

The first question that pops into the non-naïve mind, of course, is: How can Advanced Micro Devices be sure that the Chinese government will obey any agreement not to use the supercomputer for military purposes, no matter how clear the stipulation is on paper?

It's not just up to Dawning, after all--as if there were a private sector in China completely cordoned off from the oversight and interference of the communist government. If the Chinese government wants to covertly use the supercomputer to enhance missile guidance capability (or its ability to police dissident communication in cyberspace), is Dawning going to shake its head no?

To such concerns Mr. Kroll replies: "Unfortunately, I don't have any additional info for you at this time (and speculative questions are difficult to answer)."

Certainly they are hard to answer without any knowledge of history. But it isn't as if we know that the Chinese government would never employ such a powerful computer for military purposes. They have done so, and with help from the American computer industry that involved more than shipping parts out of a catalog.

One example. In 1997, in testimony before Congress, Gary Milhollin, Director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, reported that the computer firm Silicon Graphics, Inc. had admitted selling a supercomputer "to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which helps develop China’s long-range missiles," without an export license. Silicon Graphics had also sold supercomputers to a nuclear laboratory in Russia, Chelyabinsk, also without obtaining export licenses—and even after "the [Clinton] White House was turning down requests from IBM and Hewlett Packard to sell computers of equal power to Chelyabinsk."  

Milhollin testified that the supercomputer sold to China was "about twice as powerful as the ones sold to Russia. It performs approximately six billion operations per second." The prospective capacity of the new supercomputer that AMD wants to help the Chinese build with thousands of its Opteron chips is ten trillion operations per second. Ten trillion operations per second is a lot more than six billion operations per second. It takes a thousand billions to get one trillion.

What's the impact on missile course corrections?

Reprinted with permission of The Crunch Report.

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