On July 28, 2003, Advanced
Micro Devices admitted that
it is cooperating with the Chinese to help them build the world's third-largest
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
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
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
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
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
Contra Kanellos, there is a huge difference between letting the Chinese
cobble together whatever computer they can from available chips of the
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
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
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
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
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,
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
ten trillion operations per second. Ten trillion operations per second
is a lot more than six billion operations per second. It takes a thousand
to get one trillion.