How Semiconductor Innovation Could Help Prevent The Next Pandemic

covid-19 semiconductor innovation

Jim Elliott
Samsung Semiconductor

Over the past six months the world has been focused on the singular goal of developing treatments, vaccines, and containment strategies but what no one expected was how the tech world would rise to the challenge presented by Covid-19. While front line responders and essential workers put their lives on the line, researchers and scientists turned to artificial intelligence (AI) for answers. In mere months, emerging technologies have been rolled out and leveraged to full effect to vastly boost computing power, dramatically increase access to high-performance computing (HPC), and accelerate research by orders of magnitude. AI and HPC are being leveraged to not only assess and develop treatments but also to create potential vaccines, manage shutdowns and reopenings, analyze and enable access to digital medical records, and even to help develop better face masks.

Samsung Semiconductor technology has played a particularly essential role in the fight against Covid-19. Samsung technology powers many of the most innovative programs and AI platforms that are helping scientists conduct research and achieve breakthroughs at a speed that would have been impossible just a few years ago.

One prominent example of Samsung tech in action is the Covid-19 High Performance Computing Consortium. This consortium is a public-private initiative of IBM, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the US Department of Energy that is providing free access to HPC for groups researching and fighting the coronavirus. The consortium harnesses supercomputing resources from private companies, national laboratories, universities, and others to create an ever-expanding HPC system that (as of this writing) boasts 4.2 million CPU cores, 43,000 GPUs, and 600TB of Samsung’s new HBM2 high-bandwidth memory, providing 430 petaflops of processing power. This massive compute power enables researchers studying COVID-19 to get the answers they need in hours or days instead of weeks or months.

samsung covid-19 high performance computing consortiumSource: COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium

One of many exciting projects utilizing the consortium’s HPC system is the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center (ADARC) at Columbia University. ADARC is studying neutralizing antibodies from convalescent COVID-19 donors in order to develop SARS-CoV-2 neutralizing antibodies that can be used in therapeutics such as monoclonal antibody treatments or “passive” immunization. Another research team utilizing the HPC system is led by Ryan Wang at Northeastern University. Wang’s team is studying how human contacts and voluntary contact tracing can impact the spread of COVID-19 using complex simulations. Their research might provide important insight into how to most effectively implement contact tracing in order to contain the spread of the virus.

covid-19 contact tracingSource: The Lancet

Another advanced AI system that leverages Samsung tech is Nvidia’s HBM2-equipped DGX A100. This system, which utilizes 320GB of Samsung’s new 2.4Gbps HBM2, consolidates the power of a 5-petaflop data center onto a single platform. The very first DGX A100 unit began operation at the Argonne National Laboratory in May of 2020 and is being used to conduct COVID-19 research.

Other Nvidia GPUs incorporating Samsung tech are also being used at Oxford Nanopore Technologies in the UK, where they are helping researchers sequence entire virus genomes in just 7 hours, at Plotly for real-time infection rate analysis, and at the National Institutes of Health for COVID-19 classification and reconstruction of virus spike protein structures.

covid-19 genetic sequencing supercomputingSource: bioRxiv

At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Nvidia V100 GPUs powered by Samsung HBM2 are being used to analyze a billion potential drug compounds per day. By early March, Oak Ridge was able to identify 77 different small-molecule drug compounds that are likely to bind to the virus’ spike protein and potentially inhibit its entry into host cells.

At the same time, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is upgrading its ‘Corona’ supercomputer using AMD MI50 GPUs which are also equipped with Samsung HBM2. The upgrade will almost double the supercomputer’s peak computer power and will be used for molecular modeling in support of COVID-19 research, potentially resulting in new designs for both antibodies and small molecules for therapeutics.

covid-19 hbm2 high bandwidth memory

While the list of Covid-19 research projects leveraging Samsung tech is seemingly endless, the impact of semiconductor technology is being felt well beyond the laboratory. For example, the pandemic is also creating demand for high-bandwidth video streaming for virtual interaction between patients and frontline healthcare personnel. By providing server DRAM solutions with greater bandwidth and higher memory density per server, Samsung is helping to meet those needs as well.

The Covid-19 pandemic is an ongoing crisis that is presenting an extreme challenge to both our medical and research communities. I’m proud of the way Samsung and the semiconductor industry as a whole have risen to the challenge of supporting caregivers and researchers by rapidly rolling out the next generation of advanced technologies. As a result, lives have been saved, and the impact of the pandemic will, hopefully, be blunted.

covid-19 flattening the curve

For the time being, the pandemic is still raging and being complacent is not an option. It’s also become clear that the risk of future such events is high—that this could happen all over again in 10, 20, 30 years or more. Our industry must continue to push boundaries and accelerate the rate of progress so that next time we can be more prepared.

Imagine a future in which AI can help not only predict but also prevent pandemics. And should future pandemics emerge, envision being ahead of the game with broad-spectrum protease inhibitors and other small molecule drugs, or potentially having universal vaccines for coronaviruses, Ebola, and influenzas on the ready to deploy at the first hint of an outbreak. As semiconductor technology continues to develop, these aspirations might well become reality. It is my belief that Samsung Semiconductor Inc. and the semiconductor industry on the whole can play a pivotal role in building a more prepared and more resilient world.