Bristol to host UK’s most powerful supercomputer for pioneering AI research

University of Bristol will host ‘Isambard-AI’, the new name for the AI Research Resource (AIRR), a national facility to help researchers investigate the potential and safe use of the technology. 

The name, of course, marks the connection to Bristol: pioneering engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel built including Bristol’s famous Suspension Bridge and the original version of Bristol Temple Meads railway station, as well as revolutionising transport and construction.

people walking on bridge during daytime

Photo of Bristol Suspension Bridge by Jarred Clapperton

It’s hoped that Isambard-AI will prove just as revolutionary. The AIRR cluster will comprise thousands of state-of-the-art graphics processing units (GPUs). These can train the large language models used at the forefront of AI research and development. In effect, the AIRR massively increases the ‘compute’ capacity needed to play a key role in this rapidly developing area.  

That word, ‘compute’, means the systems assembled at scale to process complicated tasks – the kinds of operations that are now essential to advanced science and industry, but are also now used in the running of modern economies. The new AIRR national facility will help to underpin the UK’s next-generation compute infrastructure, as per the recommendations made by the independent Future of Compute Review. Plans for the AIRR were announced in March, with £900m of investment. 

The fact it will now be hosted in Bristol is evidence of the city’s leading role in cutting-edge cutting-edge computing technology. The Isambard 3 supercomputer due to be installed later this year will support research in AI and machine learning. The University of Bristol is also home to the UKRI Centre for Doctoral Training in Interactive Artificial intelligence. Both Isambard 3 and Isambard-AI will be based at the National Composites Centre, in collaboration with the GW4 group of universities – comprising an alliance Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter universities. 

The UK will of course host the world’s first AI Safety Summit on November 1 and 2, where representatives from leading countries, tech organisations, academia and civil society will be able to discuss ways to mitigate the risks created or exacerbated by powerful AI systems. They will also look at the benefits that safe AI can bring. Michelle Donelan, Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, says: ‘We are backing the future of British innovation, investing in a world-leading AI Research Resource in Bristol that will catalyse scientific discovery and keep the UK at the forefront of AI development. 

‘The Isambard-AI cluster will be one of the most powerful supercomputers in Europe and will help industry experts and researchers harness the game-changing potential of AI, including through the mission-critical work of our Frontier AI Taskforce.’ 

Simon McIntosh-Smith, Project Lead and Professor of High Performance Computing at the University of Bristol, adds: ‘We’re delighted to be chosen as the site to host the UK’s first ever Artificial Intelligence Research Resource.  

‘Isambard-AI will be one of the world’s first, large-scale, open AI supercomputers, and builds on our expertise designing and operating cutting-edge computational facilities, such as the incoming Isambard 3.’ 

Professor Phil Taylor, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Enterprise at the University of Bristol, says: ‘AI is expected to be as important as the steam age, with ramifications across almost every area of academia and industry. Bristol’s proud to be at the forefront of this revolution. 

‘To be selected to host a new national AI supercomputer speaks to the University’s cutting-edge research into AI and machine learning. 

‘We have unique expertise in rapidly building and deploying large-scale research computing infrastructure and we’re excited to play an integral part in establishing the UK as an international hub for AI.’

In related news:

UK to host international AI Safety Summit at Bletchley Park in November

Digital, data and AI strategy for health and care in Wales

Government working on code of practice on copyright and AI


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