Note: The Skinny blog is written by Rick Smith, editor and co-founder of Local Tech Wire and business editor of WRAL.com.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. —  “They work for us now,” says the fictional Chinese executive in the year 2030 to a laughing audience in a TV ad that is downright frightening to anyone who gives a hoot about the future of the United States.

“They” is you and me. We work for China because China owns so much of our debt. In the ad, our country has fallen because of the collective failure to deal with our fiscal crisis. (Watch the ad here.)

Now comes word that China has the world’s fastest supercomputer, built on China’s own version of Linux in another economic victory that has the world’s most populous country on the fast track to topple the U.S. as the world’s top economic power. (Note: Raleigh’s Red Hat doesn’t have an exclusive on red and penguins, the Linux mascot. China’s Linux is quite appropriately called Red Flag.)

The latest supercomputer report has the Chinese waving flags since their “Tianhe-I” tops the new “Top 500” list released Sunday.

Tianhe-I translates as Milky Way (or Sky River) Number One.

Egad, what next? Is another Sputnik crisis at hand? Will more people finally start paying more attention to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math)?

Followers of the supercomputer industry weren’t surprised by the news since chip firm Nvidia and others touted the Milky Way’s performance in recent weeks.

“The 36th edition of the closely watched TOP500 list of the world’s most powerful supercomputers confirms the rumored takeover of the top spot by the Chinese Tianhe-1A system at the National Supercomputer Center in Tianjin, achieving a performance level of 2.57 petaflop/s (quadrillions of calculations per second),” says the latest report. Researchers in German, at the University of Tennessee and the U.S. Department of Energy release the rankings twice a year.

In other words, Milky Way is downright powerful.

Oh, by the way, China also has the third fastest machine.

U.S. supercomputers have led the report for the past six years, notes Joab Jackson, who covers the supercomputer industry for IDG News.

The U.S. still dominates the “Top 500,” but Jackson makes a chilling point:

“With 42 systems on the list, China has become the second-most-prominent country here, though it still trails by a large margin the U.S., which has 275 systems. Last June, China had only 24 systems on the list.”

From 24 to 42 in one year, and a new machine taking the top spot – those are impressive feats.

What’s next?

(Footnote: Lenovo has built supercomputers in China. The world’s No. 4 PC maker, which bought IBM’s PC division five years ago and operates its headquarters in Morrisville, used its own supercomputer to help the AT&T Williams F1 racing team in 2007. Lenovo was a sponsor.)

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