04 February 2022

The supercomputers at Linköping University (LiU) are a tool which Björn Alling, researcher and associate professor in theoretical physics, uses often. His familiarity with them will come in handy in his role as the new director of the National Supercomputer Centre (NSC).

Björn Alling
Björn Alling is the new director of the National Supercomputer Centre (NSC) at Linköping University. Charlotte Perhammar

“I’m proud to have been asked to take on this role. I have a long history and positive experiences of using the NSC’s resources, so the opportunity to do my bit as the centre director and help NSC become even better is fantastic”, he says.

Enjoys spontaneity

Björn Alling was asked to become the new director last autumn, when university staff were returning to on-campus work following the easing of pandemic restrictions. It was good timing, since Björn Alling sees himself as a team player. “Creative meetings are the ones that bring about the best solutions”, he says. However, since the middle of January, working from home has once again become the norm. But as the new NSC director, Björn Alling has to come to work physically from time to time. On such occasions, he enjoys the ten-minute bike ride.

“There are pros and cons with working at home, but in general it doesn’t suit me”, he says. “I’m most comfortable in a social environment where you can walk around the office, bother your colleagues and have spontaneous discussions. In the same way that they can come and bother me!”

On the other hand, he believes that working at home is more efficient. But it risks negatively affecting development.

“My (wholly unscientific) feeling and experience is that fewer new ideas and research projects arise as a result. If this doesn’t change, there’s a risk that things will become very one-dimensional. New thoughts and discoveries are made when people come together, such as they do over a coffee or lunch at work. Finding such solutions is very important for us as researchers.”

The NSC’s strength

Photo credit Charlotte PerhammarIn an area where technology is evolving rapidly, and innovative solutions are being developed at a revolutionary rate, it’s extra important to work in a creative environment. The NSC is Sweden’s most important centre for powerful computation resources, both for academic researchers and the country’s other public researchers. Just over 35 employees at the NSC work with building and maintaining the supercomputer resources that can be found in the halls just a few hundred metres from the NSC’s premises. 

As a researcher in theoretical physics and materials physics, supercomputers have been one of Björn Alling’s main research tools. For example, he has used them to study magnetic materials (mainly steel) and see how their properties change at high temperatures. Computing how a material changes and is affected by other substances requires advanced computation.

“Without the resource of the supercomputers, we wouldn’t have had a chance”, says Björn Alling.

All supercomputer centres in Sweden ought to collaborate more, in order to put Sweden on the map in Europe

He is also a head of division at the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biology (IFM). He will remain in the role at the same time as being the director of the NSC. He has lots of useful experience leading research groups in his position as a head of division – experience which he believes can be a strength in his new role.

The NSC’s challenges

Björn Alling sees several opportunities to make NSC even more visible, both nationally and internationally. For example, using research in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning – already an area of strength for LiU. In 2021, the NSC unveiled “Berzelius”, Sweden’s fastest supercomputer (named after Jacob Berzelius, an eminent scientist from Östergötland), which had been built at the NSC. This was made possible by a donation of SEK 300 million from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation.
“It is, quite simply, the strongest AI-related computational resource we have in Sweden”, says Björn Alling.

One of Björn Alling’s aims is to make more researchers in Sweden aware of the possibility of using the NSC’s resources for their research. So far, the largest user group has been researchers in Björn Alling’s own subject, theoretical physics and materials science.

But Björn Alling is optimistic about the chances of getting research in the humanities involved. He has noticed that researchers who haven’t previously used supercomputers are starting to show interest. One example is linguistics, where researchers try to understand how languages are structured, and try to get artificial intelligence to “speak”. 

“Great strides have been made in the space of just a few years, but almost exclusively with English. Now, researchers all around Sweden are trying to create communicative artificial intelligence with Swedish, in order to help people do things like receive phone calls, emails, process casework, write minutes etc.

Desire to spread knowledge

Björn Alling also hopes that those who already use supercomputers can get help to think anew and modernise their research.  Photo credit Charlotte Perhammar

“But it’s also our job to show researchers the opportunities they have if they can take themselves over that barrier between one’s laptop and our resources – that they can take a significant step forward in their research. Researchers in the social sciences and medicine are already conscious of these opportunities, and we have partnerships with established centres for data-driven life sciences.”

Björn Alling would also like the NSC’s work to be more connected to the research and teaching that happens nearby at LiU. That way, students are made more aware of the industry – of the many jobs and research opportunities that exist using supercomputers.

“Or they might even see that they have the opportunity to start working here. There’s a group of highly interested individuals here already. Maybe co-workers at NSC could take part in various courses.”

A dynamic industry

Recruiting staff with the right skills is another challenge. The need for staff is great generally, and has only grown along with technological development. 

“It’s an unbelievably dynamic area. We serve Sweden’s academic researchers, but companies and the industry are dying to get people with these skills. They’re building their own, similar projects, even if they’re not supercomputer centres. Or they buy services from Amazon, Google and the like. And they’re siphoning away artificial intelligence skills from education. But our advantage is that we can offer a great workplace where you can develop and learn together the very best in the field – but with a lot of freedom compared to private companies.” 

Another piece of the NSC-puzzle is that the centre is affected by future trends in funding. The letters AI is placed on a book shelf. A robothand is lifting the I letter.iStock/style-photography Photo credit style-photographyNSC currently gets about a third of its funding from the Swedish National Infrastructure for Computing, a part of the Swedish Research Council. But at the time of writing, the NSC is looking for a new funding model, a process which is to be finished by the end of the year. 

Björn Alling also aims to lift the NSC’s profile abroad, and believes that there is a good chance of getting funds from the EU.

“All supercomputer centres in Sweden ought to collaborate more, in order to put Sweden on the map in Europe”, he says.

More about Björn Alling

Charlotte Perhammar

Björn Alling is the new director of the National Supercomputer Centre (NSC) at Linköping University.

Age: 41

Latest news: New director at NSC, National Supercomputer Centre, since 15 November 2021. Is also head of division and associate professor at the Division for Theoretical Physics.

Family: Partner and two children.

Lives in: Ryd. Lived for 20 years in Skäggetorp.

Most frequently asked: What’s it like living in Ryd? “It’s a good area. Close to the university, town and Tornby, with good supermarkets. Ryd really needs a counternarrative to the negative write-ups.”

Background: Associate professor in theoretical physics at IFM. Björn Alling began his research career as a PhD student after studying a Master of Science in Applied Physics and Electrical Engineering at LiU. He has also performed PhD studies in Switzerland and been a visiting researcher in Düsseldorf, Germany. Has researched theoretical physics and materials science.

Outside work:
Enjoys playing chess and is also a politician on the municipal council. “My work on the municipal council goes hand in hand with being engaged in society. Issues concerning early education are those that I’m most engaged in.”

Relaxes by: Watching TV. Currently watching The Big Bang Theory. Reading books – preferably real ones, and preferably thrillers that give rise to excitement, relaxation and entertainment.

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