Wk28: Here’s To the Future: Extreme Computing Today

Our future is here...or is it?

Computers are becoming part of our every day lives. What seemed unachievable and high sci fi, we now carry around in our pockets. Be it video chatting like the Jetsons or a Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy in an iPad, it seems like the future is here.

But there is more future to find. So much technology becomes part of our every day lives, it’s fun to keep an eye on where computing is taking us that is not every day. Supercomputers and technology that is far beyond iPhones and Facebook. The cutting edge of what we are doing with computers as a species.


Last month, a new supercomputer was crowned. K, based in Japan, is now the most powerful computer in the world. It is three times the computer of the former number one, and more powerful than the next five combined. We are dealing with ten petaflops of computing power – a term that sounds insane, and is roughly a million times more powerful than my Mac laptop.

It is, of course, expensive and power intensive. It needs the power of 10,000 houses and costs $10 million US a year to run. It’s purpose? A varied assortment of environmental calculations. Counting the minute changes in our weather, with every particle a variable.

In fact, many supercomputers are used to study our climate. Even something as mundane as weather is beyond our calculation abilities. So we are increasing them. The top of the Top500 list, the list of the most powerful computers in the world, changes almost every time it’s published.

Sadly for our climate, there is a Green500, a list of the most environmentally friendly supercomputers, and it doesn’t match the Top500. The best computers we have are also the most energy hungry and damaging to our environment. K takes a lot of power to run, and even more power to cool.

Still we build. Companies like IBM, with many supercomputers on the Top500 list, persevere, to some degree making better computers for computer’s sake.

Artificial Intellegence

IBM are an interesting company. They just turned a whopping 100 years old this year. They helped to pioneer computer mainframes and building stunning calculating towers. But in a industry full of nerds, they were the nerdiest. In the 90s, the home computer started to take hold. Silcon Valley filled up with hot shots in jeans, and IBM scientists still wore suits and coats. I mean, they invented the barcode. Now they are all about high computing.

The idea of computing for computing’s sake thrives at IBM, to this day. And they’ve been playing around with Artificial Intellegence for over 50 years. An IBM computer could learn from it’s mistakes in the game of checkers in 1956. In 1997, Deep Blue made international papers by beating world champ Gary Kasparov at chess.

This year, IBM took AI back into watercooler talk when their computer, named “Watson”, appeared on Jeopardy and won (against two Jeopardy champs). It was not connected to the net, but had lots of information stored (including all of Wikipedia). From simple questions, it managed to use the data it had stored and supply an answer.

Watson wasn’t perfect, but a door is opened. What if Watson was connected to the internet? And it learnt from it’s mistakes?

Still, Watson is a lot like a search engine. What about emotion? Well, we are learning more and more about human emotions. And that learning is being analysed in computers as well.

The wonderful TED always has time for robots. Be it David Hanson’s robot face that shows emotion on the surface, or Heather Knight’s stand up comedian robot that can react to the crowd and shape it’s act internally.

Computers can learn. They can react. They can even make you laugh. It is only a matter of time before they take over. I for one will welcome our new robot overlords.

Consumer spaceships

The Apollo 11 Lunar Module had a computer. It had 76kb of space and 4kb of RAM (sort of). My Facebook profile picture is bigger than 76kb. Mac laptops come in 4GB RAM configurations – a million times the Lunar Module.

Why the hell can’t we get back to the moon then? Seems like it’s a matter of economics (NASA ended their shuttle program this year). But whereas governments continue to de-invest in space exploration, we are seeing a private market emerge. And it’s technology making spaceships more powerful – and cheaper – then ever.

International treaties state that no one owns outer space – it belongs to us all. But you can definitely sell a trip there. The most famous seller is Richard Branson, and his Virgin Galactic project.

It is just like you’d imagine. Branson is using his fortune to build spaceships. For a cost, you can go too. I saw a replica of the first spaceship at the Science Museum in London, and it looks more like the Heathrow Express than Apollo 11.

OK. It friggin blows my mind that one day I might make it to space. It costs about $200,000 to go right now, and trips have not started yet. Right now, the current ship can only take you into the region of space, not into orbit above our planet. But orbit is the goal. I am thirty now, and let’s say I am still fit to go by 50. Orbital commercial flights could be reached by then. And I would gladly sell everyone of my earthly possessions for just 1 second of seeing both poles at once.

Or maybe I’ll even have some buying power as competitors are popping up. Now that Google’s mapped the world, some feel like space is the next great holiday destination. And they are investing heavily. I wonder what zone it will be for a travelten.

And there’s so much more. Mapping the super-micro world of sub atomic particles. Seeing other universes with extreme cameras. The Large Hadron Collider making black holes in our own atmosphere.

One of the things I teach in my Digital Marketing class is to be aware that numbers grow. We used to be impressed by 10,000 YouTube views, because we were impressed by 10,000 CD sales. Now we deal with millions of page views. Soon, calculating files in megabytes will be gigabytes – or petabytes.

It might seem crazy numbers, but your current computer speeds and space must have seemed crazy just 20 years ago. Maybe in 20 year time, you will be able to calculate every particle in our atmosphere in an app on your phone.

Top500 – http://www.top500.org/

Green500 – http://www.green500.org

No more space shuttles – http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/177136/20110709/nasa-space-shuttle-program-shuttle-launch-spacex-next-generation-richard-branson-virgin-galactic.htm

Virgin Galactic – http://www.virgingalactic.com/


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