Humans have always had an innate desire to create. We use these innovations on a daily, if not hourly, basis and never think twice about it. Today most of us have a smartphone. It’s easy to take for granted the ease of access we have now with our modern technology because the evolution of it has happened so rapidly. In 1964 Seymour Clay, along with other engineers, finished work on the CDC 6600. This was not the first supercomputer, but certainly became the fastest computer of its time and was a landmark achievement the next 30 years.
In 1985 the Cray-2 was the standard in the industry. “Occupies only 16 sq ft of floor space” boasts the original Cray Research, Inc. brochure. Today an Apple iPhone has about 2.7 times the processing power and takes up, needless to say, significantly less space. But this is a common theme, what once was giving way to what now is. The Apollo Space Module, a piece of technology that did what mankind had never done before and take us off of Earth, had 4KB of memory in it, a single picture on an iPhone takes up about 3.7MB.
Why isn’t your personal computer super? Comparing the two is like comparing an airplane to a car. They both do what they do really well, however a car doesn’t fly and a plane is slower on the ground. Supercomputers are designed, mostly, for scientific computations and simulations while a personal computer is used for day-to-day operations. While supercomputers can process an insanely large amount of information usually dealing with mathematical equations (which is gauged by FLOPS, Floating-points Operations Per Second) personal computers are streamlined to handle programs which require fewer FLOPS but more memory and bandwidth usage. In short, you don’t need a billion dollar supercomputer to run Photoshop while you check your Gmail.
Today the Sunway TaihuLight is the fast computer on the planet. It’s located in China and this is is something that stirred the technology industry. Because for the first time the United States fell behind China in being a leader in the computer world. Its computing power is mostly used for oil prospecting, life sciences, weather forecasting, industrial design, pharmaceutical research, and some governmental projects. The Department of Defense, Department of Energy, and NASA’s Pleiades which helps with simulations for NASA missions. All of these are vital when keeping pace in the every-changing world.
A lot of time, effort, and money is put into the creation of a machine like this. And surely it has no equal, right? Guess again, the human brain beats it. When you do a straight comparison between the two there’s little to no contest. Our brains are incredible in how they work, even if you still can’t beat the CPU at chess. Supercomputers process information at approximately 20 times slower than the human brain. They clock in at around 1% of our brain power. And to get there they use enough energy to light up an entire building, the human brain take the equivalent power of a light bulb to work properly. Neurons can rewire themselves and, to a certain extent, repair themselves whereas a computer absolutely cannot yet.
Let’s be clear though, it’s hard to study the brain. They’re complicated and mysterious. Try as we might to understand ourselves better we don’t have all the answers yet. Research scientists in particular are attempting to create an artificial neural network, and while those projects are impressive they still fall a little short of the original. The ability for your brain to work in near instantaneous conjunction with other parts of your body adds to the impressiveness of it. When your eyes take in and process information in about 13 milliseconds. From there you make decisions based on past experiences, knowledge, and intuition. Think about a deer appearing on the side of the road as you drive by, our massive brain can decide whether or not it’s jumping in front of you in enough time to save your life. It’s evolution, our brains have had millions of years to perfect what they do. Supercomputers have only had a handful of decades to get where they are.
Innovation, and supercomputers themselves, live and die by a single hard truth. What is won’t be, what will be is, and what was isn’t. The landscape of supercomputing is moving fast. The technology we have right now is lightyears beyond what it was, but it’s also lightyears away from what it will be. Quantum computers are being developed and this could radically change how we view our computing power. This next step in supercomputing uses photons and deals in quantum bits, or qubits, for the computations. It works a little bit like this. Using polarization a photon in a quantum computer can exist in two places at once, meaning one single photon can represent four numbers so on and so forth. The amount of storage space needed by a typical supercomputer for this would be huge.
As we break down barriers, new and once inconceivable technology is invented and eventually finds its way into the mainstream culture. And when put side by side with other technology like augmented reality, virtual reality, and modern robotics the possibilities continue to run instead of walk towards a future that had once been completely baffling to even the brightest minds.