I was reading a story the other day about a new computer built by IBM that is claimed to be the fastest in the world. No, this is not something you’ll go out and buy that will fit neatly on your desk. It’s called Sequoia, and it’s built for the National Nuclear Security Administration. They’ll be using it to do simulations to help maintain our stockpile of nuclear weapons without the need for underground testing. Sequoia can perform 16.32 quadrillion calculations per second (16.32 petaFLOPS for those of you who know what a petaFlop is).
That’s quite an accomplishment. I guess since IBM was able to build a machine that could best the top Jeopardy champs, they decided to reach for a loftier goal. If you don’t remember that story, IBM designed a computer named Watson specifically to play the game show Jeopardy, and in January 2011 it thrashed two former champs, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. It might seem strange to spend that much time and money just to win at Jeopardy, but a lot was learned about the best way to process vast amounts of information the way a human might, and that knowledge is now being used for more productive pursuits, such as helping doctors diagnose medical problems.
Watson was powerful and fast, but he wasn’t small. Although his avatar fit neatly behind the Jeopardy platform, his backend was the size of ten refrigerators (I guess you could say that was not his best side). But, that’s nothing compared to Sequoia, which is almost 100 refrigerators in size.
These powerful but huge computers made me think back to stories of the first commercial computer, UNIVAC, which was the size of a one-car garage. UNIVAC hit the public stage when it was used during CBS’s coverage of the 1952 presidential election between Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower. Stevenson was ahead in the polls and was predicted by pundits to win anywhere from a landslide to possibly just squeaking out a victory. Early in the evening, as the first results came in, UNIVAC was predicting that Eisenhower actually would win, and win big – 438 electoral votes to Stevenson’s 93. Since that flew in the face of the human pundits, CBS decided not to air that information until late at night, when they had to admit that UNIVAC pretty much called the race by 8:30PM. In the end, Eisenhower won 442 to 89–just 1% difference from UNIVAC’s early prediction.
As you can see from the picture above, UNIVAC was a beast, with the operator console alone being the size of a desk. It’s amazing to think about the power we have on our desks today compared to the first supercomputers, not to mention what we’re carrying around in our hands. An upgraded 1968 version of UNIVAC sported a 1.3 MHz CPU with half a megabyte of RAM and a 100 megabyte hard drive. That would cost you, oh, about $1.6 million. That makes a few hundred dollars for a smartphone or tablet seem like nothing.
With the advances in computing power and miniaturization, I wonder what we’ll be carrying around in years to come. Will we have the power of Sequoia or more in the palm of our hand? Of course, by then we’ll probably be wearing our computers; or, perhaps they’ll be surgically implanted in our brain. It seems like the stuff of science fiction, but who in 1951 would have predicted there would be 3 billion people connected to a global network called the Internet (although Arthur C. Clark certainly nailed it in 1974, as you can see in the video below).