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Welcome to the age of pervasive supercomputing

Richard Adler | Oct. 1, 2014
The emergence of supercomputing in everyday life will require a new kind of literacy that will allow us to appreciate what the technology can — and can’t — do.

A 1970s-era Cray-1 supercomputer. Your smartphone is probably 1,000 times more powerful. Credit: Clemens Pfeiffer, via Wikimedia Commons

Human beings tend to take incremental change in stride. For example, the loaf of bread that was 50 cents a few decades ago that now costs $3 isn't a big deal to us because the price rose gradually and steadily year by year. What we aren't adapted for is exponential change. Which explains why we tend to be taken by surprise by developments that involve digital technologies, where order-of-magnitude improvements, driven by Moore's Law, occur continuously. 

I thought about this reality earlier this summer when I visited the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), which is located on top of a hill overlooking Boulder, Colo., and is one of the world's leading sites for the study of weather prediction and climate modeling. To support its work, which is often based on complex mathematical models, the NCAR has long been a pioneer in the use of advanced computer systems. In fact, a plaque on a wall at the center indicates that in 1976, it had purchased the world's first production Cray-1A supercomputer (for $8.9 million, the equivalent of $38 million today). Over the next 25 years, the NCAR continued to perform scientific research on later generations of Crays.

As I toured the NCAR, I thought about how a mid-'70s Cray supercomputer compared to the iPhone in my pocket. Sure enough, the raw computing power of my phone dwarfed that of the Cray-1A. The Cray operated at a rate of 80MHz and was capable of performing 80 million floating-point operations per second (FLOPS). By comparison, the graphics-processing unit in my iPhone 5S is capable of 76.8 GFLOPS, making it nearly 1,000 times more powerful.

The supercomputer in my pocket
Today's garden-variety smartphone is, in fact, capable of performing functions like pattern recognition and complex visual rendering that have traditionally been the exclusive domain of supercomputers that were housed in special facilities and required the care of a cadre of specialists. Today, many mobile apps provide what are essentially supercomputer-like abilities.

A nice example of visual pattern recognition is Leafsnap, a free mobile app created by Columbia University, the University of Maryland and the Smithsonian Institution that enables users to identify different tree species by simply taking a photo of a leaf. Verbal pattern recognition is the basis for applications like Siri, Google Now and Microsoft's Cortana that have the ability to understand spoken input and (most of the time) respond appropriately.

An example of the advanced visual rendering capabilities of mobile devices can be seen in Samsung's new Gear virtual reality headset, which delivers a digitally immersive experience using a Galaxy Note smartphone. Or Epic Zen Garden, a free game for iPhones and iPads that features richly detailed visual environments that users can explore.


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