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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.

The power of phone + cloud
As impressive as the ability of the modern generation of microprocessors is, their power is magnified many times over by the ability to combine them with access to virtually unlimited amounts of computing power in the cloud through a broadband wired or wireless network. Every time a user performs a Google search, he or she makes use of the massive computer resources that Google has assembled to keep track of and index the vast reaches of the Internet. In fact, Google runs on what could be the world's most powerful supercomputer: In 2012, it was estimated that Google ran on some 13.6 million cores -- over 20 times as many as in the largest operating supercomputer at the time -- and had demonstrated its ability to link 600,000 of them together to work on a single specific task.

In addition to basic search, Google employs this capacity to provide applications that would have seemed like science fiction just a few years ago, such as the ability to search for images as well as words; the ability to find the fastest driving route from one point to another, taking current traffic conditions into account; or the ability to instantly translate text from one language to another. And still in development, but clearly on their way, are such things as the self-driving car and autonomous robots that depend on access to massive computing power.

Computers that (almost) think
Yet another remarkable manifestation of the exponential growth in processing power is so-called cognitive computing. By leveraging techniques of artificial intelligence, including natural language processing and machine learning, cognitive computing provides the capability to approach and, in some instances, even to exceed human thought. An early example of the emerging human-like capabilities of computers came in 1997, when IBM's Deep Blue defeated world champion chess player Gary Kasparov, disproving the belief that only humans could play chess at the highest level. More recently, the triumph of IBM's Watson at Jeopardy in 2011 demonstrated that a computer could compete successfully against the best human players in a challenging test of general knowledge.

In addition to playing games, cognitive computing is being put to work on a range of practical tasks that computers were previously unable to perform. Rather than simply crunching numbers or processing data in structured ways, it is now possible for computers to absorb large quantities of information and identify associations or generate context-based hypotheses about that information to improve human decision-making. IBM is actively engaged in developing specialized versions of Watson for applications ranging from healthcare (diagnosing disease) to financial services (personalizing investment advice) to customer service (improving call center support).

 

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