The Future Is Coming Faster Than We Think

Today I read a fascinating article in the London Review of Books. The Robots Are Coming, by John Lanchester, is about the rise of cheap automation and the effect it’s going to have on the workforce and society at large. In his introduction he talks about the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative’s computer, Red, launched in 1996 and eventually capable of processing 1.8 teraflops – that is, 1.8 trillion calculations per second. It was the most powerful computer in the world until about 2000. Six years later, the PS3 launched, also capable of processing 1.8 teraflops.

Red was only a little smaller than a tennis court, used as much electricity as eight hundred houses, and cost $55 million. The PS3 fits underneath a television, runs off a normal power socket, and you can buy one for under two hundred quid. Within a decade, a computer able to process 1.8 teraflops went from being something that could only be made by the world’s richest government for purposes at the furthest reaches of computational possibility, to something a teenager could reasonably expect to find under the Christmas tree.

This makes me think of IBM’s Watson, a deep learning system, ten years in the making at a cost in excess of $1 billion, with hardware estimated at $3 million powering it, and coming soon to children’s toys.