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.