Forget 2014, let’s talk about what to expect in 2020, just six years from now, say a supercomputer finally capable of mongo-calculative deftness on par with what some believe to be the processing oomph of a single human brain.
Let’s put a number around that: one exaflop (FLOP standing for “floating-point operations per second” — the industry benchmark in scientific calculation horsepower) is equal to 1 x 1018 or 10 quintillion (a million trillion) FLOPs per second. That’s a one followed by 18 zeroes, or three more than you’d drop after a petaflops computer: today’s fastest supercomputer, China’s Tianhe-2, according to official TOP500 ranking (as for November 18, 2013), is capable of 33.86 petaflops; an exascale computer would be at least 30 times faster.
Japan-based RIKEN, located just outside Tokyo, says it’s been selected by Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology to design an exascale supercomputer, and that this nascent exa-behemoth will
initiate Skynet protocols begin working in 2020.
RIKEN says its exascale supercomputer will be “about 100 times faster than the K computer, RIKEN’s currently operating machine.” The K computer clinched the “fastest supercomputer in the world” spot in 2011.
The first exascale computers had been projected to see light of day by 2018, but the date seems to be creeping back — some think even 2020’s too soon. Horst Simon, the Deputy Director at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, put up $2,000 of his own money earlier this year on a bet that we won’t reach exascale computing power by 2020. The reason? According to Horst in his May 6, 2013 presentation, titled “Why we need Exascale and why we won’t get there by 2020,” we have critical power scalability issues that existing multicore architectures don’t address: We can get to exascale processing with existing technology, but the power requirements involved at that scale are extraordinary.
And getting to exascale is a big deal — much bigger than just bragging rights — because exascale computing is expected to do a lot more than nose around the periphery of “singularity” wonks’ brain-ware fantasies. For instance, it’s expected to yield dramatically (and even that word’s an understatement) more accurate climate simulations and weather forecasting, combustion engine advances, “extreme resolution” nuclear stockpile life expectancy assessments, allow us to develop radically better energy storage (battery) tech and cut research development times — discovery-to-market — in half.
In short, whoever gets to exascale first is going to have an enormous advantage — to the extent you’re hearing people talk about the exascale computing paradigm in deadly serious national security terms.