It feels strange when a milestone that has always seemed far off in the future passes without you noticing. That happened to me this week when I found out that a supercomputer with the same performance as a human brain was built… back in 2008. There is something a little bit creepy about the fact that the world’s largest supercomputers also have names, but this one, built by IBM at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, is disarmingly called Roadrunner. Of course, when we remember that the animated roadrunner easily outsmarted the more likable character Wyle E. Coyote in Chuck Jones’ cartoon, the name no longer seems so inconsequential. Roadrunner is capable of performing 1.5 peta FLOPS (that’s 1.5×10^15 floating-point operations per second). It cost $133 million USD to build and contains 6,480 Opteron processors as well as 12,960 Cell processors. When it’s not being used to simulate nuclear weapon explosions, it spends some of its idle moments simulating portions of the human visual cortex.
In a seminal 1997 paper, Hans Moravec estimated the computing speed of the human brain at 100,000,000 MIPS, or one quadrillion instructions per second, roughly equivalent to the 1.5 petaflop speed record achieved by Roadrunner. Exact calculations on the processing power of a standard human brain vary, but credible projections place it between 1 and 20 petaflops. So even if Roadrunner turns out to me more dunce than Einstein, It is still within an order of magnitude of the smartest humans.
The next super computers are likely to smash the milestone reached by Roadrunner. The NSA has announced plans to build a supercomputer at its Fort Meade headquarters that is likely to top one exaflop, or about 70 times the speed of Roadrunner. The (as yet) unnamed supercomputer will be ready by 2015.
This development has me more convinced than ever that 1) humanity is at a point in its development that might make us intensely interesting to alien observers and 2) the future of our civilization, and perhaps most others in the universe, is non-biological.