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When Will Computer Hardware Match the Human Brain?

Posted November 4th, 2009 · 6 Comments · Books


I know it came out a while ago, but I just ordered and received my copy of Advanced Signal Integrity for High-Speed Digital Design by Stephen Hall and Howard Heck. I don’t have a full review for you yet, because I’ve only had a few minutes with it so far. It seems to live up to the first word of its title, because it doesn’t pull any punches: Messrs. Hall and Heck come out swinging in Chapter Two with a systematic review of Maxwell’s equations. Bravi!

I was immediately struck by first figure of the first (introduction/motivation) chapter, which is a plot based on a 1998 paper by Hans Moravec called When Will Computer Hardware Match the Human Brain? Here is the plot, overlaid with an additional point from the present world-champion supercomputer, the 1.5 peta FLOPS (that’s 1.5×1015 floating-point operations per second), $133 million, custom machine Roadrunner that IBM built for Los Alamos National Lab:

Historical and extrapolated computer power derived from Moravec and Roadrunner home page

(Strictly speaking, Moravec’s paper has instructions/s but Roadrunner is spec’d in FLOPS, but given the three-decade-per-tick log scale this difference is negligible.)

Some observations:

  • If you don’t have $100 million to spend on a supercomputer, just wait ~20 years and you’ll get the same power on your desktop for a few thousand dollars.
  • Far from slowing down, it seems the pace of improvement is accelerating. Maybe it’s because each generation of computers enables the next by allowing more and more sophisticated engineering using said faster computers and the EDA and CAD tools that run on them?
  • According to Moravec’s criterion, the world smartest thing isn’t a human (with a mere 0.1 peta instructions/s): Roadrunner is fifteen times "smarter." Presently, fifteen humans are a lot cheaper than one $133 million Roadrunner (just its electricity bill is ~$4M/year), but if a $1,330 desktop computer in 2030 is smarter than its user, why bother with the user or their desk?

Is Roadrunner really as smart as a human? Will the trend continue or flatten off? Will we get a one peta FLOPS machine on our desktops by 2030? Will it still take Windows four minutes to reboot? What do you think? Post a comment below!

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Michael Mirmak who kindly alerted me about Hall & Heck’s book shortly after I posted some book reviews. Yikes! That was back in June. How time flies…

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