Anglican Samizdat

February 1, 2010

The end of algorithmic computing

Filed under: Computers — David @ 12:40 am

Physics limits computing power:

IBM engineers are currently putting the finishing touches on a beast of a computer.

The machine, code-named Blue Waters and set for delivery to the University of Illinois later this year, is the product of work completed in myriad IBM offices around the world. At 10 petaflops, it will be about five times faster than the fastest supercomputer in the world today.

To get a sense of how fast a peta-scale computer is, think of every human being on Earth doing a million calculations each. A peta-scale computer can do that every second. This is the kind of computer you use if you want to measure what every atom in a person’s digestive system is doing, or if you are trying to predict what the Earth’s climate will look like in 100 years.

Some time around the end of this decade, one of the most profound transformations in the history of computer science will begin to take shape. It will simply become impossible to improve computing power at the rate it has advanced for the past three decades. The ceiling won’t be a result of cost – in their current configurations, computer chips can only be made so small before running into the basic laws of physics.

The implications for the computer industry are enormous. It may be years away, but software programmers, circuit makers and computer manufacturers are nonetheless staring at a brick wall in the distance.

It is interesting to note that, even at 10 petaflops, or 10,000,000,000,000,000 calculations per second, a computer cannot do a convincing imitation of a human being. This reinforces Roger Penrose’s contention that algorithmic computing will never produce intelligence.

It is fashionable to believe that science has the answer to every question; it doesn’t, of course, since even a five year-old can ask a question that science cannot answer: “why are we here?”. Another question that science can’t answer – and I suspect will never be able to answer – is, “what is mind”.

A Christian believes mind exists because mankind is made in God’s image.  A scientist has no answer and builds peta-flop computers instead.


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