OPINION: We need to do something better with all these computers

So I finally got around to watching Hidden Figures. By now everyone knows what this movie is about, so I won’t rehash that. But look past the actors and the story and there’s another little bit there that’s sure to appeal to the folks who read this blog: The IBM 7090. A little research will tell you that it was one of IBM’s first transistorized computers, capable of an amazing 24,000 floating point calculations per second (The movie got those details right, it would seem.)

24,000 calculations per second seems pretty amazing, and it’s a lot more than humans can do, but it pales in comparison to the roughly two billion calculations that the average cell phone is capable in a second. The question is, though, what are we actually doing with all those processor cycles?

Obviously today’s computers and phones require a lot of complex instructions to run. A computer like the IBM 7090 could not even be operated in real time. You wrote down what you wanted, transferred it to tape or card, and then it did what you asked. Even a simple task like hooking up a keyboard and seeing what you typed was far beyond its capabilities, and it would be another decade before that was really possible. Today we use our computers to show pictures and videos, play sounds, communicate with the outside world in a hundred different ways, and of course, type. That takes millions of calculations. It probably takes 100,000 calculations for each letter I type, truth is I don’t know.

According to the internet (and using processes that probably took about a million calculations) the capacity of all the world’s computers is estimated at

21,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 mathematical calculations per second.

In 1961, we sent a person into space when the entire computing capacity of the government was probably less than 200,000 calculations per second. Think about that. And now we have a literally unimaginable computational force at our disposal. What do we use it for?

Right. I mean you are productive (I presume), you work and shop and communicate, all noble pursuits. But you would think with all of this computery stuff in front of us we could do just a teensy bit better. Looking around my office I have at my disposal about 1,000,000 times more computing capacity than the largest research installation in 1987. And with it, I write a blog. Don’t get me wrong, I like writing the blog. It’s just not curing cancer or anything.

In the past decades, we’ve seen projects like SETI@Home that try to harnes unused computing cycles to do something good for the world. We probably need more of those, and more importantly we need more computers that run ever-more complex simulations. We can laugh about “The Matrix” and whatever but simulating reality is the most difficult and most rewarding thing that can be done. That’s what we ought to be doing with all of our kajillions of computing cycles.

We need to simulate how different drugs could affect different diseases. We need to simulate how today’s weather affects tomorrow’s crops. Even something as mundane as simulating how traffic flows through a city is worthwhile. (In several cities, traffic simulations have allowed for coordinated stoplights that save literally billions of hours per year in wasted time.) We need more of that. Every day, gadzillions of processor cycles are used to simulate different environments in video games. Why can’t we figure out how to use that power to solve real-world problems?

The problem with 1960s computers was one of scarcity. Computers were large, expensive, and (by today’s standards) impossibly slow. The problem today is one of vision. We can create a sufficiently powerful computer to model almost anything, calculate almost anything, do almost anything, but we seem to lack the vision and the skill to take advantage of the computing capacity we have. I’m sure there are a small and dedicated group of scientists who are working on creating just about every kind of use for a computer, in a frantic scramble to solve life’s most pressing problems. I only hope that they aren’t the sorts of people easily distracted by Brad Pitt, because

if so I just derailed human history. Sorry, y’all.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.