America’s Spies Want To Build An Even More Super — Supercomputer – The Next Digital Paradigm

America’s Spies Want To Build An Even More Super — Supercomputer – The Next Digital Paradigm

Frank Konkel, writing in the December 5, 2014 edition of, notes that “the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) (the Intelligence Community’s research arm) is funding research that could fundamentally change the field of supercomputing. ” IARPA announced last week that it had “awarded research contracts in support of its Cryogenic Computer Complexity, or C3 program, that IARPA hopes will lead to a new generation of energy-efficient superconducting supercomputers that far exceed the capabilities of today’s computers.”

“The multi-year research may also make the U.S. government the frontrunner over China, Russia, the European Union, and Japan — in the global race to build a computer capable of breaking the famed exaflop barrier — capable of quintillion, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 floating point operations per second,” Mr. Konkel wrote.

“The fastest supercomputers today,” Mr. Konkel argues, “including China’s 55-petaflop Milky Way 2, are based on complimentary metal oxide semiconductor technology that requires tens of megawatts to power. Scaled out on today’s technology, IARPA estimates an exascale-capable supercomputer, would require hundreds of megawatts of power, which would need a power source akin to the Hoover Dam. It would also cost a fortune — Japan recently invested $1B in an attempt to build the world’s first exascale computer.”

“The power, space, and cooling requirements for current supercomputers — based on complementary metal oxide semiconductor technology…are becoming unmanageable,” said Marc Maheimer, C3 Program Manager at IARPA. “Computers based on superconducting logic — integrated with new kinds of cryogenic memory — will allow expansion of current computing facilities…while staying within space and energy budgets, may enable supercomputer development beyond the exascale.”

Mr. Konkel writes that “IARPA awarded the research contracts to teams led by IBM, Raytheon-BBN, and Northrup Grumman Corporation — all large contractors with histories in supercomputing. C3’s stated goal is to use recent breakthroughs in superconducting technologies…to find a long-term successor to CMOS-based supercomputers. These machines would be smaller, require less physical infrastructure to cool them; and would have a much more reduced energy footprint than current machines.”

“According to IARPA, “researchers will develop critical components for memory and logic subsystems and plan a prototype computer. if the high-risk, high-reward investment pans out, the components would be integrated into the world’s first superconducting, supercomputer.”

The Next Digital Paradigm

Greg Satell, writing in the February 2, 2013 online edition of, observes that “for over half a century, we’ve been cramming more and more transistors — into smaller and smaller spaces; and, doubling processing power about every 18 months. Now,” he contends, “we’re nearing the physical limits of the present technology; and, sometime around 2020, will begin a new paradigm.”

“This new era won’t be based on solid state physics, the science that led to transistors; but, on quantum information, the strange rules that govern the subatomic world,” Mr. Satell contends. “New quantum computers have the potential to be millions of times faster…than even our most powerful supercomputers today, quantum cryptography will usher in a new era of super-secure transactions and quantum storage will achieve unparalleled density.”

“Unlike the dawn of the computer age,” Mr. Satell notes, “where we saw little benefit for a generation, this new technology will begin affecting our daily lives within a decade.”

When Siri Meets Watson

“Two of the coolest technologies to come out in recent years, are Apple’s Siri, the conversational interface available on iPhones and iPads; and Watson, the IBM supercomputer that competed on; and won on, the game show Jeapordy!, which requires human-like leaps of intuition. So, what does the future hold?” asks Mr. Satell.

“If we go by current trends, processing efficiency will increase 100-fold; and, storage will increase 1000 fold, over the next ten years. So,” Mr. Satell observes, “we can expect the $3M price tag for Watson to come down to about $30,000 in a decade; while the 4 terabytes of memory it used will be equivalent, relatively speaking, to the 4GB we get free online today.”

“Fairly soon,” Mr. Satell forecasts, “we can expect to have natural, human-like interfaces, connecting to Watson-like processing power available for everyday use. Bandwidth in ten years, will be about thirty times faster; and, we’ll be connected to low power sensors throughout our environment — so, we’ll be able to access vast amounts of information about our physical environment almost instantly, everywhere we go.” Well, maybe not North Korea — if it still exists by then.

“Somewhere around 2030,” he writes, “we’ll be connected to strong artificial intelligence that will be indistinguishable from dealing with a human, except of course for the fact that it will link us to the sum total of the world’s knowledge in an instant.”

The Rise Of Cyborgs – When Genomics Meet Nanotech

“Information technology does not exist in a vacuum; but, goes on to enhance other areas,” Mr. Satell argues. “The ability to use computers to perform enormous calculations, at blazing speed…and, apply that processing power to design and problem solving tasks — is transforming just about every field you can imagine. We can already see the potential in genomics and nanotechnology,” he says, “both of which are advancing at an incredible pace and, as the nearly infinite processing power of quantum computing accelerates them even faster, will allow us to alter our bodies at the molecular level.”

“Both technologies are being deployed to cure disease. Synthetic blood has been developed that has already saved lives, while synthetic organs and programmable cell therapies will soon be able to not only extend longevity, but to restore function. Nanoparticles are being engineered to deliver drugs to specific drugs to specific receptors, on specific cells.”

“Quantum computing will only accelerate this trend.” Mr. Satell asserts, “and lead to the enhancement of human bodies. In the future, synthetic respirocytes could hold hundreds of times more oxygen than natural red blood cells and engineered tissues will merge man and machine. Nanobots will travel through our bodies, monitoring for trouble, and making repairs when needed.”

Getting Over Singularity

“The future is always uncertain; and, there is no guarantee that all of these technologies will come to fruition; or, any of them for that matter. However, what is undeniable,” Mr. Satell argues, “is that technology is accelerating, and quantum computing represents an entirely new paradigm. The advancement we achieved in the last century will be dwarfed by the speed of the change in this one.”

“So, where does all this lead?” Mr. Satell asks. Futurist Ray Kurzweil “believes the logical sequence is technological singularity, where man and machine become hopelessly intertwined. It is a vision that instills both hope and fear; one that is at the same time — both utopian, and dystopian. When we merge with our machines — who will we really be?”

So, as we ponder super, supercomputers, and their awesome potential, as well as their downside — I would submit it is a race we cannot afford to lose. Should the darker angels of our nature get their first — everything else may not matter very much. “Open the bay doors Hal!” V/R, RCP

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