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Weird analogy of the week

The supercomputer

by James Dacey

Ever wondered how many “men with calculators” it takes to match a day’s worth of IBM supercomputing?

According to The Times newspaper, it’s 120 billion of them, working for 50 years.


Well, it all began yesterday at a press conference in San Francisco…

IBM revealed plans to build a supercomputer twenty times more powerful than today’s record.

The software company’s new baby is called Sequoia will be ready for action by 2012 when it takes up residence at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California.

Building and running costs will be covered by the US Department of Energy who are employing Sequoia to model the decay of the US nuclear weapons arsenal.

So what is this thing?

IBM’s geekspeak tells us that Sequoia will run at 20 petaflops: “peta” being the prefix for a quadrillion (10^15^) and FLOP standing for floating point operations per second.

The company will use their “Blue Gene” chip to make it different from a lot of other supercomputers which work by stacking up a whole load of servers.

Now, I’m no supercomputer aficionado but this computer seems substantially larger than previous computers, and, for that reason, worth reporting. The British mainstream press also thought so as the story appears on web pages of The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Times, along with a host of smaller sites.

Science journalists are always looking for “world-firsts” and “coo-wow” factor when it comes to new technologies, so it’s no real surprise that this humungous lump of American computer has received this widespread coverage.

And journalists are also committed to presenting facts in understandable, every-day terms. So it was interesting to see how the national papers would describe Sequoia’s processing power.

The Guardian, they went straight for the coo-wow, describing it as “the equivalent of more than 2m laptops.”

The Telegraph were a bit more conservative, focussing on the specific new development – “one order of magnitude quicker than its predecessor”

And then there’s The Times. Their description is – quite frankly – bizarre:

“Given an entire day, the Sequoia could match the output that 120 billion men with calculators might achieve in 50 years.”


Who are these men?
What are they calculating?
What type of calculator are they using?
Are they allowed bathroom breaks??

Ok, I’m being a little bit silly, but is a weird analogy. Quite creepy too, when you really think about it. And more than a little bit arbitrary.

So, creative readers, I throw this out to you – how would you describe the computing power of IBM’s new monster machine?

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  1. 1.2 trillion men with calculators working for five years.

  2. chris

    “IBM’s geekspeak tells us that Sequoia will run at 20 petaflops: “peta” being the prefix for a quadrillion (1015)”
    Superscripts please.

  3. cpk

    really really fast

  4. Doompere

    Awesome, Dude!

  5. Paul Walker

    About the same as the 10 people thinking really hard!!
    (20 petaflops, 64 bit floating point => 10^18 bits operated per second)
    (10^11 synapses with 10^4 connections firing at 100 Hz, 10 people => 10^18 “fire/no-fire” options per second)
    (figures courtesy of random non-validated web sites!!)

  6. Paulo Gotac

    As you frequently see in Quantum Mechanics text-books: “…the observer need not to be a human being….”. In this case, the men, need not to be men…

  7. Dan L

    Everyone knows that women make the best calculators. They
    discovered this during the Manhattan Project.

  8. If I recall correctly, according to Ray Kurzweil, et al, 20 petaflops is equivalent to 1 human brain.

  9. Okay, 120 billion men working for 50 years with calculators..
    Or a few women working with a Quantum calculator :-)

  10. It’ll still take a windows operating system a few minutes to boot

  11. Julian

    Curiously, there are about 10-peta ants in the world… so I suggest that the total world population of ants be used as the reference for all supercomputer specs in future.
    Take Paul Walker’s 10^18 bit operations per second as reference.
    Assume 10^16 ants, each with 2.5 x 10^5 neurons, and further assume connectivity (10^4 per neuron, ->2.5×10^9 synapses) and speed (100Hz) similar to a human brain. Total 2.5 x 10^27 bit operations/s. Let us call this unit a World Ant Thinking unit (or Total etc. if you prefer)
    The 20PFLOP computer is then 4 x 10^-10 WATS, or 400 pico WATS which, being quite small leaves plenty of room for improvement.
    And we can then talk about Watts/WAT too…
    1 human brain with distraction enabled

  12. What a shame… The worlds most advanced system being used to model nuclear weapons. I would hope, as a taxpayer, that the system is also used for other scientific purposes that are non-military in nature.

  13. This is very exciting technology. IBM is traditionally, in top of the patent filings. The patent system allows for them to make these advances and instead of keeping them secret disclose them to the public.


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