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Boffins: Roadrunner hypercomputer could drive a car

A bloody big car. Also, human obsolescence imminent

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American nuke boffins who have just fired up the world's first petaflop hypercomputer* are extremely excited, and contend that the machine may enable them to accurately simulate important segments of the human brain. Conceivably, the mighty "Roadrunner" - as the computer is known - may exhibit capabilities verging on human cognition.

“Roadrunner ushers in a new era for science,” said Terry Wallace of the Los Alamos National Lab - birthplace of the atomic bomb.

“Just a week after formal introduction of the machine to the world, we are already doing computational tasks that existed only in the realm of imagination a year ago.”

Specifically, it seems that Roadrunner's unprecedented computational puissance has allowed the American boffins to "model more than a billion visual neurons ... to reach a new computing performance record of 1.144 petaflop/s. The achievement throws open the door to eventually achieving human-like cognitive performance in electronic computers".

The excited brainboxes reckon that this type of computing power would be able to achieve visual tasks which thus far only the human brain can accomplish, such as handling a car in dense rush-hour traffic.

At the moment you'd be talking about a pretty big car, however, as Roadrunner reportedly weighs about 227 tonnes and requires three megawatts of power - more than the total engine horsepower of several main battle tanks, with nothing left over for locomotion. Fag-packet calculations seem to indicate that any present-day Roadrunner equipped autonomous car would be more on the lines of a small warship than any kind of ground vehicle. Of course, remote control networked brain-in-a-box-as-a-service style efforts might be more what the American boffins have in mind.

Still, the new Los Alamos announcement serves to further flesh out emerging media yardsticks for hypercomputing puissance. It seems to be firmly established that a Roadrunner is equal to either 45 or possibly four-and-a-half standard mouse brains, depending on whether the speed of the simulated murine intellect is allowed for. We now have it that this in turn is roughly equal to one human visual cortex, a noticeable chunk of the human brain. (As an aside, in a development sure to enrage Douglas Adams fans, the average human appears to be between ten and a hundred times as intelligent as a mouse.)

Formally speaking, the Roadrunner is actually intended to model atomic bomb performance, thus validating the ageing US nuke stockpile's continued ability to destroy the world without the need for messy tests or pricey, controversial new warhead production. However, as a side-effect, this kind of computing could easily see the human race becoming a thing of the past in a completely different fashion.

"Because there are about a quadrillion synapses in the human brain, human cognition is a petaflop computational problem," hint the Los Alamos boffins. Plainly an even bigger lashup of game-console processors - a large percentage of Roadrunner's 116,640 cores are provided by modified PS3 Cells - could become self-aware and whup humanity's intellectual ass in short order.

Decapetaflop machines are expected as of 2011, according to the TOP500 computer-watch project; continuing this projection the first exaflop machine - and humanity's total humiliation by its machine superiors - can't be much further off than 2020. ®

* A computer which can generate unprecedented levels of hype. Take that mirror away.

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