Infographic: The Past, Present, and Future of Supercomputers

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Last week, tech bloggers wrote excitedly about the 30th anniversary of the PC, using the debut of IBM's 5150 in New York City as the reference point. I can't believe it's been that long, either. But computers have been around a lot longer than the 19-inch color television or the Sinclair ZX80 (other tech products that were released around the same time). Supercomputers have been used by the government since World War II.

Of course, the machines used back then were terribly slow compared to the machines we use today. They couldn't even compete with that old dial-up you used to access AOL chat rooms in the '90s. But they were computers, capable of performing calculations faster than a single human. We've come a long way. The supercomputers in use today are more than one million times faster than their predecessors, according to this new infographic from Peer1 Hosting, which traces the history of the machine.

Infographics are always a bit of a hodgepodge of statistics culled from a variety of sources. Here, we sort through the clutter and pull out some of our favorite facts and figures:

  • Before the 1920s, computers were regarded as human beings who performed calculations. After the 1920s, computers became known as machines that performed many more calculations than a single human being could handle.
  • From the 1940s to the 1960s, landmark machines from Colossus to ENIAC to Cray increased the number of vacuum and other tubes and therefore speed at which they worked and moved from specific-purpose machines to general-purpose ones with storage for instructions for multiple computations.
  • In the late 1960s and 1970s, supercomputers began to utilize vector processing techniques. This altered the way data was processed and sped it up and these techniques contributed to the design and usefulness of PCs sold to the general public in the 1980s and 1990s.
  • Supercomputers and the tasks they complete have grown with the continuous leap in processing power during their development. Over the course of the last seven decades, processors have moved from measuring thousands of operations per second to million of floating point operations per second to quadrillions of floating point operations per second.
  • Computers became "super" as multiple processors were linked together and multiple processes could be performed on the same sets of data. Increases in speed and shorter increments between these increases is attributed to improvements in actual processor technology.
  • Supercomputers are doing ground-breaking work that might not be possible without them. For example, using a molecular dynamics simulation to study an organic chemical reaction that may have played a part in the development of RNA for early forms of life and studying the evolutionary history of a family of enzymes that play a role in many human diseases and may lead to anti-cancer therapies.
  • By 2018, supercomputers are expected to be able to process information on a level similar to the human brain. Around 2020, processing speeds will cross into the exaflop category, or one quintillion operations per second, which is approximately 1,000 times as powerful as supercomputers today. Somewhere between 2025 and 2045, they are expected to develop self-awareness.

Check out more Infographics on the Technology Channel.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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