Michio Kaku and the Supercomputing Future


A couple of months ago (November 2012) the Supercomputing 2012 conference (SC12) took Salt Lake City by storm. Literally.

The annual Supercomputing Conference, known as SC, is sponsored by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the IEEE Computer Society, and it’s a long-running, premier high performance computing event. It was established in 1988 and every year brings together the brightest minds of the technical computing community, from academia to industry, in a week-long show of overwhelming proportions.

Researchers, scientists, developers, national labs staff, computing industry vendors and journalists have their hands full trying to navigate the deluge of sessions, workshops, presentations, briefings, product launches and, of course, parties. There’s so much to do and plan for any given SC event. It’s almost a computational challenge itself.

It’s definitely a must-attend event if you are part of the technical computing ecosystem or just a plain computer tech geek, obviously.

An early winter snowstorm dropped more flurries than usual on the Midwest that week. I sure wasn’t expecting to arrive at Salt Lake to find freezing temperatures and almost a foot of snow (note to self: pack more winter clothes when traveling). It turned out that the weather was not the only cool thing to see at SC12.

November Winter Storm

One of the highlights of the conference technical program was the opening keynote address that was presented by Dr. Michio Kaku. I admit I usually don’t like futurology-focused talks. It’s okay to be theoretical, but some people just let it loose. I was curious to hear his perspective on the future of supercomputers in our lives. Since this was SC12, I figured his speech would take a deeper tone and would touch on some of the greatest challenges for the technical computing community.

Dr. Kaku’s bio is quite provocative. Renowned theoretical physicist, co-founder of string field theory and popularizer of science, his well-known figure can often be spotted on TV shows and at science events worldwide. His publicized goal is to complete Einstein’s dream of a “theory of everything,” to derive an equation, perhaps no more than one inch long, that will summarize all the physical laws of the universe. Heavy lifting involved.

He has authored some very interesting books, including New York Times best sellers Physics of the Impossible and Physics of the Future.

Building on ideas presented in his most recent book Physics of the Future: How Science will Change Daily Life by 2100, Dr. Kaku showed to a completely full ballroom how revolutionary developments in medicine, computers and quantum physics will shape our lives in the future.

Supercomputing Conference 2012

The pitch started with a probing question: Where does wealth come from? In his vision, prosperity in our society is intrinsically related to waves in science and technology. They cascade a series of events that create wealth. But wealth is restless in nature and needs to migrate to economic “bubbles,” which are destined to burst and cause major depression in markets worldwide.

Dr. Kaku then rewound back to events in physics history and made a correlation to the generation of wealth and the consequent bubbles and depressions. It was definitely a great discussion.

The first wave came during the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s. Thermodynamics of steam engines created wealth never before seen in history. And all that wealth gradually migrated to the London Stock Exchange, until it became unsustainable by 1850. The bubble popped and we had the first big global crisis.

Eighty years later, electricity and magnetism brought another tidal wave. It was the birth of the modern age, where combustion engines and utilities generated wealth that helped shape modern society. Unfortunately, we saw all that wealth feed the New York Stock Exchange in the 1920s, culminating with the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression. The second bubble burst.

The third wave comes again 80 years later, when high technology, computers, lasers, transistors and the space program made possible the age of knowledge. In the US the bubble went to real estate this time, and as a result we saw the economic recession that began in 2008.

Interestingly enough, Dr. Kaku then shifted focus to what, in his opinion, will be the fourth wave. According to him, the fourth wave will be a combination of biotechnology, artificial intelligence, quantum physics and nanotechnology. It will be a revolution beyond silicon, as carbon nanotubes and quantum computing make their way into our lives. Supercomputers will begin to approach the computational speed of the human mind.

We will witness the end of the age of silicon. Moore’s law already shows strong signs of slowing down. Dr. Kaku predicts that in 10 years computer chips will cost only a penny. And he’s not kidding.

This means the realization of the smart computing era, when computer chips will be “anywhere and nowhere, hidden in the fabric of our existing,” in Dr. Kaku’s words. Computing will be a metered utility, like we have electricity and running water today. The entire world will become one large interconnected supercomputer. And in this world high technology is the source of wealth.

Dr. Kaku’s argument was solid. In areas where the Internet is readily accessible to the majority of population, you see wealth and prosperity; where Internet access is lacking, you see ignorance and poverty.

As part of the show, the speaker presented the audience with several examples of the major role of technology in our not-so-distant future. One of the more interesting examples was how augmented reality will become real reality when chips cost a penny and the computer power in the cloud connects you everywhere. We will live backed up by the cloud, where information about basically everything will be promptly available and sent directly to your retina. Information imposed into reality.

We’ve already seen signs of this revolution. Recently Google showed us working prototypes of glasses that keep us connected all the time. This kind of technology will change the way we interact with the world and with people. For those who actually don’t need glasses, Internet contact lenses will also be available in the future. Dr. Kaku mentioned that even x-ray vision will no longer considered science fiction. Just imagine cameras that can shoot external images directly to your lenses, so you can literally see through walls.

In the future, computer chips will be embedded even on wallpapers. Thanks to miniaturization and the low cost of chips, we will be able to lay intelligent wallpaper in our rooms that interacts with touch, sound and video. I can already imagine my future living room.

As a consequence, the nature of medical care will change. We will have expert systems accessible in our walls, thanks to intelligent wallpapers. IBM Watson is in the cloud and can do a checkup on you through the wallpaper of the future. This technology can provide 99 percent accuracy on diagnostics—only a touch away. Humans will not be replaced, but answers to 99 percent of the common, everyday questions will be provided by expert cognitive systems.

On the topic of big data, Dr. Kaku made a key observation about data being on center stage, rather than processing power. Files are relevant, not personal computers.

“Shopping will be done by supercomputing in the cloud,” said Dr. Kaku. You buy online and your credit card record holds your exact body measures. No more wrong-sized clothes. This moves us towards the age of mass customization.

I have to agree that in this scenario the advantage shifts to the consumer, who has access to all the information about a product, even how much it really costs. The producer can fight back using data mining, target marketing, product positioning and branding. All of those are made possible by expert systems in the cloud doing big data analytics extensively.

And what is the next big industry to be digitalized? Yes, medicine. It’s amazing that genome sequencing costs are way below USD $10,000 already. Check the dramatic evolution that is tracked by the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Dr. Kaku explained that, in the future, all medicine will be reduced to computer science. “How small can you make a chip? So small it can fit into an aspirin pill, alongside a TV camera and a magnet . . .” Miniaturization applied to medicine enables targeted cancer treatment. Nanotechnology allows antibodies on molecules to seek and destroy cancerous cells, one by one. There are human trials going on already.

The SC12 keynote presentation was full of very good insights. I could almost immediately relate it to the IBM Smarter Computing vision I try to share almost every day with clients and colleagues.

It’s time to rethink systems design and provide IT infrastructure solutions that are ready for the challenges of tomorrow.

Dr. Kaku ended his keynote address by proposing a deeper reflection. He shared his concern that technical computing needs a voice to continue its valuable contribution to the wealth of our society. The world needs to realize that all the wealth and prosperity will come from developments in high technology, and therefore investment is more than necessary.

I could not agree more.

Rodrigo Garcia da Silva is the Technical Computing Solutions Architect for IBM Systems and Technology Group in Brazil. He joined IBM in 2007 and has a total of 10 years of experience in the IT industry. You can find Rodrigo on Twitter: @rgarciatk and on LinkedIn

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