Monday, February 22, 2010

Growth in computing power

I am running a fever, cough and cold that collaboratively make me tired at body and heart. The tiredness unfortunately keeps me away from blogging, as research, work, and study effectively occupy my reduced "active" time. When the going gets tough, I have to give priority to what I am paid for and what I pay for. Somehow I find sometime to write this, when my Python script is running in the background.

Recently I have read this 2002 NBER paper, titled The Progress of Computing by Yale's economic professor, W.D. Nordhaus. This is a good 61 page article that covers the 150 year history of computers. I am always a big fan of the evolution of computers, because it teaches a lot of lessons about what not to do. It's still a serious paper, not a set of anecdotes.

The important observation is the rate at which the power of computation has grown after the World War II. Believe it or not, over this period of the last 150 years, the growth in computational power is trillion times. I don't think any of technology or field can boast this kind of growth. Of course, medicine is a field that grows very fast, although it is not easily measurable like computers. But the growth in medicine had a huge acceleration when computers started playing a role in improving diagnostic and surgical ability of doctors, as with any other field.

The most interesting part of the essay is the graph shown above. This graph is plotted for a forty year period in which it shows the exponential decrease in the computer price (it's a semilog plot). As it can be observed, the price of computation from 1970 to 2000 has gone down by a factor of one million. I would like to see the increase in efficiency and productivity in various industries that has been brought about by this reduced cost of computation. This may arguably be the most important testimonial for man's achievements over the past half-a-century.

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