IBM’s new RoadRunner supercomputer is set to break the world’s supercomputing record by performing more than a quadrillion operations per second. That’s right, a quadrillion. For those of you like me who hadn’t heard that word before, it means 1000 trillion, or more explicitly: 1,000,000,000,000,000.

That number resonates with me because I’ve read several books that discuss the future of technology and how we are on the cusp of approaching the computing capacity of the human brain. One of the better books I’ve read on the topic is The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil. In it he talks a lot about The Law of Accelerating Returns which states that the rate of technological change is actually accelerating, and not fixed.

To make this more clear, Moore’s Law says that computing power doubles every 18 months and most claim that this “law” has held consistent throughout the last half century. However, if we take a look at the improvements in supercomputing capacity then we notice that over a longer period of time, the rate at which speeds are doubling is actually shortening over time. Take a look at the table below, it shows the time taken for a thousand times increase in the top supercomputing speed globally. Notice that each successive 1000x increase has taken less time than the previous one. Hence the Law of Accelerating Returns.

Law of Accelerating Returns

So what does all this mean for us? Well Ray Kurzweil is renowned for having made many successful predictions, one of the most famous of these being that a computer would beat the best human at chess in 1998. It actually happened a year earlier in 1997. He made the prediction almost 10 years prior in one of his books.

Kurzweil estimates the computing capacity of the human brain at 20 million billion FLOPS – or 20 (here it comes) quadrillion FLOPS. It’s not easy to precisely calculate the computational speed of the human brain, but if we were assume he is correct then based on the historical data above we should see supercomputers reaching human-like speeds within the next 6 years – so by 2013. But due to the Law of Accelerating Returns, even if he is off by a factor of 10 or 100, that will only add a couple of years to the estimate. So we can very safely predict that by 2015 we will have machines with the computing capacity of the human brain.

Now that’s a milestone!