Remember the ENIAC computer? (Well, I guess I’m not actually asking if you REMEMBER it– as in you SAW it in person– more if you read and learned about it in the past.)

ENIAC computer

According to the current WikiPedia entry, it was unveiled in 1946 and cost approximately $500,000.

ENIAC was designed and built to calculate artillery firing tables for the U.S. Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory… ENIAC contained 17,468 vacuum tubes, 7,200 crystal diodes, 1,500 relays, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors and around 5 million hand-soldered joints. It weighed 30 short tons (27 t), was roughly 8.5 feet by 3 feet by 80 feet (2.6 m by 0.9 m by 26 m), took up 680 square feet (63 m²), and consumed 150 kW of power… The ENIAC used four of the accumulators controlled by a special Multiplier unit and could perform 385 multiplication operations per second…..

I remember the ENIAC mainly for its size and relatively paltry computing capabilities compared to personal computers and supercomputers today. It was in “continuous operation” until 1955. When I think of the early days of computing, I immediately think of the ENIAC.

I mentioned in my post “The benefits of unplugging” that our family visited Los Alamos, New Mexico, last week. Los Alamos is home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Each time we’ve driven through Los Alamos, I’ve wondered what millions of our tax dollars are up to there– paying scientists and engineers to continue developing new technologies for the US military and our weapons systems. This evening, reading the news on our Wii as I waited for my son to teach me how to play “Rayman Raving Rabbids,” I read today’s AP article “Scientists develop fastest computer.” For a total cost of $100 million, scientists and engineers worked six years to create a supercomputer reminiscent of the ENIAC but vastly greater in its physical size as well as computing capabilities. For the first time the computer has:

…performed 1,000 trillion calculations per second in a sustained exercise… To put the computer’s speed in perspective, it has roughly the computing power of 100,000 of today’s most powerful laptops stacked 1.5 miles high, according to IBM. Or, if each of the world’s 6 billion people worked on hand-held computers for 24 hours a day, it would take them 46 years to do what the Roadrunner computer can do in a single day.

So if everyone on the planet was using an iPhone 24/7, how many years would it take us to replicate a day’s work of “the Roadrunner?” 🙂

The size specifications of the Roadrunner dwarf the ENIAC as well. According to the same article:

The interconnecting system occupies 6,000 square feet with 57 miles of fiber optics and weighs 500,000 pounds. Although made from commercial parts, the computer consists of 6,948 dual-core computer chips and 12,960 cell engines, and it has 80 terabytes of memory housed in 288 connected refrigerator-sized racks.

80 terabytes of memory… Is that all? Will my kids have that much storage capacity in their handheld computers when they start attending college in about a decade? Quite possibly.

I don’t intend to trivialize this computing achievement with attempted levity. On a more serious note, I recognize the pivotal role funding by the US government for military computing applications continues to play in the development of computing and supercomputing capabilities. The ENIAC was originally designed to make more accurate and thorough calculations for the US Army’s artillery units. The Roadrunner is ostensibly being used “to assure the safety and security of our (weapons) stockpile.” Do we really need a supercomputer with petaflop performance capabilities to do that? I thought the nuclear football, developed during the administration of Eisenhower, did that for us? I think it’s fair to hypothesize the actual military uses of the Roadrunner are barely touched on in today’s AP article.

A petaflop is 10 to the 15th power “flops: FLoating point Operations Per Second.” Can I begin to comprehend a number that large? That challenge is similar to trying to understand the distance the Andromeda Galaxy (our closest neighbor galaxy) is away from our own Milky Way galaxy: Approximately 2.5 million light-years away. I can say that number, but I can I really comprehend it? I don’t think so.

The speed of change we are witnessing today, in our lifetimes, when it comes to information technologies and telecommunications truly IS staggering. An SR-71 was fast (when it was operational) but blog-powered communication is faster. At the speed of light, packets of data traverse our planet and magically permit our ideas and thoughts to interact and influence each other. Who could have dreamed of such a day?

$100 million for a petaflop of performance. Wow. What does that mean? Are we approaching the moment of technological singularity? We’re certainly moving in that direction.

Amidst such change, it is ludicrous and sad to see our political leaders in the United States continuing to emphasize a 19th century approach to education via standardized assessments which place zero value on digital literacy or 21st century skills. We can be frustrated with NCLB, we can be mad about high stakes testing, but more than anything else, I think we can justifiably be sad at the glaring lack of vision and understanding for the dynamic communications landscape of the 21st century which it reflects.

In a few months, citizens of the United States will have an opportunity to cast votes for a new chief executive. When the reins of power are transferred, I hope we’ll be pleased with new educational vision in the White House which supports the development of both traditional as well as digital literacies in the classrooms and homes of our nation. If we’re paying $100 million for a petaflop of performance today, we’ll probably be paying $1000 for that same performance capacity in a decade. Are we equipping our current generations of learners to thrive in an environment replete with such computational capacity? No. Sadly, we’re still arguing about whether or not cell phones should be permitted in schools at all. Are people of all ages going to continue making poor choices with the tools at their fingertips, including cell phones? Of course. The solution is not banning them and condemning students and teachers to a 19th century learning environment devoid of opportunities for digital interaction.

Is this “glass” half empty or half full? I prefer to see it as half full. We live in a day ripe with opportunity for visionary and inspired leadership. Let’s hope our next chief executive signs landmark educational legislation framed by an electronic whiteboard or at least a laptop computer, rather than a chalkboard.

Signing of NCLB

Perhaps such an image will inspire educators around the world to stand up and cheer, rather than fall to their knees and weep.

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