Cray-zy Thoughts

A couple of weeks ago, my ten-year-old daughter asked me a question that put me in a weird state of mind. She asked, innocently enough, “Was there anything you really wanted when you were a kid?”

“Yes”, I said. The answer came quickly, and I said the first thing that came to my mind. “ A Cray XMP supercomputer.” Yes, I was a weird kid. (I also wanted my own scanning electron microscope, among other things…)

So I immediately searched for an image to show my daughter,

Cray xmp (

and she didn’t believe it was really a computer! Out of curiosity, I tried to look up the specifications of the Cray XMP; apparently, this supercomputer was about as powerful as an IBM desktop computer with a 386 microprocessor and 16MB of RAM. While I could never say I’ve owned computers at the bleeding edge of technology, I have been owning supercomputers for most of my life without even realizing it: desktops, laptops, tablets, cell phones!

Although I’d have to check deeper on the specifications, it’s even possible that a local technology conference made supercomputers available, as a kit, to augment attendees’ name badges, for about $30. At the very least, this processor had access to far more memory than a 1980s supercomputer…

I thought back to one of the technology companies I worked for, where a prospective employee was asked about how he might optimize an algorithm. After giving a solution, he then added, “It’s most likely best, though, to just add servers, because it’s more expensive to use software engineer time on the problem than it is to add hardware.” The Cray XMP cost about $15 million for the most basic model; nowadays, when we want something to go faster, we just throw supercomputers at the problem in consideration!

Perhaps this line of thought shouldn’t have caught me by surprise. Indeed, I have always had a difficulty calling my pocket nanocomputer a “telephone”; after all, if I had more time, I’d figure out how to use it as a full-fledged computer. I had always wanted a computer that I could carry around with me everywhere I go, and so far, my tablet and my telephone are the closest I have come. If only I could get rid of that pesky Android OS, and replace it with a Real Operating System!

Science Fiction snuck up on me, even though I should have seen it coming. This is particularly weird, since I have grown up with computers, and I should have seen this happening all along. And it isn’t just computers, of course – Robert A. Heinlein once observed that he was born in the era of horse and buggy, and lived to see men walk on the moon. Today, we may be on the verge of autonomous cars…and these cars may come about gradually enough that the legal issues that so many people fear will kill this prospect will be resolved before anyone realizes what happened.

These changes seem to happen so gradually, it’s a little tempting to question the value of Science Fiction – after all, it doesn’t reliably predict the future – but then, I have always been attracted to both Science Fiction and Fantasy, not for their predictive power, but for the way they construct new worlds on a few basic assumptions. I then try to figure out what the worlds might look like based on these supposed changes. As a mathematician with engineering tendencies (pretending to be a computer programmer), I cannot help but appreciate opportunities to imagine the world in new ways, even if, in a tantalizingly cruel way, I currently cannot help to pull the future in the more desirable of those directions.

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