Aardvark DailyNew Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 18th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.
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My first microcomputer was a home-built 8-bit unit running at an earth-shattering 1MHz and using a 110 baud serial interface.
Oh the power!
I recall waiting interminable lengths of time for this thing to even spit out a single screen (16 lines of 32 characters) of data and loading a program from the unreliable (also home-built) cassette-tape interface was something akin to watching paint dry.
Of course this was 1977 and back then *any* computer system was just uber-cool -- if you were a power-geek like I was.
Jump forward a few years and the lowly Signetics 2650 chip I'd been using was replaced by such incredible devices as the 8080, Z80 and 6502. Clock speeds had also increased by a factor of four. These new micros were *smoking-fast*.
Finally, even home-computers such as the Apple II and Tandy TRS80 could run fast enough to allow graphically-oriented computer games that delivered realtime performance.
Of course show these antiques to a kid who's be raised on Intel i3, i5 or i7 processors and they'd laugh long and hard. "How on earth could you old guys have used such a slow and clunky machine?" would undoubtedly be their response.
It would be easy to see where they'd be coming from.
Today's silicon is just so much more powerful than the stuff we played with in those early days. Instead of a humble 4Kbytes, today's PCs have 4GB -- that's an increase of six orders of magnitude.
Likewise, that 1MHz clock has risen to 3GHz, another 3,000-fold increase in a little over 30 years.
Go back to the early 1980s and we had the Sinclair ZX81 -- a wimpy little single-board computer in a wimpy vacuum-formed plastic case. It had a paltry amount of RAM and a 4MHz Z80 processor but it sold like hotcakes and introduced many folk to the wonderful world of personal computers.
From memory, these sold for about NZ $199 of those far more valuable 1980s dollars.
Now look at the 2012 equivalent - the Raspberry Pi.
The Pi sells for about NZ $60, is way, way faster, will run Linux, drive an HD screen and you can pop a 16GB SD card in for a few extra bucks.
Today's silicon is really powerful and really, really cheap!
And the ball just keeps rolling -- look what's next.
As regular readers know, I've been working hard on my Sense And Avoid (SAA) system over the past week or two (it's going very well by the way) and this work has really brought home to me just how much grunt today's modern silicon delivers for such tiny amounts of coin.
Although I'm using an ARM processor right now on the prototype system (because it's quick, cheap and easy), I will be moving some of the more critical processing to an FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) -- and that's when things get really exciting!
While modern CPUs offer a degree of parallel processing (thanks to their multiple cores), you just can't beat an FPGA for some tasks which are highly parallel in nature -- and that's exactly what's needed with the SAA system.
The FPGA solution to some of the processing I'm working with now will be least two orders of magnitude faster than trying to perform the same task using a conventional processor. These are levels of "crunching" that probably represent as much (if not more) raw processing power than existed in the whole world in the early 1970s -- all in a couple of lumps of silicon that you can hold in the palm of your hand.
I can't wait to see what we come up with over the next 50 years -- although I'm sure I wont be around in 2062.
Where will the future of processing power belong?
Will quantum computing deliver on its shaky promises?
Might optical technology take over?
Or perhaps the future rests in the camp of bio-computers which, although maybe more prone to coughs and sneezes, will be self-repairing and capable of self-reproduction.
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