Ever since Moore’s idea became a law (by providence), and empires were built upon this law, little has been thought about the need for such advancements. Raw power is considered to many the only real benchmark to what a machine can be compared to others. Cars, computers and toasters are all alike in those matters, and are only as good as their raw throughput (real or not).
With the carbon footprint disaster, some people began to realise (not for the correct reasons) that maybe we don’t actually need all that power to be happy. Electric cars, low-powered computers and smart-appliances are now appealing to the final consumer and, for good or bad, things are changing. The rocketing growth of the mobile market (smartphones, netbooks and tablets) in recent years is a good indicator that the easily seduced consumer mass has now being driven towards leaner, more efficient machines.
But, how lean are we ready to go? How much raw power are we willing to give away. In other words, how far goes the appeal that the media push on us to relinquish those rights bestowed by Moore? It seems not so much, with all chip companies fighting for a piece of the fat market (as well as the lean, but).
What is the question, anyway?
Ever since that became a trend, the question has always been: “how lean can we make our machine without impacting on usability?”. The focus so far has only been on creating smarter hardware, to a lesser extent (and only recently) reducing the unneeded fat of operating systems and applications, but no one ever touches the fundamental question: “Do we really need all that?“.
The questions is clearly cyclic. For example, you wouldn’t need a car if the public transport was decent. You wouldn’t need health insurance if the public health system was perfect, and so on. With computing is the same. If you rely on a text editor or a spreadsheet, it has to be fast and powerful, so you can finish your work on time (and not get fired). If you are a developer and have to re-compile your code every so often, you need a damn good (in CPU and memory) computer to make it as painless as possible. Having a slow computer can harm the creative process that involves all tasks around it, and degrade the quality of your work to an unknown quantity.
Or does it?
If you didn’t have to finish your work quicker, would you still work the same way? If you didn’t have to save your work, or install additional software, just because the system you’re working on only works on a particular type of computer (say, only available on your workplace). If you could perform tasks as tasks and not a whole sequence of meaningless steps and bureaucracy, would you still take that amount of time to finish your task?
Even though the real world is not that simple, one cannot take into account the whole reality on each investigation. Science just doesn’t work that way. To be effective, you take out all but one variable and test it. One by one, until you have a simplified picture, a model of reality. If on every step you include the whole world, the real world, in your simulations, you won’t get far.
There is one paper that touched some of these topics back in 2000, and little has changed since then. I dare to say that it actually got worse. With all these app stores competing for publicity and forcing incompatibility with invisible boundaries, has only made matters worse. It seems clear enough for me that the computing world, as far I can remember (early 80’s) was always like that and it’s not showing signs of change so far.
The excuse to keep doing the wrong thing (ie. not thinking clearly about what a decent system is) was always because “the real world is not that simple”, but in fact, the only limitation factor has been the greed of investors who cannot begin to understand that a decent system can bring more value (not necessarily money) than any quickly designed and delivered piece of software available today.
Back in the lab…
Because I don’t give a fig to what they think, I can go back to the lab and think clearly. Remove greed, profit and market from the table. Leave users, systems and what’s really necessary.
Computers were (much before Turing) meant to solve specific problems. Today, general purpose computers create more problems than they solve, so let’s go back to what the problem is and lets try to solve it without any external context: Tasks.
A general purpose computer can perform a task in pretty much the same way as any other, after all, that’s why they’re called “general purpose”. So the system that runs on it is irrelevant, if it does not perform the task, it’s no good. A good example of that are web browsers. Virtually every browser can render a screen, and show surprisingly similar results. A bad example is a text editor, which most of them won’t even open another’s documents, and if they do, the former will do all in its power to make the result horrid in the latter.
Supposing tasks can be done seamlessly on any computer (lets assume web pages for the moment), than does the computer only computes that task, or is it doing other things as well?
All computers I know of will be running, even if broken, until they’re turned off. Some can increase and decrease their power consumption, but they’ll still be executing instructions to the world’s end. According to out least-work principle (to execute tasks), this is not particularly relevant, so we must take that out of our system.
Thus, such a computer can only execute when a task is requested, it must complete that task (and nothing else more), and stop (really, zero watts consumption) right after that.
But this is madness!
A particular task can take longer to execute, yes. It’ll be more difficult to execute simultaneous tasks, yes. You’ll spend more cycles per particular task than usual, yes! So, if you still thinking like Moore, than this is utter madness and you can stop reading right now.
Task Driven Computing
For those who are still with me, let me try to convince you. Around 80% of my smartphone’s battery is consumed by the screen. The rest is generally spend on background tasks (system daemons) and only about 5% on real tasks. So, if you could remove 95% of your system’s consumption, you could still take 20x more power consumption for your tasks and be even.
Note that I didn’t say “20x the time”, for that’s not necessarily true. The easiest way to run multiple tasks at the same time is to have multiple CPUs in a given system. Today that doesn’t scale too well because the operating systems have to control them all, and they all just keep running (even when idle) and wasting a huge amount of power for nothing.
But if your system is not designed to control anything, but to execute tasks, even though you’ll spend more time per task, you’ll have more CPUs working on tasks and less on background maintenance. Also, once the task is done, the CPU can literally shut down (I mean, zero watts) and wait for the next task. There is no idle cost, there is no operational code being run to multi-task or to protect memory or avoid race-conditions.
Of course, that’s not as easy as it sounds. Turning on and off CPUs is not that trivial, running tasks with no OS underneath (and expecting them to communicate) is not an easy task, and fitting multiple processors into a small chip is very expensive. But, as I said earlier, I’m not concerned with investors, market or money, I’m concerned with technology and it’s real purpose.
Also, the scaling is a real problem. Connection Machines were built and thrown away, clusters have peak performance way above their average performance levels, and multi-core systems are hard to work with. Part of that is real, the interconnection and communication parts, but the rest was artificially created by operating systems to solve new problems in an old way, just because it was cheaper, or quicker, or easier.
Back in the days…
I envy the time of the savants, when they had all the time and money in the world to solve the problems of nature. Today, the world is corrupted by money and even the most prominent minds in science are corrupt by it, trying to be the first to do such and such, protecting research from other peers just to claim a silly Nobel prize or to be world famous.
The laws of physics had led us into it, we live in the local minima of the least energetic configuration possible, and that’s here, now. To get our of any local minima we need a good kick, something that will take us out in a configuration of a more energetic configuration, but with enough luck, we’ll fall into another local minima that is less energetic than this one. Or, we we’re really the masters of the universe, maybe we can even live harmoniously in a place of local maxima, who knows!?