What’s the sum total of all the computing power in the world?

Not a wind-up, honest. Click for source.

Not a wind-up, honest. Click for source.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

OK, so it’s the kind of question a child would ask, but I do have a child’s mind, especially on a Friday.

Actually I should have posted about this yesterday because, according to my new blog schedule Thursday is tech day, but I forgot.

Actually, that’s a lie. I was too busy to post, then I fell asleep on the sofa, woke up in a pool of dribble, and went to bed.

Enough. Back to the question. It started off as an idle thought but then the more I thought about it – and the more I discussed it with Giles, my mate who works at Realwire and often sits opposite me at the Hot Office – the more interesting it became.

So, my thought was: how much computing power does the world have?

Imagine a world in which we needed to harness all the computing power in the world to solve a particular problem because our very existence depended on it. Or imagine there were some critical point of complexity and size beyond which technology became conscious.

OK, so these are slightly ridiculous teen-level sci-fi musings, but the question still stuck in my head, so let’s imagine instead that it’s just an interesting question for its own sake.

Obviously it’s growing all the time – probably grew a lot while typing these words – and it’s probably a useless question to ask anyway. But it raises all sorts of little questions, little, tiny questions running around on the floor, occasionally pricking your shins with needles then scurrying away under the sofa.

First stop: I type it into Google. Like this.

First hit: the top 500 supercomputing sites. Now if, like me, you grew up watching Sesame Street, you’ll have great difficulty comprehending the word ‘supercomputing’ without thinking of ‘SuperGrover‘ (and the same goes for the word ‘phenomenon‘). This looks promising but I don’t really understand what it’s telling me. I see a lot of numbers and start getting panicky and want to run away.

So, next up: Wikipedia. This tells me what the top 10 supercomputers are. This is more like it. I try deducing total power by cross-referencing these lists, so that, for example, if Lawrence Livermore has 5.4% of the total power across all those sites, and the total power according to Wikipedia of the top ten sites is 7,360 Teraflops, then you could say, maybe, that the total power is around 14,719 Teraflops.

But that’s grossly simplifying an ever-increasingly intriguing question. Which is: what do we mean by ‘computing’?

So I add my laptop, PC and music PC together and I get something like about 8 GB of RAM and 10,000 Mhz of processing power (I think).

But my washing machine has a processor, and probably some RAM. So does my alarm clock. And my mobile phone. Even the cats are microchipped. Are they computers now?

My car has a CD player in it. Do we class that as computing power? How about the engine management system? That’s a powerful computer, even if it is a Toyota.

Other cars – let’s face it, better cars – have their own IP address.

And suddenly this isn’t a simple question any more.

I know what you’re thinking: this is a futile question because there are different types of processor, different types of RAM, and whereas a lot of them talk to each other, not all of them do, or even can. There’s no way I’d be able to get my TV to run Excel, for example (not yet, anyhow). But my TV is a computer.

I really wanted to post an answer to this today, but Giles has noticed that I keep scratching my chin and making funny noises, which is what I always do when I’m thinking a bit too hard. So, I’m going to leave it for now and maybe try and work this one out for myself.

I envisage a huge spreadsheet with things on it. The things on the left will be ‘Total number of washing machines globally’, and the things  on the right will be ‘Average processing power’ or ‘Average RAM’. Then I’ll add the whole lot up – laptops, PCs, mobile phones, supercomputers, cats, cars and washing machines – and tell how how much, roughly, we can process as a planet. Should we ever want to know, or use it.

If anyone wants to help, feel free. If you’ve already figured this one out, even better – tell me. If you think it’s a futile or ridiculous task, let me know. And if you have anything else to add, let me know. All three of you. I’m all ears.

2 thoughts on “What’s the sum total of all the computing power in the world?

  1. Good news Brendan, someone’s done all the research and calculations for you.

    The result is somewhat surprising. All the general purpose computing power available in 2007 (6.4 x 10^18 instructions per second, to be precise) is the equivalent to the maximum number of nerve impulses executed by the human brain per second. Just one brain.

    Like, wow.

  2. Wow indeed!

    I did actually start compiling a list – you know, estimating how many fridges there were in the world, then the computing power of each fridge, etc etc – but it was, of course, impossible. One site I did find – and cannot trace again, annoyingly – was where they’re modelling neurons digitally. They have serious amounts of computing power devoted to it, and that’s just one neuron. The next step? Either two neurons, or going further down the single neuron to model individual molecules.

    Makes you realise what an amazing computer the human brain is, really.

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