The Scientific Computing Revolution

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The Scientific Computing Revolution Humanity is on the verge of a new paradigm shift to rival the changes that were unleashed by the discovery of the atom and the invention of the computer.

That’s the conclusion of a distinguished panel of experts, called the 2020 Science Group, who worked together for four months to chart the future of computing. Led by Professor Stephen Emmott of Microsoft Research, the experts include more than 30 of the world’s top computer scientists, astronomers, biologists, chemists, geneticists, mathematicians, and physicists.

If computing simply continued to make progress along its current path of collecting and organizing data, the consequences would be stunning. Consider that the amount of new data that the world produces doubles every year, thanks to computer science. Using computers to advance our knowledge in other areas of science will allow us to make tremendous leaps in our understanding.

Computers are critical to the success of new experiments that were previously impossible. They can now crank out data in volumes that were once unthinkable. For example, the Sanger Centre at Cambridge has 150 terabytes, or 150 trillion bytes, of genomic data and it has a processing power of 2.5 teraflops. Its data on genome sequences is doubling every year, which is faster than Moore’s Law.

Or consider the Large Hadron Collider that is being developed at the CERN particle-physics laboratory in Switzerland. In 2007, when it becomes operational, it will create 800 million collisions per second. This will yield several petabytes of data every year; a petabyte is a million gigabytes. The detectors on the Large Hadron Collider will produce a data flow of 1 gigabyte per second, which is enough to pack a DVD with data every five seconds.

But, computers will soon be doing more than just organizing data. The future of computing, will enable us to move beyond the paradigm of gathering more and more data, at faster and faster speeds. Instead, it will add an entirely new function for digital machines that until now has been limited to humans: the analysis and interpretation of data.

As the 2020 Science Group explains in their report, Towards 2020 Science,1 “An important development in science is occurring at the intersection of computer science and the sciences that has the potential to have a profound impact on science. It is a leap from the application of computing to support scientists to ‘do’ science. . . to the integration of computer science concepts, tools, and theorems into the very fabric of science. . . . [W]e believe this development represents the foundations of a new revolution in science...

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