The race to a billion billion operations per second

Control Data Corp’s first supercomputer, the CDC 6600, operated at a speed of three megaflops (106 operations per second).  A half century on, our most powerful supercomputers are a billion times faster. But even that impressive mark will inevitably fall. Engineers are eyeing an exaflop (1018 flops)—and some think they’ll get there by 2018.
What’s so special about an exaflop? Other than the fact it’s a quintillion operations a second? Simple. We can always use more computing power.
Supercomputers enable scientists to model nature—protein folding, the Big Bang, Earth’s climate—as never before. China’s Tianhe-1A (2.57 petaflops) recently ran a 110 billion atom model through 500,000 steps. The model was a mere 0.116 nanoseconds in real time,  and it took the machine three hours to complete.
Yet even the simplest natural systems have vastly more particles playing out over vastly greater timescales. There are roughly as many molecules in ten drops of water as there are stars in the universe.
So, while a petaflop is good, an exaflop is better.
Further, Henry Markram’s Blue Brain Project estimates a full simulation of the human brain would require about an exaflop. Might insights gleaned from such a simulation lead to breakthroughs in AI? Maybe. (See here for more on that debate.)
Whether it leads to a breakthrough in AI, or a deeper understanding of the human brain, or is just a killer scientific model-maker, the first exaflop machine will be a data-processing beast. And world powers are gunning for it.