Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Emeagwali opens up on 65,536 processors challenge

Cover of the week:

Nigerian-born United States-based Information Technology (IT) genius, Dr. Philip Emeagwali, has opened up on how he overcame the supercomputer 65,536 processors challenge, which made the likes of former US president Bill Clinton to describe him as one of the great minds of the Information Age and won him the 1989 Gordon Bell Prize of the Nobel prize of supercomputing.

ITRealms Online recollects that Emeagwali was notable for successfully programming 65,536 processors to solve one of the twenty most difficult problems in the computing field.

Emeagwali made this disclosure during a lecture he delivered recently at the University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago, on “Beyond the Last Computer”.

He noted that while conventional wisdom suggested it would be almost impossible to harness the power of 65,536 processors his grand challenge was to prove otherwise.

He also said that in all he had 65,536 processors and over one million pathways, hence “the processors-plus-pathways make a computer a supercomputer, and a planet-sized supercomputer an Internet.”

The computer whiz-kid, explained that what gave him the confidence to face head-on one of the global computing’s grand challenges was entrenched in the five-P mantra.

“My answer is fifteen years of putting into practice the athlete’s five-P mantra: Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance,” he declared.

Initially, he said, the challenge seemed deceptively simple, but in reality, there were so many different tiers of complexity that one sometimes forgot the reason why he embarked on programming those 65,536 processors.

“In hindsight, I did just about everything wrong before I finally got it right. Research is a high-risk game, but, as they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained,” Emeagwali said.

According to him, the complexity of the grand challenge renders it as incomprehensible to lay-people as pages of hieroglyphics or Greek symbols.

“But, concisely, the challenge used the Second Law of Motion propagated along a virtual 16-dimensional hypercubic network to be executed by 65,536 processors,” he said, adding that these processors were the beginning of the end.

Emeagwali explained that he started at the end because the end is devoid of the complex proofs and dense mathematical language that were unfathomable to non-mathematicians.

“This grand challenge earned its name: it was a super problem that required one to think in ways that merge the laws of physics, logic, and numbers in 16-dimensional mathematical space, and to solve the problem by attacking it from three perspectives,” he asserted.

As said by him, every scientific discovery begins as a thought, elucidating that the strategy for harnessing these laws of physics, logic, and numbers has to be conceived and thought out before they could become a reality.

Emeagwali further stated that he visualized the grand challenge problem as a complex game with complex parameters, which he went about to solve using what he outlined as three simple rules.

“First, I harnessed the power of processors to perform myriad computations. Second, I followed a minimum number of communication pathways to perform a minimum number of communications. Third, I enforced the Second Law of Motion in models of all that flows underneath the earth,” he said.

Recalling that actually it was Newton’s Second Law of Motion, “Force equals mass times acceleration, or F=ma,” that was used to demystify the super-computing world.

Stressing that in 1969, during the Barren- Nigerian civil war, he was unaware that he had just been introduced to the most important law in physics, and was, nevertheless, awestruck.

Newton’s Second Law of Motion is far more important than Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. “E equals MC squared” may be sexier on a T-shirt than “F=ma,” but Encarta lists the three laws of motion as the third most important scientific discovery of all times,” Emeagwali stated.

Pointing out that three hundred and thirty years later, mankind still do not completely understand F=ma but it is the only formula that is integral to computing’s 20 grand challenges and mathematics’ seven millennium problems.

So, “I devoted many years devising a solution to one grand challenge,” he said, adding that in the 1980s, he was a mathematical physicist logged on 24/7 to a 65,536-brain supercomputer on think.com - the third registered dot com ever.

“It was an unpaid labour of love. I was tormented by self-doubt, a maniac who pushed his supercomputer to its breaking point,” he said.

Emeagwali also recalled that when he was five, his father discovered that he was slow in mathematics and decided to teach him to solve 100 math problems in one hour.

“Thereafter, my ability to do rapid calculations earned me the nickname “Calculus” and set me on the path to become a supercomputer scientist who solved one of the most difficult problems in mathematics,” he revealed.

Equally, he noted that crossing the frontiers of knowledge to conquer tomorrow’s grand challenges will demand revolutionary techniques as his new technique, 65,536 processors, would perform computations side by side, linked by 16 wires, each corresponding to the 16 sides of a 16-dimensional hypercube.

“This is the essence of “higher” mathematics: go beyond calculus and mine infinite dimensional spaces,” he said.

Projecting that one day, the Internet will become a shared planet-sized supercomputer and individuals will become nodes on the Internet and the Internet, as its known today will become obsolete and “disappear” into the collective memory of mankind.

He went on to define both the supercomputer and the Internet as consisting of connected nodes that work in harmony.

“In fact, the supercomputer is more about communication than computation. The supercomputer and the Internet link computation and communication into a congruent whole - two complementary sides of a coin,” he submitted.

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