Work continues on quantum machines. But classical computing is here, now, and faster and more powerful than ever.
When Frontier, the latest supercomputer at the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), went live at the end of May, it became the first to demonstrate true exascale performance, according to the TOP500 organization that benchmarks commercially available computer systems. At 1.102 Exaflop/s (quintillion operations per second), Frontier’s performance is three times faster than the previous performance leader, Fujitsu’s Fugaku system at the Riken Center for Computational Science (R-CCS) in Kobe, Japan. By breaking the exascale barrier, Frontier is 10 times faster than its ORNL predecessor, Summit.
AI is spreading quickly into sensors and will drive an even greater appetite for data.
The current difficulties call for a more strategic approach to arranging our global supply chains.
The supply chain chaos in the aftermath of the pandemic has highlighted the risks associated with globalization. As a phenomenon, globalization has served many of us well. Its ideological opponents, however, see today’s situation as justification for its demise. There is no denying current events have highlighted shortcomings. We would be foolish not to learn and adapt.
I’ve addressed the subject of onshoring as a potential antidote to globalization many times in the past. Arguably, now, the idea makes more sense than ever. On the face of it, shorter supply chains promise some protection against the unpredictability of today’s world. Hot on the heels of the pandemic, we now have the Ukraine crisis, and there is the fallout from Brexit, which has made for difficult and time-consuming trade between the region’s most influential economies. One major obstacle to the return of onshoring is essential indigenous-supporting industries have been largely swept away as activities have migrated offshore, taking expertise and investment with them. The conditions that caused and drove the offshoring remain in place, perhaps masked by current logistical difficulties. Accessing the data needed to move manufacturing activities from an established location is another barrier to reshoring.
As the pandemic becomes endemic, restoring order to the world’s prices and supply chains will take time and won’t be easy.
As we all adjust to the reality that Covid and its derivatives are here to stay, communities around the world are beginning to rebuild economically: returning to work, reviving businesses where possible and making new plans if not.
It is no surprise materials, inventory and shipping are in short supply and are often stuck in the wrong places. In some cases, services that companies used to rely on are no longer available because the suppliers have gone out of business. Workforces are depleted, and some knowhow, skills and experience have been lost. Rebuilding is not as straightforward as opening the factory doors, picking up the tools that were put down at the beginning of 2020 and getting on with it. Even now governments are still mandating measures such as the sudden full lockdown of Shanghai, which has severely impacted road and air transport. We must still expect the unexpected!
There certainly is the opportunity to build back better, but let’s not be simplistic. The world we built was highly sophisticated and interconnected – an ecosystem of ecosystems. It won’t be easy. It will take time. New leaders and innovators need to acquire the skills required to replace those we’ve lost. And we have other challenges too, like protecting the environment and transitioning to more sustainable ways of living. As if that wasn’t enough, further new tensions are adding to the pressure on resources and, as a result, prices.
The proliferation of satellites and the "orbital economy" have exciting implications for Earth – but not without challenges.
An exciting market is developing 300km above Earth. New Space promises to revolutionize the delivery of internet services and create new opportunities for Earth observation that could help us improve crop yields, anticipate natural disasters, and manage our impact on the environment. There are also opportunities for manufacturing in space, taking advantage of microgravity to produce high-purity optical fibers and materials such as graphene, semiconductors, and superconductors. The in-space, or orbital, economy is already being debated.
This commercial development of New Space, which defines low Earth orbits (LEO) in the 300km-2000km altitude range, has become possible through the ongoing democratization of rocket and satellite technology over the last few years. Until recently, space missions were mostly the preserve of government-backed organizations. Today, however, the responsibility for launching satellites, as well as taking people and supplies to the International Space Station, has become substantially outsourced to private enterprises.
The size of satellites themselves is also becoming smaller, while supporting increasingly sophisticated capabilities, allowing greater value at lower cost. Small satellites, or SmallSats, are generally considered to be less than 180kg and, in fact, have been in use since NASA’s pre-Voyager missions of the early 1970s. The category is now more subdivided than ever and contains nanosatellites less than 10kg, picosatellites in the 0.1-1.0kg range, and femtosatellites of 10-100gm, although these limits are not rigidly defined. And, of course, there are CubeSats: the scalable proposal based on a standard 10 x 10 x 10cm basic building block. These are accessible to academic groups, including schools, as well as small commercial organizations.
The metaverse offers opportunity for escapism and empowerment.
Market research published last summer suggests the total AR/VR market will top $700 billion by 2025, suggesting a compound annual growth rate close to 75%. Those are amazing statistics, although we know investment in virtual and augmented reality has surged during the pandemic. Spending on VR has increased, particularly among consumers constrained to stay at home for extended periods. They have time, and they’re bored. But professional applications are also expanding quickly in marketing, retail, healthcare and manufacturing.
As a concept, AR/VR is closely connected with another emerging phenomenon: the metaverse. The distinction between the two is quite blurred. The metaverse is perhaps best envisioned as an alternative reality whose scope extends throughout the entire internet and into the real world. Although there will be elements of virtual reality, and a VR headset will provide one means of entering the metaverse, the big tech giants are thinking much bigger. Facebook’s parent company has even changed its name to Meta, a clear expression of its ambitions.
We can expect this alternative reality to start becoming accessible through gaming and entertainment applications. People will exist and move around as avatars, go to shops, attend concerts. The chance to style our appearance and create our own reality is a fantastic opportunity for escapism. And who could blame anyone seeking an escape from the real real world?
Important opportunities exist to improve our working lives, however, as well as the quality of services such as healthcare and emergency first response. With the benefit of instant access to building records through the internet, police or firefighters can capture information about the layout, occupants and fire-escape routes within their field of view to preserve their own safety and provide more effective support to those inside.
The opportunities to enhance mental well-being are perhaps even more profound, particularly in the aftermath of the pandemic. The numbers of people suffering from anxiety-related disorders such as agoraphobia are expected to have increased. Those already suffering, having been compelled to stay indoors for extended periods, will likely have experienced setbacks in their battle. The metaverse could greatly expand the prospects for treatment by providing a controlled environment for a patient to enter, move around in, and deal with challenges that are carefully designed to help build confidence.
In a similar vein, metaverse technology can have a democratizing effect on formerly specialized areas of research, like sports performance. Elite sportspeople are known to employ visualization to prepare mentally for high-pressure events. Rehearsing their responses helps fine-tune performance and strengthen the self-control to achieve their ultimate goal. The desire for outstanding achievement is common, yet few can get the right help to use visualization effectively. The metaverse can provide a suitable environment to try it out, with the aid of online courses delivered by your own personal coaching avatar.
Of course, much depends on the availability of suitable software to create these environments and challenges. The scale of the internet can come to the rescue here, enabling facilities to be made available on a similar basis to today’s mobile apps: Visit your metaverse store for low-cost or even free apps, possibly monetized on a subscription basis or through in-app purchases.
Then there is the question of hardware. Apple is reportedly working on a VR headset that is expected to be extremely lightweight – less than one pound, with later models weighing even less. Of course, headset weight is a key metric for any VR application to avoid discomfort. Weight is even more important in the metaverse, however, where users will expect to be comfortable for extended periods.
Numerous challenges must be overcome when packaging high-computing performance into a wearable form factor. Effective thermal management, of course, is extremely important and a huge challenge. In addition to lightweight for comfort, designers will be under pressure to create attractive designs people will want to wear. We can expect creative solutions, particularly using shaped, insulated metal substrates.
On the other hand, the supply of space-saving technologies like flexible printed circuit (FPC) will experience increased pressure. The automotive sector is already placing a huge demand for FPCs, as vehicle electrification continues to rise. It is reckoned future electric vehicles could contain more than 100 circuits on FPCs.
We can also look forward to exciting developments in sensors for contextual awareness. Leading MEMS sensors are already integrating small, embedded machine-learning cores that enable smarter functionality and faster response than their predecessors. Sensing techniques also are undergoing a significant change with the advent of sophisticated depth-sensing based on infrared time-of-flight measurements. These enable much faster and more energy-efficient 3-D perception than conventional imaging techniques. The sum of all these parts could deliver compact, stylish, low-power and comfortable wearables that enable us to exist quite naturally in the metaverse.
As this concept evolves, I am sure the most successful applications will be those that enhance our connections with each other. I would compare it with the original Facebook, which overpowered competitors and predecessors simply by offering more and better ways for people to interact, in real-time and through various groups, to share as many aspects of their lives and interests as they wish.
No doubt escapism and entertainment will be the main priorities for a sizeable number of metaverse users, but I see many opportunities to help people improve their well-being, achieve ambitious personal goals, and enhance working experiences. It does have great potential to make the real world a better place.