Intel, DARPA, and the San Diego Supercomputer Center have launched an eight-year project to create the most powerful computer ever constructed. By 2018, the extreme-scale supercomputer will be running exaflop-level calculations: that's a million trillion operations every second, or about a thousand times faster than the fastest supercomputer we've got today.
For a long time, building a faster supercomputer was just a matter of piling on more CPUs and GPUs to work together to crunch more numbers. This is still sort of true, but we're getting to the point where the architecture of the system itself becomes way more important. As the associate director of the SDSC puts it, "today's crude and simplistic memory cache and prefetch policies won't work at the exascale level." Ouch.
The tricky part is getting the right data to the right processors at the right times so that none are sitting idle. But, you can't be just tossing data around willy-nilly…. even though moving a single byte from one place to another only takes a billionth of a joule, when you're talking about a supercomputer that operates in the exaflop range, that basically means a dedicated nuclear power plant just to keep all the lights blinking. Efficiency in both programming and power becomes a huge challenge, and Intel is working on new chip designs that will be up to 1,000 times more efficient than even the most efficient systems we've got right now.
So, what do you do with an exaflop supercomputer? Besides playing Crysis on medium video settings, researchers hope to dynamically process real-time sensor data (say for climate modeling), do complex strategy planning (i.e. war games, what could possibly go wrong?), and investigate complex relationships between large-scale data sets. One example of this last one might be, I kid you not, "determining 'six degrees of Kevin Bacon' relationships on Facebook." Well, great.
Apparently, we're not quite at the level of determining the ultimate answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything quite yet, but don't panic: according to Moore's Law, zettaflops and yottaflops should be right around the corner.