Human Power Computers Are Not Too Far Over the Horizon

Brad DeLong posts a Wikipedia page today showing the cost of computing power over time. I adjusted it to show the cost of about 30 petaflops of computing power, which is roughly the consensus estimate of the power of the human brain. Here it is:

Don’t take this too seriously. It’s an extrapolation based on multiplying the power of the fastest/cheapest chips by several hundred, which provides a highly thoretical construct. Actually getting 30 petaflops requires building a huge machine with all these chips running in parallel—plus power supplies, air conditioning, backplanes, support circuitry, etc. etc.—which increases the cost dramatically.

Still, as a sort of thought experiment it shows two things:

  • The price of commercially-available computing power has come down about 7x in just four years.
  • Even when you account for all the infrastructure, we’re really starting to get close to human-power computers at a relatively low price. This assumes that massively parallel computers turn out to be suitable for AI research, but since the brain is basically a massively parallel biological machine, this seems like a reasonable guess.

And don’t forget software! That’s almost certainly the gating item. My guess is that we’ll have affordable¹ human-power computers in another decade or so, but it will still be two or three decades before we get true AI. Needless to say, this assumes that all the AI boffins figure out how to write the code to do it.

¹By affordable, I don’t mean that you’ll be able to buy one for your desk. I mean that it will be reasonably affordable for just about any AI researcher who wants one. This is important, since software research will skyrocket when human-power computers are available to tens of thousands of researchers, not just the one or two hundred with gigantic budgets.


In 2014, before Donald Trump announced his run for president, we knew we had to do something different to address the fundamental challenge facing journalism: how hard-hitting reporting that can hold the powerful accountable can survive as the bottom falls out of the news business.

Being a nonprofit, we started planning The Moment for Mother Jones: A special campaign to raise $25 million for key investments to make Mother Jones the strongest watchdog it can be. Five years later, readers have stepped up and contributed an astonishing $23 million in gifts and future pledges. This is an incredible statement from the Mother Jones community in the face of the huge threats—both economic and political—against the free press.

Read more about The Moment and see what we've been able to accomplish thanks to readers' incredible generosity so far, and please join them today. Your gift will be matched dollar for dollar, up to $500,000 total, during this critical moment for journalism.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.


We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.