February 19, 2007

Go For Throttle Up: Will the Feds put a choke-hold on your CPU?

  It's worth recalling that the first computer to break the teraflop barrier, in 1997, was a behemoth assembly of 9,326 Pentium pro chips that sucked down enough electricity to power a high-rise building. Because now there is a desktop version.

Will this amount of computing power make it onto your desktop?

For a moment, let's imagine that teraflop computing on the desktop would be an enabling technology, the emergent features of which would precipitate qualitatively novel forms of communication. Urban legends of errant futurists abound, often taking the form of a noted luminary who underestimates what Joe Six-pack might do with the tamed silicon wafer. Treat them as a morsel of evidence lending an infinitesimal degree of plausibility to this hypothetical.

Among the many current uses for this league of high-performance computers are several that stand out for their security risks: nuclear weapons design simulations, and decryption, for example. Ostensibly, export controls on high-performance computers put in place by the federal government exist to keep this capability from falling into the wrong hands. There is a list of countries that Uncle Sam thinks shouldn't be sold such machines. Pakistan is on the list but Somalia is not. 

In light of the appearance of the "home-grown terrorist cell", which, like the ivory-billed woodpecker, may or may not have been sighted in the wild, how long will Uncle Sam be able to resist domestic curbs on access to high-performance computing? If a teraflop machine using as much power as a light bulb becomes affordable, the natural barriers of cost and power consumption will have disappeared, and for the first time this question will suddenly seem relevant. Given the array of surveillance programs launched after 9/11, it doesn't take much of a stretch to imagine this scenario. Would this amount to a further erosion of civil liberties?

One could argue a case for first-amendment protection of access to computing power. Without the means for communication, what does it matter whether there is a Constitutional right to free speech?

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