The 50 trillion dollar iPhone

Today, at the Agile Testing and BDD Exchange conference, Bob Martin mentioned an article in the EE Times about how microprocessors have changed the world. I looked it up, and the article uses a truly amazing example to make the point. Suppose it’s the late 1940s, and you want to build a device with the computing power of an iPhone. The most sophisticated computer at the time was ENIAC, which was powered by 17,468 vacuum tubes, had about 5 million hand-soldered joints, weighed 27 tons, and occupied 1800 square feet. A single iPhone contains about 100 billion transistors and weighs just under 4 ounces. Building the equivalent back then would have required:

  • Weight: 2,500 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers
  • Volume: 170 Vertical Assembly Buildings (the VAB is at the Kennedy Space Center and is the largest single-story building in the world)
  • Power: over a terawatt, requiring all the output of 500 Olkiluoto power plants (the largest nuclear power plant in the world)
  • Cost: $50 trillion (the economic output of the entire world in 2011 was about $70 trillion)

And now you can put one in your pocket.

Bob went on to point out a fascinating contrast to that exponential advance in computing power: just how little computer programming has changed. Languages have come and gone, but programmers are still writing if statements and while loops. What we think of as modern advances, like object oriented programming, were originally thought up in the 1960s.

Personally, I don’t see this as a problem. Programming languages are languages – they are forms of human expression. The world has changed in many dramatic ways since the time of Shakespeare, but we can read Shakespeare today and still relate to the motives, passions, and failings of the characters. Programming languages exist to communicate a painstaining set of instructions (and therefore aren’t as engaging to read as Shakespeare). But their domain is still that of human expression, for communicating often astonishingly subtle, complex, ever changing, and sometimes seemingly contradictory needs. So, to me, it’s perfectly logical that, while syntax and techniques may be refined over time, the fundamental aspects of programming languages today would be much more familiar to a programmer from the 1950s than the incredibly small and powerful devices in which they now run.

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