The Mega Foundation

"The Cell" Is Finally Unveiled

May 24, 2005


The Era of Teraflops Microprocessors?
    When "The Cell" was first announced five years ago, IBM, Sony and Toshiba billed it as the first teraflops microprocessor on the market. The original plan called for a constellation of four chips, each capable of delivering 250 gigaflops. One of the chips would be used in Sony's PlayStation 3, with a planned date of introduction in the 2004-2005 time frame. The Cell was designed from the ground up for networking.
    I was particularly entranced by the prospect of The Cell because of the need for low-cost teraflops microprocessors for robotics. Hans Moravec had estimated that about 5 teraflops of processing power would be required to emulate the brain of a chimpanzee, which could make for a pretty capable robot. (One to ten gigaflops is required to emulate the neural machinery of the human eye, and to support 3-D visual navigation.) Dr. Moravec further estimated that 100 teraflops would be needed to match the processing power of a human brain. The Cell brings us closer to these goals. Of course, we may still have to wait until RAM and disk storage become sufficiently cheap and capacious to support high levels of artificial intelligence. My order-of-magnitude guesstimate for the storage capacity of the human brain is one petabyte (1,000,000 gigabytes). We're not quite yet at one-terabyte hard drives (although they're in the pipeline) and it would require 1,000 of these to store a petabyte.

    The Cell, as described last week by Sony, is coming in right on the money. It won't hit the streets until early in 2006, so it's, perhaps, a year behind schedule. Also, it will be introduced with a clock speed of 3.2 GHZ instead of the originally planned 3.6 GHz, so it only puts out 218 gigaflops instead of 250 gflops. Still, the fact that it can deliver like this at all is impressive.
    The PlayStation 3 also has a 550 MHz, 1.8 teraflops graphics processing unit, bringing its total number-crunching speed to 2 teraflops. ( I presume The Cell is a general-purpose computer, while the graphics processor is a floating-point-hardware accelerator.).
    Microsoft introduced its Xbox 360 a few days before Sony debuted the PlayStation 3. Like Sony, Microsoft also went to IBM for its processors. The Xbox 360 uses three dual-thread PowerPC's, each possessing what sounds like Macintosh' Altivec array processors. In addition, the Xbox has a graphics chip from ATI that processes 500 million triangles a second. The Xbox is touted at one teraflops. So the Xbox is also a barn-burner in its own right.

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