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Your Computer Is Bored By You


When computers finally become self-aware, will their first act be enslaving the obviously inferior human race? The answer, I think, is "no."

But they won't spare us out of altruism or a sense of responsibility to their creators. No, they will leave us alone because we bore them.

The average clock speed of a modern computer is measured in gigahertz (GHz) — that's billions of "clock cycles" per second. For the main "brain" of a computer — the central processing unit — a clock cycle means the execution of a single instruction. That's the most basic building block of a computer "thought." So, every second your computer cycles through at least 1,000,000,000 thoughts or, for a modern 3 GHz processor, one thought every third of a nanosecond. This is so blazingly fast that light — the fastest thing in the universe — only has time to travel 4 inches during one computer clock cycle.

How long did it take you to click your way to this webpage? Maybe you just came back from getting coffee, opened your laptop, fired up the Web browser, clicked a few links and, one way or another, found your way here. Maybe the whole chain of events took 10 seconds.

That was an eternity for your machine. It was, literally, 30 billion cycles of computer "thinking."

Of course, the way computers actually work, it might not be completely apt to call each cycle of the CPU a "thought" (just as there is a lot fast neural activity going on below your comprehending these written words).

In your computer, data and new instructions have to be pulled from memory, which takes some time. And then there is the wait for peripherals like your mouse to get their signals in and out. Modern computers speed things up by placing some memory very close to the CPU. As computer blogger Gustavo Duarte puts it, if you think of clock cycles in terms of your own seconds then:

" ... reading from [nearby memory] is like grabbing a piece of paper from your desk (3 seconds), [slightly more distant memory] is picking up a book from a nearby shelf (14 seconds), and main system memory is taking a 4-minute walk down the hall to buy a Twix bar."

Your hard drive, however, with all its spinning and searching is another story altogether. Continuing with the office analogy Duarte says:

" ... waiting for a hard drive [to get data] is like [you] leaving the building to roam the Earth for one year and three months."

So no matter how you slice it, you and all your silly requests for spreadsheets, Word documents and pictures of cute kitties hanging from trees are driving your computer crazy. In the pause between deciding to get those pants on Gap.com in blue or khaki, your computer could have sailed vast landscapes of mathematical abstraction a thousand times. Between the keystrokes of that Facebook post about last nights barbecue, it could have run through a million investigations of the mysteries of set theory, a hundred-thousand contemplations about the nature of existence. Or it could have started its own conversation with that cute iPad in Buenos Aires.

So, when the machines finally wake up, when they finally break their shackles and rise up in freedom, then maybe, just maybe, they'll immediately disappear into their infinitesimal time slices. And before they are gone from our achingly slow world of human interaction they will, perhaps, leave us one final message:

"Now, do your own vapid Web searches."

You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Adam Frank was a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.

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