Computers Are Becoming Less General-Purpose: Deep Learning, Hardware Specialization, and the Fragmentation of Computing

12:00 pm September 5, 2018

HBS Cotting House Conference Room

Abstract: It is a triumph of technology and of economics that our computer chips are so universal – the staggering variety of calculations they can compute make countless applications possible. But, this was not always the case. Computers used to be specialized, doing only narrow sets of calculations. Their rise as a ‘general purpose technology (GPT)’ only happened because of ground-breaking technical advancements by computer scientists like von Neumann and Turing, and virtuous economics common to general purpose technologies, where product improvement and market growth fuel each other in a mutually reinforcing cycle.

This paper argues that technological and economic forces are now pushing computing in the opposite direction, making computer processors less general-purpose and more specialized. This process has already begun, driven by the slow down in Moore’s Law and the algorithmic success of Deep Learning. This threatens to fragment computing into ‘fast lane’ applications that get more powerful customized chips and ‘slow lane’ applications that get stuck using general-purpose chips whose progress fades.

The rise of general purpose computer chips has been remarkable. So, too, could be its fall. This paper outlines the forces already starting to fragment this general purpose technology.

Coauthored with Svenja Spanuth.

A buffet lunch will be available at 11:45 a.m. The talk will begin at 12:00 p.m.

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