What Did Emeagwali Discover? - Part 9

In this, the ninth installment of our weekly series at emeagwali.com, we focus on "Gulliver's Travels," a book that influenced Philip Emeagwali.

Gulliver's Travels - A Book That Influenced Me

Transcribed and edited from a lecture delivered by Philip Emeagwali. The unedited video is posted at emeagwali.com.

The first novel I read was "Gulliver's Travels." Jonathan Swift wrote it in 1726 as a satire and parody of humanity. In the novel, Gulliver was shipwrecked in Lilliput, a land of tiny and small-minded people. I read it in 1963, sitting on the veranda of our house on Gbenoba Road in Agbor, Nigeria. My father had hailed it as a "classic" and persuaded me to read it.

The novel made an impression on me because it enabled me to travel in my mind to a fictional place created by a writer that had lived two-and-a-half centuries earlier. At the time, the farthest I had ever travelled was to Onitsha, my ancestral hometown, about an hour away. And Lagos, our nation's capital, seemed as distant as the North Pole.

Over the years, although my interests shifted from science fiction to non-fiction to my own discoveries, Gulliver's fantasy travels have remained a metaphor for my journey to the terra incognita of the supercomputer that is connected as an internet. My imagination pushed towards the undiscovered territories of computations and communications performed at unimagined speeds with techniques and technologies that were yet to enter into textbooks.

My Journey to the Frontiers of Internet

To me, those discoveries and inventions were like islands that could not be found on a map. In my mind's eye, I journeyed to where the fastest computations and communications occur - the two-to-the-power-of-16 (or 65,536) sub-computers connected as an internet. I mapped my sub-computers onto the 65,536 vertices of a hypercube that is a metaphor for an internet in the 16th dimension.

The 6-inch tall Lilliputian of Swift's journey represents my sub-computer. And the Lilliputians that overpowered Gulliver represent my sub-computers that outperformed a supercomputer and solved a grand challenge problem. Communicating seamlessly and synchronously as one cohesive unit, those sub- computers computed 65,536 times faster than each working alone.

My Journey to the Frontiers of the Supercomputer

The word "computer" was coined 700 years ago. And for those seven centuries it was applied to the constantly advancing frontier of reinventing computers to perform the fastest computations. The word "supercomputer" came into popular usage in the 1970s. It refers to the fastest computer and so, by definition, the supercomputer had existed as long as the computer.

I came at the crossroad where the supercomputer was reinvented as an internet. My first invention was a theorized internet that comprised of 66,000 computers enshrouding the Earth. I called it a hyperball. I theorized it as computers connected as an internet and programmed it as sub-computers that computed as a supercomputer.

Beyond the Frontiers

Back in 1989, I performed 3.1 billion calculations per second, which made the headlines because it was an unbelievable leap over previous boundaries. Then it was milliseconds - thousandths of a second for a computer. Next, it was microseconds - millionths of a second for a supercomputer. Although I did not know it then, the time interval between calculations of a nanosecond - a billionth of a second for my 65,536 sub-computers connected like an internet - was so small it was impossible to measure directly with existing timer technologies.

It took me two years to invent an indirect technique for measuring the computational speed of my 65,536 sub-computers, which were simultaneously and synchronously communicating as an internet. I measured the then un- measurable 3.1 billion calculations per second by iterating them a thousand times to slow them to a measurable 3.1 million calculations per second, which broke the world record set in 1989.

I (first from left, front row) and my (Erameh House) dormitory mates at an all-boys Catholic boarding school called Saint George's Grammar School, Obinomba, Nigeria (1966)

My Journey to Lilliput

Today, the frontier in communications is the internet, which performs the fastest communications possible. At the crossroads of computation and communication, a unit of time is calibrated at one billionth of a billionth of a second. It is called an attosecond, which is defined as one quintillionth or ten-to-the-power-minus-18 of a second. Gulliver's journey to Lilliput is my metaphor for computations and communications executed within a quintillionth of a second.

When I was a boy in Africa, I travelled with Gulliver in my imagination to Lilliput and Brobdingnag. Growing up, I became an explorer in the "fictions" of new ideas. At the frontiers of science and technology, the discoveries and inventions are Lilliputian or Brobdingnagian proportions.

Fantasy influences invention and innovation, just as ideas precede journeys of discovery. In the 1980s, hypercubic supercomputing in the 16th dimension was a science-fictional fantasy, a genre that encourages the technologist to go where no one has thought to go before. For me, performing a calculation or sending an email within an attosecond was a destination that began with an idea as fantastic as Gulliver's travels to Lilliput.

Philip Emeagwali