I was having a discussion with a group of writers about the technological singularity, and several asserted that the rate of increasing processor power was declining. They backed it up with a chart showing that the increase in MIPS per unit of clock speed stalled about ten years ago.

If computer processing speeds fail to increase exponentially, as they have for the last forty years, this will throw off many different predictions for the future, and dramatically decreases the likelihood of human-grade AI arising.

I did a bit of research last night and this morning. Using the chart of historical computer speeds from Wikipedia, and I placed a few key intervals in a spreadsheet and found:

  • From 1972 to 1985: MIPS grew by 19% per year.
  • From 1985 to 1996: MIPS grew by 43% per year.
  • From 1996 to 2003: MIPS grew by 51% per year.
  • From 2003 to 2013: MIPS grew by 29% per year.

By no means is the list of MIPS ratings exhaustive, but it does give us a general idea of what’s going on. The data shows the rate of CPU speed increases has declined in the last ten years.

I split up the last ten years:

  • From 2003 to 2008: MIPS grew by 53% per year.
  • From 2008 to 2013: MIPS grew by 9% per year.

According to that, the decline in processing rate increases is isolated to the last five years.

Five years isn’t much of a long term trend, and there are some processors missing from the end of the matrix. The Intel Xeon X5675, a 12 core processor isn’t shown, and it’s twice as powerful as the Intel Core i7 4770k that’s the bottom row on the MIPS table. If we substitute the Xeon processor, we find the growth rate from 2008 to 2012 was 31% annually, a more respectable improvement.

However, I’ve been tracking technology trends for a while (see my post on How to Predict the Future), and I try to use only those computers and devices I’ve personally owned. There’s always something faster out there, but it’s not what people have in their home, which is what I’m interested in.

I also know that my device landscape has changed over the last five years. In 2008, I had a laptop (Windows Intel Core 2 T7200) and a modest smartphone (a Treo 650). In 2013, I have a laptop (MBP 2.6 GHz Core i7), a powerful smartphone (Nexus 5), and a tablet (iPad Mini). I’m counting only my own devices and excluding those from my day job as a software engineer.

It’s harder to do this comparison, because there’s no one common benchmark among all these processors. I did the best I could to determine DMIPS for each, converting GeekBench cores for the Mac, and using the closest available processor for mobile devices that had a MIPS rating.

When I compared my personal device growth in combined processing power, I found it increased 51% annually from 2008 to 2013, essentially the same rate as for the longer period 1996 through 2011 (47%), which is what I use for my long-term predictions.

What does all this mean? Maybe there is a slight slow-down in the rate at which computing processing is increasing. Maybe there isn’t. Maybe the emphasis on low-power computing for mobile devices and server farms has slowed down progress on top-end speeds, and maybe that emphasis will contribute to higher top-end speeds down the road. Maybe the landscape will move from single-devices to clouds of devices, in the same way that we already moved from single cores to multiple cores.

Either way, I’m not giving up on the singularity yet.