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Space The Military Hardware

Looking Back at 1984 Report On "Radical Computing" 183

An anonymous reader writes "The Department of Defense has just released a long restricted report (PDF) by the JASON group entitled Radical Computing. This 1984 study outlines a number of alternate computing methods that could 'result in a radical improvement in computing.' The study attempts to explain the paradox of how the Russian lag in developing VLSI chips curiously did not critically hinder their accomplishments in space missions, ICBMs and chess computation. The authors speculate that the Russians might have achieved breakthroughs in alternative computing methods such as residue arithmetic and symbolic computing. (More cynical types assume the Russians bought or stole US chips from the French or other too-helpful go-betweens.)"
"The paper, published by the Government Attic website, also mentions how, eventually, highly parallel computers could make use of these alternative computational methods. Also discussed are such things as functional programming, interval arithmetic, recursive machines, multiple processor concurrency, fast recurrence evaluation, DDA machines, data-flow, and hyper-column cortex model. Which of these ideas ever came to fruition?"
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Looking Back at 1984 Report On "Radical Computing"

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  • by gelfling ( 6534 ) on Saturday April 24, 2010 @06:22PM (#31969792) Homepage Journal

    We spent an awful lot of time and effort in the area of efficient function design as well. The crucial problem was how to derive a precise 'enough' result in a given number of CPU cycles. We did all kinds of functional partial solutions in order to break down complex problems into 'do-able' chunks. The simple fact is that computers aren't that good at Real Analysis, Solid Analytic Geometry and multidimensional trigonometry. You have to crush all that down into composite problems that computers ARE good at.

  • by RobinEggs ( 1453925 ) on Saturday April 24, 2010 @06:28PM (#31969838)

    most of there "insights" were over active imaginations.

    Not quite. Sometimes, certainly, they just imagined the threat, but equally often they fell for some simple, yet clever, Soviet spoofs. Much was made in intelligence and in the popular press, for example, of those terrifying parade ground films showing division after division of Soviet infantry marching through Red Square, with air support flying over and armored divisions interspersed. It turned out at least once, however, that the hundreds of bombers flying overhead consisted of just a couple squadrons flying a continuous loop above the parade ground, circling behind the camera to pass by again and again. Very likely the same happened with the armor sometimes.

    The Cold War was all about fear, and when analysts fell for something that seems stupid now it's not exclusively that they convinced themselves or became hysterical; the armed forces of both sides did a lot of work to keep up credible appearances of overwhelming force, usually without the actual hardware to back them up.

  • Space and Computing (Score:5, Informative)

    by DynaSoar ( 714234 ) on Saturday April 24, 2010 @06:34PM (#31969878) Journal

    Knowing the parameters they have to meet now, amateurs have managed suborbital rockets with minimal computation. With the recent change in the upper bounds of amateur spaceflight (ie. when FAA says NASA takes over permissions) and the knowledge in hand, amateur orbital flight is a matter of time. NASA helped develop and made use of VLSI not because it made what they were doing possible, but because it made what they were already doing easier.

    As for doing without, the Russians provided us with proof positive during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. They flew first and we went up to meet them because we had better aim. Our guys used an HP 48 handheld for calculations and their clock was fed by the signals from the atomic clock at National Bureau of Standards. When we got there we saw they were using, respectively, slide rules, pencil and paper, and a stop watch. But our having the better technology did not prevent them from getting there. And their having lesser technology did not prevent them successfully participating in the several cat-and-mouse rendezvous practices that followed the first.

  • by sznupi ( 719324 ) on Saturday April 24, 2010 @07:39PM (#31970248) Homepage

    TFS reflects what US didn't know back then, not the current state of knowledge...

    Apart from Setun mentioned by other posters (which, although interesting, didn't really influence much the race in technology; about which the pdf is all about) there's also, most importantly, this gem:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elbrus_(computer) [wikipedia.org]
    Soviet domestically developed supercomputers. Multiprocessor superscalar RISC machine few years before the report from TFS was written; later VLIW long before the Itanium. Used specifically in "how the hell Soviets are keeping up" areas
    (the man apparently responsible for them [wikipedia.org] works for Intel for some time now...)

  • Re:Eh. (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 24, 2010 @07:51PM (#31970304)

    No. It was not ternary logic but ternary arithmetic. Big difference. It only means that they used 3 digits (0, 1, 2) instead of 2 (0, 1). Heck, Babbage used 10 digit (0-9) arithmetic more than 150 years ago in his analytical engine. Big deal.

  • Re:Clones (Score:4, Informative)

    by sznupi ( 719324 ) on Saturday April 24, 2010 @08:39PM (#31970572) Homepage

    Some Soviet Block countries indeed built Apple II clones, but the Soviets, as far as home market goes, went largely with ZX Spectrum derivatives. This one [wikipedia.org] for example (yeah, I wonder how much tongue-in-cheek that name was ;p )

    More interesting are "official" home computers of the Soviet Union (ZX Spectrum clones were of small manufacture later on), compatible PDP-11 architecture [wikipedia.org] and with rather nice operating systems.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 24, 2010 @09:05PM (#31970704)

    Funny thing - the "Team B" group that produced much of the most "out there" stuff? You'd recognize some of the names, as they all oddly ended up making the same kind of shit up about Saddam Hussein. Who authorized and funded them? If you said "Donald Rumsfeld", you'd be right...

    My favorite fantasy of theirs? They couldn't find any evidence of advanced acoustic submarine detection devices, so rather than acknowledging that the Soviet's didn't *have* such a thing, they proposed that the Soviets had instead invented an *entirely new* way to detect submarines.

  • Re:Eh. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 24, 2010 @10:27PM (#31971010)

    Thank you for your comment, Sznupi, but I have a few remarks, that I may make because I am myself a computer designer. The Setun example was served to me several times in the last decade and the same arguments apply :

    1) Just look around you : where does ternary logic live ? in some Russians' fond memory. OK.

    Show me where ternary logic can replace things : AFAIK, it is used in *some* multiply hardware, under the name of Booth recoding.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Booth%27s_multiplication_algorithm That's all, and it is not always practical : booth computations are a bit faster but recoding is a pain.

    2) do the maths : Ternary logic values on binary wires :

      - either you use 2 wires to encode 3 values and you lose 1/4 of the coding space (as in any base conversion)

      - either you use the 3-wire 1-hot encoding and... well, you win nothing.

    Now imagine you have binary memory : you lose 1/4 of the capacity. You can recode data so you lose less, but the less you lose in space, the slower it runs because it adds complex base-conversion circuits, with all the carry chains and the likes.

    Memory in the first Russian ternary computer was certainly magnetic core memory : with the epoch's electronics, it was not difficult to encore magnetic 3 fluxes. But it does not work well in today's very high speed logic, where noise resilience and process variations can kill electric margins.

    Conclusion : we live in a binary world, it's not by mistake.

    Now if some electronic circuit worked WELL in ternary, it would not be enough : it would have to work WAY BETTER than today's binary circuits to even consider acceptation.

    Don't get me wrong : I respect Russians a lot. But we all make mistakes and invent our little prides... All engineers have their failures... It's part of our learning. It is a greater failure to not learn from our mistakes.

    Ternary computations were a "local minimum" for a given time and technology. And I don't regret the time when the US's supercomputers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CDC_6600) used 60-bit words and 6-bit bytes. The next generations of Cray designs went to 64-bits wide registers and 8-bit bytes, and they even adopted (reluctantly) IEEE Floating point numbers. This proves that even when technical merit is stellar, it is useless (and even laughable) if it can't interface to the other computers. Adapt or die bragging.

  • by demonlapin ( 527802 ) on Saturday April 24, 2010 @10:46PM (#31971110) Homepage Journal
    Not to mention that the Shuttle, and Earth-vicinity spacecraft generally, don't really need much computing power. You have ground-side machines to do the heavy lifting (which isn't all that heavy) and you transmit the plan to the orbiting craft. All it has to do is execute.
  • by mbkennel ( 97636 ) on Saturday April 24, 2010 @10:58PM (#31971156)

    The report really does sound like a bit of sophisticated propaganda to convince Congressmen to fund nifty research mathematics. It is very strangely focused like a review article on niche mathematics and computer science.

    The solution the paradox is simple: the USSR really was behind, but in the particular military areas mentioned (ICBMs, spaceflight), it is clear that advanced VLSI is not necessary. The USSR was not so far behind (or at all) in hard engineering like metallurgy, thermodynamics, rocketry etc, all the areas which are absolutely necessary for spaceflight.

    Remember that the difference between the West and USSR was in economic efficiency. VLSI was just way too expensive---so Soviets had to make do when the West would use economical, high performing chips. The necessary computers embedded inside weaponry and rockets through 1984 simply didn't need to be that complicated. They usually had to run a simple control loop & switching system, which was designed and simulated off-line by large stationary computers in the lab. And more often in the USSR's case, analytical pencil & paper computations. The USSR had a much stronger applied mathematical understanding of nonlinear dynamics and chaos---in the USSR fluid mechanics wasn't shunted off as a boring part of civil engineering, but stayed with the high-level physics community the whole time. The West started recognizing the importance right about in the mid 1980's.

    The deficiency in high performance semiconductors DID, in truth, hurt their military capacity in some areas: those areas where advanced semiconductor technology is essential, and not just an economically effective choice.

    Primary examples are anything which involves combined analog/digital operations, for instance CCD imagers, and modern wireless digital communication devices. A critical example: high resolution spy satellites which transmitted the results by radio and not film canister.

    For instance: despite great space flight experience, the USSR didn't come remotely close to having a capability in the 1980's like the Global Positioning System, or relatively cheap spread-spectrum communications (almost everything we have now is from original military developments), or fancy infrared imagers and image analysis software embedded in a warhead's targeting system. All those require advanced, embedded, launchable, semiconductor technology---a cloned VAX in a building won't cut it.

    After seeing the results of the Gulf War in 1990 a Soviet general was very relieved that they never went to war with the West. The USSR was astonished at the capability of precision bombing from the F-117 et al and the necessary logistics & ground & airborne communication systems supporting such a campaign. Iraq didn't have the capability and certainly training of the USSR but 1990 Iraq had some decent Soviet hardware, which was nearly totally ineffective in combat.

    It meant that in a war in Europe NATO could have smashed a Soviet armored assault without nuclear weaponry (, and the USSR strongly underestimated this conventional capability driven by technology.

    One lesson is that the technological capabilities of Chinese weaponry today shouldn't be underestimated.

  • by bernieS ( 834839 ) on Sunday April 25, 2010 @12:38AM (#31971570)
    Um, our guys did *not* use an HP-48 calculator on Apollo-Soyuz, they used an HP-65 (w/mag card programmer!) The HP-48 wasn't introduced until 1990, a decade and a half later. -bernieS

10.0 times 0.1 is hardly ever 1.0.