Nigerian intelligence at 3.1B calculations per second

Nigeria’s computational pioneer Chukwurah Philip Emeagwali downloads himself to E-Town

By Minister Faust, for Vue Weekly, 2006 September 21


The Unveiling Africa Conference
University of Alberta
September 21-23


WHEN: Saturday, September 23, 7 pm
Keynote Speaker Philip Emeagwali
WHERE: Dinwoodie Lounge, 2nd floor Students Union Building, U of A
HOW MUCH: $20 ($15 for students)
Unveiling Africa Website

“Africa.” In Western culture, the word fornicates with the word “ignorance” in two ways: first, as the (sometimes) unspoken belief that Africa is the world’s intellectual and cultural “heart of darkness,” and second, as the reality of Western ignorance about the world’s second largest continent.

It’s so common in North America for folks to conceive of Africa as a single country that it’s actually rare, in conversation, to hear someone acknowledge that Africa contains 54 countries. It’s far more common to hear phrases such as “I visited London, Paris, and Africa,” which reduce the world’s second largest continent to the status of a single city.

Other minimising notions suggest that the continent’s hundreds of ethnicities all look alike, instead of encompassing the world’s widest continental range of physical distinction, or that people there speak “African” or African “dialects,” rather than thousands of languages, or that the continent has no history at all, rather than being the birthplace of the human race and dozens of ancient civilisations and quite possibly the birthplace of writing and even civilisation itself.

This weekend, the Unveiling Africa conference will seek to change any such local notions about the “dark continent.” The conference run by the U of A’s newly-formed African Students Union (AFSU) runs from September 21 until the 23rd, showcasing a range of intellectual and cultural events focused on Africa’s history and destiny to promote political and economic progress, including through artistic performances and exhibitions, a food festival and presentations by local academics such as Dr. Philomena Okeke.

But its star of stars will be keynote speaker and internationally acclaimed Nigerian computer researcher Chukwurah Philip Emeagwali. Born in 1954 in what later became Nigeria, Emeagwali found himself engulfed in Nigeria’s Biafran civil war. After living with his family in a refugee camp for two years, at age 14 Emeagwali was conscripted as a child soldier.

After the war claimed a million lives in the continent’s most populous country, Emeagwali was finally discharged. Speaking via telephone from his home in Washington, D.C., he told Vue Weekly that life in Nigeria specifically and Africa generally forced him to become stronger. “You become more psychologically resilient,” he said. “And that resilience is what helps you when you come over to the western world and you face obstacles. It helps you rebound.... Biafra was a difficult place to grow up in--a civil crisis in which one million people died in a thirty-month period [but] those who experience hardships early in life, when they get opportunities, they have a new set of energies, not just unique to those of us from Biafra, but to all immigrants in general, because immigrants come to North America with a new energy and aggressiveness and take advantage of opportunities that society offers.”

At age 19, Emeagwali achieved a mathematics scholarship to study in the U.S. By 1987, after working at the U.S. National Weather Service, Emeagwali performed the feat that has since won him fame and honours: he programmed 65,536 processors to perform 3.1 billion calculations in a second--which won him the prestigious Gordon Bell Prize in 1989. Speaking in Nigeria’s parliament in 2000, US President Bill Clinton hailed Emeagwali as “Africa’s Bill Gates.”

While Clinton’s praise employed the same old Orientalist generalising about Africa (rather than Nigeria), and incorrectly claimed the successful innovator as a super-entrepreneur, the point was clear: by using the Cray Connection Machine supercomputer to analyse petroleum fields, Mr. Emeagwali, without even possessing a PhD., had become a name in computing. Or, more accurately, in super-computing. His home country has even issued a stamp with his likeness.

Such accomplishments in computing by people of African descent shouldn’t be seen as rare, though. Take Dr. Mark Dean, an IBM vice-president who owns three of the original nine patents upon which all PCs are based, or Kwabena Boahen, the Ghanaian-American professor of bioengineering at Stanford who’s attempting to make computers function like the human brain. Yet the stereotypes remain that scientific research and innovation is somehow alien to Africans, despite the ancient foundation of so many sciences in Egypt.

Dislodging such stereotypes is one of the Nigerian researcher’s goals. In his role as motivational speaker, Emeagwali seeks to encourage scientific achievement among students of African descent, as well as political, economic and social achievement. In his keynote address on Friday, he’ll discuss globalisation as a form of re-colonisation, AIDS as a weapon of mass destruction, and the need for the solutions to Africa’s many crises to come from Africans themselves.

But Emeagwali is interested in more massive computations. He’s also something of a cyber-mystic, prognosticating upon the destiny of what he predicts will be a fusion between humanity and the evolving internet. Perhaps it’s not surprising he should possess that fascination, since his first name, “Chukwurah” means “Seeking God's protection and longevity.”

Emeagwali envisages a time in which a super-internet will give birth to practical immortality. In a speech entitled “My Search for the Holy Grail of Immortality” at in 2003 at the Georgia conference of the Black Data Processing Association, Emeagwali said, “My prediction is that, in 100 years, the Internet will evolve and become more tightly coupled.... [T] he computer, as we know it today, will become obsolete. Instead, we will be computing without computers. The computer will, in effect, disappear into this future generation Internet, which I called ‘InternetX’ or SuperBrain....

"If we can replace [with cybernetic implants] one percent of the human brain in 100 years, then we might be able to replace the entire brain in 10,000 years. If we can replace the entire brain, we can download it into the SuperBrain. And if we can download it into the SuperBrain, our descendants will merely exist as pure thoughts, electronic cockroaches or human algorithms. Our descendants will have achieved digital immortality in 10,000 years.”

Comments