Written by Jenifer Chrisman on August 20, 2020.
“The PS3 is not a game machine. We’ve never once called it a game machine...With the PS3, our intentions have been to create a machine with supercomputer calculation capabilities for home entertainment.”
– Ken Kutaragi
Nicknamed the “Condor Cluster,” the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) created a supercomputer with a core made of 1,760 Sony PlayStation 3 (PS3) consoles. Located in Rome, New York, the computer was completed in 2010 with a December 1 ribbon cutting. Before the program was shut down it became the 33rd most powerful supercomputer worldwide.
The computer’s engineers took advantage of the strengths of the PS3, deactivating unneeded features to optimize performance. And while the “Condor Cluster” was not general purpose and did not replace other supercomputers, it worked well with the applications it was created for.
At the time the project began, comparable technology was approximately $10,000 per unit while a PS3 console was selling for $400. At completion, the overall core cost was about $2 million, 5-10% of the cost of its equivalent according to Mark Barnell, AFRL Director of High Power Computing.
This large capacity supercomputer, made from the older, larger PS3s, which allowed a Linux operating system, could perform 500 trillion floating point operations per second (TFLOPS). It processed billions of pixels per minute (equivalent to 150 high-definition televisions combined), greatly reducing the time needed to analyze ultra-high-resolution images and had improved algorithms, allowing blurred flying objects to be more easily identified. As an added advantage, it consumed approximately 10% of the energy of comparable supercomputers, making it far more energy efficient.
The “Condor Cluster” was connected by over five miles of wire. And it also included 84 coordinating servers (for traffic direction within the system) and 168 separate graphical processing units.
The Air Force used it for such tasks as pattern recognition, satellite imagery processing and radar enhancement, along with its main task of artificial intelligence research. This neuromorphic computing, which ran “learning” algorithms to teach it to read symbols, letters, words and sentences, theoretically meant that the computer could be instructed to read text and fill in gaps or rearrange material (in case of human error) on its own.
Absorbing approximately 20 pages per second, it had a 99.9% accuracy rate with 20-30% of the characters removed from each page. Such recovery of fragmentary documentation was invaluable to Air Force intelligence analysts.
Due to a shift in Sony’s PS3 to a slimmer model, which didn’t have Linux capability, and then their move to the PS4 which didn’t easily connect to other PS4s to create a supercomputer, the PlayStation supercomputer era ended fairly quickly. After the PlayStation 3 Cluster program shut down around 2015, many of the “Condor Cluster’s” consoles were either donated for use to those with smaller supercomputer clusters or sold off as old inventory. And a few hundred were obtained by fans of the TV show Person of Interest, where the PlayStation 3 supercomputers made their silver screen debut in the Season 5 premiere.