What exactly constitutes a supercomputer in the 23rd century?

The implication of Stamets’s statement that they would need a supercomputer to make the calculations for the spore-drive implies the Discovery’s computer is incapable of doing the deed. Since Starfleet computers have already been shown to be able to make ethical decisions based on the circumstances of a prisoner running out of air in the second episode, a supercomputer in these circumstances must be pretty damn impressive.

  • I got the impression he meant one specifically geared towards the navigation.
    – IG_42
    Oct 9, 2017 at 22:30
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    Annoyance from a programmer: "Supercomputer" refers to raw processing speed, but the "ethical decision" thing is totally unrelated. It's entirely a function of the programming. So while increased processing speed may help along a complex/intensive program, a computer with god-level processing speeds won't be able to do it without a specially-written ethical program (that in real-life we don't yet know how to create, that can handle any general situation like an AI or semi-AI Star Trek computer).
    – Izkata
    Oct 10, 2017 at 0:36
  • @Izkata: For what it's worth, the "ethical decision" that was shown worked more like logical inference from a set of premises specified by Burnham. Jan 31, 2018 at 12:08

2 Answers 2


"Super" computer is an inherently relative term. The first commercially available supercomputer (at least according to Wikipedia) was the CDC 6600, with an astonishing computing power of up to 3 Megaflops. For comparison your average modern desktop with an i5 processor is going to peak between 18 and 24 Gigaflops.

All we can infer from Stamet's line is that the calculations do indeed need a computer more powerful than the Discovery's. Referring to it as a supercomputer is merely a turn of phrase to indicate the relative scale of the problem.

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    You could also add that a supercomputer generally is generally implemented as a system that combines a large amount of servers closer to the definition of a "normal" computer, taking advantage of that perform task like massively parallel computations.The sheer amount of the machines would require a significant volume of space to act as a server rooms, while the amount of space on a star ship is still limited, even in Discovery era. Oct 11, 2017 at 23:52

In addition to @ench's answer about relativity, the fact that Discovery's computer is competent in performing ethical decisions but not in performing organic propulsion-related computations could be related to difference in the maturity of the two fields: AI(with ethics programming) and Organic Propulsion Mechanics. Field of AI has had much more time for the theory, hardware and software optimisations to be discovered and polished as they interacted and the field evolved over time. On the other hand, the Organic Propulsion Mechanics seems to be relatively very new and not very publicly known, with a lot of new ground yet to be uncovered through further research and just a few prototypes being tested. The pace of new optimisations is limited to the capability of starship science staff who cannot replace long-term growth and widespread contributions. Hence, any urgently required complex computations would have to be performed in a relatively inefficient manner, not really viable without a big boost in raw computational power(supercomputer) or a sudden breakthrough of some nature.

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    I believe the ethical decision example was made by the Shenzhou's computer, not the Discovery's. Minor quibble, otherwise great answer.
    – ench
    Oct 12, 2017 at 1:00

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