By Juliet Fang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Emma Haruka Iwao started programming when she was in elementary school. Now, she’s broken the world record for computing the most digits of pi—twice.
On June 8, 2022, Iwao, a Japanese computer scientist and Cloud Developer Advocate at Google in Seattle, became the first person to calculate 100 trillion digits of pi, surpassing the previous world record of 62.8 trillion digits set by Swiss researcher Thomas Keller and Iwao’s personal record of 31.4 trillion, which she achieved in 2019.
“It is very exciting,” says Iwao.
In the simplest terms, the number pi is a mathematical constant that describes the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. The first calculation of pi was completed by Archimedes, a Greek mathematician and inventor approximately 2,200 years ago. For many centuries afterward, digits of pi were calculated by hand.
Then, in the 20th century, the invention of the digital computer exponentially increased efforts to estimate pi to the millionth, billionth, and, eventually, trillionth decimal point. By 2009, Daisuke Takahashi, a professor at the University of Tsukuba, had calculated 2.6 trillion digits of pi.
When Iwao worked in a lab at the University of Tsukuba, she found that one of the professors there was Takahashi. She was familiar with his work and excited to work with him. She was also motivated by Shigeru Kondo, former world record holder, who did pi calculations in his own home.
“I had all these people close to me breaking records, which definitely motivated me to want to do the same,” she says. “Knowing these people first hand gave me a kind of confidence that I could do anything if I had the right tools and timing.”
But it wasn’t until Iwao began working at Google that she felt she had the resources to break world records.
“Working there, I sort of realized, ‘Hey, we have fast enough computers!’ We had the software to break the current record and decided to give it a try,” she says.
The process wasn’t easy. According to Iwao, the biggest hurdle was ensuring she and her team had the right configuration for the Google Cloud computers.
“We spent a lot of time writing scripts, automating some of the operational processes we have, and measuring the performance of our computers using those tools. We made sure we were confident that the technology could run for several months without any issues.”
Eventually, Iwao and her team prevailed. Using the power of Google Cloud and y-cruncher, a program that was developed by software engineer Alexander Yee, Iwao calculated 100 trillion digits of pi in 157 days, processing a total of 82,000 terabytes of data. What’s more, she was able to calculate more than three times her previous record of pi digits (31.4 trillion in 2019) more than twice as fast. Iwao believes that this new record demonstrates how far computers have come in the past decades.
“Calculating digits of pi acts as a measurement of computer progress. The fact that we were able to compute more than triple the number of digits in a similar amount of time, from 2019 to 2022, truly shows that we are still making computers faster.
There’s been some speculation about an upper limit to the speed of computers, but the amount of progress we’ve been able to make in just three years is just one of the examples of where computer technology continues to make exponential progress.”
Indeed, the number 100 trillion is practically unimaginable. In a blog post by Iwao, she notes that 100 trillion inches of pie crust could stretch from Earth to the moon and back approximately 3,304 times and that it would take 3,170,979 years to read all 100 trillion digits of pi out loud.
So, what’s next for Iwao? Continuing her passion of making computers efficient and easy to work with, she says.
“I really want to use these kinds of experiments and demonstrations as a tool to help more people learn about computers, cloud technology, and programming so that more people can use computers to solve problems.”
Iwao is very optimistic about the future of the tech industry.
“Computer science is such an exciting field. If anyone wants to become a software engineer or any sort of computer scientist, know that it is always a great time to jump in and start learning because there are always so many things happening. There are always new things to learn that come out every single month.”
“Truly, technology is still evolving, improving, and progressing.”
Juliet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.