Biological organisms must perform computation as they grow, reproduce and evolve. Moreover, ever since Landauer's bound was proposed, it has been known that all computation has some thermodynamic cost-and that the same computation can be achieved with greater or smaller thermodynamic cost depending on how it is implemented. Accordingly an important issue concerning the evolution of life is assessing the thermodynamic efficiency of the computations performed by organisms. This issue is interesting both from the perspective of how close life has come to maximally efficient computation (presumably under the pressure of natural selection), and from the practical perspective of what efficiencies we might hope that engineered biological computers might achieve, especially in comparison with current computational systems. Here we show that the computational efficiency of translation, defined as free energy expended per amino acid operation, outperforms the best supercomputers by several orders of magnitude, and is only about an order of magnitude worse than the Landauer bound. However, this efficiency depends strongly on the size and architecture of the cell in question. In particular, we show that the useful efficiency of an amino acid operation, defined as the bulk energy per amino acid polymerization, decreases for increasing bacterial size and converges to the polymerization cost of the ribosome. This cost of the largest bacteria does not change in cells as we progress through the major evolutionary shifts to both single- and multicellular eukaryotes. However, the rates of total computation per unit mass are non-monotonic in bacteria with increasing cell size, and also change across different biological architectures, including the shift from unicellular to multicellular eukaryotes.This article is part of the themed issue 'Reconceptualizing the origins of life'.