Saturday, March 19, 2016

Technology and Efficiency

"Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them."

● Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam

I thought this was fascinating:
Lee Sedol used about 20 Watts of power to operate. By contrast, AlphaGo runs on a whopping 1920 CPUs and another 280 GPUs for an estimated power consumption of approximately 1 MW (200 W per CPU and 200 W per GPU). That’s 50,000 times as much power as the amount of power that Lee Sedol’s brain uses and the two are not quite evenly matched but it is close enough to use for comparison. 
It took 30 computers to [defeat Garry Kasparov], evaluating approximately 200 million positions per second, mostly due to its use of a large number of specially crafted chips. The 30 P2SC nodes alone consumed about 900 watts of power, you still need to add some power consumption for the 480 ASICs that were especially crafted to play chess (we’re not actually talking about a general purpose computer here, more about a special purposes hardware design that happens to be extremely good at evaluating chess positions).

Interesting definition of efficiency - as always, to downgrade the human in favor of machines. That's why we're growing plants in railroad cars rather than under sunlight in the name of "efficiency." Not to mention the GO computer can't do something as simple as throw a ball.
Imagine a contest in which we are going to pit man against machine. But instead of measuring who is best in playing the game of ‘Go’ we are going to measure who is fastest. In the one corner: Human, all of 175 pounds of extremely well trained runner. And in the other corner, a Formula 1 racecar with a remote control running down a straight track...So now the interesting question (to me at least) is: How long before a computer will beat the human Go world champion using no more power than the human.
That's proof of the sentiment from this classic Archdruid Report report from a few years back:
It’s hard to think of anything that flies in the face of contemporary attitudes more comprehensively than the suggestion that human beings are more efficient than machines under any circumstances at all. Still, if you consider the whole system upon which each of the two depends, the superiority of the human is easy to see. Behind the machine—almost any machine in the modern industrial world—stands a sprawling infrastructure that depends on constant inputs of energy: not just energy in general, either, but very large quantities of cheap, concentrated energy fitting precise specifications. That energy powers the machine, to be sure, but it also manufactures it, keeps spare parts in stock, and powers and supplies the huge networks that make it possible for the machine to do what it does. A laptop computer all by itself is an oddly shaped paperweight; to make it function at all, you have to add electricity, and thus the entire system that produces the electricity and keeps it flowing; to make it more than a toy, you need the internet, and thus a far more complex system, which among other things uses a vast amount of additional energy; and of course to produce the laptop, the electrical grid, and the internet in the first place, counting all the products and services needed by all the economic sectors that contribute to their manufacture and functioning, you need a fairly large proportion of the entire industrial economy of the modern world. 
Human beings do not suffer from the same limitations. A human being all by herself is capable of meeting her essential operating needs in a pinch, using only the very diffuse energy sources and raw materials available in a natural environment; a few dozen human beings, given suitable knowledge and skills, can support themselves comfortably over the long term on a tribal-village level, using the same diffuse energy sources; a few thousand human beings subject to all these limits can create a civilization. In a world without vast amounts of cheap energy, human flexibility and creativity consistently beats mindless mechanical rigidity. That’s why, for example, the ancient Greek inventors who created the steam turbine and crafted highly efficient gearing systems didn’t launch the industrial revolution two thousand years early; the recognition that fossil fuels existed in enough quantity to power steam engines, drive gear trains and replace human labor with mechanical force was missing, and without that, Hero of Alexandria’s steam turbine and the Antikythera device’s clockwork mechanism could never be anything more than clever toys. 
The recognition that the potential within the individual human being is the industrial world’s most thoroughly wasted and neglected resource has surfaced at intervals straight through the history of industrialism, and been hurriedly swept back under the rug time and again...

Even if you don't think we're running out of the energy to do these things, the loss of these skills is tragic. It's said that Australian aborigines, who had no words for "right and left" only ordinal directions like north, south, east, and west, could find their way across vast distances accurately with no maps or other navigational tool. Polynesian sailors were able to navigate across vast distances of ocean using nothing but their senses.

I'm sure I'm not the first to make the observation that it seems like the smarter our phones get, people seem to get dumber by a corresponding amount. People relying on GPS instead of their own senses and driving into a lake or off a cliff are so common as to not be reported anymore.

Speaking of low-tech solutions, that reminds me of another story I heard recently. There have been a number of times where a passenger pigeon has actually transferred information faster than high-speed internet:
A Durban IT company pitted an 11-month-old bird armed with a 4GB memory stick against the ADSL service from the country's biggest web firm, Telkom. Winston the pigeon took two hours to carry the data 60 miles - in the same time the ADSL had sent 4% of the data.
SA pigeon 'faster than broadband' (BBC)

And in Cuba, always a hotbed of low-tech solutions to problems, a low-tech "Netflix" system has developed which doesn't require fiber-optic cables or gigajoules of energy (ignore the requisite socialist-bashing in the second-to-last para):
"El Paquete Semanal" (the Weekly Package) is a weekly trove of digital content —everything from American movies to PDFs of Spanish newspapers — that is gathered, organized, and transferred by a human web of runners and dealers to the entire country. It is a prodigious and profitable operation...Paquete subscribers pay between $1 and $3 per week to receive the collection of media. It's either delivered to their home or transferred at a pickup station, usually in the back of a cellphone repair shop, a natural cover for this type of operation.
This is Cuba's Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify – all without the internet (Vox)

Nevertheless, one of the top stories on the Reddits over the past few days has been this:

Carl’s Jr. CEO wants to try automated restaurant where customers ‘never see a person’ (KFOR)

CEO of Carl’s Jr. Says He Replace All Human Workers With Robots (CoverageMail)

Fast-food CEO says he's investing in machines because the government is making it difficult to afford employees (Business Insider)

So, the only way we can produce enough jobs in our economy is by paying abysmally low wages? Or are we still pretending that these jobs are just summer jobs for teenagers and housewives? And how does the opinion of this wealthy junk-food mogul square with the blase assurances of economists that automation always "creates more jobs that it destroys?"

I remember all those years when economists assured us that the "service economy" was the wave of the future, and we should not even try to stop deindustrialization, because everyone would be so much better off in the "new" economy. It looks like people are starting to get wise to the con.

BONUS: The woman who lives in a 1939 time warp (BBC) Keep calm and carry on!


  1. Though I am very fond of the Archdruid I have to vote for progress !
    The developments in AI, sensors and lasers are just now getting some traction.

    1. I've often noticed that the time period between invention and mature application of a technology is about 30-40 years. You see this everywhere from steam engines to electricity to automobiles to computers (much of today's basic technology was invented pre-1980).

      It would be nice if computers and sensors would free us from drudgery. There's a lot of interesting stuff to be done. Sadly, we use it mainly to put people out of work, while refusing to make any modifications to our existing economic arrangements.

      I think the barcode was a major innovation. I wonder if barcodes and computational technology mean that the supposed information-benefits of the Market are overblown. Could we really not coordinate economic activity another way, or is it just relentless propaganda that has convinced of this? Already we see computer algorithms "allocating capital" and taking jobs from financial advisors. Plus the Market seems to be based more on more on monopolies and tricking people rather than on actual price "discovery."

    2. The thing about progress is that what has been achieved can be resurrected once the problems of the day, like the financialization of the economy, have blown over.

    3. Assuming of course that the problems of today like financialization of the economy doesn't lead to social unrest and nuclear annihilation. All that great technology is rendered useless if we are careened back to the stone age


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