Extractivism and the Anatomy of AI

November 6, 2018 at 10:20 pm (computers, interesting, science) (, , , )

I found this fascinating website – the Anatomy of an AI System – which takes an Amazon Echo and attempts to map out the behind the scenes costs in terms of manual labour, material resources, and data required to power the ecosystem.

It is particularly telling how much it focuses on the raw material impact of our modern lifestyles, which when all said and done is not unique to the Echo, but a symptom of our continued fascination with electronic gadgetry in its totality.  It has a word, that was new to me, for the way much of the impact is continually hidden from end consumers by large companies – extractivism – and attempts to bring to the fore the continued extractivism going on in support of the huge technology base being created (and in some cases just as quickly obsoleted) by large technology companies.

It uses as one example, The Salar, which is a high plateau in Bolivia that apparently contains the majority of the world’s source for Lithium, becoming increasingly important of course in our desire for mobile power (both smartphones and electric vehicles).

Another interesting example is the metaphor of “the cloud”:

Vincent Mosco has shown how the ethereal metaphor of ‘the cloud’ for offsite data management and processing is in complete contradiction with the physical realities of the extraction of minerals from the Earth’s crust and dispossession of human populations that sustain its existence.

We think of putting our data in “the cloud”, of using services in “the cloud” and all the mechanics are abstracted away, out of sight, out of mind. It is rarely that the physical realities of “the cloud” surface, expect in exceptional circumstances, usually where something goes wrong.

I would be interested in reading an update to Andrew Blum’s Tubes, updating it to make “the cloud” real in the same way he did for the also ethereal Internet itself.

Another interesting observation to come out of the study is the importance of the multiple roles of the end user:

When a human engages with an Echo, or another voice-enabled AI device, they are acting as much more than just an end-product consumer. It is difficult to place the human user of an AI system into a single category: rather, they deserve to be considered as a hybrid case. Just as the Greek chimera was a mythological animal that was part lion, goat, snake and monster, the Echo user is simultaneously a consumer, a resource, a worker, and a product.

(emphasis in the original paper).

This also comes out in the scale of income distributions – with Jeff Bezos at the top (apparently earning $275 million a day) – through US developers and workers, through overseas developers and workers – right down to “unpaid user labour” at the bottom generating the data that feeds the system and continually improves it.

The study rightly points out the fractal nature of attempting to display any of this in a linear manner on a single diagram.  Of course, each supply chain is supported by components each with their own supply chain.  Its supply chains all the way down until you reach the raw elements.

In summary I am minded simultaneously of Carl Sagan:

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

But seeing this complication laid bare, somewhat in defence of humanity, also of Douglas Adams (from “Mostly Harmless”):

“The available worlds looked pretty grim. They had little to offer him because he had little to offer them. He had been extremely chastened to realize that although he originally came from a world which had cars and computers and ballet and Armagnac, he didn’t, by himself, know how any of it worked. He couldn’t do it. Left to his own devices he couldn’t build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich and that was it.”


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No Ordinary Genius

December 13, 2012 at 9:36 pm (science) (, , , , , )

I have a DVD recorded off a video recorded off the TV of an old Horizon TV programme about Richard Feynman called “No Ordinary Genius”.  I have read Feynmans two books “Surely you’re joking Mr Feynman” and “What do you care what other people think?” and they are fascinating stories in their own right.  But they don’t really touch on his central work around physics.

From my university days, I still have the Feynman Lectures on Physics (my electricity and magnetism lecturer was a Feynman fan) and always have it in my mind to read them again one day (and see if I can remember any of my physics).  But the Horizon programme is great at giving a really good overview of his work, character and just quirkiness.

Now there are Feynman quotes a plenty on the Internet, but here are two that I particularly like from the series:

In the opening of the series, there is a now famous clip of Feynman talking at some student event or something and someone asks him about UFOs.  his response is that he can’t prove that they don’t exist, but that using scientific principles, he can say:

“From my knowledge of what I see of the world around me, I think that it is much more likely that the reports of flying saucers are the result of known irrational behaviour of terrestrial intelligence rather than the unknown rational characteristics of extra-terrestrial intelligence.”

And then a story recounted by one of his colleagues that I particularly liked too:

Dick acted as a consultant for a company in Switzerland, which took him there every summer. About 1982 or so, I had business in Europe, and I met Dick in Geneva.  We decided to kick around for several days.  We did the shops and the countryside on the first day, and on the second day, he asked what I’d like to do.  I said, “Well, if it isn’t too much like a postman’s holiday, I’d like to go over to CERN,” which is the European particle accellerator, where so much particle physics is done, and where Dick used to work a number of years before.  He said, “Sure.”  So we went over there, and Dick couldn’t find his way around because the buildings had changed.  We finally found our way in, and looked into a room where there were some physicists doing work on the blackboard.  One of them spotted Feynman, and pretty soon there was a crowd gathered, and the director came in.  He decided they’d take us on a tour.  We went into a 007, James Bond cave underneath the ground, with all this wonderful high-technology equipment.  There was a giant machine that was going to be rolled into the line of the particle accelerator.  The machine was maybe the size of a two-story building, on tracks, with lights and bulbs and dials and scaffolds all around, with men climbing all over it.

Feynman said, “What experiment is this?”

The director said, “Why this is an experiment to test the charge-change something-or-other under such-and-such circumstances.”  But he stopped suddenly, and he said, “I forgot!  This is your theory of charge-change, Dr. Feynman!  This is an experiment to demonstrate, if we can, your theory of fifteen years ago, called so-and-so.”  He was a little embarrassed at having forgotten it.

Feynman looked at this big machine, and he said, “How much does this cost?”  The man said, “Thirty-seven million dollars,” or whatever it was.

And Feynman said, “You don’t trust me?”

Well worth watching again if you have a spare hour or so – its now available in its entirety on YouTube.



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December 10, 2012 at 8:55 pm (interesting, odds, science) (, , , , , )

There is a lot of talk of “big data” – but I quite like the idea that big data means “more data than you have the computing power to process”.  And that isn’t new.  I particularly like this talk by John Graham-Cumming about big data – describing a big data problem they encountered … in the 1950’s.  The blurb for the conference describes it thus:

It’s 1951 and you’ve got the world’s first business computer and you’ve just been handed a Big Data problem. Go! With 2K of memory it was  powerful enough to run the then massive Lyons business.  But it wasn’t long, in 1955, before Big Data came calling in the form of a request from British Rail to calculate the shortest distance between every one of their 5,000 railway stations.

So why mention it at all?  Well there is an interesting discussion going on at the moment that we might soon be running out of metric units to describe big data.  Andrew McAfee’s blog describes the problem:

Yotta- , signifying 10^24, is the only metrix prefix left on the list. Only 20+ years ago, we didn’t anticipate needing anything beyond yotta. It seems safe to say that before the current decade is out we’ll need to convene a 20th conference to come up with some more prefixes for extraordinarily large quantities not to describe intergalactic distances or the amount of energy released by nuclear reactions, but to capture the amount of digital data in the world.

Yotta?  See wikipedia for the full list:

  • kilo = 1,000
  • mega = 1,000,000
  • giga = 1,000,000,000
  • tera = 1,000,000,000,000
  • peta = 1,000,000,000,000,000
  • exa = 1,000,000,000,000,000,000
  • zetta = 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000
  • yotta = 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

Yes, that is 1 followed by 24 zeros.  But even that might not be enough.

So what is being considered?  Well some have suggested hella for 1 followed by 27 zeros, but I think that is missing a great opportunity.  I think it should be helluva.  Then we can have distances that are a helluvameter, really heavy things that are a helluvagram and if you are into really big data then obviously you need storage that has a helluvabyte in it.

But, seeing as Google already recognises hella, we might have missed that chance.  But then Google also already knows about googols too.



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Faces in the Sand

August 5, 2012 at 10:25 am (art, computers, interesting, internet, science) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

I had an hour spare in London yesterday so took some time to visit the Science Museum.  Now this is something I like to do from time to time, if nothing else just to pop in if I’m passing that way to see if the Listening Post is still there.

This time I had two aims in mind.  First to catch a little of the Alan Turing exhibition, although most of it I already knew, from having visited Bletchley Park in the past.  Then, from the birth of modern computing, I wanted to visit the Google Chrome Web Lab.  This is a recently opened exhibition, running until June next year.

So, I find the museum, wander in and immediately see the Turing exhibition, so walk through that.  Mission accomplished, I walk on through the main gallery, past the steam engines, through the space section, past the ‘building the modern world’ gallery, home of the cut-in-half mini, the cray supercomputer and the ‘decades’ displays.

I had a brief pause when I noticed the prototype Clock of the Long Now.  This is something I have literally just read about in Richard Watson’s book ‘Future Minds’ (which I totally recommend).  In the book he presents a search for slowing down, worried about how the ‘always on, always interrupting’ nature of the modern, connected world leaves no time for quiet thinking, reflection and the kind of deep thought that really leads to new ideas.  He mentions the clock as a symbol of “thinking slowly”.

The prototype of the 10000 year clock ticks once every 30 seconds and has been installed in the science museum.  The final clock is being built inside a mountain in the US (like the fictional Colossus)! The web page lists the prototype as being created December 1st 01999 – not many projects will list a 5 digit year! (reminds me of As Slow as Possible, but I could digress about such topics for ages, so I won’t!).

Once past the main galleries and into the newer Wellcome Wing, an immediate right turn will take you down some steps to the Chrome Web Lab.  And after all this old, long term thinking you are brought right into the current, connected present.

The idea behind the lab is to make the Internet seem real.  A very topical subject for me right now as I’m currently reading Andrew Blum’s ‘Tubes’ about his discover to find the real, physical Internet (but more on that another time).  Of course whilst educating the populace, it has the side effect of raising awareness of Google’s own web browser technology, Chrome, showcasing its future looking HTML 5 application development ability.

Google have created 6 experiments that can be run locally in the museum and online at chromeweblab.com.  Visitors to the museum can see the online participants and those online can see elements on the physical displays too.  Based on the kinds of Internet projects I’ve seen Google push in the past, I was very interested in seeing what they will do themselves.

When you first walk in (or register online) you get a “lab tag” which you put in the experiments to “log in”.  You can also hold it up to your webcam when you get home and link back to your time in the lab.

There are five experiments in total, but the ones that really appealed to me were the Universal Orchestra and the Sketchbots.

The Universal Orchestra is a set of six digitally controlled musical instruments.  A marimba, xylophone, drums, tuned drums, shakers, wood blocks, etc.  It is controlled by programming using a system of dots that appears to owe quite a lot to a Tenori-On.

Three instruments can programmed from within the physical lab and three are programmed only online.  A computer provides an ethereal accompaniment track based on the notes chosen at any one time.  The continuously changing nature of the music provides a fascinating aural background to the rest of the lab.

But the experiment that prompted the title of this post is the collection of sketchbots.  Again, six in total, three controlled only online and three from the lab.  You insert your tag and stand in front of a webcam.  It takes your picture and then goes through a series of image processing steps to isolate the key lines of your face.  These lines are then drawn in some smooth sand by a robot arm.

There is a wonderful irony at play here.  On the one hand, the robot draws your picture, the table rotates a quarter turn and in the space of three rotations your picture is no more.  Washed away just like a picture in the sand at the beach.  Forgotten to all.

But in parallel, the digital version that allowed the robot to draw the picture in the sand has been remembered.  It sits on Google’s servers, linked to your own tag to be recalled at a moments notice.  How long will it remain?  Who knows.  “Storage is cheap”.  The cloud is forever.  (Note that the T&C say data will be deleted when the exhibition closes).

We are in an age of digitally never forgetting.  Whilst once it took lots of effort to remember – initially sharing a song around the fire, passing on tales and stories, then writing and language allowing written records.  Finally the printing press allow mass distribution.  Still, recording was an effort.

Today it is almost totally the reverse.  If it’s digital, it is remembered by default by something, somewhere.  We have the technology to record every moment of our lives, but when would we find time to watch it?  Many digital photos are “write only” taken and automatically preserved, but never looked at again.

It is now more effort to forget digital information.  Google knows what you’ve done – what you’ve searched for, what emails you’ve sent – in some cases where you’ve been.  To ask it to forget is next to impossible.  It will maintain your digital footprints in their digital sand for as long as its useful to them.

Hence the wonderful irony enshrined in the Google sketchbots – my picture is long gone in the sand, but lives on (as does the record of my visit) online.  And to me it points to a future where what was once transient is becoming permanent.  Interesting Times indeed.

It is very well worth a visit to the web lab – in the physical space if you happen to be passing, or online.  A very nice way to spend an hour.


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List of Numbers – you can help by expanding it …

May 25, 2012 at 5:35 pm (interesting, science) (, , , , , , , )

What else would you do on Towel Day, than browse Douglas Adams references on wikipedia?  Hence leading me (in true xkcd style) via the number 42 to the list of numbers page:

Yes you read that right – “This is an incomplete list, which may never be able to satisfy particular standards for completeness. You can help by expanding it with reliably sourced entries.”

It would appear to me that this might be missing a citation – infinity!

Still I was impressed by the dedication.  At the time of writing, all numbers up to ~210 seem to have their own wikipedia page … then in 10s, then 100s, then 1000s and so on.

Nice to see some named numbers (hello Graham), then some specialist numbers (primes, etc), notable integers, specialist scientific numbers, right through to numbers with no specific value.  Really.

In fact, this page would seem a shining example of the interesting number paradox in action.  In fact the same thought appears to have occurred to someone else, as the interesting number paradox page has this to say:

  • 224 (number), the smallest natural number which does not have its own Wikipedia article.

I wonder how many times the wikipedia page for 224 has been created and removed over the years!

Of course my favourite number is 2.  It’s so odd … it’s the only even prime.



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International Year of Biodiversity

May 8, 2010 at 3:29 pm (interesting, science) (, , , )

Apparently the United Nations has declared that 2010 is the international year of bio-diversity, celebrating the value of bio-diversity on our lives.  You can read all about it here – http://www.cbd.int/2010/.

There are a number of things going on in the UK, including BioBlitz surveys of local plant and wildlife.  Full details are available from the Natural History Museum’s ‘Biodiversity is Life’ website.  You can also join their Facebook Group.

Apparently I’ve already missed Earth Day, which apparently was on 22nd April.


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Augmented Identity

May 1, 2010 at 7:01 pm (computers, interesting, science) (, , , , , , , )

I first saw this demo quite a while ago, but could not remember where.  Well, whilst browsing through some videos from New Scientist, I found a clue and now have found the video again.

Its a marketing video from a Swedish company called The Astonishing Tribe.  And its certainly a very interesting view of a potential future.  There are lots of applications for Augmented Reality and mobile phones, but one ‘holy grail’ still eludes people – accurate face recognition.

The desire is to have a mobile application that you can use to hold up your phone, have it recognise the person its pointing at, and then have it give you information about that person.  If a social setting, maybe their Facebook profile. If a business setting, maybe a LinkedIn profile.  If they are giving a seminar, maybe a link to their slides on SlideShare.  Imaging sitting in somewhere like a busy station and being about to browse some basic information about the people nearby in the same was as one can currently do inside a virtual world.  Thats the kind of thing people are thinking about at the moment.

Well, this company has an application, Recgonizr, that uses face recognition technology from Polar Rose, called FaceLib, that would appear to be a step in that direction.  We may still be a long way away from recognising random strangers in a busy station, but this demo of theirs is still very impressive.  More details from the readwriteweb.


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Domestic Robocop – Augmented (Hyper) Reality

February 14, 2010 at 4:02 pm (computers, interesting, internet, science) (, , )

This is a very interesting futuristic film, from student Keiichi Matsuda, produced for his Masters degree in architecture in order to show how todays electronic media could have an impact on future architecture, personal space and living.   Read more about it here.

It portrays a future where augmented reality is ubiquitous, and the information overlays are, well essentially all advertising.  Want to sell the surfaces of your kitchen to coca cola?  Well, maybe in this future it would be possible – unless someone manages to create the 3d, AR vesion of adblock …

Interesting extrapolation of the current tech.  Well worth a watch.


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Paper Polyhedra

January 28, 2008 at 8:18 pm (interesting, odds, science) (, , , , , , )

If you like making things and like maths, then this site is for you. It has loads (over 100) of paper ‘nets’ for printing out to make the models. It contains the platonic solids, archimedean solids and many other regular polyhedra.

Fancy a challange? Try the Rhombicosidodecahedron or how about a Small Ditrigonal Icosidodecahedron? Actually, I quite like the Snub Dodecahedron.


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Contact – Carl Sagan and pi

November 12, 2007 at 10:04 pm (books, science, security) (, , , , , , , , , )

My previous musings about xkcd finally let me to read their whole archive … which means that I eventually found this one, which is possibly one of my favorites.

Got me thinking about Carl Sagan‘s novel, Contact.  Loved the book.  Film was ok, but I was really disappointed that the bit about pi never made it in.

Whilst browsing wikipedia about this subject, found a link to http://www.pisearch.de.vu/ (currently unavailable though).  Struck me that this would be a good way to collect personal details about people (‘try it with your credit card number’ 🙂

Further browsing has turned up Pi-Search, which you can use to look for sequences in the first 200 million digits of pi.  Did you know that the sequence 12345678 occurs at position 186,557,266?  Well now you do.

The Feynman Point is also interesting.  Maybe one day, I’ll give both Richard Feynman and Pi an entry of their own.


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