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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Some Quirky Videos

December 24, 2012 at 12:16 am (art, interesting, internet, music, odds) (, , , , , , , , , )

I’ve recently got into Twitter, after having an account sitting unused for around 5 years and in that time some rather interesting, but slightly quirky videos have wandered past my twitter feed.

The Christmas Almost Number 1

First of all, a great candidate for a Christmas #1, but unfortunately they didn’t make it. They should have done.  Funny, slightly tongue in cheek, a little humble, and musically very accomplished, is “Christmas Gets Worse Every Year” by ‘The Other Guys’ – 12 students from St Andrew’s University, in Scotland.  See it for yourself here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9YvZn1hgIvo

Thanks to the QI Elves (@qikipedia) for that one.

A Pale Blue Animation

This is a nice animation to accompany Carl Sagan’s monologue ‘A Pale Blue Dot’, itself inspired by the most distant photograph taken of Earth – a photograph from Voyager 1 from a distance of almost 4 billion miles away .  A thought provoking, perspective giving monologue with a slick animation to nicely drive home the meaning. See it here: http://vimeo.com/51960515

Thanks to Robin Ince (@robinince) posting in Brian Cox’s Twitter feed (@ProfBrianCox).

A Father-Daughter Yearly Pilgrimage

This is a nice story – every year Steve Addis takes his daughter to the same street corner in New York and takes a photo of him holding her.  Something that started when she was a year old.  This is a TED talk he shares his 15 most treasured photos from doing this, and the experience of getting a random stranger to take their picture – and how no-one has ever declined.  See it here: www.ted.com/talks/steven_addis_a_father_daughter_bond_one_photo_at_a_time.htm

I can’t remember where I first saw that one retweeted, but now I subscribe to TED Talks (@tedtalks) to make sure I don’t miss any more.

Don’t Assume Anything

This is another one that I saw courtesy of a retween from someone and then followed up.  It took me to the site of Richard Wiseman, that contains a number of very well done videos that challenge your views of the world – this is a particularly nice optical illusion.  See it here: http://richardwiseman.wordpress.com/2012/12/20/do-you-make-assumptions/

Now I follow Richard Wiseman (@RichardWiseman) too.

The Boy and His Robot

This is a lovely tale about a boy and is robot companion.  It combines the imaginary with the real, an idea of a fantasy future with the here-and-now and love, hate and dependency.  You might be tempted to click back after a couple of minutes to whatever you were doing before, but don’t – I thoroughly recommend watching the full 12 minutes.  Its sensitively surprising.  See it here: http://io9.com/5970839/a-lovely-short-film-about-a-boy-and-the-robot-he-cant-get-rid-of

Thanks to IO9 (@io9) for that one.

So a very interesting first few weeks on twitter – long may it continue.



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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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