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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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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