Tacit knowledge, chips and geopolitics

Today’s Observer column:

When the history of our time comes to be written, one thing that will amaze historians is how an entire civilisation managed to impale itself on its worship of optimisation and efficiency. This obsession is what underpinned the hubris of globalisation. Apple’s famous slogan “Designed by Apple in California, manufactured in China” became its guiding light. So long as products could be made available to consumers everywhere, it no longer mattered where they were made. Until it did.

We first twigged this when the pandemic struck, and we became suddenly aware of how fragile supply chains built to maximise efficiency could be. Shouldn’t we be optimising for resilience rather than efficiency, people wondered. And maybe our obsession with “offshoring” production to low-wage countries might not be such a good idea after all.

The rise of China and the resulting tensions between it and the United States brought this offshoring question into very sharp focus. For our civilisation (if that’s what it is) now runs on silicon as well as oil, and the really advanced silicon chips on which the future seems to depend are all made in one location – Taiwan – and by one company based there, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC)…

Read on

How savvy trillion-dollar chipmaker Nvidia is powering the AI goldrush

Today’s Observer column

It’s not often that the jaws of Wall Street analysts drop to the floor but late last month it happened: Nvidia, a company that makes computer chips, issued sales figures that blew the street’s collective mind. It had pulled in $13.5bn in revenue in the last quarter, which was at least $2bn more than the aforementioned financial geniuses had predicted. Suddenly, the surge in the company’s share price in May that had turned it into a trillion-dollar company made sense.

Well, up to a point, anyway. But how had a company that since 1998 – when it released the revolutionary Riva TNT video and graphics accelerator chip – had been the lodestone of gamers become worth a trillion dollars, almost overnight? The answer, oddly enough, can be found in the folk wisdom that emerged in the California gold rush of the mid-19th century, when it became clear that while few prospectors made fortunes panning for gold, the suppliers who sold them picks and shovels prospered nicely.

We’re now in another gold rush – this time centred on artificial intelligence (AI) – and Nvidia’s A100 and H100 graphical processing units (GPUs) are the picks and shovels…

Read on

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Can AI-generated art be copyrighted? A US judge says not, but it’s just a matter of time

My column in today’s Observer:

Evelyn Waugh famously held that taking a keen interest in ecclesiastical matters was often “a prelude to insanity”. Much the same might be said about newspaper columnists taking an interest in intellectual property law. But let us take the risk. After all, you only live once – at least until Elon Musk creates an electronic clone of himself.

On Friday 18 August, a federal judge in the US rejected an attempt to copyright an artwork that had been created by an AI. The work in question is, to the untrained eye at least, no great shakes. It is called “A Recent Entrance into Paradise” and depicts a three-track railway heading into what appears to be a leafy, partly pixellated tunnel and had been “autonomously created” by a computer algorithm called the Creativity Machine.

In 2018, Stephen Thaler, CEO of a neural network firm called Imagination Engines, had listed Creativity Machine as the sole creator of the artwork. The US Register of Copyright denied the application on the grounds that “the nexus between the human mind and creative expression” is a crucial element of protection.

Mr Thaler was not amused and issued a lawsuit contesting the decision…

Read on

Friday 2 June, 2023

What’s this?

Outside Cambridge railway station yesterday.

Quote of the Day

”There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”

  • Graham Greene

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sharon Shannon | Galway Girl | Live at Cambridge Folk Festival


Long Read of the Day

The Policy Paradox: The more obvious an idea is the less likely it will happen.

Sobering (and insightful) blog post by Sam Freedman.

I’ve been around for a while now and have occasionally found myself drifting into the cynicial “it’s been tried before” mode. So I’m trying to avoid it by taking a different approach. When I’m talking to a young think-tanker or political aide, whose enthusiam is not yet dimmed, I try not to dismiss ideas that have been doing the rounds for a while, but ask a different question: “given you’re not the first person to think of this why hasn’t it happened before?”

Just because something hasn’t worked, or has been blocked, in the past, it doesn’t mean it can’t work now. But it is important to understand the history and explain why it can be different this time.

The more of these discussions I have the more I have come to realise that there’s an odd paradox that applies to every policy area: the more obvious the idea, the less likely it is to happen. I don’t just mean obvious to me. There are plenty of policies that I personally – as a member of the dissolute liberal new elite – think are no brainers that are nevertheless hotly contested. No, these are ideas that everyone, bar perhaps a tiny ideological fringe, agree with, and that, at any of those panel events, will get a room full of appreciative nods, but nevertheless don’t happen…

It’s interesting, if sometimes dispiriting and when I was reading I kept thinking of Gramsci’s adage that what we need is “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. But, since pessimism can be disabling, maybe “realism of the intellect and optimism of the will” might be more useful.

There’s plenty of realism in this essay.

Thanks to Andrew Curry for alerting me to it.

Books, etc.

Cory Doctorow on a “Big Tech Dissassembly Manual”

Cory (Whom God Preserve) gave the Peter Kirstein Lecture in UCL yesterday. It was a typical Cory performance — which means that nobody slept at the back. The lecture theatre was packed and he outlined his ‘enshittification’ thesis of tech platforms with verve and wit and coruscating sarcasm. I like to think that I am critical of the tech industry, but in comparison to Cory I sound like a PR agent for Zuckerberg & Co.

I’ve also recently finished his first venture into mainstream thriller writing — Red Team Blues — and enjoyed it hugely. What’s special about it is the way it takes for granted the astonishing way in which tech (notably crypto) facilitates money-laundering, tax evasion and criminality on a cosmic scale. Henry Farrell wrote a perceptive review of it recently, and so now has his sister Maria — who was also at yesterday’s event, as evidenced below.

Cory is a truly extraordinary individual, the nearest thing we have to a one-man think-tank on the nature and pathologies of digital capitalism. More power to his elbow, as we say in Ireland.

My commonplace booklet

’Fire of Love’ trailer

This is a movie I’d like to see.


By now you will have gathered that in yesterday’s edition the number 10^60 (ten to the power of 60, which is as big a number as you are ever likely to contemplate), was rendered as 1060, which sounds like the state of England before the Norman Conquest!

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The SVB debacle has exposed the hypocrisy of Silicon Valley

This morning’s Observer column:

The first thing to understand is that “Silicon Valley” is actually a reality-distortion field inhabited by people who inhale their own fumes and believe they’re living through Renaissance 2.0, with Palo Alto as the new Florence. The prevailing religion is founder worship, and its elders live on Sand Hill Road in San Francisco and are called venture capitalists. These elders decide who is to be elevated to the privileged caste of “founders”.

To achieve this status it is necessary to a) be male; b) have a Big Idea for disrupting something; and c) never have knowingly worn a suit and tie. Once admitted to the priesthood, the elders arrange for a large tipper-truck loaded with $100 bills to arrive at the new member’s door and cover his driveway with cash.

But this presents the new founder with a problem: where to store the loot while he is getting on with the business of disruption? Enter stage left one Gregory Becker, CEO of SVB and famous in the valley for being worshipful of founders and slavishly attentive to their needs. His company would keep their cash safe, help them manage their personal wealth, borrow against their private stock holdings and occasionally even give them mortgages for those $15m dream houses on which they had set what might loosely be called their hearts.

So SVB was awash with money. But, as programmers say, that was a bug not a feature…

Read on

Users, advertisers – we are all trapped in the ‘enshittification’ of the internet

This morning’s Observer column:

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy,” says the adage, “they first make mad.” Actually, that’s overkill: the Gods just need to make people forget. Amnesia turns out to be a powerful narcotic and it’s been clouding our perceptions of what’s been happening on the internet for at least 25 years, namely the inexorable degradation of the online environment and our passive, sullen acceptance of that.

Thanks to Cory Doctorow, the great tech critic, we now have a term for this decay process in online platforms – enshittification. “First,” he writes, “they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves.” Enshittification results from the convergence of two things: the power of platform owners to change how their platforms extract value from users and the nature of the two-sided markets – where the platforms sit between buyers and sellers, holding each hostage to the other and then raking off an ever-larger share of the value that passes between them…

Read on

Misplaced fears of an ‘evil’ ChatGPT obscure the real harm being done

Today’s Observer column:

Our tendency to humanise large language models and AI is daft – let’s worry about corporate grabs and environmental damage.

How can we make sense of all this craziness? A good place to start is to wean people off their incurable desire to interpret machines in anthropocentric ways. Ever since Joe Weizenbaum’s Eliza, humans interacting with chatbots seem to want to humanise the computer. This was absurd with Eliza – which was simply running a script written by its creator – so it’s perhaps understandable that humans now interacting with ChatGPT – which can apparently respond intelligently to human input – should fall into the same trap. But it’s still daft.

The persistent rebadging of LLMs as “AI” doesn’t help, either. These machines are certainly artificial, but to regard them as “intelligent” seems to me to require a pretty impoverished conception of intelligence…

Read on…

Crypto is intended to be hard to regulate, but at least the Treasury wants to have a go

This morning’s Observer column:

For my sins, I have been reading Future financial services regulatory regime for cryptoassets, 82 pages of prime Whitehall verbiage that was published recently, setting out HM Treasury’s plans to govern the clouds and hold back the tides.

It opens with the statutory ringing endorsement by Andrew Griffith, economic secretary to the Treasury. He reminds readers that the government’s “firm ambition is for the UK to be home to the most open, well-regulated and technologically advanced capital markets in the world” – which “means taking proactive steps to harness the opportunities of new financial technologies”. He further believes that “crypto technologies” can have a profound impact across financial services and that “by capitalising on the potential benefits offered by crypto we can strengthen our position as a world leader in fintech, unlock growth and boost innovation”. Cont’d p94, as they say in Private Eye.

Billed as a “consultation and call for evidence”, the document invites our views on these important matters. As a public-spirited columnist, it would be churlish to refuse the invitation. So here goes…

Read on.

Cold war 2.0 will be a race for semiconductors, not arms

This morning’s Observer column:

Computers need chips. But what that increasingly means is that nearly everything needs chips. How come? Because computers are embedded in almost every device we use. And not just in things that we regard as electronic. One of the things we learned during the pandemic was that cars and tractors need chips – simply because their engine-control units are basically small, purpose-built computers. Once Covid-19 hit car sales, semiconductor manufacturers switched their production lines to serve other – much bigger – customers. And then, as things started to return to normal in 2021, car manufacturers discovered that they had slipped to the back of the semiconductor queue – and their production lines ground to a halt. Similarly for microwave cookers, washing machines and refrigerators.

In the decades when the west was still high on the globalisation drug, the fact that things upon which we relied were manufactured elsewhere didn’t seem to bother us…

Read on

Alexa, how did Amazon’s voice assistant rack up a $10bn loss?

Sometimes, invasions don’t work out as well as you hoped.

This morning’s Observer column:

Intrigued by an Ars Technica post about Amazon’s Alexa that suggested all was not well in the tech company’s division that looks after its smart home devices, I went rooting in a drawer where the Echo Dot I bought years ago had been gathering dust. Having found it, and set it up to join the upgraded wifi network that hadn’t existed when I first got it, I asked it a question: “Alexa, why are you such a loss-maker?” To which she calmly replied: “This might answer your question: mustard gas, also known as Lost, is manufactured by the United States.” At which point, I solemnly thanked her, pulled the power cable and returned her to the drawer, where she will continue to gather dust until I can think of an ecologically responsible way of recycling her…

Read on