Future Shock

There was a very perceptive article in the current issue of the Economist which argued, basically, that Moore’s Law is in sight of breaking down. The result, though, is maybe not what you might think. Progress may not necessarily just get slower; it is more likely to be much, much more unpredictable.

The reasons, according to the Economist are because these days there is so much more that is important than just the single chip in a single computer, among them the role of software, the cloud and new, specialised architectures optimised for particular tasks.

I think we can see some of this unpredictability unfolding in front of our eyes as Google’s Go-playing computer AlphaGo has beaten Lee Sedol, ranked number 4 in the world, in the first two of their best-of-five series. Go is seen as a special challenge to AI because it is very much more complex than chess and a “brute force” approach won’t work.

The really interesting thing about this match is that it was generally thought we were 10 years away from building a computer which could win at Go. AlphaGo surprised the world back in October last year when it won against Fan Hui who is ranked 633rd in the world. What has taken Lee Sedol by surprise is how much better the program has become since – we was apparently quite certain he could beat it.

Hold on to your seats – we could be in for some really quite startling surprises in the coming months and years.



2 thoughts on “Future Shock

  1. Jim, thanks. A good article – for me, the most interesting point comes towards the end. As influence becomes concentrated in a few huge, global organisations, the model of checks and balances that checked the excesses of the free market (in my characterisation : firms pursue the profit motive until it creates adverse outcomes, then the state steps in to regulate) may not function. How does a national government control Google’s excesses, when nation states are in competition to host Google? A small consolation appears in Facebook recent decision to abide by the UK government’s diverted profit tax. I’m interested in your take

    1. It’s certainly true that the “law of increasing returns” as Alvin Tofler puts it, seems to increase concentration of power in a few companies, and globalisation makes them very hard for national governments to control. I’m not sure whether Facebook’s recent decision will really result in much UK tax being paid – we will have to wait and see how much profit it left once the internal licensing and cross-charges for engineering expertise are deducted. My guess is that there will still be plenty of cash going to Bermuda or the Cayman Islands. I think that by far the biggest issue though is how we make the necessary societal changes to cope with a world where jobs to go around are not going to be a given. The employee numbers at the largest companies are tens or hundreds of times less than their counterparts of a couple of decades ago and the rise of AI-driven automation is going to exacerbate this trend vastly. At present advanced economies are still talking as if the status quo still has legs. Personally, I think something like a universal basic income will have to be implemented as a starting point. It’s hard to see that happening in countries like the UK and the US where the rhetoric still seems to be largely based on the Protestant work ethic.

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