AI's Insatiable Thirst for Power

Richard Fernandez16 Feb, 2024 4 Min Read
If history is any guide they will always ask for more.

It's impossible to understand the reported collapse of the media outside of the context of the information revolution. The media is dying because it has been leapfrogged by technology. Until the late 20th century, societies gathered data, visualized it and found patterns in the resulting information through a system of reporters and editors. Journalism and espionage was the mirror through which civilization saw itself. It was called "bringing the world to the world," in the slogan of the old Gaumont newsreel company.

Ever since the Internet scooped the media on Indian Ocean tsunami it was clear that crowdsourcing was threatening to be the first on scene anywhere. "Part of the inspiration for YouTube came when a founder was looking for online videos of the tsunami" and started the site so you could actually find them. The increase in scope is staggering. Today social media monitors entire populations, not just a few celebrity newsmakers. China's TikTok, for example, surveils millions of Americans and many more around the world. It catalogues what they do, believe, or think in excruciating detail. Many American tech firms do the same often without human intervention. Companies like Facebook review and act on content using artificial intelligence (AI) "before anyone reports it."

Suicide, she wrote.

But the rivers of data processed by social media shrink into insignificance before the torrents gathered and sifted by the Internet of Things (IOT) which includes sensors, processors, and software to monitor everything on the planet, from weather patterns to ships at sea. The IOT grew partly out of the "six Webs" framework proposed at the World Economic Forum at Davos in 1999 which envisioned collecting everything for analysis.

Much of it already exists: an Internet of Military Things, Internet of Industrial Things and of course the Internet of Climate because as the World Economic Forum site notes "there is a lack of data about climate change" to feed "advanced climate models that leverage machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms."

The old man-at-the-keyhole has been replaced by ever-watchful electronic devices and computers. The newsroom has simply been swamped by the tsunami that is overtaking every facet of 21st century society. It is being replaced. As military analyst Paul Scharre argues, "a new industrial revolution has begun... Data is a vital resource like coal or oil, but it must be collected and refined. Advanced computer chips are the essence of computing power."

But our new AI- and information-centric form of civilization and control will not run on fairies and moonbeams. It will require vast amounts of electrical power. According to the Scientific American "clean" AI uses a lot of energy. A fully AI powered Google would need as much power as Ireland just to run its search engine. That does not even include the power necessary to cool the machines. "In the worst-case scenario, if we decide we’re going to do everything on AI, then every data center is going to experience effectively a 10-fold increase in energy consumption." It is no accident that 17 of the world’s top 50 power-consuming data centers are in the U.S. (15) and Canada (2).

Ironically the old, decentralized smoke-filled newsroom was 'Greener' because it ran on 12 watts of brain power in a decentralized fashion. "The adult human brain runs continuously, whether awake or sleeping, on only about 12 watts of power. For comparison, a typical desktop computer draws around 175 watts, and a laptop somewhere around 60 watts. And the brain’s power source is renewable; it’s the solar energy stored in food. If the human brain were a computer, it would be the greenest computer on Earth." Unfortunately human intelligence is not up to the task of monitoring and controlling at the granularity required. Governance is the point.

The good old days.

To control low wattage people, regulate the climate, suppress dissent and fight wars -- all of which are complex systems -- requires more centralized real time processing than human institutions can provide, but the machines consume energy. We have known for a long time that the establishment of ordered structures always requires external energy without exception. If the world architects seek to seek to reduce disorder and randomness it cannot be done without infusions of energy from some external source.

The dilemma of planetary engineering, in the rueful words of the New York Times, is "the electricity needed to run A.I. could boost the world’s carbon emissions, depending on whether the data centers get their power from fossil fuels or renewable resources." But to use renewable energy you probably need AI. There is no free lunch.

Our Woke Civilization is not exempt from the Kardashev Scale. "The Kardashev scale is a method of measuring a civilization's level of technological advancement based on the amount of energy it is capable of using." As physicist Michio Kaku has said, the power requirements of an advanced civilization must grow faster than the frequency of life-threatening catastrophes. The elites must always outpace the next catastrophe. Net-Zero is only the beginning. Self-interest will incentivize leaders to maximize their own power.

The more control the advanced elites wish to impose the more physical energy they will need to do it. The future will not resemble the bucolic image of unsupervised families dotted on a landscape with nature allowed to run free, but of 15 minute cities, where even the air is constantly monitored and restrictions placed on airline flights to Australia. The impulse to create world order must eventually choose between increasing its supply of free energy or doing with less and accepting more randomness. If history is any guide they will always ask for more.

Richard Fernandez is the author of the Belmont Club. He has been a software developer and co-authored Open Curtains which proposes privacy as an information property right.


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