Hugging the local optima: Two superstars lament “our technology-rich and innovation-poor modern world”

Two apparently unrelated articles by superstars of the 1980s and 90s in their respective fields which share a common theme – the market’s aversion to serious innovation, it’s tendency to move incrementally towards lower levels of innovation leaving really fundamental and speculative innovation to others.

Bill Gates points out that ‘efficiency’ as in improving insulation and lowering fuel consumption is not going to reduce CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050, only serious innovation can.  That’s a (possible) justification for regulation which targets breakthrough technologies like zero emissions cars (though just identifying the potential case for it, doesn’t mean you have that case, or that politicians and policy makers won’t screw up such policies).

One of the reasons I bring this up is that I hear a lot of climate change experts focus totally on 2025 or talk about how great it is that there is so much low hanging fruit that will make a difference.

This mostly focuses on saving a little bit of energy, which by itself is simply not enough. The need to get to zero emissions in key sectors almost never gets mentioned. The danger is people will think they just need to do a little bit and things will be fine.

If CO2 reduction is important, we need to make it clear to people what really matters – getting to zero.

With that kind of clarity, people will understand the need to get to zero and begin to grasp the scope and scale of innovation that is needed.

However all the talk about renewable portfolios, efficiency, and cap and trade tends to obscure the specific things that need to be done.

To achieve the kinds of innovations that will be required I think a distributed system of R&D with economic rewards for innovators and strong government encouragement is the key. There just isn’t enough work going on today to get us to where we need to go.

Meanwhile, in a marvellous and heartfelt article the great Gary Kasparov reviews Chess Metaphors: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Mind by Diego Rasskin-Gutman. He tells some great stories – can anyone find the game he talks about with Topolov, I couldn’t find it on Chessgames and the Chess Database was down. Anyway Kasparov’s theme is the same.

ith the supremacy of the chess machines now apparent and the contest of “Man vs. Machine” a thing of the past, perhaps it is time to return to the goals that made computer chess so attractive to many of the finest minds of the twentieth century. Playing better chess was a problem they wanted to solve, yes, and it has been solved. But there were other goals as well: to develop a program that played chess by thinking like a human, perhaps even by learning the game as a human does. Surely this would be a far more fruitful avenue of investigation than creating, as we are doing, ever-faster algorithms to run on ever-faster hardware.

This is our last chess metaphor, thena metaphor for how we have discarded innovation and creativity in exchange for a steady supply of marketable products. The dreams of creating an artificial intelligence that would engage in an ancient game symbolic of human thought have been abandoned. Instead, every year we have new chess programs, and new versions of old ones, that are all based on the same basic programming concepts for picking a move by searching through millions of possibilities that were developed in the 1960s and 1970s.

Like so much else in our technology-rich and innovation-poor modern world, chess computing has fallen prey to incrementalism and the demands of the market. Brute-force programs play the best chess, so why bother with anything else? Why waste time and money experimenting with new and innovative ideas when we already know what works? Such thinking should horrify anyone worthy of the name of scientist, but it seems, tragically, to be the norm. Our best minds have gone into financial engineering instead of real engineering, with catastrophic results for both sectors.

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IlyaSerov
IlyaSerov
11 years ago

I assume he is referring to the famous Kasparov-Topalov from Wijk aan Zee, 1999. And indeed it is one of the best: http://www.chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=1011478

I think part of the problem with climate change is a sort of technology hubris. I have many friends – highly educated professionals – whose reflex response is that a technological solution will be found shortly and therefore no great sacrifice is necessary today. When I ask them what they base this view on, they usually point to the amazing innovations of the past century. The only problem is the rapid pace of innovation we have since the Industrial Revolution is not the normal state affair but is rather highly unusual in human history. We cannot extrapolate from it.

End result: innovation does need to be encouraged but cannot be relied upon. What do we do if the next two hundred years trun out more like 1000-1200 than 1800-2000?

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
11 years ago

… the markets aversion to serious innovation, its tendency to move incrementally towards lower levels of innovation leaving really fundamental and speculative innovation to others.

Naughty market! Someone should give it a good talking to (is it really right to treat the market as an agent?).

I’m constantly amazed by everyday technology. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a sci-fi movie. Microwave ovens, post-it notes, mobile phones, ipods, computers with graphical user interfaces …

Sure some of the innovation has come from governments (eg the internet). But most of it is thanks to people working in private sector companies.

Even so, perhaps it’s true that leaving innovation to others can be a profitable strategy for large corporations. Xerox didn’t do well with their Star computer system. But in time the innovations did very well in the market place. Both Apple and Microsoft ended up using some of the ideas Xerox pioneered (there were law suits over the IP for years).

And who would say that the financial services sector has been lacking in innovation recently?

thorpie
thorpie
11 years ago

some of us do try.
http://www.megametrelitre.com

Tel_
Tel_
11 years ago

I’d like to see an equal energy challenge where the human breathes through a CO2 meter and the computer is wired through a Watt meter and instead of a chess clock we have limited Joules available. When the computer uses up the Joule quota the power is unplugged but when the human goes over quota the air stops coming. Similar to the chess clock, after some number of moves extra Joules are added to both quotas.

Playing better chess was a problem they wanted to solve, yes, and it has been solved. But there were other goals as well: to develop a program that played chess by thinking like a human, perhaps even by learning the game as a human does.

KnightCap learns chess by playing games, probably not in the same way that a human does. The concept could no doubt be taken further except that chess is considered a bit of a solved problem. All the cool kids are playing poker these days. The search for games where humans can consistently beat computers is itself a kind of interesting little adventure.

There was a neural network backgammon that learned by playing enough games to tune the network into a meaningful statistical model (big number of games). Google knows what the name was, I can’t think of it. Suffice to say that the concept of learning game engines has not been ignored.

Our best minds have gone into financial engineering instead of real engineering, with catastrophic results for both sectors.

Although it doesn’t take a great mind to sit there writing your own paycheques, the question becomes somewhat recursive when you ask who is the bigger bozo — the guy who made the scam, or the guy who let him get away with it. I regularly get stuck on that question :-(

To be fair to the financial engineers, incremental improvements can be highly successful in some engineering applications. The calculating grunt of modern microprocessors is staggeringly more powerful than the original 4 bit microprocessors still within living memory. The real-time 3D rendering that you can do on a $50 graphics card would have been a year of supercomputing power and million dollar budgets a few decades ago. All done by incremental improvements. I suspect that the majority of engineers in most disciplines are quite comfortable with the idea of working within a budget.

By the way, what about Chess Boxing? A perfect example of human ingenuity at its finest, and a far bigger leap into the unknown than any incremental improvement.

Tel_
Tel_
11 years ago

Thorpie,

A fuel efficiency of a megametre per litre is simple to achieve. The Tour d’ France riders achieve 3.5 megametres for 0 litres, they ride 3500 kilometres every year with no fuel at all.

This is of course complete rubbish. Although bicycle riders are high up in the efficiency league tables, never the less they still consume fuel, and still produce carbon dioxide. We will save neither the environment, nor ourselves by believing fairy tales.

If you want anyone to take it even slightly seriously, I’d suggest removing the howler from the first paragraph.

Patrick
Patrick(@patrick)
11 years ago

Thanks Jacques. Would that we did more things by incremental improvements – government, say.