Computation is Human Augmentation

What is it about the internet, and more specifically, cell phones that grabs so much of our attention?

Why did humanity decide to collectively start using smart phones, what makes them so critical to modern urban life?

To find out, we have to take a step back, and look at how our brains are wired.

The human brain uses 20% of our resting metabolic rate1. This means 20% of all the caloric energy we use throughout the day is dedicated to keeping the brain running.

It’s the equivalent of 12 watts per hour. Every day, you end up consuming that amount of energy, just to keep the conversation going in your consciousness.

And this heavy energy requirement for our resting consciousness comes with some serious limitations. In general, human brain computation is extremely limited. In fact, studies show we can only keep track of a maximum of around 42 interacting variables at a time. And when it comes to social interactions, there’s something called Dunbar’s number, which states that we can only maintain close social ties to around 150 people.

With these sorts of limitations on our mental capacity, it’s no wonder we’ve been so drawn to computation as a society.

The Super Power of Computation

Using computation, we are given the opportunity to go beyond our built in biological limits. Instead of just keeping track of 4 variables, we can track virtually the entire world’s information at once. We’re given the tools to connect with potentially billions of people, if not on a tight social connection, at the very least through a shared idea set.

So we all have access to this giant set of shared data and computational power, which augments our built in biological limits to both computation, and memory recall.

But just how much is a human’s intelligence augmented by when given a smart phone?

The phone itself will use about 10.5 watt hours of electricity per full charge3. So if you use your phone throughout your normal day, you’ve added almost an entire free hour of caloric expenditure to your brain capacity.

But wait, that cell phone is connected to the internet. That means you’re going across, from server to server, and getting a bunch more energy out of that than you’re putting in. For example, let’s assume the average smart phone user uses 1.2 gigs of bandwidth a month. What does that mean for server energy usage?

Now that’s a slippery slope, trying to reverse engineer how much energy all of the internet consumes.

The Energy Boost of Computation

But in 2011 some researchers tried, and the internet supposedly takes up between 3.6 and 6.2 percent of all global electricity4.

So we’re a tiny slice of that, and we divide that by 3 billion people, we’re looking at 67 watts per day. So, the internet is literally consuming more calories per day than our minds.

From this vantage point, we can see now why everyone’s face is buried in their phones. They’ve discovered the ultimate hack of their own biology, they can get free calories by just staring into the screens. The more time they spend staring into the screens, the more of a free lunch they get calorically, and on and on it goes. We’re spending to stay in place.

But what does this have to do with AI, you ask? What does this have to do with biology, and what does this have to do with the future?

Extrapolate. How far away are we from computers using more calories than humans every day? Are they a net win for us, or are they something else?

Children of the Algorithm

A person’s web history is a glimpse into their subconscious, and ultimately, into the things that drive them.

Modern advertisers track us on nearly every site we visit. Google’s product Analytics was already on 49% of the top 1,000,000 websites in 20105. This means at least 49% of the traffic we sent to the top 1,000,000 sites was tracked and collected.

Using machine learning, this data can be used to follow the rumblings of your subconscious in ways human psychoanalysis never could. They can see the people you most desire to be like, and can sense your mood based upon your browsing behavior. This is used to deliver the most profitable ads at the most crucial times in your life.

Machine learning isn’t limited by the 4 interacting variables that human consciousness is limited by. Instead, it can keep track of millions of variables, and see how they interact in ways we never could have imagined. And it can do all of that without us really understanding how.

So what does this world look like for a young child? Large portions of their early development are now being eaten up, and analyzed by opaque advertising algorithms. What are they taking from the child’s development, and what are they giving back?