Krzysztof Strug
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The AI Guru Behind Amazon, Uber, and Unity Explains What AI Really Is

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If you’ve ever gotten product recommendations on Amazon, you’ve seen Danny Lange’s handiwork. The same goes for Uber’s AI that books you a ride. The Danish computer scientist helped build the machine learning platforms that both companies use throughout their operations, from the engineering to the marketing departments. Lange has just done the same at video game platform maker Unity, with the goal of evolving robo characters into more complex and nuanced playing companions than a human could program.

Lange doesn’t shy away from the oft-hyped term “artificial intelligence”— provided the machines really do learn how to respond to users’ needs. But he’s skeptical of prospects for so-called artificial general intelligence, or AGI—the Westworld-style vision of a synthetic consciousness. Lange has equally strong views on what does not count as intelligent, such as Alexa and Siri, which follow scripts written by humans, rather than thinking for themselves. Lange should know: He lead the design GM’s OnStar, the first widespread computerized assistant, way back in the late 1990s.

Fast Company spoke with Lange about nuances between real and phony AI, misunderstandings in pop culture, and the prospect of a robot uprising. He also described emerging technologies such as adversarial networks—a battle of wits between AIs that forces each to get smarter. What follows are highlights from a longer conversation.

Fast Company: Can you define artificial intelligence? Is it even definable?

Danny Lange: To me, there are two key aspects. One is external, and one is internal. So the external one is really in the perception. Does the system seem to be very reasonable? Does it almost seem like there’s a human hiding behind the system, interacting with me and making me feel comfortable?

That doesn’t have to be voice. It can also just be going to an Amazon web page and shopping around. But I get this sense that the system knows a lot about what I want and helps me get the thing that I want.

The other side is the internal thing. This is where I think a disruption is under way. And that is the move . . . to systems that learn instead of being programmed. And because they learn from the data, they are able to capture much more nuanced patterns in our data than any programmer can ever do. When that comes together, I feel that we are crossing a line, and we start dealing with something that is truly AI.

FC: So, truly AI. Are we talking something like general intelligence?

DL: No. I think general intelligence is more of a philosophical discussion . . . I don’t know what exactly self-awareness is and conscious is . . . I don’t think the system is really reasoning to that extent. But it is still able to learn from the interaction and improve over time as more and more interactions take place.

FC: Is the term “AI” being used too broadly? I know some people don’t like, for example, using the term “artificial intelligence” to refer to machine learning.

DL: I think that the term has become more of a broad, almost marketing-driven term. And I’m probably okay with that. What matters is what people think of when they hear this. They think of systems that give people—the customer or the owner of the robot or whatever—the sense that this thing does have some kind of intelligence in its behavior, and it has the learning capability. I [can’t] think of an AI system that doesn’t have machine learning at its core.

FC: So is a system that reads CT scans or an MRI, looking for a tumor, is that AI?

DL: If it [learned from examples] hand-curated or hand-labeled by doctors, so doctors basically interpret it, that’s definitely not AI. It’s using machine learning technology, but they are missing the point by inserting human expertise into the loop. Because now we’re sort of back to human programming of the system . . . AI would have been giving the computer treatment data and results, [allowing it to] start developing an ability to do the diagnosis, propose some suggestions for treatment, measure the output of the treatment, and constantly adjust and learn.

FC: What are the other buzzword concepts that we should be thinking about beyond AI/ML?

DL: An adversarial network is a key. So for instance, I may build a machine learning system that detects a fake product review or detects fake news. But I could also have a machine learning system that learns to generate a fake product review or fake news . . . As one of them gets better at detecting fake news, the opponent gets better at generating fake news, because it learns from the feedback loop.

FC: When I mention to friends that I’m writing something about AI, they often make a joke about computers taking over the world and killing us. Is that a legitimate fear?

DL: Maybe five, 10 years ago, I often used this scary but realistic scenario. [First] you have a drone [that] a machine learning system has learned to fly on its own. And nowadays we do have those. Secondly, you equip that drone with a high-definition camera, and you put computer vision with face-recognition software in there. It will recognize “bad people”—people you don’t like, people in places they are not supposed to be. Then thirdly, you equip that thing with the ability to eliminate those people.

Is it feasible? Yep. So, that’s not really a distant future. You could do that today . . .

FC: I understand that a machine could kill people. But will a machine want to kill people? That seems to go back to that philosophical notion of consciousness.

DL: From a strict technical perspective, we always look for the rewards function that drives the machine . . . The rewards function in an Amazon system is, get the customer to click the purchase button. At Netflix, it’s get the customer to click on one of our TV shows. What is the rewards function of a drone? Find the bad guys and eliminate them . . . It’s really what you define as the end goal of the system [that matters].

FC: So if you don’t define it properly, you can have some unintended consequences?

DL: Yeah.

FC: I know a lot of people started freaking out when the two Facebook bots began to speak to each other in their own invented language. Is that as scary as some people thought it was?

DL: It’s not scary. It’s just that you have two learning systems. We have to get used to this. For years and years, for decades, moms and dads told their kids that computers can only do what they’re programmed to do. And they were wrong, because now the computers can learn. They can now change that behavior. In that case of communication between computers, if the rewards function is to optimize the computer’s ability to communicate with each other, they will probably change the language over time to optimize the communication—using fewer letters, using better confirmation on [whether they] agree or disagree, things like that.

FC: Are there things you hear people say—whether it’s the general public or marketing people—that make you cringe?

DL: I think a lot about the voice systems like Siri and Alexa. They’re more like branded, hardwired systems, built to give you a safe voice interaction with their corporate owners… All Siri’s jokes are written by creative writers in Cupertino—nothing that Siri learned.

You’re aware of this famous example where Microsoft launched a chatbot [named Tay] that actually learned from human interaction, yeah? It got pretty nasty. If you are a big major brand, like Apple, Google, or Amazon, you can’t have that. So that’s why these systems are highly branded experiences, which apparently people really like, and that’s fine. But they are not AI.

FC: Anything else that you see as common misunderstandings?

DL: We are often focused on the risks and the problems, but there are also pretty impressive things in the area of using, say, computer vision to equip systems with the ability to see things. I saw an example of a system on a tractor that would look for weed in a field and basically, with an adjustable nozzle, spray Roundup on the weed only and not on your vegetables. So there are a lot of these technologies that can make our world greener, more sustainable. And sometimes there’s an overly strong bias on how these things are going to make our lives harder going forward.


Related: How To Stop Worrying And Love The Great AI War Of 2018 


FC: Anything else you think we need to know about AI?

DL: The key message is, you have a learning system, and that’s the disruption . . . Your computer can do more than it’s told to do because it gets the data and it learns from it, and the loop makes it improve endlessly.

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BBC - Capital - The compelling case for working a lot less

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When I moved to Rome from Washington, DC, one sight struck me more than any ancient column or grand basilica: people doing nothing.

I’d frequently glimpse old women leaning out of their windows, watching people pass below, or families on their evening strolls, stopping every so often to greet friends. Even office life proved different. Forget the rushed desk-side sandwich. Come lunchtime, restaurants filled up with professionals tucking into proper meals.

Of course, ever since Grand Tourists began penning their observations in the seventeenth century, outsiders have stereotyped the idea of Italian ‘indolence’. And it isn’t the whole story. The same friends who headed home on their scooters for a leisurely lunch often returned to the office to work until 8pm.

(Credit: Getty Images)

By law, every European Union country has at least four weeks of paid holiday, and in Italy there are 10 additional public holidays (Credit: Getty Images)

Even so, the apparent belief in balancing hard work with il dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing, always struck me. After all, doing nothing appears to be the opposite of being productive. And productivity, whether creative, intellectual or industrial, is the ultimate use of our time.

As we fill our days with more and more ‘doing’, many of us are finding that going non-stop isn’t the apotheosis of productivity. It is its adversary

But as we fill our days with more and more ‘doing’, many of us are finding that non-stop activity isn’t the apotheosis of productivity. It is its adversary.

Researchers are learning that it doesn’t just mean that the work we produce at the end of a 14-hour day is of worse quality than when we’re fresh. This pattern of working also undermines our creativity and our cognition. Over time, it can make us feel physically sick – and even, ironically, as if we have no purpose.

(Credit: Alamy)

When Sweden recently experimented with six-hour work days, it found that employees had better health and productivity (Credit: Alamy)

Which mindless activities inspire your best ideas? Share your story on our Facebook page.

Think of mental work as doing push-ups, says Josh Davis, author of Two Awesome Hours. Say you want to do 10,000. The most ‘efficient’ way would be to do them all at once without a break. We know instinctively, though, that that is impossible. Instead, if we did just a few at a time, between other activities and stretched out over weeks, hitting 10,000 would become far more feasible.

“The brain is very much like a muscle in this respect,” Davis writes. “Set up the wrong conditions through constant work and we can accomplish little. Set up the right conditions and there is probably little we can’t do.”

Do or die

Many of us, though, tend to think of our brains not as muscles, but as a computer: a machine capable of constant work. Not only is that untrue, but pushing ourselves to work for hours without a break can be harmful, some experts say.

People who worked more than 11 hours a day were almost 2.5 times more likely to have a major depressive episode than those who worked seven to eight

“The idea that you can indefinitely stretch out your deep focus and productivity time to these arbitrary limits is really wrong. It’s self-defeating,” says research scientist Andrew Smart, author of Autopilot. “If you’re constantly putting yourself into this cognitive debt, where your physiology is saying ‘I need a break’ but you keep pushing yourself, you get this low-level stress response that’s chronic – and, over time, extraordinarily dangerous.”

(Credit: Getty Images)

One study found businessmen who took fewer holidays in midlife were more likely to die earlier and have worse health in old age (Credit: Getty Images)

One meta-analysis found that long working hours increased the risk of coronary heart disease by 40% – almost as much as smoking (50%). Another found that people who worked long hours had a significantly higher risk of stroke, while people who worked more than 11 hours a day were almost 2.5 times more likely to have a major depressive episode than those who worked seven to eight.

In Japan, this has led to the disturbing trend of karoshi, or death by overwork.

If you’re wondering if this means that you might want to consider taking that long-overdue holiday, the answer may be yes. One study of businessmen in Helsinki found that over 26 years, executives and businessmen who took fewer holidays in midlife predicted both earlier deaths and worse health in old age.

(Credit: Getty Images)

So widespread is the issue of death by overwork in Japan that the victim’s family receives government compensation of around $20,000 per year (Credit: Getty Images)

Holidays also can literally pay off. One study of more than 5,000 full-time American workers found that people who took fewer than 10 of their paid holiday days a year had a little more than a one-in-three chance of getting a pay rise or a bonus over three years. People who took more than 10 days? A two in three chance.

Productivity provenance

It’s easy to think that efficiency and productivity is an entirely new obsession. But philosopher Bertrand Russell would have disagreed.

“It will be said that while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours’ work out of the 24,” Russell wrote in 1932, adding, “it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.”

It will be said that while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours’ work out of the 24 – Bertrand Russell

That said, some of the world’s most creative, productive people realised the importance of doing less. They had a strong work ethic – but also remained dedicated to rest and play.

“Work on one thing at a time until finished,” wrote artist and writer Henry Miller in his 11 commandments on writing. “Stop at the appointed time!... Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.”  

Even US founding father, Benjamin Franklin, a model of industriousness, devoted large swathes of his time to being idle. Every day he had a two-hour lunch break, free evenings and a full night’s sleep. Instead of working non-stop at his career as a printer, which paid the bills, he spent “huge amounts of time” on hobbies and socialising. “In fact, the very interests that took him away from his primary profession led to so many of the wonderful things he’s known for, like inventing the Franklin stove and the lightning rod,” writes Davis.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Philosopher, Bertrand Russell wrote: "Americans need rest, but do not know it." (Credit: Getty Images)

Even on a global level, there is no clear correlation between a country’s productivity and average working hours. With a 38.6-hour work week, for example, the average US employee works 4.6 hours a week longer than a Norwegian. But by GDP, Norway’s workers contribute the equivalent of $78.70 per hour – compared to the US’s $69.60.

The very interests that took him away from his primary profession led to so many of the wonderful things he’s known for - Josh Davis

As for Italy, that home of il dolce far niente? With an average 35.5-hour work week, it produces almost 40% more per hour than Turkey, where people work an average of 47.9 hours per week. It even edges the United Kingdom, where people work 36.5 hours.

All of those coffee breaks, it seems, may not be so bad.

Brain wave

The reason we have eight-hour work days at all was because companies found that cutting employees’ hours had the reverse effect they expected: it upped their productivity.

During the Industrial Revolution, 10-to-16-hour days were normal. Ford was the first company to experiment with an eight-hour day – and found its workers were more productive not only per hour, but overall. Within two years, their profit margins doubled.

One survey of almost 2,000 full-time office workers in the UK found that people were only productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes out of an eight-hour day

If eight-hour days are better than 10-hour ones, could even shorter working hours be even better? Perhaps. For people over 40, research found that a 25-hour work week may be optimal for cognition, while when Sweden recently experimented with six-hour work days, it found that employees had better health and productivity.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Inventor and scientist Benjamin Franklin carried out experiments to uncover the unknown facts about the nature of lightning and electricity (Credit: Getty Images)

This seems borne out by how people behave during the working day. One survey of almost 2,000 full-time office workers in the UK found that people were only productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes out of an eight-hour day. The rest of the time was spent checking social media, reading the news, having non-work-related chats with colleagues, eating – and even searching for new jobs.

When we’re pushing ourselves to the edge of our capabilities, we need more breaks than we think. Most people can only handle an hour of deliberate practice without taking a rest

We can focus for an even shorter period of time when we’re pushing ourselves to the edge of our capabilities. Researchers like Stockholm University psychologist K Anders Ericsson have found that when engaging in the kind of ‘deliberate practice’ necessary to truly master any skill, we need more breaks than we think. Most people can only handle an hour without taking a rest. And many at the top, like elite musicians, authors and athletes, never dedicate more than five hours a day consistently to their craft.

The other practice they share? Their “increased tendency to take recuperative naps,” Ericsson writes – one way, of course, to rest both brain and body.

Other studies have also found that taking short breaks from a task helped participants maintain their focus and continue performing at a high level. Not taking breaks made their performance worse.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Virginia Woolf wrote: "She did not want to move or to speak. She wanted to rest, to lean, to dream. She felt very tired"(Credit: Getty Images)


Active rest

But ‘rest’, as some researchers point out, isn’t necessarily the best word for what we’re doing when we think we’re doing nothing.

As we’ve written about before, the part of the brain that activates when you’re doing ‘nothing’, known as the default-mode network (DMN), plays a crucial role in memory consolidation and envisioning the future. It’s also the area of the brain that activates when people are watching others, thinking about themselves, making a moral judgment or processing other people’s emotions.

In other words, if this network were switched off, we might struggle to remember, foresee consequences, grasp social interactions, understand ourselves, act ethically or empathise with others – all of the things that make us not only functional in the workplace, but in life.

“It helps you recognise the deeper importance of situations. It helps you make meaning out of things. When you’re not making meaning out of things, you’re just reacting and acting in the moment, and you’re subject to many kinds of cognitive and emotional maladaptive behaviours and beliefs,” says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a neuroscientist and researcher at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute.

If, like Archimedes, you got your last good idea while in the bath or on a stroll, you have your biology to thank

We also wouldn’t be able to come up with new ideas or connections. The birthplace of creativity, the DMN lights up when you’re making associations between seemingly unrelated subjects or coming up with original ideas. It is also the place where your ‘ah-ha’ moments lurk – which means if, like Archimedes, you got your last good idea while in the bath or on a stroll, you have your biology to thank.

Perhaps most importantly of all, if we don’t take time to turn our attention inward, we lose a crucial element of happiness.

“We’re just doing things without making meaning out of it a lot of the time,” Immordino-Yang says. “When you don’t have the ability to embed your actions into a broader cause, they feel purposeless over time, and empty, and not connected to your broader sense of self. And we know that not having a purpose over time is connected to not having optimal psychological and physiological health.”

(Credit: Alamy)

Even knitting could help your brain recover from non-stop activity (Credit: Alamy)

Monkey mind

But as anyone who has tried meditation knows, doing nothing is surprisingly difficult. How many of us, after 30 seconds of downtime, reach for our phones?

In fact, it makes us so uncomfortable that we’d rather hurt ourselves. Literally. Across 11 different studies, researchers found that participants would rather do anything – even administer themselves electric shocks – instead of nothing. And it wasn’t as if they were asked to sit still for long: between six and 15 minutes.

The good news is that you don’t have to do absolutely nothing to reap benefits. It’s true that rest is important. But so is active reflection, chewing through an issue you have or thinking about an idea.

In fact, anything that requires visualising hypothetical outcomes or imagined scenarios – like discussing a problem with friends, or getting lost in a good book – also helps, Immordino-Yang says. If you’re purposeful, you even can engage your DMN if you’re looking at social media.

“If you’re just looking at a pretty photo, it’s de-activated. But if you’re pausing and allowing yourself to internally riff on the broader story of why that person in the photo is feeling that way, crafting a narrative around it, then you may very well be activating those networks,” she says.

Even taking just one walk, preferably outside, has been proven to significantly increase creativity

It also doesn’t take much time to undo the detrimental effects of constant activity. When both adults and children were sent outdoors, without their devices, for four days, their performance on a task that measured both creativity and problem-solving improved by 50%. Even taking just one walk, preferably outside, has been proven to significantly increase creativity.

Another highly effective method of repairing the damage is meditation: as little as a week of practice for subjects who never meditated before, or a single session for experienced practitioners, can improve creativity, mood, memory and focus.

Any other tasks that don’t require 100% concentration also can help, like knitting or doodling. As Virginia Woolf wrote in a Room of One’s Own: “Drawing pictures was an idle way of finishing an unprofitable morning’s work. Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.”

Time out

Whether it’s walking away from your desk for 15 minutes or logging out of your inbox for the night, part of our struggle is control – the fear that if we relax a grip for a moment, everything will come crashing down.

That’s all wrong, says poet, entrepreneur and life coach Janne Robinson. “The metaphor I like to use is of a fire. We start a business, and then after a year, it’s like, when can we take a week off, or hire someone to come in? Most of us don’t trust someone to come in for us. We’re like, ‘The fire will go out’,” she says.

“What if we just trusted that those embers are so hot, we can walk away, someone can throw a log on and it’ll burst into flames?”

That isn’t easy for those of us who feel like we have to constantly ‘do’. But in order to do more, it seems, we may have to become comfortable with doing less.

To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, please head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

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The chart that shows the world's astonishing dependence on fossil fuels — Quartz

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I report on and write about energy, and this chart still blows my mind. Every year since 1971, more than 80% of all our energy has come from fossil fuels. That’s still true today, which is surprising for two reasons. Most nuclear power plants came online between 1971 and 1990, and most renewable energy farms were built in the last 10 years. We’ve added so many more non-fossil-fuel energy sources in the past 45 years, and yet it doesn’t seem to be at all reflected in the chart.

There are few ways to understand why. First, most of the world’s clean-energy sources are used to generate electricity. But electricity forms only 25% of the world’s energy consumption. Second, as the rich world moved towards a cleaner energy mix, much of the poor world was just starting to gain access to modern forms of energy. Inevitably, they chose the cheapest option, which was and remains fossil fuels.

So yes, we’re using much more clean energy than we used to. But the world’s energy demand has grown so steeply that we’re also using a lot more fossil fuels than in the past.

Historically, economic growth has been associated with growth in emissions. For the first time in many decades, between 2014 and 2016, the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions remained flat. It seemed like just maybe the world had figured out a way to keep growing without emitting more, possibly thanks to clean-energy use.

Unfortunately, new projections suggest we’re going to finish 2017 with more emissions than 2016. That’s because the rich world is not cutting its emissions fast enough, and the poor world continues to grow rapidly. All this is keeping in line with a long-standing trend of our startling dependence on fossil fuels.


🌍 Quartz is running a series called The Race to Zero Emissions that addresses the challenges and opportunities of low-emissions technologies. Sign up here to be the first to know when stories are published.

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Bitcoin’s price surge has made mining lucrative, but it uses an extraordinary amount of energy

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As the value of Bitcoin reached a new high this week, we also learned that mining the cryptocurrency soaks up more energy than 159 individual countries, according to one controversial estimate.

Over at Digiconomist, a Bitcoin blog and analysis site, owner Alex DeVries reported this week that the Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index, an measure of the energy used to mine the digital currency every year, reached 30.59 terawatt-hours.

BitcoinEnergyConsumption.com

That’s on par with the energy use of the entire country of Morocco, more than 19 European countries, and roughly 0.7 percent of total energy demand in the United States, equal to 2.8 million US households.

Power Compare

While it doesn’t involve hard hats, drilling, and explosives, mining Bitcoin is a hugely energy-intensive process, even though the currency only exists digitally.

Digiconomist

That’s because producing the digital currency requires intense computational processing power, which requires a huge amount of electricity.

Mining Bitcoins is like finding solutions to complicated math problems that become progressively more difficult. Coins are awarded to computers that verify transactions with an algorithm that gets more complex over time. In the early days of the currency in 2009 — with few computers, few transactions, and a price of $2 per coin — this was something you could do on your home computer.

Now with a global market cap of more than $167 billion, it requires specialized hardware called Application Specific Integrated Circuit miners, and mining operations now use tens of thousands of these devices in expansive warehouses to extract more coins.

Paul Ratje/The Washington Post/Getty Images

As a result, the largest mining operations are springing up in parts of the world with cheap electricity, like China. It also means Bitcoin mining is a growing contributor to climate change.

A study from the University of Cambridge earlier this year found that 58 percent of Bitcoin mining comes from China, describing “an arms race amongst miners to use the cheapest energy sources and the most efficient equipment to keep operators profitable.” Cheap power often means dirty power, and in China, miners draw on low-cost coal and hydroelectric generators. De Vries analyzed one mine in China whose carbon footprint was “simply shocking,” emitting carbon dioxide at the same rate as a Boeing 747.

However, figuring out exactly how much electricity Bitcoin mines use is tricky, since computing hardware is becoming more efficient all the time.

Marc Bevand, an investor and entrepreneur, was skeptical of De Vries’ tally of Bitcoin’s energy use and argued that the real global energy footprint of mining was likely closer to 15 terawatt-hours, which is still a huge amount of electricity, but half of the estimate on Digiconomist. The key difference between their numbers is that De Vries assumes that 60 percent of mining revenues goes toward energy costs in tabulating the total energy use. Bevand suspects it’s closer to 30 percent.

Both expect mining computers to become more energy-efficient over time.

Bitcoin is just a small part of a global surge in energy demand from computers as our lives become more digital. Bevand estimated that data centers account for 1 percent of power demand around the world, while Bitcoin mining uses 0.15 percent of global power.

But with its soaring value, there’s a huge incentive to invest more in hardware that extracts the digital currency, which will continue to drive up overall energy demand. If Bitcoin miners care about the environment a fraction as much as they care about profits, they should switch to cleaner electricity. (Some are already doing that.)

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Bitcoin – wyjątkowo energochłonna waluta

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tagi: zużycie energii elektrycznej zużycie węgla Chiny produkcja energii elektrycznej 

"Wydobycie”, czy jak mówią inni – „wykopanie” bitcoinów oraz obrót nimi pochłania już rocznie tyle energii, co średniej wielkości państwo. Weryfikacja tylko jednej bitcoinowej transakcji to odpowiednik miesięcznego zużycia prądu przez średnią polską rodzinę. Jak to się dzieje? Wyjaśniamy.

W ostatnich kilkunastu miesiącach bitcoin, kryptowaluta, której koncepcją stworzyła w 2008 r. osoba lub grupa osób kryjących się za pseudonimem Satoshi Nakamoto, co kilka tygodni znajduje się w centrum zainteresowania mediów albo z powodu spektakularnego wzrostu, albo z równie widowiskowego spadku kursu. Warto uświadomić sobie, że zarówno „wydobycie” bitcoinów, jak i obrót nimi generuje co raz większy popyt na energię elektryczną.

W połowie października Mikko Hypponen, dyrektor do spraw badań w zajmującej się cyberbezpieczeństwem firmie F-Secure, ogłosił na Twitterze, że związana z bitcoinem infrastruktura potrzebuje 21 TWh energii rocznie. Wywołało to sporą dyskusję i krytykę w sieci, w trakcie której pojawiły się także inne – zarówno wyższe, jak i niższe – szacunki.

Dość powiedzieć, że sprawą w specjalnym raporcie postanowił zająć się między innymi duński ING Bank.

Alex de Vries, analityk zajmujący się kryptowalutami, który prowadzi serwis Digieconomist wykorzystał chwilowe zainteresowanie energetycznym aspektem bitcoina do rozpropagowania Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index, który co dnia wylicza roczne zapotrzebowanie kryptowaluty na prąd. Według indeksu, 6 listopada było to ponad 25,5 TWh, czyli ok. 15 proc. zużycia energii elektrycznej w Polsce w 2016 r. lub tyle, ile w ciągu roku łącznie konsumuje niemal 2,4 mln amerykańskich gospodarstw domowych.

Zaskakiwać może jednak tempo, w jakim rośnie zużycie prądu przez bitcoin – według danych z 25 listopada 2017 r. zużycie od początku roku przekroczyło już 30 TWh i zbliża się do jednej piątej zużycia w Polsce. Bitcoin potrzebuje tyle samo prądu, co na przykład Maroko, ma niedaleko do Danii i Białorus. Jego udział w globalnym zużyciu wynosi 0,13%.

Bitcoin konsumuje energię elektryczną nie tylko w trakcie jego wydobycia, ale również podczas każdej zmiany właściciela. Jest to związane ze zdecentralizowanym procesem autoryzacji każdej z ok. 300 tys. realizowanych co dnia transakcji. Ten energochłonny proces autoryzacji sprawia, że oszukańcze transakcje są kosztowne. To zaś zniechęca tych, którzy chcieliby dokonać nadużyć kryptowaluty. Kiedy jednak pada pytanie, czy bitoin można nazwać kryptowalutą "zrównoważoną", to odpowiedź brzmi - nie. Według uśrednionych szacunków, „kopalnie” zużywają obecnie ok. 15 TWh energii rocznie. Reszta zużycie przypada na komputery autoryzujące codzienny obrót.

Wychodzi na to, że jedna transakcja bitcoinami pochłania ponad 200 kWh energii, co wydaje się ilością wręcz niesamowitą. Mniej więcej tyle prądu zużywa w ciągu miesiąca statystyczna polska rodzina. To również przeszło 20 tys. razy tyle, co jedna płatność kartą VISA.

Co do zasady liczba bitcoinów, która może znaleźć się w obiegu jest ograniczona. Zgodnie z przygotowanym przez Satoshi Nakamoto algorytmem nie może być ich więcej niż 21 mln. Natomiast wraz ze wzrostem liczby bitcoinów znajdujących się w obiegu proces tworzenia nowych jednostek spowalnia, a to oznacza, że dla ich „wydobycia” potrzebne są coraz większe moc obliczeniowe komputerów zaangażowanych w to przedsięwzięcie. Dziś, gdy „wydobyto” blisko 16,7 mln bitcoinów, ich liczba rośnie o średnio o ok. 1700 dziennie, czyli ponad dwa razy wolniej niż do lipca 2016 r.

O ile kilka lat temu mogło opłacać się chałupnicze „wydobyciu” waluty z użyciem domowego komputera, to obecnie trzeba zatrudnić do tego tysiące maszyn (tzw. koparek) o bardzo dużej mocy obliczeniowej. Powstają więc wyspecjalizowane firmy, które budują „kopalnie” zwane też farmami zajmujące się wydobyciem kryptowaluty.

Jedna z największych i najnowocześniejszych na świecie „kopalń” – zlokalizowana w należącej do Chin Mongolii Wewnętrznej farma, której właścicielem jest firma Bitmain Technologies  – korzysta z 25 tys. koparek, z których 21 tys. „wydobywa” bitcoiny, a pozostałe konkurencyjną kryptowalutę – litecoin. Farma, która jest de facto zespołem serwerowni zużywa co dnia 960 MWh energii, która pochodzi z pobliskiej elektrowni węglowej. Prąd potrzebny jest zarówno do zasilania maszyn wykonujących skomplikowane obliczenia związane z „wydobyciem” waluty, jak i do odprowadzenia ciepła, które wytwarzają koparki.

Mało znaną ciekawostką jest fakt, że bitcoiny jeszcze  kilka lat temu były "kopane" także w Polsce. Jak opowiadał nam dr Kamil Kulesza z i Centrum Zastosowań Matematyki i Inżynierii Systemów PAN, amerykańska firma, która je produkowała zainstalowała się u nas głównie ze względu na niskie ceny prądu. Później jednak wynieśli się do Wenezueli, gdzie serwery pracowały na prądzie z generatorów dieslowskich. Ropa w Wenezueli była wówczas dostępna niemal za grosze.

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strugk
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'Break up Google and Facebook if you ever want innovation again' • The Register

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If the tech industry wants another wave of innovation to match the PC or the internet, Google and Facebook must be broken up, journalist and film producer Jonathan Taplin told an audience at University College London's Faculty of Law this week.

He was speaking at an event titled Crisis in Copyright Policy: How the digital monopolies have cornered culture and what it means for all of us, where he credited the clampers put on Bell then IBM for helping to create the PC industry and the internet.

The Director Emeritus of the Annenburg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California also wrote the book Move Fast and Break Things, a surprise bestseller. Plenty of "the internet is awful" books have come and gone over the past decade but Taplin's experience captured the post-Trump mood, which has turned strongly against Silicon Valley's giant internet platforms this year. Taplin's experience is the difference: it's vast and varied. Over the years he's been Bob Dylan's manager, produced the movies Mean Streets and The Last Waltz, and in 1997 launched the first ever VoD startup Intertainer, from which he knows a bit about antitrust.

When Sony, one of his VoD company's shareholders, teamed up with Hollywood studios Warner and Universal to launch a copycat service called Movielink, Taplin filed an antitrust lawsuit.

"Defendants conspired and combined to fix prices, organized a group boycott of Intertainer, reneged on their licensing agreements with Intertainer and otherwise tried (and continue to try) to destroy Intertainer's viability," it alleged. Intertainer closed down. Four years later Taplin reached a financial settlement. He'd already annoyed the movie industry by testifying against DRM laws – but this ensured he would never work in Hollywood again.

(He then sued and settled with Apple, Google and Napster over patent infringement.)

Taplin told his audience that he'd been moved by the fate of his friend Levon Helm, The Band's drummer, who was forced to go back on the road in his sixties, after radiation therapy for cancer. Helm died broke. Today, Taplin points out, YouTube accounts for 57 per cent of all songs streamed over the internet, but thanks to a loophole returns just 13.5 per cent of revenue.

"That's not a willing buyer-seller relationship", he said, referring to the UGC loophole that Google enjoys, one not available to Spotify or Apple Music.

But it isn't just songwriters and musicians who are poorly paid. The average person "works for two hours a day for Mark Zuckerberg" generating a data profile.

Taplin pointed out that Bell held patents on many technologies including the transistor, the laser and the solar cell, that it agreed to license, royalty free, as part of a 1956 consent decree.

"As a consequence, 7,820 patents or 1.3 per cent of all unexpired US patents in a wide range of fields became freely available in 1956. Most of these patents covered technologies from the Bell Laboratories, the research subsidiary of the Bell System, arguably the most innovative industrial laboratory in the world at the time," academics estimate (PDF). Bell was forbidden from competing outside telecomms.

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Taplin saw history repeated with IBM. Under the 1956 (again) consent decree IBM was obliged to unbundle software from hardware in the 1960s. But competition authorities again opened up an investigation in 1969 which ran for 13 years. Caution made IBM ensure its first microcomputer, the IBM PC, launched in 1981, was an open platform. IBM chose three operating systems to run on the first PC but clearly favoured an outsider, from a tiny Seattle outfit originally called "Micro-Soft".

Then Microsoft got the treatment.

"Every 20 years we have this fight – and we're about to have it again," Taplin told the audience.

He elaborated. Antitrust was necessary "not because they're too big, but because there's no market solution" to Google and Facebook. The barriers to entry are now so high nobody is going bust open the ad duopoly. This is the point made by Oracle in its European complaint. Effective behavioural advertising requires hods of data, and nobody can gather sufficient data enough to compete against Google's "superprofiles", or Facebook's Graph in behavioural advertising.

Google enjoys market dominance in several markets with a billion-plus user base including video, mobile operating systems, maps, email, web analytics as well as search. And add Chrome, which has almost 60 per cent of desktop and mobile.

Taplin cited Snapchat an example of a company that tried to innovate, but refused to take Facebook's buyout offer. Facebook has simply copied its features.

"There may be interim solutions," Taplin said, short of a breakup. Missouri has filed the first competition lawsuit against Google in four years. The Trump era is more hostile to corporate mega-mergers than previous Republican administrations; remember that it was under Reagan that the IBM antitrust probe was killed in 1982, and under Bush II, the Microsoft litigation was rapidly settled. The DoJ has filed suit to block AT&T and Time-Warner pairing up.

Not everyone agreed with Taplin's remedy. There are revenue streams other than advertising, I pointed out talking to Jonathan later. They maintain their monopoly so fiercely because they're happy being a big fish in a small pond – and fight to keep the larger pond of transactions and bundles at bay.

The duopoly's stranglehold on advertising is more precarious than it looks, writer and actor Harry Shearer (The Simpsons, Spinal Tap) pointed out from the audience. Harry is a Reg reader, which is nice to hear. He's suing a former French sewer company, now better known as entertainment giant Vivendi. For updates on that case, go here. ®

Bootnote

The third guy behind Micro-Soft, who you may not know about, chatted to us here about Bill's early code skillz.

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strugk
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