Anatomy of an AI System +The false monopoly: China and the rare earths trade
This article is articulating the point that artificial intelligence is just like any other consumer goods product and there is a long and unjust supply chain to deliver it to us. Based on the author’s descriptions, we can divide artificial intelligence into 2 groups: devices and platforms. The former have the typical supply chain structure in which “rare Earth materials” are excavated, sold, and installed in AI creations following a manufacturing process. This is not different than any other consumer-goods products, such as jeans. The latter, however, is trickier to comprehend because platforms and tools remain mostly conceptual to us and not directly visible as they rest on the cloud in most cases. Yet, even for them, that there are energy emission costs and programmer sweatshops that could be traced and these deleterious practices are questing the ethical aspect of building AI.
Overall, the process of creating AI is no different than the many-times-blogged-about unfair supply chains for other consumer products. However, the difference with AI is that the profit pool is vastly untapped at the top for the people holding the production rights of AI. This is because AI could be infinite, in the cloud, never to run out of power, unlike natural materials, which will eventually reach their capacity. In that way, my opinion about this essay is that it sounds a little sinister, attempting to create an apocalyptic vibe using carefully-picked examples and the feeling of the unknown (of the future). Human systems have adapted in the past to structural changes and will do so again. The paradigms for wealth, opportunity, and knowledge creation will shift, but they will not do so overnight and the next generation of humans (Gen Z and after) will have enough time to adapt. So the attempt of the essay to instill fear is rather unfounded, in my view.
I loved reading the false monopoly article detailing how China does not, contrary to belief, have monopoly over the rare Earth materials (despite producing 85%+ of them). The article states that China simply found a way to produce and export these commodities cheaply, due to its highly developed industry and lower labor costs (not to mention lax environmental regulation and a booming cottage industry of illegal rare earth miners and exporters in which 40% of all production is illegal). These Earth materials are not “rare” to China only, but the profit model by larger corporations dictates going to the most cost-advantageous place and they go to China, as other countries cannot deliver them at the same competitive cost (despite some opportunities to do so in countries like Kazakhstan). So the real issue is the inability of corporations to lift hands from their profit models. If they do so, it will be contradictory to the principle of maximizing shareholder value by delivering profits that increase the investment popularity of the company. So in essence, the issue is the human-developed system for maximizing profit for the people at the top. The human system does not maximize profit for everyone involved, it only seeks to solve for the top. And until AI develops enough to offer some other solutions, “so the cycle will continue”, as the author concludes!