04 February 2016

Modeling the Future -- Oil

I stumbled across an entertaining piece of science fiction on the net at http://www.wolfatthedoor.org.uk/ . WolfAtTheDoor stakes out an extreme version of the future propagated by www.peakoil.net . To paraphrase "Oil prices will rise dramatically and civilization as we know it will end. We will return to living a medieval life." Fortunately, however, both of these web sites clearly have no understanding of economics and thus can be enjoyed as classic horror.

The United States in the 1980s provided a good example as to what will happen when oil demand exceeds supply. Production of oil in the United States started to rise as the economics made older oil fields cost effective. And alternate, more cost effective, energy sources were substituted for oil.

The EIA points out that about 1/3rd of the oil used in the US today is used for stationary (non-transportation) uses such as space heating or power generation. In most of the world, more than half of oil is used for stationary applications. This means that if the price of oil rises high enough, it is relatively easy to substitute natural gas for oil in many applications.

A barrel of oil contains about 6.2 million BTU. At a price of $55.80 per barrel, that's $9 per million BTU. Natural Gas in the US is currently around $6 per million BTU. (And, since natural gas burns cleaner than oil, there is a tendency for consumers to pay more for natural gas than oil in stationary applications.)

[Originally published 4/11/05.  I screwed up the timestamps trying to fix a couple of minor typos.]

Making Predictions about the Future

In March 2005 I outlined a growth scenario for photovoltaics in the U.S. and compared my comparison to the EIA's.  I predicted 10Gkwh of PV electricity in 2014 and stated that the EIA claimed 4Gkwh of PV electricity in 2025.  I was wondering how good my prediction had been, so I went and looked at the AEO 2015 and AEO 2005.

PV generation (GKwh, estimated)
AEO 2015
      EPS         EUG    Total
2012  3.30        7.97   11.27
2013  7.98        9.62   17.60
2014 15.19       11.39   26.58
2015 19.68       13.47   33.47
2025 30.28       24.77   55.05
2040 47.14       59.33  106.47

AEO 2005
      EPS         EUG    Total
2012  0.39       0.86    1.25
2013  0.43       0.88    1.31
2014  0.48       0.89    1.37

2015  0.23       0.95    1.18
2025  0.96       3.74    4.70

Gosh, my silly little economic model was about 12% below end-user segment generation, and 62% below total on-grid PV generation.  The EIA was 95% below total generation?  Of course, the EIA made their predictions a few months before I made mine.  And no doubt changes to state and federal policies completely explain the discrepancies in their predictions.

18 January 2016

Philosophizing about AGI

Brad Delong linked to an annoying post on AGI recently. 

David Deutsch, professor and physicist, discusses the progress, or lack thereof, on building an Artificial General Intelligence.  Although Dr. Deutsch takes a while to get there, the core of his argument is that we don't know how to program creativity and, until we figure that out, we can make no progress on creating an AGI.

First, allow me to pull some quotes out of context and rant on them.

"Charles Babbage and his assistant Ada, Countess of Lovelace". 
Lady Lovelace was a collaborator and peer of Charles Babbage, not an assistant. I find this phrase offensive and sexist.

"But no brain on Earth is yet close to knowing what brains do in order to achieve any of that functionality. The enterprise of achieving it artificially — the field of ‘artificial general intelligence’ or AGI — has made no progress whatever during the entire six decades of its existence."
The idea that artificial intelligence has made no progress in the past 60 years is completely absurd.  60 years ago we didn't have alpha-beta tree pruning.  We didn't have distributed programming.  We couldn't amass hardware that had computing power functionally as powerful as a human brain.  20 years ago neural nets didn't work very well and were research curiosities showing a bit of promise.  Today they are frequently used in a variety of different areas.

Meanwhile, super-human artificial general intelligences do exist. A computer chip is not designed by a single human, it is designed by a corporation. The corporation is a man-made (hence artificial) general intelligence.

"As far as I am aware, no one has [programmed a computer to be self-aware], presumably because it is a fairly useless ability as well as a trivial one."
In actuality, self-awareness is so useful (and trivial) that it is a standard technique that we use when programming.  It turns out that having a computer program tell you when it is not working is quite useful.  We regularly program our software to monitor itself and report on errors and high latency operations.

"And in any case, AGI cannot possibly be defined purely behaviourally. In the classic ‘brain in a vat’ thought experiment, the brain, when temporarily disconnected from its input and output channels, is thinking, feeling, creating explanations — it has all the cognitive attributes of an AGI. So the relevant attributes of an AGI program do not consist only of the relationships between its inputs and outputs."
How do we tell that this disconnected brain is thinking, feeling, and creating explanations if we cannot examine its inputs and outputs.  What alternative to evaluating a system behaviorally does Dr. Deutsch propose that we use in order to decide if that system is intelligent?

In fact, earlier in the article Dr. Deutsch implies a behavioral test.  The AGI should write a paper on Dark Matter accepted for publication by an academic journal.

"Expecting to create an AGI without first understanding in detail how it works is like expecting skyscrapers to learn to fly if we build them tall enough."
And yet, the one General Intelligence we know of was built without understanding in detail how it works. 

The analogy also fails because General Intelligences exist.  Flying skyscrapers don't exist.

Also, you can learn a lot about how something needs to work by trying to build it before you completely understand all the details.  The act of building something wonderfully focuses your mind as to which details are critical to understand and which can be glossed over.

Likewise, when a computer program beats a grandmaster at chess, the two are not using even remotely similar algorithms. The grandmaster can explain why it seemed worth sacrificing the knight for strategic advantage and can write an exciting book on the subject. The program can only prove that the sacrifice does not force a checkmate, and cannot write a book because it has no clue even what the objective of a chess game is.
In fact, computers and grandmasters do use vaguely similar algorithms.  It is true that the computer is far more precise and examines far more data in far more detail.  But basic concepts are shared between the grandmaster and the computer.  Both learn to look at board positions and evaluate them to decide how favorable a board position is to each side. They learn how to balance mobility with material.  While we might not program a chess playing program to write a book, we could write a book describing the features of a board that a program was looking at and the weights that it assigned to those features and why the program decided to sacrifice the knight for some other strategic advantage.

Both the program and the grandmaster use some sort of min-max algorithm to evaluate the outcome of a tree of moves.  Both use some sort of quiescence evaluation to decide when a board position is sufficiently static that it makes sense to evaluate the board.  Computer programs are very consciously modeled on the thought processes used by humans.

Overall Dr. Deutsch is too quick to dismiss emergent behavior.  We do view glimpses of emergent creative behavior from our current systems.  We do have various techniques, and we will refine other techniques, for generating nano-conjectures and nano-criticisms, the key components in generating nano-creativity.  Just as with chess where we took a couple of simple techniques and then scaled them up by a factor of trillions, we will execute scads of these nano-conjectures and nano-criticisms across massively parallel hardware, possibly far more hardware than is available to a human brain, and when we tie these together, we will get results that are truly creative.

While writing this I also found another response to Deutsch.

15 January 2016

Taming Bacteria

In the past, we've fought head on with bacteria.  Human health greatly improved when we learned to kill bacteria efficiently with antibiotics.  The next breakthrough in human health will occur when we tame bacteria.  

Domesticated bacteria can be used in multiple ways.  One approach is to evolve strains that are less harmful, more helpful, and good at crowding out less desirable wild strains. Infecting our mouths with strains of domesticated bacteria may lead to fewer cavities, less gum disease, and otherwise better oral health.  We will also eventually infect our guts with preferred strains of bacteria.

Another form of tame bacteria will be used for monitoring, diagnosing, and repairing common problems.  We will be able to design bacteria that detect the presence of selected molecules in our bodies.  Detection will act like a switch that causes the bacteria to produce a useful enzyme or molecule.  Our bodies will contain trillions of very simple computers acting locally to make individually minor improvements that will combine to provide major benefits.

Poorly Argued Economics

Over at the American Enterprise Institute, we find some poorly argued economics.  Steve Conover suggests there are four schools of economic thought.  But in his Far Left school of thought, he not only creates a straw man, he also creates a logical error.

Paul Krugman does not say we should spend money on Bridges to Nowhere.  He (and Keynes) say spending money on a Bridge to Nowhere is better than doing nothing.  You at least put pay into the pockets of the people who are building the bridge and they will go out and spend that income on something useful.  Still, Krugman and Keynes would far rather build a Bridge to Tomorrow and get both the benefits of paying workers as well as the benefits of creating wealth that produces a public return on investment.

Also, wasteful defense spending is a perfectly good Bridge to Nowhere.  If you believe that Paul Krugman would be happy to spend money on a Bridge to Nowhere, then you have to believe that he would be happy to keep wasteful defense spending.

And while we're here...  The real Statesmen will prefer to cut wasteful defense spending and build the Bridge to Tomorrow because that will increase GDP and allow more money to be spent on defense.  As Eric Schmidt, Google's Executive Chairman, likes to say: more revenue solves all problems.

29 December 2015

Defining Middle Class

The New York Times has an opinion piece today claiming that $250,000 a year is not a Middle Class household income.  As evidence, the author references a recent Census report and notes that the median household income is $53,657.  A household income of $250,000 per year puts one in the top 5% of households.

However, that same Census study notes that there are a variety of variables that affect household incomes.  For example:
  • Married couples tend to earn more than singles.
  • Income tends to peak during middle age.
  • Urban households tend to earn more than rural households.
  • Western households tend to earn more than other parts of the country.
  • While not discussed deeply in this report, education is strongly correlated with income.
I'm married.  I'm 55 years old, and thus near the peak earning age.  I have a Bachelor's Degree.  I don't live in a rural area.  And I live in the West.  Somehow, I don't think that makes me Upper Class.

In my life, my income was below $250,000 while I was a college student and before I was married.  Now that my kids are near grown up and are off to college, my income has greatly increased as I sell off assets to pay for their college.  Supporting my aging father also requires that I realize income now instead of holding stock options to be cashed in later.

So did I suddenly become upper class when I reached the point in my life where my income was in the top 5% of household incomes?  My 2,000 square foot house is slightly smaller than the median U.S. house.  I pay a mortgage.  I paid off student loans.  I don't earn income from inherited wealth.  My children attend public schools.

So, how should we define Middle Class?  It seems clear that we shouldn't ignore people's life cycle and pull out a few years in the middle of their lives during which they are Upper Class, but before and after those years, they are Middle Class.

Middle Class does not mean "people and households whose income is near the median".  Class refers to a long history of social structure, and there was never any suggestion that Classes were approximately equal in size.  In modern America, it's relatively easy to distinguish at least four classes:
  • The Under Class.  This would be a relatively small portion of society that is normally unemployed.  They would have no wealth or income and typically no more than a high school educated.  Members of the under class might spend most of their lives in prison, or be homeless, or live off charity, or live in an institution.
  • The Working Class.  This would typically be people with a high school education with little inherited wealth and a modest income.
  • The Middle Class.  This would typically be people with a college education working for a salary.  
  • The Upper Class.  This would typically be college educated people with either inherited wealth or who own or are the principal managers of a business.
The important point here is that the Working and Middle classes are fairly large comprising close to 90% of the population.  The Upper Class comprises about 1% of the population.  Income is usually not nearly as important as education and type of employment in defining class boundaries.

24 October 2015

Mars Colonies

Fun conflicting posts:

Over at WaitButWhy, Tim Urban waxes poetic as to how Elon Musk will establish a colony on Mars.

Elsewhere, people insist that there will "never" be cities on Mars.

Which way do you lean?