Moore’s Law As Applied To Humans

Sorry, I’m back. I’ve been keeping myself kinda busy over the last two weeks. On my travels I met what you could consider to be a pretty bright programmer: he writes spider programmes. Now if you were silly enough to want to sit in the first few rows of a concert from some mediocre but popular pop star, you would probably want to be cursing him: for his boss and his spider programme would already have the tickets. He works for an entrepreneur in a nameless but extremely large country, who buys up all the tickets for 250 dollars and re-sells them at around a thousand a go. He told me that at first this work was easy, but recently things have gotten more difficult. The concert organisers have tried to overcome the practice by having an image inserted to which you have to manually type some given response. Problem solved you might think. Well no: this is where ingenuity and globalisation come in to guarantee that ‘real’ entrepreneurship will not be thwarted.

His boss responded creatively: he contracted a hall with 200 workers in India. These workers spend their day typing the image responses manually into a data base. Currently they have entered something like 500,000 images. (It also occurs me that systematic spam must do something like this: the bacteria-antibiotic effect). The recounting of this story lead my Argentina blogging friend Marcelo to make the following highly perceptive observation:

The image of the wharehouse of people defeating the turing-test safeguards is extremely interesting. At the risk of sounding callous, I think that an interesting way of conceptualizing what’s happening in India and China is that Moore’s law is applying to humans: the capacity of a person you can rent for $1 is increasing fast, thanks to a bigger pool of people and better technology to teach and connect them. Of course the pool of people is finite, and eventually you start getting higher wages, but the principle is the same – and if stuff like MIT’s Open Courseware works well, the trend might well continue.

Now I think he really has a point here. The internet skeptics are so busy being skeptical that they don’t notice when the roof is falling in around their heads.

On my website deflation page I identify three factors which might be contributing to a global deflationary environment: OECD ageing, surplus labour in China (and now, increasingly, of course, India), and the falling price of information. Now I have never really been to clear where to go with this third one, it was more a case of reading Kurzweil and extrapolating what to me was the obvious. Now Marcelo has come along and put it very succinctly: Moore’s law as it applies to humans. And like the other version of the law, the only remaining question is how long can this run till we hit specific physical limits. I think Kurzweil’s answer would be: farther than you imagine.

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About Edward Hugh

Edward 'the bonobo is a Catalan economist of British extraction. After being born, brought-up and educated in the United Kingdom, Edward subsequently settled in Barcelona where he has now lived for over 15 years. As a consequence Edward considers himself to be "Catalan by adoption". He has also to some extent been "adopted by Catalonia", since throughout the current economic crisis he has been a constant voice on TV, radio and in the press arguing in favor of the need for some kind of internal devaluation if Spain wants to stay inside the Euro. By inclination he is a macro economist, but his obsession with trying to understand the economic impact of demographic changes has often taken him far from home, off and away from the more tranquil and placid pastures of the dismal science, into the bracken and thicket of demography, anthropology, biology, sociology and systems theory. All of which has lead him to ask himself whether Thomas Wolfe was not in fact right when he asserted that the fact of the matter is "you can never go home again".

7 thoughts on “Moore’s Law As Applied To Humans

  1. It’s pretty amazing the lengths some people will go to to get round any restrictions that are put in their way. Obviously, the margin of profit one can make reselling tickets makes this a worthwhile enterprise for them to carry out…and then they can make an additional profit by seeling the database on to other businesses, even scammers.

    The image of masses of people doing that work is like something out of dystopian SF – it’s somewhat akin to the work of the Feds in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, to give one example.

  2. physical limits? One of my professors once claimed that about 1,7% real growth since the mid 18-hundreds might be a biological limit to long-term growth. I’m not too sure where the limits are, I think organisation can do a lot and adjust should transaction costs go down indeed in the long run. As for Moore’s law – I don’t think that rising wages are too far away for activities that do not consist of information age “slaving”. Especially in developing nations – isn’t there is higher relative scarcity of highly qualified people that even the MIT Open Courseware (nice, albeit rather limited in scope, as it is) isn’t gonna change?

  3. “isn’t there is higher relative scarcity of highly qualified people”

    Obviously there can be bottlenecks, but training people is much cheaper in the third world, so the increase in demand will lead to an increase in supply, the room to increase is much greater than in the OECD world where young people are becoming a relatively scarce resource, and thus relatively more expensive.

    Obviously the MIT thing is only a metaphor. It is just a begining. My feeling is that the internet itself is one vast open university. Many of the people who write to me are people with a background in IT – especially network managers with a lot of time to surf – and they have become amateur experts on virtually every imaginable topic.

    The boundary between the educated amateur and the professional has been broken down in a way which we haven’t seen in science since the industrial revolution. One small example: network building.

    The EU commission top-down model wastes endless time and money trying to create artificial networks between people with no real interest in working together – via instruments like Daphne, or the Framework Programmes – whilst internet enthusiasts create endless amazing bottom-up networks every day. I can tell you this from my own experience.

    Typical question: does your company allow you to work using an instant messenger instead of a phone? Does your company have a future? The answer to the second is probably the same as the answer to the first.

    Stephen Frost has a very interesting feedback post to this here:

    http://www.livinginchina.com/archives/000494.html

  4. Incidentally, chatting with a programmer yesterday about this post, I was told that this topic of the turing test type solutions has been being discussed for some time, and that the general feeling is that it will lead to a kind of ‘arms race’ with ever more sophistocated types of artificial intelligence emerging as a result: a kind of trial of strength between mechanical mental labour in Asia and AI.

    BTW Tobias to enter numbers from an image and things like that you don’t need to be excessively highly educated. That is to say, short term most at risk from this type of activity are the ‘new jobs’ created to replace the old industrial ones, not those of the technocratic elite.

  5. Edward,

    >BTW Tobias to enter numbers from an image and >things like that you don’t need to be >excessively highly educated. That is to say, >short term most at risk from this type of >activity are the ‘new jobs’ created to replace >the old industrial ones, not those of the >technocratic elite.

    Absolutely, I agree. That’s what I meant by “information age slaving”. All I’m saying is that I think there’s a huge difference between entering phonenumbers into a database and programming it, and the pool of people who can do the latter is relatively more scarce in developing countries than in the OECD. They might be able to charge less for their brain power because the overall productivity is still low in their countries, which in turn might help them lead a very comfortable life using cheap local services themselves. But I suppose they know their competition isn’t usually coming from their own country.

    I guess it all depends on the speed with of overall development. It might (overall) be faster than anything that ever happened in Europe before the industrial revolution, but I think the “Gates problem” – What will people do with computers if they can’t read? – means that it will take longer than expected by many.

    >The boundary between the educated amateur and >the professional has been broken down in a way >which we haven’t seen in science since the >industrial revolution. One small example: >network building.

    This is a very important point. All I’m saying is – to really be able to benefit from the network, one needs a certain level to start from, which only a relatively small percentage of people in, say, India, posesses yet.

  6. I do not imagine paying 250 ?/$ to go to any concert, much less thousand. Still it smell very bad that someone gets to profit creating scarcity from something because it is easy.

    DSW

  7. I don’t have any sympathy to the people making such business, or speculating on its perpetuation.
    It’s such an incredible waste of energy

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