Our artificial intelligence: the working title of my research, for now. Volume 1: Energy and technological change. I am doing a little bit of rummaging in available data, just to make sure I keep contact with reality. Here comes a metric: access to electricity in the world, measured as the % of total human population. The trend line looks proudly ascending. In 2016, 87,38% of mankind had at least one electric socket in their place. Ten years earlier, by the end of 2006, they were 81,2%. Optimistic. Looks like something growing almost linearly. Another one: « Electric power transmission and distribution losses ». This one looks different: instead of a clear trend, I observe something shaking and oscillating, with the width of variance narrowing gently down, as time passes. By the end of 2014 (last data point in this dataset), we were globally at 8,25% of electricity lost in transmission. The lowest coefficient of loss occurred in 1998: 7,13%.
I move from distribution to production of electricity, and to its percentage supplied from nuclear power plants. Still another shape, that of a steep bell with surprisingly lean edges. Initially, it was around 2% of global electricity supplied by the nuclear. At the peak of fascination, it was 17,6%, and at the end of 2014, we went down to 10,6%. The thing seems to be temporarily stable at this level. As I move to water, and to the percentage of electricity derived from the hydro, I see another type of change: a deeply serrated, generally descending trend. In 1971, we had 20,2% of our total global electricity from the hydro, and by the end of 2014, we were at 16,24%. In the meantime, it looked like a rollercoaster. Yet, as I am having a look at other renewables (i.e. other than hydroelectricity) and their share in the total supply of electricity, the shape of the corresponding curve looks like a snake, trying to figure something out about a vertical wall. Between 1971 and 1988, the share of those other renewables in the total electricity supplied moved from 0,25% to 0,6%. Starting from 1989, it is an almost perfectly exponential growth, to reach 6,77% in 2015.
Just to have a complete picture, I shift slightly, from electricity to energy consumption as a whole, and I check the global share of renewables therein. Surprise! This curve does not behave at all as it is expected to behave, after having seen the previously cited share of renewables in electricity. Instead of a snake sniffing a wall, we can see a snake like from above, or something like e meandering river. This seems to be a cycle over some 25 years (could it be Kondratiev’s?), with a peak around 18% of renewables in the total consumption of energy, and a trough somewhere by 16,9%. Right now, we seem to be close to the peak.
I am having a look at the big, ugly brother of hydro: the oil, gas and coal sources of electricity and their share in the total amount of electricity produced. Here, I observe a different shape of change. Between 1971 and 1986, the fossils dropped their share from 62% to 51,47%. Then, it rockets up back to 62% in 1990. Later, a slowly ascending trend starts, just to reach a peak, and oscillate for a while around some 65 ÷ 67% between 2007 and 2011. Since then, the fossils are dropping again: the short-term trend is descending.
Finally, one of the basic metrics I have been using frequently in my research on energy: the final consumption thereof, per capita, measured in kilograms of oil equivalent. Here, we are back in the world of relatively clear trends. This one is ascending, with some bumps on the way, though. In 1971, we were at 1336,2 koe per person per year. In 2014, it was 1920,655 koe.
Thus, what are all those curves telling me? I can see three clearly different patterns. The first is the ascending trend, observable in the access to electricity, in the consumption of energy per capita, and, since the late 1980ies, in the share of electricity derived from renewable sources. The second is a cyclical variation: share of renewables in the overall consumption of energy, to some extent the relative importance of hydroelectricity, as well as that of the nuclear. Finally, I can observe a descending trend in the relative importance of the nuclear since 1988, as well as in some episodes from the life of hydroelectricity, coal and oil.
On the top of that, I can distinguish different patterns in, respectively, the production of energy, on the one hand, and its consumption, on the other hand. The former seems to change along relatively predictable, long-term paths. The latter looks like a set of parallel, and partly independent experiments with different sources of energy. We are collectively intelligent: I deeply believe that. I mean, I hope. If bees and ants can be collectively smarter than singlehandedly, there is some potential in us as well.
Thus, I am progressively designing a collective intelligence, which experiments with various sources of energy, just to produce those two, relatively lean, climbing trends: more energy per capita and ever growing a percentage of capitae with access to electricity. Which combinations of variables can produce a rationally desired energy efficiency? How is the supply of money changing as we reach different levels of energy efficiency? Can artificial intelligence make energy policies? Empirical check: take a real energy policy and build a neural network which reflects the logical structure of that policy. Then add a method of learning and see, what it produces as hypothetical outcome.
What is the cognitive value of hypotheses made with a neural network? The answer to this question starts with another question: how do hypotheses made with a neural network differ from any other set of hypotheses? The hypothetical states of nature produced by a neural network reflect the outcomes of logically structured learning. The process of learning should represent real social change and real collective intelligence. There are four most important distinctions I have observed so far, in this respect: a) awareness of internal cohesion b) internal competition c) relative resistance to new information and d) perceptual selection (different ways of standardizing input data).
The awareness of internal cohesion, in a neural network, is a function that feeds into the consecutive experimental rounds of learning the information on relative cohesion (Euclidean distance) between variables. We assume that each variable used in the neural network reflects a sequence of collective decisions in the corresponding social structure. Cohesion between variables represents the functional connection between sequences of collective decisions. Awareness of internal cohesion, as a logical attribute of a neural network, corresponds to situations when societies are aware of how mutually coherent their different collective decisions are. The lack of logical feedback on internal cohesion represents situation when societies do not have that internal awareness.
As I metaphorically look around and ask myself, what awareness do I have about important collective decisions in my local society. I can observe and pattern people’s behaviour, for one. Next thing: I can read (very literally) the formalized, official information regarding legal issues. On the top of that, I can study (read, mostly) quantitatively formalized information on measurable attributes of the society, such as GDP per capita, supply of money, or emissions of CO2. Finally, I can have that semi-formalized information from what we call “media”, whatever prefix they come with: mainstream media, social media, rebel media, the-only-true-media etc.
As I look back upon my own life and the changes which I have observed on those four levels of social awareness, the fourth one, namely the media, has been, and still is the biggest game changer. I remember the cultural earthquake in 1990 and later, when, after decades of state-controlled media in the communist Poland, we suddenly had free press and complete freedom of publishing. Man! It was like one of those moments when you step out of a calm, dark alleyway right into the middle of heavy traffic in the street. Information, it just wheezed past.
There is something about media, both those called ‘mainstream’, and the modern platforms like Twitter or You Tube: they adapt to their audience, and the pace of that adaptation is accelerating. With Twitter, it is obvious: when I log into my account, I can see the Tweets only from people and organizations whom I specifically subscribed to observe. With You Tube, on my starting page, I can see the subscribed channels, for one, and a ton of videos suggested by artificial intelligence on the grounds of what I watched in the past. Still, the mainstream media go down the same avenue. When I go bbc.com, the types of news presented are very largely what the editorial team hopes will max out on clicks per hour, which, in turn, is based on the types of news that totalled the most clicks in the past. The same was true for printed newspapers, 20 years ago: the stuff that got to headlines was the kind of stuff that made sales.
Thus, when I simulate collective intelligence of a society with a neural network, the function allowing the network to observe its own, internal cohesion seems to be akin the presence of media platforms. Actually, I have already observed, many times, that adding this specific function to a multi-layer perceptron (type of neural network) makes that perceptron less cohesive. Looks like a paradox: observing the relative cohesion between its own decisions makes a piece of AI less cohesive. Still, real life confirms that observation. Social media favour the phenomenon known as « echo chamber »: if I want, I can expose myself only to the information that minimizes my cognitive dissonance and cut myself from anything that pumps my adrenaline up. On a large scale, this behavioural pattern produces a galaxy of relatively small groups encapsulated in highly distilled, mutually incoherent worldviews. Have you ever wondered what it would be to use GPS navigation to find your way, in the company of a hardcore flat-Earther?
When I run my perceptron over samples of data regarding the energy – efficiency of national economies – including the function of feedback on the so-called fitness function is largely equivalent to simulating a society with abundant mediatic activity. The absence of such feedback is, on the other hand, like a society without much of a media sector.
Internal competition, in a neural network, is the deep underlying principle for structuring a multi-layer perceptron into separate layers, and manipulating the number of neurons in each layer. Let’s suppose I have two neural layers in a perceptron: A, and B, in this exact order. If I put three neurons in the layer A, and one neuron in the layer B, the one in B will be able to choose between the 3 signals sent from the layer A. Seen from the A perspective, each neuron in A has to compete against the two others for the attention of the single neuron in B. Choice on one end of a synapse equals competition on the other end.
When I want to introduce choice in a neural network, I need to introduce internal competition as well. If any neuron is to have a choice between processing input A and its rival, input B, there must be at least two distinct neurons – A and B – in a functionally distinct, preceding neural layer. In a collective intelligence, choice requires competition, and there seems to be no way around it. In a real brain, neurons form synaptic sequences, which means that the great majority of our neurons fire because other neurons have fired beforehand. We very largely think because we think, not because something really happens out there. Neurons in charge of early-stage collection in sensory data compete for the attention of our brain stem, which, in turn, proposes its pre-selected information to the limbic system, and the emotional exultation of the latter incites he cortical areas to think about the whole thing. From there, further cortical activity happens just because other cortical activity has been happening so far.
I propose you a quick self-check: think about what you are thinking right now, and ask yourself, how much of what you are thinking about is really connected to what is happening around you. Are you thinking a lot about the gradient of temperature close to your skin? No, not really? Really? Are you giving a lot of conscious attention to the chemical composition of the surface you are touching right now with your fingertips? Not really a lot of conscious thinking about this one either? Now, how much conscious attention are you devoting to what [fill in the blank] said about [fill in the blank], yesterday? Quite a lot of attention, isn’t it?
The point is that some ideas die out, in us, quickly and sort of silently, whilst others are tough survivors and keep popping up to the surface of our awareness. Why? How does it happen? What if there is some kind of competition between synaptic paths? Thoughts, or components thereof, that win one stage of the competition pass to the next, where they compete again.
Internal competition requires complexity. There needs to be something to compete for, a next step in the chain of thinking. A neural network with internal competition reflects a collective intelligence with internal hierarchies that offer rewards. Interestingly, there is research showing that greater complexity gives more optimizing accuracy to a neural network, but just as long as we are talking about really low complexity, like 3 layers of neurons instead of two. As complexity is further developed, accuracy decreases noticeably. Complexity is not the best solution for optimization: see Olawoyin and Chen (2018).
Relative resistance to new information corresponds to the way that an intelligent structure deals with cognitive dissonance. In order to have any cognitive dissonance whatsoever, we need at least two pieces of information: one that we have already appropriated as our knowledge, and the new stuff, which could possibly disturb the placid self-satisfaction of the I-already-know-how-things-work. Cognitive dissonance is a potent factor of stress in human beings as individuals, and in whole societies. Galileo would have a few words to say about it. Question: how to represent in a mathematical form the stress connected to cognitive dissonance? My provisional answer is: by division. Cognitive dissonance means that I consider my acquired knowledge as more valuable than new information. If I want to decrease the importance of B in relation to A, I divide B by a factor greater than 1, whilst leaving A as it is. The denominator of new information is supposed to grow over time: I am more resistant to the really new stuff than I am to the already slightly processed information, which was new yesterday. In a more elaborate form, I can use the exponential progression (see The really textbook-textbook exponential growth).
I noticed an interesting property of the neural network I use for studying energy efficiency. When I introduce choice, internal competition and hierarchy between neurons, the perceptron gets sort of wild: it produces increasing error instead of decreasing error, so it basically learns how to swing more between possible states, rather than how to narrow its own trial and error down to one recurrent state. When I add a pinchful of resistance to new information, i.e. when I purposefully create stress in the presence of cognitive dissonance, the perceptron calms down a bit, and can produce a decreasing error.
Selection of information can occur already at the level of primary perception. I developed on this one in « Thinking Poisson, or ‘WTF are the other folks doing?’ ». Let’s suppose that new science comes as for how to use particular sources of energy. We can imagine two scenarios of reaction to that new science. On the one hand, the society can react in a perfectly flexible way, i.e. each new piece of scientific research gets evaluated as for its real utility for energy management, and gest smoothly included into the existing body of technologies. On the other hand, the same society (well, not quite the same, an alternative one) can sharply distinguish those new pieces of science into ‘useful stuff’ and ‘crap’, with little nuance in between.
What do we know about collective learning and collective intelligence? Three essential traits come to my mind. Firstly, we make social structures, i.e. recurrent combinations of social relations, and those structures tend to be quite stable. We like having stable social structures. We almost instinctively create rituals, rules of conduct, enforceable contracts etc., thus we make stuff that is supposed to make the existing stuff last. An unstable social structure is prone to wars, coups etc. Our collective intelligence values stability. Still, stability is not the same as perfect conservatism: our societies have imperfect recall. This is the second important trait. Over (long periods of) time we collectively shake off, and replace old rules of social games with new rules, and we do it without disturbing the fundamental social structure. In other words: stable as they are, our social structures have mechanisms of adaptation to new conditions, and yet those mechanisms require to forget something about our past. OK, not just forget something: we collectively forget a shitload of something. Thirdly, there had been many local human civilisations, and each of them had eventually collapsed, i.e. their fundamental social structures had disintegrated. The civilisations we have made so far had a limited capacity to learn. Sooner or later, they would bump against a challenge which they were unable to adapt to. The mechanism of collective forgetting and shaking off, in every known historically documented case, had a limited efficiency.
I intuitively guess that simulating collective intelligence with artificial intelligence is likely to be the most fruitful when we simulate various capacities to learn. I think we can model something like a perfectly adaptable collective intelligence, i.e. the one which has no cognitive dissonance and processes information uniformly over time, whilst having a broad range of choice and internal competition. Such a neural network behaves in the opposite way to what we tend to associate with AI: instead of optimizing and narrowing down the margin of error, it creates new alternative states, possibly in a broadening range. This is a collective intelligence with lots of capacity to learn, but little capacity to steady itself as a social structure. From there, I can muzzle the collective intelligence with various types of stabilizing devices, making it progressively more and more structure-making, and less flexible. Down that avenue, the solver-type of artificial intelligence lies, thus a neural network that just solves a problem, with one, temporarily optimal solution.
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 Olawoyin, A., & Chen, Y. (2018). Predicting the Future with Artificial Neural Network. Procedia Computer Science, 140, 383-392.