Hasn’t AI Been the Wrong Edgy for Too Long?

By: | Topic: Tech | Tags: , , | 2 Comments »

Recently my friend, Dan McKinlay who is far more accomplished than me in Machine Learning (ML) and Neural Networks (NN), blogged his distaste for the the project name “AI on the Edge“, arguing that the edge vs centre model of “cloud computing” is misapplied here and that there’s nothing inherently centralised about AI.

It tends to imply that large NN models in data centres are the default type of ML

Dan McKinlay

Here I argue this implication may be unjustified, but only in the idealised future we both presumably yearn for, and I, for one celebrate the notable appearance of this worthy distinction to our new robot overlords (whom, let the record show to any such overlords reading this, I also welcome).

“AI on the Edge” is an example of snappy project branding for computer vision on small, battery powered microcontroller chips, typically used in products like smart home doorbells and other such internet-connected embedded devices and notably available to DIY hobbyists as featured on their Github page. It’s so unlike the sinister Cambridge Analytica stuff we have come to expect from Facebook and others. What’s wrong with calling out this distinction between edge and centre?

Hasn’t AI been edgy in all the wrong ways for too long?

The AI on the Edge project came to my attention as a way to internet enable old-school gas, water and electricity meters which show mechanical digits and dials. A $5 microcontroller with a camera can now read your meter without the help of Siri or Alexa and allow you to track your resource consumption like it’s 2021.

Despite it being a perfectly usable title for a direct-to-VHS docudrama, AI on the Edge fails to capture Dan’s otherwise perfectly functioning sense of drama. Perhaps ironically for the same reasons, I do care about an edge-centre distinction. It’s fundamental to mass innovation and technology-dependent democratisation. Surely it’s defensible to claim “the default type of ML” has long been large models in data centres, at least in commercial projects over the past decade. It’s heartening to see a qualitatively different innovation zone characterised by cheap, low power deployment targets. I imagine startup technology could shortly flood the low power compute space with practical ML for business and consumer alike.

Maybe this “edge” shift is not new, after all, we had the Furbie, what more do we want? But my observation has been that ML has been synonymous with big data in the startup space. Apparently, many use cases are relevant and business models viable only once the datas are sufficiently embiggened. But perhaps we are at an inflection point.

Chipageddon & Unobtanium

What is that noise? The cry of a million raging gamers echoing across the world as they cannot afford a Nvidia RTX 3090, an accelerator card featuring GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) chips that are somewhat accidentally able to crunch neural network workloads thousands of times faster than CPUs and as a result, demand drives prices towards $4000USD per unit. A similar demand spike a few years earlier resulted from similar unanticipated performance advantages for cryptocurrency mining. If you’re a gamer, these high-end graphics cards might as well be hewn from solid unobtainium.

Since 2020, the knock-on effects of GPU demand spikes are magnified by chipageddon, the ongoing global computer chip shortage resulting from factory retooling delays, these prompted by mass order cancellations by flocks of car manufacturers in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic as they anticipated collapsing demand, incorrectly. It turns out cars are becoming computers with wheels and people still want to buy them. Cloud providers update the GPU farm section of their service offerings with “coming soon” as they struggle to fill their data-centres with would-be gaming rigs and beef up their machine room aircon to deal with the higher thermal exhaust. Google and Apple tape out their own silicon. I expect Nvidia to have segmented its product engineering and sales divisions as they recognise a business opportunity in bifurcated target market segments.

One of the personal turn-offs of ML-as-startup-tech is that I expected the business economics collapsing into a capital-intensive Big Tech play, not compatible with a more satisfying bootstrapped startup that is cost-dominated by coherent software-development effort. Though software development can clearly be scaled by throwing money at hiring, it does so with much more severely diminishing returns and requires that the teams and their products be split into isolated components that integrate frictionlessly, which, in the general case, is known to be so hard to accomplish that this meta-problem becomes a self-reinforcing brake or feedback function of demand for software alphanerds who can thread this needle. Certainly when compared to the more business palatable situation of buying racks and racks of GPUs.

Venture Capital Loves Big AI

Maybe the ML scale meme is merely the result of VC culture and the unicorn exit mania. With typical software startups of today otherwise requiring so little up-front capital, VCs struggle to add value; only where large capital requirements are critical to the business model. If ML is this, it explains why VCs froth about ML. If a problem space is tractable with a gradual investment only of engineering time and the investment/return function is smooth such that incremental effort validates incremental results with incremental profit, excess money cannot be put to work because it doesn’t help validate the business. And after all, what is a startup but a yet-to-be-validated business?

Bigger neural network models, trained faster and subscription software that does all the compute reminds me of 1970s time sharing and data processing services which ossified into bulk laziness and ultimately fertilised the soil for a more democratised “PC” revolution which was viable through mass-market dynamics. A thousand flowers bloomed in the 1980s as the home computer revolution sprung from humble DIY roots like the two Steves who founded Apple with 1960s counterculture ideals and stars in their eyes.

What we might be seeing is a shift from centralised big compute infrastructure that harks back to the golden days of IBM. Just like the home computer revolution and the internet and smart phones and bitcoin each have. Facebook and Google and the other big tech monoliths hoard and run their own hardware, users on the edge being suckling dependents running nothing more than dumb terminals, albeit with more pixels than the 70s green screen edition that few are old enough to remember. Having said all this, I do expect this pendulum to continue to swing between centralisation and decentralisation as the delayed impacts of accreting inefficiency in each approach pump harmonically against each other, neither being the total answer to everything.

For now, though, perhaps all the nerds soldering and 3D printing their own gas meter readers will give birth to the next phase of AI and then give birth to the next generation of unimaginable megaliths.

Against Better or Worse

By: | Topic: Philosophy | 3 Comments »

It seems there’s a little voice in our heads who constantly says “is that GOOD or BAD? which is BETTER?” and it is a stupid pointless little voice most of the time.

As a parent I’m conscious of trying to teach how to live from scratch. In the artificially competitive worlds of school grades, the olympics or rare roles like prima ballerina in the Russian ballet, zero sum competition is a fact. However, in a long, fulfilling life, this fact is mostly irrelevant, even for straight-A olympian ballerinas. Life is not so one-dimensional.

A tendency towards an evaluative context needlessly promotes anxiety – even when parents attempt to be supportive with “wow you’re really good at drawing”. Compare “wow you must really enjoy drawing” or “wow you really worked hard on that”. The child learns what is important this way.

In life, lack of contentment coupled with an overly evaluative, zero sum mindset leads to yet more emptiness because one is seeking either dominion or relative merit, merit defined by the performance of others! Remember Steven Bradbury, the Aussie speed skater who won gold because of a spectacular spill that took out all the faster skaters at the last turn? Olympic gold is not for personal bests nor world records.

A young child I know returned from school having received an award for doing his best. “Wow! that’s the best award!” I said. He scowled, “no it’s not!”. How can it be better to do somebody else’s best?

There is a story in our culture about how we humans are “conscious” and, together with “the language instinct”, it is often repeated that this feature meaningfully distinguishes us from the animals and even defines humanity. I’m increasingly skeptical of this ill-defined claim to “higher” consciousness while it stokes the fire of anxious, extrinsic self-evaluation as we side-eye our fellow humans in yet another arbitrary achievement race. It’s ironic.

“Consciousness” is a part of our childish narrative that seeks to fill our insatiable desire for self-importance and yet its kissing cousin, mindfulness, turns that on its head: we are here and when we sit with ourselves, that self-company speaks louder than any striving appeal to all the other human animals we gather around us and to whom we mindlessly and habitually delegate our authority.

Cartoon Girl in one Formula

By: | Topic: Design | Tags: , , , , | Comment »

Can you create the portrait of a cartoon girl reminiscent of the Frozen movie using only mathematics? Yes. This mind-blowing video by 3d graphics genius Iñigo Quilez shows exactly how, using only high-school mathematics, a keen eye and some patience.

You know you can make computer graphics with a mathematical formula such as the one for a sphere, or a box, or other building blocks. You can probably guess that there are formulae for colouring, lighting and shadows. You might also know about “noise” and how “randomness” can be made to produce something like a TV tuned to a dead channel.

In intermediate high-school mathematics you learn to combine formulae. You could compose the formula for a sphere with that of a thin cylinder and make a lollipop shape. What you might be surprised to learn is exactly how to use this compositional technique in an entirely artistic process to produce a compelling cartoon “selfie girl”. How do you make freckles? What about lips and eyebrows, a hoodie, braided hair and a frozen snowscape.

Not only does Iñigo Quilez masterfully create all these things, he shows you how it is done and even lightly animates the figure to complete the illusion that the girl is posing for a photo.

What is unique about this approach is that it shows the power of mathematical modelling when combined with an artist’s eye. Artists do not need to use a brush to create art any more than they need to use a computer mouse. While there may be a defensible tradition of computer art that is constructed by the composition of hand-drawn elements, what this video shows us is that if you can describe in the language of maths the curve that your hand would circumscribe, you can type it into a computer and see the result appear before your eyes like magic.

Algorithmic computer graphics is more usually relegated to the realms of fractals and the infinite lacy filigree of alien geometric spaces. But trippy graphics is no more essential to the medium than the naked bosom of a Venus is to oils.

What makes this form of art peculiar is that it is expressed in a language most of us insist on remaining illiterate in, despite living increasingly in a world defined by algorithms. The attitude that mathematical illiteracy is an excusable allergy for a modern, educated person feels to me like more than a missed opportunity. Consider that its mathematical notation is broadly representative of the impenetrably cryptic and is often aped to refer to the toxic effluvia of crazed genius. Nobody is expected to know it and yet we are all alarmingly numb to the message that our world is increasingly defined by algorithms.

So think of this as a reminder of the oft-cited beauty laying wait beneath the veil of our own ignorance in the expressive, magical realm of maths. Why not lift that veil every now and then?

Having said that i appreciate that while this composition uses what is declared to be high-school maths, it does move quickly to compose a large aggregation. Click through to the detail without preparation and you might be reminded that approaching the uncarved marble block with a renewed willingness to learn does not imply that the tools in your hands will reveal a Statue of David. Take heart and take the next step.

This is not the first formulaic painting Quilez has done. There are a series of how-to videos for several of his impressive creations on his youtube channel. Note he is also the creator of Shader Toy – a tool designed specifically for creating graphics using this approach.

Beautiful Chill Robot Heart set from Burning Man

By: | Topic: Music | Tags: | Comment »

There are newer sets by Robot Heart, but I think no better than this:

It all goes back to Africa

By: | Topic: Music | Comment »

New Ambient Electronic Sketch

By: | Topic: Music | Tags: | 2 Comments »

I made this today – just a sketch, using my Novation Launchpad Pro (thanks team!) and Ableton Push. It turned out more melancholy than I expected. Please click like on SoundCloud if you like it. It’s available under Creative Commons Share Alike license:

Dope Controllerism with Shawn Wasabi

By: | Topic: Music | Tags: | Comment »

Wasabi is hot! I’m sure I’m not the first to say so. Check this stunning performance on his custom MIDI Fighter 64. Watch for the 90º rotation.

/via @durdn

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita

By: | Topic: Music | Tags: , | 1 Comment »

For all the harp hating I intimated previously, now my protestations are a flimsy, hollow impossibility. But can I please still retain my harp-misgivings if I explain how this Senegalese man, Seckou Keita, brings a warm, cyclic effusion to this duet and how this Welsh woman, Catrin Finch, plays so delightfully into and around the rhythm which, yes, does contain the very grime I have said this instrument lacks.

Before the flames befall me, strictly, Seckou Keita plays the kora which I am assured is more like a lute and it achieves its bottom end thanks to a resonating body. Nevertheless the kora’s harp-like auditory quality is clear and I feel the need to get this off my chest.

Can I further draw your attention to the way this piece contains sound – not just composition? It contains rhythm – if not funk – and harmony with the husky textures of wood and strings. I’m usually pretty happy to forego melody for all that but to also find that here, calling me closer in refrain, yet living within the texture – that sort of thing makes me listen again. It makes me fret I’ll repeat it too often and wear out my wonder, deny my future self this same abandon.

As they reach the middle of the performance, I see how they are getting into it. Look at them grinning like they just shared a joke. When I watch, I see them taken away from their fingers and technique, forgetting everything but the moment and being surprised and delighted by what they find in that moment, even as they themselves create it for us all.

Towards the conclusion of the piece, things embolden in an anthematic and ever rising cycle that warms me more than the sun. This is not what I had come to expect from the harp.

Catrin Finch plays Claire de Lune by Debussy

By: | Topic: Music | Tags: , | Comment »

After the last harp video I posted it’s a statement I find increasingly hard to defend, but I don’t necessarily like the harp, per se. It lacks grime. But this … this it transcendent. This performance of one of my all time favourite pieces of sublime music literally brings tears to the eye.


Autechre Gelk cover by Altertape

By: | Topic: Music | Tags: | 2 Comments »

Music is what feelings sound like indeed. I love it when music does this. You take one of the worlds most avant garde electronic production duos, English pioneers Autechre, and you do a live cover with a rock lineup. Breathtaking performance and tasteful, even-handed effects processing by smirking Belgian fusion three piece, Altertape (file under drummer-maestro-secret-sauce).


Bach on Harp

By: | Topic: Music | Tags: , | Comment »

Check this rendition of Johann’s monster tune Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. To my admittedly amateur ear Amy Turk smashes this. I sometimes find the soft yet nasal harp a little too knitted-vest-and-sensible-socks, slightly too white roses and not quite enough motorcycle leather but this one has me quite entranced.

It reminds me I need to go sniff out some more Autechre and Aphex Twin performances on acoustic instruments.

Pen and Paper Meditation

By: | Topic: Strong Like Water | Tags: | Comment »

No thoughts, intentions or expectations. It’s not a doodle, if that implies being idle. It’s not a work of art, if that implies work. It’s what happened with my pen and paper while I was living in my body just now.


City Sick by Pooka

By: | Topic: Music | Tags: , | Comment »

I must admit I am city sick

One of the best female folk duos ever, this recording from about 1993.

I only wish I could post a video of them singing and playing it.

The Power of Nothingness

By: | Topic: Philosophy | Tags: , | 3 Comments »

There is a kind of destructive and delusional conspiracy in the history of much of human thinking that has undermined the fundamental importance of one of our most incredible resources: Nothing.

People are down on Nothing.

What we should see if we think about it more clearly, is that the world of things is really the creation in our own minds, in our mental model of the world, of the line between two equally important parts of one whole. One of those parts is Nothing.

To fail to appreciate Nothing, to harness it, to be blind to the role of Nothingness is to deny ourselves of the most natural fulfilment.

Nothingness is the secret to understanding not only the world, but the self, and after all, what, really, is the difference?

Listen to Alan Watts talk about Nothing:

Also enjoy the music.

I recognised part of Neil Young’s soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s classic black and white movie Dead Man in there, one of my favourites, the track “Organ Solo” which I think is played on a hand organ. This movie features Jonny Depp as a man named “William Blake” who is mistaken to be the reincarnation of the famous poet by a native American man, aptly named “Nobody”. Iggy pop is in there too. Choice quotes from memory “One thing’s fur shurr, I wouldn’t trust nothin writ down on no piece of paper” and “I can’t take whisky like I youstacould”. The movie is intense (a couple of graphic scenes) but unmissable, so if you managed to miss it, you have your homework.

Also behind Alan Watts in the video is “Lars is no loser” sung by Icelander Siggi Ármann and “Dawn” by Cinematic Orchestra from their gorgeous album “Man with a movie camera”. This music ties so many references together for me and for my appreciation of the message so eloquently furnished by this master of Nothing, Alan Watts.

The rest of the music I feel familiar with but can’t identify, so if you recognise it please do tell.

Chapter 2 of the Tao te Ching

By: | Topic: Philosophy | Tags: | 1 Comment »

Recently I read the Tao te Ching for the first time. This little book, two and a half thousand years old, so tenderly rendered into English by Stephen Mitchell, contains a raw and ancient wisdom that has been carried into the modern era in more recent eastern traditions such as Zen Buddhism.

Like the true poetry it is, there are things said and unsaid, metaphors and imagery woven into an artwork that speaks not only to us but through us. The author, Lao Tzu, an ancient master of The Tao, or “The Way” teaches us how to live in a way that religion often does, but which does not define laws for us to follow. Instead it shows us where to look to discover the laws of nature.

The book is tiny. The message is simple. As much as we would rather demand that the mystery of living is a puzzle that only exertion and grand learning, perhaps even selective divine inspiration can reveal to us, this book leaves us with ourselves. The words leave space. The guidance is a mere nudge and a nod, a gesture towards a path that winds through the trees without high ceremony or the odour of empire (unlike Confucianism which almost ruined eastern philosophy for me when I was younger).

Far from shying away from the every day, a reading discourages high retreat from family life or work or pleasure as much as it encourages compassion and peace and precisely the kind of inner harmony that people like me can normally never bear to hear about without cliche-induced nausea.

Yet somehow its message has penetrated me. I like it.

It doesn’t tell, but it helps us tell ourselves. It uses language to exceed language.

At once a tactic, a style and the core message, the Tao te Ching exhibits a common characteristic of eastern wisdom traditions: things in the Tao te Ching often seem to conflict with each other in a way that unsettles the puffy rational ego into a game where it, if it can be personified, believes it can win by rejecting the message and text as shallow nonsense. Simultaneously, a part of us – perhaps what some people like to call a soul, whispers into our ear that it didn’t win, it lost, that it was really the ego being shallow and reminding us that we can too easily be drawn into imaginary conflict like a bird pecking a mirror, unable to see the beauty of reflection.

How can I say more?

Chapter 2

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.