AI allows for scale in a messy environment

My friend Sherif Elsayed-Ali wrote:

What should a city built in 2050 look like? They should live in harmony with the natural environment – meshed into it rather than replacing it.

This is close to one of my core belief. That the real value of AI is to enable automation that can scale while respecting the organic and messy nature of our environment.

The industrial era gave us the ability to scale. That is, the ability to build systems (Ie. collections of machines and humans) that can increase their output by a factor X while increasing the number of humans involved by a smaller factor Y.

Humanity gained an amazing power, but it came at a cost: the machines were dumb and needed a formatted environment to do their jobs efficiently. Building a factory is a two step process: first format the environment by building a huge metal box, then pack it with dumb machines that can work their scaling magic away from the organic messiness of the world.

Agriculture is the same: clear up a huge plot of land and structure it cleanly by planting stuff in neat rows that can be tended to by our dumb machines.

Another example. Prior to cars our cities were a lot more organic, with curved streets wide and narrow meandering around. Modern ones have been formatted to maximize our ability to automate them with dumb machines — cars.

AI changes all that.

Suddenly we no longer need the formatting phase. We can achieve scaling by training an intelligent machine to operate within our natural, messy, and organic environment.

We can build factories and cities that keep their efficiencies while meshing with the environment. For agriculture it’s even better: we can embrace the efficiency of nature (the way a messy collection of crops can complement each other to increase yield) instead of fighting against it.

It’s hard to think in this way. The idea that efficiency requires a formated environment is deeply ingrained in our mentalities. Therefore, today we’re thinking of using AI to automate the messy parts of our processes — the formatting phase, or the steps where our formatted environment has to interact with the non-formatted world around it.

Soon, however, we’ll take a step back, take a holistic look at our systems, and realize we can skip more and more of the formatting phase without losing the scaling efficiency.

We’ll realize that we can often do that today, with our current level of AI.