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Technology is not free.

I was listening to the latest episode of Ezra Klein’s podcast, in which Klein and Gary Marcus discuss the shortcomings and risks of the current crop of AI tools like ChatGPT.

It is a super-interesting conversation. I share much of Marcus’s concern and skepticism with these tools and the use (and mid-use) to which they are likely to be put. I think the people pushing this stuff as The Next Big Thing have a deeply misguided understanding of truth and meaning.

One thing that struck me as I listened was Klein’s repeated assertion that ChatGPT and its ilk will “push the cost of content production to zero.” I know what he means—instead of hiring a team of writers here at Exploding Comma global HQ to produce the teams of content I post each day, I can now just request my posts from some AI tool—but I think there is something missing from this analysis and many other like it.

Because a tool is free (or very cheap) to use does not mean there is no cost to it. You can upload videos to YouTube and not pay for it, but they are all still stored on some physical storage device somewhere. ChatGPT is running on physical servers somewhere too—probably a bunch of them. It all runs in “the cloud,” but we don’t call it “the cloud” because it is some ethereal, disembodied thing off somewhere in the sky. We call it that because in old network diagrams, any infrastructure that was off-premises (and out of your control) was illustrated with a puffy, cloud-like border around it. It wasn’t some magical, free thing; it was some other provider’s infrastructure that they built and maintained.

These companies that we think of as “cloud providers”—Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, etc.—all have multiple, massive, physical data centers filled with compute, storage, and network gear that consumes astonishing amounts of power and cooling. Yes, they run them pretty efficiently, but it is still an enormous amount of stuff, and it costs money to buy, build, and maintain.

That is why I always have a problem with assumptions like the one that Klein makes. We are not driving the cost of content production (or file storage, or whatever) to zero. Rather, we are moving it somewhere else so that we can ignore it. The companies that build it have to pay that bill, though, and so something like AI—which, as Marcus suggest later in the episode, could be getting put to some use like curing cancer or helping avert a climate catastrophe—instead gets used to create click farms and hoover up personal data in order to generate a profit.

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