Luddites and Skip Connections

I want to make a quick analogy between a living a low-tech lifestyle and recent advances in artificial intelligence.

I used to think that people who shunned modern technology were crazy. You know, people like the Amish or Hasidic Jews. I mean, why would you ever want to do things in an inefficient way when better ways have been invented?

Then, a while ago I read this fascinating blog post about a concept called Moloch. If you haven’t read it, and you think you need bit more mind blowing crazy in your life, I highly recommend. If not, the short version is that humans are always in this race to the bottom. We find some new way to increase our competitive advantage that requires we sacrifice a bit of something we really care about. But then everyone does it, we lose the competitive advantage, and we are worse off than before. Moloch is the name the author gives to this unstoppable tendency to for us to sell our souls in this way. Often, new technology represents an opportunity for go a little bit farther toward the bottom.

So what does this have to do with AI? One way to improve the performance of a neural network is keep adding more and more layers. However, after a while it turns out that adding layers doesn’t work anymore (called the vanishing gradient problem). A ResNet is an interesting way to address this issue. basically, input from some layers “skips” over one or more intervening layers. This provides a more direct connection between the deep layers and the original input, and ends up enabling the training of deeper neural networks.

Now for my stretch of an anology. Imagine that our consciousness is kind of like a deep layer of a neural network. Our concepts are filtered through many previous (i.e., subconscious) layers, and then some cultural layers.

However, if we are too far removed from certain basic needs (i.e., finding food and having children) we kind of get disoriented in some sense. We don’t know what is real or what we care about.

One way to address this is to establish “skip connections” in our own life. That is, we can establish certain behavior patterns that skip modern technological and cultural advances to connect us in a more fundamental way to some basic elements of human nature.

The analogy came to me as I was talking to my cousin, whose family owns a farm. Working on a farm (or even in a garden) is an example of a skip connection. Most of the food we eat comes to us via a vast an global supply chain that we can barely comprehend. Growing your own food (or even hunting or fishing) is a way to remain connected to something more fundamental.

In other words, sometime we need to do things the old fashioned way, and consciously choose not to use the most efficient or competitive means of getting something done.

Obviously people have been doing this kind of thing for a long time, so my only contribution here is to think of such activities as cultural skip connections that somehow enable us to engage in deeper cultural modalities without losing sight of who we are and what is important.

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