January 28th, 2023

David Stairs

“I think that it’s fairly likely that it will not take too long of a time for the entire surface of the Earth to become covered with data centers and power stations. Once you have one data center, which runs lots of AIs on it, which are much smarter than humans, it’s a very useful object. It can generate a lot of value. The first thing you ask it is: Can you please go and build another one?” — Ilya Sutskever as quoted by Cade Metz in Genius Makers on pp.299-300. Published by Dutton, © 2021.

This sounds like a description of the planet Coruscant, the Star Wars planet whose surface is completely developed.

“[F]or several decades the computing power found in advanced Artificial Intelligence and Robotics systems has been stuck at insect brain power of 1 MIPS. While computer power per dollar fell [should be: rose] rapidly during this period, the money available fell just as fast. The earliest days of AI, in the mid 1960s, were fuelled by lavish post-Sputnik defence funding, which gave access to $10,000,000 supercomputers of the time. In the post Vietnam war days of the 1970s, funding declined and only $1,000,000 machines were available. By the early 1980s, AI research had to settle for $100,000 minicomputers. In the late 1980s, the available machines were $10,000 workstations. By the 1990s, much work was done on personal computers costing only a few thousand dollars. Since then AI and robot brain power has risen with improvements in computer efficiency. By 1993 personal computers provided 10 MIPS, by 1995 it was 30 MIPS, and in 1997 it is over 100 MIPS. Suddenly machines are reading text, recognizing speech, and robots are driving themselves cross country.”

This quote by Hans Moravec was made twenty-five years ago. For decades AI proponents have assumed that Moore’s Law about the expanding number and speed of transistors on computer chips would result in these large reductions of cost. On a human/machine comparison the supercomputer Watson has defeated the world’s top Jeopardy champions, and Deep Mind’s Alpha Go defeated human world Go champion Lee Sedol.

Data centers are estimated to utilize about 1% of the world’s electricity at 2020 levels of consumption. A wind turbine will produce about 1.5 megawatts of electricity per day in a 12mph wind.

A recent query on CNET inquiring about cyber-currency generation asked: “How much energy does mining take?”

The Digiconomist’s Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index estimated that one Bitcoin transaction takes 1,544 kWh to complete, or the equivalent of approximately 53 days of power for the average US household.

To put that into monetary terms, the average cost per kWh in the US is 13 cents. That means a Bitcoin transaction would generate more than $200 in energy bills.

Bitcoin mining requires enormous amounts of electricity to run the server farms necessary. It is interesting that tech investors, supposedly some of the same people involved with the pursuit of machine intelligence, could be so blind. (Although avarice does tend toward long-term myopia)

Bitcoin mining used more energy than Argentina, according to an analysis from Cambridge University in February 2022. At 121.36 terawatt-hours, crypto mining would be in the top 30 of countries based on energy consumption.”

So running server farms, whether to mine crypto or service AI and superintelligence is not so dumb as just plain inefficient. And inefficiency had better be prolific if it hopes to survive, prolific in the way a maple tree goes to seed. Prolific like goldenrod pollen in September. Prolific like the Covid-19 Omicron variant.

Nature, which is prolific by default, wastes with a purpose. And, while you might argue that the purpose of Bitcoin mining or AI computing is the accumulation of wealth and the generation of convenience, unlike survival these ends are neither sustainable nor justifiable on a planet of rapidly diminishing resources.

The current commercial applicability of AI in voice recognition personal assistants, or security-based facial recognition algorithms loved by police departments creates more problems than solutions when taking the issues of privacy, data security, and civil liberty into account.

I am still looking for an answer to my titular question. Superintelligence, AI, powerful parallel computing, and the Singularity are all concepts supposedly nearing realization, our salvation writ large in the cipher of machine code. But for me the vision is obstructed and don’t see it. Maybe, locked as I am in my meat prison, I am just too slow, too dumb, and too blind to appreciate the approaching Tech Rapture.

Then again, maybe not. There is wisdom in meat, as well as protein.

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project.

December 22nd, 2022

David Stairs


Early Bell System ad

In the 1920s, before such things developed a predatory sheen, the advertising world promoted the theme of the man who was on top of the world. Modern, accomplished, wealthy, this contemporary Babbitt looked out the window of his 40th floor office at the world as it lay at his feet, just awaiting his next decision. My how times have changed!

It’s not that the charactertype has disappeared. Rather, titans of business and industry are more numerous than ever, and just as ruthless. Of course, ruthlessness was not the quality the Mad Men were emphasizing back in the day, control was. And the problem with control is that it is not only elusive, but also fleeting. One thinks of General Jack D. Ripper in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or maybe Alex Haig’s not terribly reassuring “I’m in control here” after Reagan was shot.

Today’s Masters are not usually generals, or even dictators, but tech billionaires, by comparison with whom the depredations of the Gilded era tycoons, like John D. Rockefeller and JP Morgan, seem positively tame.

Consider the most obvious example— Elon Musk:
•$450 billion Tesla bailout from the DOE
•Sanctioned by the SEC for threatening stock buy back affecting Tesla share price
•Offer of equipment to Thai boys trapped in cave
•Losing 40 communication satellites in a Space X rocket explosion
•Lawsuits resulting from accidents with Tesla Autopilot software
•Lawsuit over his 2018 $56billion compensation package from Tesla
•Selling off vast amounts of Tesla stock to underwrite other adventures
•Mass layoffs at Twitter

This listing represents only the most salient legerdemain of the current “world’s wealthiest man.” There are many other things that could be added, if you had a couple days to read about them.

Then there is the world’s former richest man Jeff Bezos:
•Sending self, friends, and celebrities to the edge of space
•Problems with unionization at Amazon warehouses
•Closure of Amazon bookstores
•Obscene earnings during the pandemic
•But had to give $80 billion to McKenzie Scott after their divorce

I mean, when there are no more worlds to conquer on this planet, one must set his sights on outer space, right? Mining consortiums on the Moon, or perhaps the asteroid belt? It’s already been made into the sci-fi series The Expanse, so why shouldn’t life copy art? Maybe because science is not the same as science fiction, but don’t tell these guys that. With all the problems our world suffers from, they’d rather think about using unconscionable wealth to colonize inhospitable Mars.

Way back in the dark ages of the ’90s the then world’s greatest consolidator of wealth attempted to take over the internet. Today he leads a calmer life, consistent with reduced circumstances. But Bill Gates also has delusions of grandeur:
•Seeking a vaccine for malaria and a cure for AIDs
•Wanting to donate himself out of the world’s billionaire club which would be great if he hadn’t
•Been questioned about his association with Jeffrey Epstein
•And then been dumped by Melinda

The back benchers should also have a place on this list. They might include Travis Kalanick:
•Forced out as Uber CEO
• After the release of the Uber Files documenting the company’s laissez-faire attitude to violence toward drivers, and attempts to lobby influential politicians.

Jack Dorsey:
•Stepped down as Twitter head following Twitter’s complicity aiding and abetting Trump
•Twitter bled cash until being taken over by Musk’s $44 billion buyout

Elizabeth Holmes:
•The former CEO and founder of medical instrument company Theranos, who was recently sentenced to 11 years in prison for investor fraud

Larry Page and Sergei Brin
•The original Bobbsey Twins, not wanting to do evil while amassing a huge fortune bringing advertisers to a smartphone near you, and last but not least….

Mark Zuckerberg
The original “It was my mistake, and I’m sorry” Kid, who found multiple ways to compromise your personal data.

What do all of these dweebs have in common? Is it Insight? Fuzzy brilliance? Rock hard determination?

It’s hubris, pilgrim, good old self-righteous self-interest, and nothing more. Not to say that any Master of All He, or sometimes She, Surveys could ever be any different. They still sit in their penthouse offices staring down on the world, but you give them too much credit if you ever think of them as empathic, altruistic, or anything other than supremely arrogant.

And you thought Trump was the ultimate wannabe god? Silly you!

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project.

October 20th, 2022

David Stairs

I was in Detroit last weekend.

Of all the cities in the realm, Detroit has the best claim of “first in freeways.” The first mile of paved road was laid in Detroit in 1909, just in time for the revolution in transport Henry Ford was planning to visit on the nation. This was before a transcontinental highway existed. Four years later the Lincoln Highway became the first coast-to-coast auto road in America. Dedicated in 1913, it ran from New York to San Francisco passing through 14 states.

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September 21st, 2022

David Stairs

Did you ever have to “brown bag” your lunch? If so, you know about the things that can go wrong, from torn bag to sogged-out paper from a leaky drink container.

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August 21st, 2022

David Stairs


Sigmund Freud in the parallel universe that is America (Photo credit: Library of Congress/Corbis Historical Collection)

Amid all the loose talk about lost American greatness, there seem to be many people worrying about just what has gone so terribly wrong, as if last year’s withdrawal from the quagmire of Afghanistan was evidence of American weakness, and we really ought to go back to war in Ukraine. I’d like to propose that things have not so much changed as that they have just become “more American.”

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July 19th, 2022

David Stairs

Title wall of the exhibition 5°F

Gordon Lightfoot had a song on Summer Side of Life entitled “10 Degrees and Getting Colder.” That record is now over 50 years old, and things have changed dramatically since it was released. Primarily, everything on Earth is getting much warmer, even winter.

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June 21st, 2022

David Stairs


The only guns this cowboy ever owned

What could be more dimwitted, un-insightful, or self-serving than a strict interpretation of the Second Amendment?

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May 25th, 2022

David Stairs


Load your Potato Guns boys ’n girls!

Yogi Berra once said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

Back in the days when Trump was the undisputed Twitter Queen, I never thought we’d be free of his unhinged rantings. It was a surprising relief when he was finally dethroned. But, as in a beehive, when one queen dies another arises in her place, and it didn’t take long for a replacement to come along. Elon Musk was determined to out do Trump. He would not only take over as Queen of Tweets, he would also take financial control of the platform.

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April 20th, 2022

David Stairs


Courtesy of Lucien Stairs

You don’t have to look very far these days to see designers talking about the brave new world of Design AI. Helen Armstrong is out stumping her AI monograph, Big Data, Big Design. Mariana Amatullo is referencing it in the summer 2019 issue of Dialectic. And designers everywhere have become addicted to the Cloud, those banks of energy gulping servers housed in over-cooled desert complexes by Alphabet and Amazon. But what does AI really mean to the future of design?

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March 22nd, 2022

David Stairs

There are two treats I remember from childhood, and they were both manufactured by Sunshine Bakers: Cheez-Its, and Hydrox. Cheez-Its are still around in many updated variations, now a Kellogg’s brand. Hydrox dropped from sight for awhile, the result of several changes of ownership, only to reemerge in 2015.

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February 21st, 2022

David Stairs

Thomas Carlyle called economics the “dismal science” in response to Malthus’s writings about exponential population growth. Carlyle was a Victorian and did not live in an era dominated by design. It would’ve been interesting to see what he would have made of our times. Frantic? Overwrought? Or maybe just predictable?

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January 21st, 2022

David Stairs


Quannah Chasinghorse by Nathaniel Goldberg; Emily Ratajkowski from Instagram

A recent article in Elle Magazine online by Terese Marie Mailhot (Photographed by Nathaniel Goldberg and Styled By Alex White) introduces us to Quannah Chasinghorse, a nineteen-year-old native American runway model of Hän Gwich’in and Sicangu Oglala Lakota descent. (Corset, $1,295, pants, $2,295, Christopher John Rogers. Earrings, necklace, bracelets, 2021 Tiffany Blue Book Collection.)

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December 20th, 2021

David Stairs


The only good use I’ve ever found for disposable diapers, a 1976 poster. (Note the pins I added. Talk about double-entendre!)

I know I’m supposed to say that prize-winning financially successful ideas are examples of great design, and I wish it was always true but……. let’s get real. In the commercial world we’ve created, there are too many cases that contradict optimism. Take diapers, for instance.

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November 20th, 2021

David Stairs


Dick Clark at the Moulin Rouge by David Stairs

In a land governed by capital, it comes as no surprise that so much value is attached to celebrity. One of the first great modern personalities, Oscar Wilde, said, “Ambition is the last refuge of the failure.” Thus, it would seem the cult of celebrity sets us all up to fail, encouraging us to emulate the false god popularity.

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October 20th, 2021

David Stairs

Every three years I am tasked with guiding a group of senior design students through their capstone year. Once upon a time it was enough to mount a student’s portfolio for public exhibition, and this process can still be seen at end-of-year design exhibitions across the country. Design being a supposedly “problem solving” discipline, students are often coached to take on a design problem to research and develop or expand upon. Such projects address topics large and small, ranging from homeless shelters to user experience apps, and everything in between.

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September 18th, 2021

David Stairs

As the AIGA gears up for its annual conference, I find myself pondering. In a year of magical thinking, like everyone else the AIGA has reinvented its conference schedule for online delivery. If this is just a matter of the new normal, obviously this cannot be an issue. What, then, makes the organization so damned annoying? Actually, I’ve been struggling to figure this out for years.

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August 21st, 2021

David Stairs

There are a lot of people criticizing techno-capitalism these days, those so-called social pariahs demonstrating for economic “justice” and “equity.” But surely, these things are not givens in a free enterprise economy. They have generally needed the assistance of government regulation. In a system influenced by corporate lobbyists and deluded by the notion of limitless growth, even environmental degradation is not enough to staunch the lust for short-term gain. In fact, it may even accelerate it.

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July 25th, 2021

David Stairs

While China installs a nationwide video surveillance system, people in the West fret about the potential damage to their privacy by CTV cameras. But, apart from high profile failures, like Toronto’s “smart city” project, we’ve actually been normalizing surveillance for decades. Just consider reality television.

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June 25th, 2021

David Stairs

UPDATE:

As of July 23rd, 2021, following Anthony Fauci’s recent congressional testimony, this story is now being reported by the BBC.


A double arginine codon inserted at the S1/S2 furan cleavage site of the SARS CoV-2 virus’s genome

It was once the best of times……. except now we are coming to know the truth about how it became the worst of times……. and it begins with human folly compounded by deceit that results in a catastrophe.

Donald Trump was widely panned for claiming that Covid 19 was a Chinese invention, the “Kung Flu” as he often referred to it. The liberal press painted this as the worst sort of conspiracy theory, the China-bashing an embattled candidate for reelection might peddle to convince his base he was tough on foreign affairs. Only it turns out he was right, even if for the wrong reasons.

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May 26th, 2021

David Stairs

When Thomas McNeill was made pastor of St. Margaret’s parish in 1948, he inherited little more than a twenty-year-old mission church in a growing suburb north of Syracuse, New York. McNeill had been a Navy chaplain in the Pacific during the war, but his dream was to expand Catholic education, and he would devote the best years of his life to the work.

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April 24th, 2021

David Stairs

Another day, another mass shooting. We’re led to believe by television that Mayhem is a guy in a suit, played by actor Dean Winters, who causes mass upheaval wherever he goes. If only it were that simple.


Glock semi-automatic pistol designed by Gaston Glock

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March 15th, 2021

David Stairs


Tom Tierney’s Rita Hayworth paper doll published by Dover

As I sit by my Thermopane picture window reflecting on the wintry scene outdoors, I am distracted by the arrival of a mated pair of songbirds. A male cardinal hops onto my bird-feeder while his subtle mate shelters in a nearby bush.

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February 11th, 2021

David Stairs


Deep fake of the Queen’s Christmas address; courtesy Channel 4

A man walks into a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. armed with an automatic rifle determined to free children he believes are victims of a peadophilic sex trafficking “deep state.” People interviewed at a Stop the Steal rally in Atlanta tell interviewers a commission is needed to investigate the Democrat’s efforts to corrupt a widely certified election. A man in Nashville (not Robert Altman’s version) destroys a city block blowing himself up at the same time in protest of AT&T’s roll out of 5G wifi service. In another era one might be tempted to agree that “the time is out of joint,” except this bizarro world is our everyday reality.

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January 9th, 2021

David Stairs

Steve Zdep is dead, that much is certain. He passed away on November 6th, 2020 from causes not revealed in his obituary.


The author in more innocent times

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December 9th, 2020

David Stairs

With states reporting record numbers of infections, there is no doubt that this Christmas season will be one many will find hard to forget. The malls and retail centers we so precipitously abandoned way back in March do not have the same attraction of earlier years. Since Covid is THE story of 2020, even overshadowing the presidential election, we’ve scrounged up a few holiday suggestions for that extra special Christmas 2020 memento of the years’ most familiar meme.


A “Clovid” orange

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