Jay Hoffmann

Books, movies, and code

#27: I’m just an inefficient sorting algorithm

When we first bought our house, I remember that one of my cousins (still a teenager at time) told us that when he finally had enough money to buy us a housewarming present, they surely will have figured out how to make a washing machine and dryer that folds clothes by itself, so he would just get us that. I remember it because it was such an awesome idea, and we had a ton of fun imagining what it could look like. Of course, still no dryer that folds clothes and he’s now well into his twenties.

Anyway sometimes, between putting away the dishes, throwing in some laundry, and organizing the toys in our playroom, it feels like I’m basically an extremely inefficient sorting algorithm fueled by pizza and audiobooks. I move from room to room, do a sorting pass on everything there. And then I wait for the disorder to come again so I can repeat the process, over and over, multiple times a day.

And this does feel like the kind of place where technology should be stepping in. Automated, repeated tasks done over and over. Isn’t that where efficiencies come in? Instead we have machines burning forests on fire to make slide decks and parse web content and it just all feels so flat.

Taken even further, when is AI going to move on from emails and chat interfaces to truly earth shattering things and deliver on its promise. I’m not so skeptical that I don’t think it can happen. But for now it feels like we can’t even move past a bot that writes emails. I can write a damn email, I don’t need ChatGPT to do that for me.

Jon Stewart had a good line when he commented on AI’s supposedly huge promise being revealed in a Zuckerberg video to simply make him some toast.

Are you out of your fucking mind? See, here’s the thing. Toast… I can make… I’ll tell you what, why don’t you get to work on curing the diseases and the climate change, and we’ll hold down the fort on toast.

Technology isn’t going to solve this one. So for now, I’m just going to be an inefficient sorting algorithm.

Speaking of inefficient algorithms, a quote from Beyond the Search Engine:

Here’s how a well-intentioned search engine decays: First, a novel algorithm is developed. It’s effective at helping people find what they are looking for, so they begin to rely on it. Then, the owners of the websites that are being found notice the search engine sending them traffic. They investigate or otherwise toy with the algorithm to see if they can appear higher in the rankings. Those who are best at this gain power, influence, or money.

Then, a cottage industry develops to help websites compete. The search engines adjust their algorithms to penalize bad actors that game the algorithm. Those bad actors become even more sophisticated. They scale their efforts, whether through automation or cheap labor. Finally, in order to be seen at all, good actors bend over backwards to cater to the algorithms, too. Participate or perish. Authenticity becomes not only silenced, but perverted.

And hey, while I’m on this AI thing, Tim Bray is a man who knows things™ and he thinks that there’s going to be a money bubble, and here’s why.

But he hammers the central point: What we’re seeing is FOMO-driven dumb money thrown at technology by people who have no hope of understanding it. Just because everybody else is and because the GPTs and image generators have cool demos

Economics can be so stupid sometimes. Or at the very least, utterly and completely human. I know behavioral economics is designed to factor that in, but the psychology of economics is under-considered I think.