The Reality of Universal Basic Compute

Or, as I like to call it, ensuring people don’t get the shaft now the AI revolution’s here.

WTAF is Universal Basic Compute

Our favourite techbro Sam Altman stuck his arm in it right up to the elbow when he put out the idea of “universal basic compute.” What’s weird about this is that Sam’s been a long-time proponent of universal basic income, so … I mean, it’s hard not to look at this and come to two conclusions.

  1. He’s learned that edgelords see UBI as communism, and has decided to pitch an underarm throw to a wider audience that keeps Wall Street happy using the idea that the Fed will funnel money to him via some kind of new charity program – investors, transform and roll out!
  2. He thinks what people need isn’t food, housing, or healthcare, but silicon. I mean, that’s shit you can eat, right?

But… hmm. I mean, he’s not a complete imbecile, so what might he be talking about? A challenge with techbros, especially at god tier, is they’re not really known for a) knowing what the little people’s lives are actually like and/or b) communicating ideas in a way that don’t sound like they’re Russian cyborgs. Let’s get into what else could be going on.

LLMs: The (Not So) New Cheese

What Sam’s most famous for is ChatGPT (and DALL·E). ChatGPT is a Large Language Model. It’s a pretty sweet piece of AI tech, because it has a shitload of information and essentially knows everything that’s knowable (or, has the potential to, only limited by the model parameter count and the silicon shell it’s in).

LLMs, both McMassive ones like ChatGPT and smaller ones you run on your own computer, can do some impressive stuff. They can order emails by importance, summarise meeting notes, write stable diffusion image prompts, write code that will compile (a thing some humans struggle with), and so on. If you can write it, they probably can too. What they are really good at is erasing the line between people good at putting words on a page, and those who aren’t. You’re not a technical writer? No problem; dump your code into ChatGPT and get it to write the docs for you.

They are equalisers (…to a point; they’re imperfect, but they get better all the time).

You know what else is an equaliser? Your library. People often think of libraries as places where there are books, and this isn’t untrue, but they also have audiobooks (bridging an affordability and ability gap), comics, music, computers for you to work on, printers, cafes, heating, safe and quiet spaces, community programmes, recording facilities, and so on. If there is something that is fucking expensive, libraries have found a way to democratise access to it.

Roger Hargreaves’ latest cost of living primer for young people was an instant hit.

The big problem with LLMs in libraries is the astonishing amount of money required to run them. If you think about what Altman’s saying, he’s basically proposing the Fed give him money (sure, which makes Wall Street happy), but also so people can use LLMs like they use their library. Potentially, LLMs could become the new libraries from an information search/retrieval perspective, but I suspect the future will be far more blended. Books rule.

Access, Access, Access

Sam Altman’s proposal holds some merit, if we ignore the from-Mars viewpoint he’s got. I saw some shit on social media recently where a certifiably insane faction advocated for piracy as a justifiable means of accessing books if you couldn’t afford to buy them. Ignoring that libraries already exist, providing content for free, and that people who have a digital device for accessing content have some form of income to buy the tech and can already access their digital library on it, there is already a metric shit tonne of freely available content. Podcasts, streaming shows, ebooks, audio dramas – they’re all out there. The specific content you want might not be there, but you’re not deprived of entertainment because you don’t have $5 for a Kindle book.

It’s like … I mean, I can’t afford a Lambo, but my ass would be arrested if I stole one. There are lots of ways I can get about though; public transport, cheaper cars, Uber, whatever. We don’t need to steal to get access to services … except, Big Tech™ has more or less sewn up access to LLMs. You really do need a giant compute facility or a decent home computer to run these things. Altman might well be out of touch with reality or highly motivated by self-interest, but what if he’s playing chess and we’re playing checkers? What if Sam Altman has already considered the reality of a price wall so high many people can’t climb it, and is proposing a method to get access to what will absolutely be a critical service?

So… Altman’s Now Heard of Libraries?

Altman’s proposal – when you boil it down for stock – is more about societal impact by empowering everyone with LLMs. People will craft better resumes, get education, learn to write poetry, and write social media posts that don’t sound like you’ve got a brain worm.

Rather than viewing it as, “Tech bro discovers libraries,” perhaps the techbro has just seen a possible future where poor people get screwed because something becomes essential to survive. And honestly? I’m 100% behind anything that helps us all be our best selves without the barriers of status, income, or location.

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