A low-carbon cloud computing company presents us with the best possible Gift Dilemma
Our first donation
See Through News is delighted to report our first donation. For a volunteer-driven, zero-budget operation without a bank account, it’s a big one.
An anonymous donor has gifted See Through News US$500,000-worth of supercomputer-grade number-crunching.
This is, to put it mildly, a very pleasant surprise. Half a million bucks worth of anything is quite the upgrade from an old photocopier, knackered office chair or surplus stationery.
Not only was this donation unsolicited, but See Through News lacks the expertise and imagination to have even thought of requesting such a gift.
Now we have the donation, the terms on which it has been gifted raise all manner of new possibilities, which we’ll mention at the end of this article. En route, we’ll highlight a couple of delightful ethical dilemmas this particular gift poses.
But first, indulge us in a brief bask.
As the company’s CEO put it:
The gift is because the company completely agrees with the STN ethos and goal of reducing carbon emissions.
Would you like to know how this all came about? It’s quite a story…
Monkeys climbing trees
There we were, minding our own business, writing another deep dive article on another under-reported aspect of carbon reduction.
Among our interviewees for AI, Climate Change & Monkeys Climbing Trees to Reach The Moon, we approached the CEO of a cloud computing management company.
Such companies abound these days. Cloud computing is the Digital Revolution’s back room operation. It usually throbs away out of sight, happy to pretend to be ‘in the cloud’, visible only to those at the coal face of the Digital Revolution.
Our article sought to drag ‘cloud’ computing down to earth, and thrust it into the spotlight. Far from being distant, floaty and ethereal, ‘cloud’ computing happens in cavernous, earthbound, multiplying data centres. They pump out vast, and rapidly growing, volumes of carbon emissions, most of which is required to cool the arrays of servers that facilitate our Amazon purchases, Zoom calls, Google searches, Netflix ‘n’ chills etc.
This is the dirty secret that unsustainably sustains our blithe online lives. AI and the digital revolution is a huge opportunity for our species, but only if we can figure out a way to use it sustainably. Currently data centre emissions are rocketing.
We contacted this particular company because it claimed to dramatically reduce data centre carbon emissions via cutting-edge AI. Or, more accurately (as it doesn’t own any data centres itself, but manages cloud-level computing tasks for clients) its AI management system empowers any cloud computing client to choose to measurably reduce its carbon, by providing a clear choice between the Cheapest, Fastest option and Lowest-carbon options.
If cryptocurrency has taught us anything, it’s to be very wary indeed of shiny new tech claiming to be the future.
So was this company’s claim greenwash, or a step in the right direction?
Being in the business of measurably reducing carbon, we found this use of AI to reduce AI’s carbon footprint interesting, especially as it claimed its Low-carbon options can generate 60% fewer emissions than the Fastest, and were often pretty close to the Cheapest.
See Through News has its own equation: AI(j)+(Cg)=JC (AI jargon + corporate greenwash = journalistic challenge).
But greenwash-detection is what we do, so we gave this company a call to ask how they justified their claims.
Searching for aliens
They could have demurred at responding to our request.
See Through News is new, unfamiliar, unconventional and non-specialist. Tech people only really need to talk to other tech people or investors. These were business people busy running a business, particularly now they were engaged in a round of fundraising.
Yet their CEO not only took the time to respond to our queries, but provided a clear, concise, evidence-based overview both of the Problem they’d set out to solve, and their Solution, helpfully translating unfamiliar jargon along the way.
The Problem is the dirty secret of our Silicon Valley Overlords (our words, not theirs). This is the massive, rapidly-growing carbon cost of all those proliferating hidden data centres that power their much-trumpeted AI revolution, and our online addiction (including the ‘free’ social media network infrastructure STN leverages).
This company spent hours explaining the technology and dark arts behind keeping those massive GPU warehouses cool enough to operate. It turns out they pump out pretty much the same volume of nasties whether they’re operating full steam ahead, or idling over a holiday weekend.
The CEO patiently laid out, in terms a non-specialist could grasp, how a data centre is NOT just a big version of your computer that can be switched off or put to sleep when you’re not using it. Data centres are more like a Jumbo jet you must keep in the air at all times, whether or not it’s carrying any passengers.
This company’s explanation of the method and impact of its particular Solution was also patiently and meticulously expounded.
Remember that SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project from the early days of personal computing? Sign up to Seti@home, and instead of turning your desktop off when you’re not using it, you leave it on and Seti@home would hook it up to other idle computers, forming a composite global supercomputer programmed to search for alien space signals.
By 2020, its success has made it obsolete. This ‘grandfather of distributed computing projects‘ was mothballed, having gathered more data than it could process.
This company’s CEO explained their goal used the same idea, but with a more earthbound objective. Its goal wasn’t evidence of alien intelligence lights years distant, but carbon emission reduction on our planet today. They apply Seti@home’s principle using advanced mathematics and AI, applied to data centres instead of home personal computers.
This tech produced remarkable carbon-saving results of 60%+, so long as the client chose the ‘Lowest Carbon’ menu option to perform their compute, rather than prioritising Cost or Speed.
A super source
A journalistic aside. Every now and then, when researching articles, you stumble across sources that go way beyond what you originally asked of them. The CEO of this cloud computing company proved to be one such super source.
Over multiple calls, including evenings and weekends, he became a key sounding board and fact-checker for the entire article, most of which used machine translation as a case study for a Brief History of AI.
Of course we cross-checked with other sources too, but they all corroborated his expertise on everything from AI history, to his diplomatic corrections of our loose use of jargon. He was particularly helpful in exploring metaphors to explain super-sophisticated technology in everyday terms. Full disclosure – The Football Stadium Problem was not one of ours…
For non-specialist journalists attempting to interpret between Hi-Tech Boffins and the Man on the Clapham Omnibus, such super-sources are invaluable.
Translating geek-speak to ordinary English is tricky. Wrong stick-ends are easily grasped. Translations intended to simplify can end up being simplistic, or plain wrong.
This CEO effectively became one of our volunteer team of expert proof-readers, checking multiple drafts for technical language and facts, and was a huge help in getting the article in shape for publication.
And in the course of our many hours of conversation, this CEO also asked many penetrating questions about See Through News.
An unexpected bonus
It turned out this company’s generosity wasn’t limited to the donation of patient, off-the-record background research for our AI and Carbon article.
Unbeknownst to us, this CEO, having found how his company’s commercial aims aligned with those of a volunteer social media network run by volunteers with no bank account, was thinking several steps ahead about how his company might be able to volunteer something more than proof-reading and AI fact-checking.
A couple of weeks after we published our article, he called to tell us about how this company budgets for a number of free licences to use their supercomputer-level cloud processing. They reserve these limited free licences for experimental or interesting projects.
Oh, and he’d like to offer See Through News once such licence to the market value of…half a million dollars.
Our first reaction was that this donation is a humbling vote of confidence in See Through News’s mission, methodology, integrity and zero-budget ethos.
Our second reaction was – what on earth can we do with this unexpected donation?
Our third reaction was – hang on a sec, what might they want in return?
A delightful ethical dilemma
As See Through News has no money, our only asset is our reputation.
This means we need to be particularly careful who we work with, even if they’re offering a donation worth half-a-million-dollars. Unless we guard against potential bad actors donors who sees brand association with STN as a worthwhile greenwashing investment, we might legitimately be accused of being part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.
We’ve concluded that our best protection from such accusations is radical transparency. It was therefore reassuring to hear, when in the course of explaining the terms of this donation, the CEO told us they didn’t want to be named until we’ve found a use for the license:
because the company does not want to have any credit for something that does not make a difference. Should the right research be found and run, we will be very happy to be named.
Just in case, we put our ethical concerns about reputational risk directly to their CEO, who reciprocated with his own radical transparency about the commercial calculation behind their donation:
Yes I do see us gaining reputationally from putting our money where our mouth is. Our regret, of course, is that here we are offering to crack a big problem, but we know that, whatever we do, that in itself will create carbon emissions. This is partly why it has to be used for breakthrough research in this space.
Much of what See Through News does, like this recent article on the poisoned chalice/double-edged sword of ESG, is devoted to greenwash: how to understand it, recognise it and spot corporate bad actors.
This can be misinterpreted as an attack on all commerce, even capitalism in general. We’re actually as indifferent to the means by which carbon is reduced as a carbon molecule is to who, where, when how or how it came to be released into the atmosphere.
This donation was a lungful of fresh air. With so many examples of corporate bad actors, it’s encouraging to find businesses who share our carbon-reducing goal and are finding ways to pursuing it commercially. Chances are that reforming capitalism, rather than destroying it, is the shortest route to mitigating the worst effects of global heating.
This donation presents a far more practical and immediate question – what do we do with it?
A practical dilemma
See Through News has various projects which might at some point require the kind of number-crunching power provided by this donation, such as:
- The Magic See-Through Mirror
- See Through Games
- data generated by our rapidly-mushrooming global social media reach (0 on Mar 1 2021, 10K on Sep 1 2022, just past 40K on Dec 17 2022…)
But these and other projects are currently some way off scaling to the size that enables us to make use of a supercomputing-grade donation. You need an awful lot of data, and/or complex calculations, before computing needs go beyond most modern laptops.
Our See Through News Brains Trust AI expert volunteers reckon our computing-hungry projects may be able to make use of this donation directly at some point – but certainly not between now and April 2023, when the licence donation expires.
Like a store voucher, this license has an expiry date. We might get another $0.5M next year, but right now this generous donation presents a problem. A nice problem to have, but a problem nonetheless.
It’s familiar to anyone who’s received a gift voucher for something they don’t use, a jumper that’s the wrong size, or a duplicate of something they already have…
What should we do with the donation in the meantime?
A gift horse relay
The CEO who made the donation was well aware of this dilemma, which is why he’s stipulated:
The gift is for any complex computing problem which, if solved, could substantially contribute to that goal and is donated because, so often, the research teams doing this type of analysis cannot access the compute they need.
So See Through News can sub-let this donation to others – so long as what they’re using it for might, one way or another, lead to measurably reducing carbon.
For a zero-budget operation, currently driven entirely by volunteers, this donation opens up a fascinating new vista of options.
From the start, many STN projects have had obvious potential as academic research projects. But these days, it’s hard to attract the attention, let alone the interest, of any academic if your proposal comes without funding attached.
For nearly two years, we’ve approached the academic party laden with great ideas, only to be turned away at the door by the funding bouncers.
This donation is a real resource with a substantial real-world value to anyone involved in carbon reduction applications that require supercomputer-level number-crunching.
See Through News can’t bring money to the party, but we now have a massive keg of beer.
If you know of any carbon-reducing project that is stalled, or compromised by, a lack of computing muscle, let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
If it helps measurably reduce carbon, we’d be more than happy to donate our donation.