Tunnels and AI

This morning’s Children’s Encyclopedia topic was about tunnels. At the time of publishing Arthur Mee’s 10-volume set, the Mersey Tunnel that links Liverpool with Birkenhead was the largest [man-made*] tunnel in the world.

*Not that I’m claiming there are larger natural tunnels; I don’t know.

After reading about, and seeing how the tunnel was constructed I decided to consult Wikipedia to see where this construction stands today in relation to other such tunnels constructed around the world. It of course pre-dates the Channel Tunnel that I remember being constructed during my childhood. I also know that China has often lead the way in recent years with such constructions, roads and bridges at least.

Wikipedia kindly provides a list of the longest tunnels in the world and not surprisingly the Mersey Tunnel was not near the top. I scrolled down, looking out for Union Flags and ‘United Kingdom’. It was a long list. While it’s not a numbered list I’m sure there are a hundred or more. I got to the bottom, had I missed it? I used the Find function (CTRL+F) and searched for ‘Mersey’, then for each of the tunnels designated ‘United Kingdom’. It wasn’t there.

It turns out there have been a lot of much larger tunnels constructed (and a few in the UK). Indeed the introduction to the list states the included tunnels are at least 13 km (8.1 miles) long, and looking back to the page for the Queensway tunnel (one of the now three ‘Mersey Tunnels’, it states that is a mere is 3.24 kilometres (2.01 miles) long. The longest on the global list is 137 km (85.1 miles), however that is classed as a water-supply tunnel (it’s Delaware Aqueduct in the USA) and I’m wondering now what the difference between what might be classed as a very large pipe or tunnel is. To be fairer in my comparisons, 8th on the list is the 58 km (36 mile) Metro tunnel in Guangzhou, China, all those that precede it are “water-based”. Next is the Gotthard Base (railway) Tunnel in the Swiss Alps.

[Gotthard Base Tunnel is the] Longest railway tunnel; by geodetic distance (of 55.782 km (34.661 mi)) between the two portals, it is also the world’s longest transit tunnel. Total 151.84 km (94.35 mi) of broken out tunnels through solid rocks.

CERN, the particle accelerator, is on the list with its LEP Tunnel at a length of 26.7 km (16.6 miles).

About a 3rd of the way down the list is Lærdal Tunnel Norway which is the longest road tunnel at 24.5 km (15.2 miles).

The Lærdal Tunnel is the first in the world to be equipped with an air treatment plant, located in a 100-metre (330 ft) wide cavern about 9.5 kilometres (5.9 mi) northwest of Aurlandsvangen. The plant removes both dust and nitrogen dioxide from the tunnel air. Two large fans draw air through the treatment plant, where dust and soot are removed by an electrostatic filter. Then the air is drawn through a large carbon filter, which removes the nitrogen dioxide.

Indeed, regarding the Mersey Railway tunnel which opened in 1886, Wikipedia says:

Because the steam locomotives [used on the railway] created a polluted atmosphere in the tunnel, many passengers reverted to using the river ferries and the railway was bankrupt by 1900. Recovery came after the railway adopted electric traction in 1903.

This kind of progress is a fascinating thing. Tunnels are clearly useful; human populations around the world have expanded rapidly and there are thus more people that need/want to get from A-to-B than previous routes and methods could afford. Some such constructions, or proposed tunnels, receive much criticism, such as the one planned under Stonehenge, and costs for such projects seem astronomical, £1.7 billion in this case, although I expect it’ll go well over budget.

The Queensway tunnel I mentioned previously, which I have driven through a couple of times,

cost a total of £8 million, was opened on 18 July 1934 by King George V; the opening ceremony was watched by 200,000 people. At the time it was known as the eighth wonder of the world.

The longest tunnel I’ve cycled through was the Clyde tunnel in Glasgow, Scotland, and that was only 762 metres (2,500 feet) long, but it still felt pretty epic to be cycling through, taking me a good few minutes and a gradient that commanded some effort on the way out. I actually didn’t realise that, and according to Wikipedia, the cycle and footpath I was on runs beneath the double-lane roadway above, indeed, this picture from the Encyclopedia topic on tunnels shows an example of the type of construction:

Other tunnel projects have even been proposed by none other than Elon Musk and his Boring Company,

Musk cited difficulty with Los Angeles traffic and what he sees as limitations with the current two-dimensional transportation network as his early inspiration for [a] project [here].

The mention of Musk brings me neatly onto AI, or Artificial Intelligence, which Musk is also heavily involved in, namely for use in his Tesla motor cars for the use of self-driving capabilities.

Again, just like tunnels, one can see the use and benefit of vehicles that can more safely navigate than us mere humans, avoid hazards, or potentially drive us from place to place while we sit back and relax, but in the video Youtube recommended to me this morning, Musk warns of the fast encroaching threat of AI. He even compares them to the threat posed by nuclear weapons, which we wouldn’t want to be in the hands of just anyone.

He refers to AI as “digital super intelligence” and this isn’t just used in his cars, it’s also used by the tech giants Facebook and Google and others in the form of algorithms.

[The optimization of AI… for example] if you say “maximise happiness [then] the AI concludes that happiness is a function of dopamine and serotonin so it captures all humans and jacks your brain with large amounts of dopamine and serotonin…”

I suspect the Facebook and, say Google’s algorithms employed on Youtube that present me with further content to absorb have not the primary motive of keeping me happy*, but keeping me connected to that system for as long as possible, the result of this may well be jacked dopamine/serotonin levels. The system cares not. This is not as trivial as I perhaps make it out to be.

*It has been reported that there have been cases where algorithms have done the opposite to creating happy viewers; sometimes bums on seats and eyes on screens is achieved by simply feeding you whatever it is that will keep you there, and that could be scary content, disturbing content, bad news, upsetting or dangerous content.

Recommendation algorithms … are the bread and butter of social media platforms. The happier you are on a platform, the likelier you are to stay, and if you stay, the company can retain your profitable data-generation. [However] recommendation algorithms aren’t really trained to make moral and health-related judgements about the kinds of content they recommend. Do you like cats? TikTok thinks you do, based on what you’re liking and searching for, so its algorithm will show you more cats. Yay cats! But the exact same formula applies to potentially harmful forms of content. Do you have anorexia? TikTok thinks you do, so here’s a bunch of triggering videos… [Wired article, 2020]

Musk uses the example of game play between human players and AI. Many of us are familiar with playing a game against a computer. I used to partake in such activities back in the 90s on my ZX Spectrum with 48K of RAM, or a 16-bit SEGA for example. There are of course a whole manner of games to choose from, chess being a relatable example although I’ve never really enjoyed it, perhaps because I don’t have the right mind-set or lack the (right kind of?) intelligence to play it with any reasonable confidence. Many of us are aware that computers have become so intelligent, or clever, or are so powerful (however you want to term it) that they are capable of beating the best humans at, say, chess.

Of course, in a primitive sense it might be disputed whether a game employs Artificial Intelligence in the strictest sense, or has been programmed with a set of rules that rely more on ‘brute force’ or randomness that gives the illusion of AI, but either way, how much our computer technology (just like our tunnels) has expanded today is quite staggering when put into perspective.

ZX Spectrum with 48 KB RAM vs. a modern laptop or desktop PC with a minimum of 4 GB RAM (1 GB = 1024 MB = 1,024,000KB

The Spectrum had an 8-bit CPU, the SEGA megadrive 16-bit, and a modern laptop or desktop PC has a 64-bit CPU.

An 8-bit register can store 28 different values … A 16-bit register can store 216 different values …A 64-bit register can hold any of 264 (over 18 quintillion or 1.8×1019) different values. – Wikipedia

And we’re not even getting into the world of Supercomputers and those used by Facebook and Youtube.

I think this is what concerns me in relation to AI and those big-tech platforms today. Facebook and Youtube have been around since 2004/5. If we consider how much tunnels and AI have progressed, we can surely postulate that Facebook and Youtube’s techniques for getting what they want of us have surely developed by a similar measure.

Musk seems somewhat illusive in his speech. He talks about how the danger posed by AI is greater than that posed by nukes, but he doesn’t really say why. The answer, if we think about a game of chess, is that the systems know how to beat us. Actually, I’ll re-phrase that; they knew how to beat us, but that was many moves ago, before we even realised we were playing a game, or being played.

I knew I was addicted to the internet as soon as I started using it; I found computers and related technologies so fascinating. Dialling in multiple times a day quickly got the better of me, and there weren’t even algorithms at play back then; there was just Yahoo! Chat and the opportunity to converse with people from all over the world, to relate, to find love, to be entertained, and find escape. I tried to limit my time online, I had to at first because for every minute online was adding to my telephone bill. It could have been costing me even more in other ways besides.

I suppose why I don’t play chess is, I know I’m no good at it, and therefore there is no point in playing a game that I know I’m going to lose. Sometimes people suggest a game to play, or a film or TV show to watch, but these days I generally shy away from such things, knowing full well my plate and capacity to absorb or get lost in and fill my head with such things things is pretty much full. “You’d enjoy it” they say.

Some people are seemingly immune from this experience while others, many, have issues elsewhere. The world of smart phones is one I’ve avoided, perhaps because I knew, like agreeing to join in a video game, that I’d quickly get sucked (or suckered) in.

There is no point in heading down a particular path if it’s a certainty the result isn’t going to be good. Like, start eating sugary confectionery in your early childhood and you’ll end up obese and dying of related illnesses because of it. Often the piling on of pounds either goes ignored or even unnoticed, at least for a while. There might be a sudden situation where you end up in hospital and the harm and damage that has been caused for however long it has taken to get to that point is made apparent. I’m not meaning to be all doom and gloom or fear-mongering, but it may be that AI’s influence on us could be worse than the obesity epidemic.

Obesity has been observed throughout human history. Many early depictions of the human form in art and sculpture appear obese. However, it was not until the 20th century that obesity became common — so much so that, in 1997, the World Health Organization (WHO) formally recognized obesity as a global epidemic and estimated that the worldwide prevalence of obesity has nearly tripled since 1975. – Wikipedia

Anyway, here are some more pictures to end with from the Children’s Encyclopedia:

It’s like a hidden world that is hidden to us, not only by time, but physically as we hurtle on through the now constructed tunnel by car or by train, oblivious to what went on, and goes on, behind the scenes.

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