Computation: The Essential Powerhouse Transforming Modern Life

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Computation as a “new” old frontier! Humans are not designed to think in exponential terms! Ask your friends basic numerical questions and see how quickly they can enumerate the answers. However, try to ask them for the solution to be 789 x 789, and the machine will collapse.

During high school, I remember being considered smart if you could impute some random calculations of various forms ranging from algebra to calculus. Of course, not to diminish the matter, as there is value in doing those exercises, and probably survivorship bias might affect my valuation of them now. Yet, it soon became obvious that one’s mental competence is not good at solving these calculations mechanically by hand but rather understanding the underlying principle and letting the computers solve them for you.

First, in computational application, you will learn the invaluable lessons of computing power in doing all those non-linear computations, which will make your hair grey very quickly if you try doing it manually. Here, at least on a small scale, one gets to appreciate the novelty of computing power.

Even more interesting is to think that the two-by-two simultaneous equation solvable by simple rows and column manipulation can become very complex as soon as one scales the number of equations in it. Immediately, the human brain is at the mercy of the computer to solve these problems quickly.

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Now, that might not seem like a valuable use of computational power until you consider its use in other areas. Computational power is a lifesaving tool.

Think of going to a hospital in Tanzania in 2024. At arrival, a nurse will often go through an ungodly number of files to search for your card, which recorded your last visit. Otherwise, you should just lie about having visited the hospital previously to fast-track the process.

Consequently, that will cost you money, so you are immediately out of pocket even before receiving treatment. This can be infeasible for most poor folks so that they will do the manual search exercise. Some die waiting for their last visit form to be found.

Could computing systematization of sorting and storage solve this problem? You bet it does.

Computation is very valuable, and one might not appreciate it until one spends some time thinking about what is achievable using computation to solve interesting problems.

From designing rescue robots in war zones, nuclear accidents in Japan, logistics planning worldwide, and the beloved financial world of trillions of transactions in hours to sorting cucumbers in supermarkets. Computing is everywhere.

Computing also frees humans from dreadful jobs, reduces accidents, and improves quality of life. Just imagine how computation has rid us of those repetitive tasks.

If you live in a world with little understanding of technology, you don’t get to appreciate how the lack of it affects society’s perceptions. Say a choice of a partner in a world where technologies have not rid humans of cooking, washing chores, and the like. Observe how value is attributed to a partner. “A good cook can keep the place clean and so forth.” All of these signal a need for a mechanical Turk rather than a partner, it seems to me.

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In fact, in a low computing environment, people’s valuation has more to do with mechanical computing (physical labour), chores, and the like than other things. Of course, this is not general, but neither is it marginal.

This quarter, my reading colleague and I are reading about AI to educate ourselves a bit about the apex of computing power.

So far, I can recommend you read

  1. The Worlds I See by Dr. Fei Fei
  2. Chip War by Chrill Miller
  3. A Brief History of Intelligence by Max Bennett

Ezekiel Lengaram is a Researcher in Economics at Wits University. My teaching and research focus are on the theory of Macroeconomics, Computational Economics and Applied Computational Mathematics

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