Computational Asymmetry

by Sebastian Benthall

I’ve written a paper with John Chuang about “Computational Asymmetry in Strategic Bayes Networks” to open a conversation about an economic and social issue: computational asymmetry. By this I mean the problem that some agents–people, corporations, nations–have access to more computational power than others.

We know that computational power is a scarce resource. Computing costs money, whether we buy our own hardware or rent it on the cloud. Should we be concerned with how this resource gets distributed in society?

One could argue that the market will lead to an efficient distribution of computing power, just like it leads to an efficient distribution of brown shoes or butter. But that argument only makes sense if computational power is not associated with externalities that would cause systematic market failure.

This isn’t likely. We know that information asymmetry can wreak havoc on market efficiency. Arguably, computational asymmetry is another form of information asymmetry: it allows some parties to get important information, faster. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that with more computing power, you can get more knowledge out of the information you already have.

In the paper linked above, we show that in some game theoretic situations with complex problems, more computationally powerful players can beat their opponents using only their superior silicon. Suppose that organizations use computing power to gain an economic advantage, and then use their winnings to invest in more computing power? You could see how this cycle would lead to massive inequality.

I don’t think this situation is far fetched. In fact, we may already be living it. Consider that computing power is carried not just by hardware availability, but by software and human capital. What are the most powerful forces in United States politics today? Is it Wall Street, with its bright minds and high-frequency traders? Or Silicon Valley, crunching data and rolling out code? Or technocratic elites in government? President Obama has a large team of software developers available to build whatever data mining tools he needs. Does Mexico have the same skills and tools at its disposal? Does Nigeria? There is asymmetry here. How will this power imbalance manifest itself in twenty years? Fifty years?

Henry Farrell (George Washington University) and Cosma Rohilla Shalizi (Carnegie-Mellon/The Santa Fe Institute) have recently put out a great paper about Cognitive Democracy, a political theory that grapple’s with society’s ability to solve complex problems. Following Hayek, who maintains that the market will efficiently solve complex economic problems, and Thaler and Sunstein, who believe that a paternalistic hierarchy can solve problems in a disinterested way, Farrell and Shaliza argue that a radical democracy can solve problems in a way that diffuses unequal power through people’s confrontation with other viewpoints. This requires that open argumentation and deliberation being an effective information-processing mechanism. They advocate for greater experimentation with democratic structure over the Internet, with the goal of eventually re-designing democratic institutions.

I love the concept of cognitive democracy and their approach. However, if their background assumptions are correct then computational asymmetry poses a problem. Politics is the negotiation of adversarial interests. If argumentation is a computational process (which I believe it is), then even a system of governance based on free speech and collective intelligence could be manipulated or overpowered by a computational titan. In such a system, whoever holds the greatest gigahertz gets a bigger piece of the derived social truth. As we plunge into a more computationally directed world, that should give us pause.