Notes on "The Hardware Lottery"
Moved from my research journal.
We had a great discussion in Time Co-op ⏰🐔 this week. It was my turn to lead. We read The Hardware Lottery, which provoked a really engaging philosophical discussion. Honestly, a top-five conversation for me in my grad school experience.
Time Co-op is our reading group, specifically designed to fix the fact that most reading groups suck, the common problems being that
- not much ownership/leadership is taken, week by week, and
- lack of consequence and amount of time required cause people to not read.
Time Co-op is, well, a cooperative, where we share our time. Each week, a leader sets a task that they truly want to get done: it could be a paper they want to read and discuss, or, as is often the case, it’s something completely different like proofing a draft or trying out a web demo of someone’s research. They assign exactly one hour of homework. Everyone does exactly one hour of work. Then, we have an hour meeting which is the leader’s to use as they will.
This was my time co-op. I had wanted to read the Hardware Lottery paper for a long time. A few months ago, I led a time co-op where I had people choose to be either advocates or skeptics for the MLIR paper; the ensuing debate was even more fun than expected. I thought the same format (choosing sides: agree or disagree) would be fitting for this paper. I was worried that the paper would be too far afield of the center of gravity of the group’s collective interests—it’s predominantly a PL group—but as soon as the discussion started, I realized there was no reason to worry. I’ll cover some of our most interesting points.
A great point made early on was: this idea exists in all of science. Science is a constant feedback loop: improved tools help us further improve our tools. Improved tools get better at solving specific problems, and solving those problems helps us build even better tools.
One thing that was evidently clear was that people wanted to understand just how much of a problem hardware lotteries could really be, and how deep they could really go. This was where we argued that, while these lotteries do exist everywhere, hardware lotteries are exceptional. Three fabs make most of the significant computing hardware on the planet. Progress at those fabs is controlled by at most hundreds, more likely tens, of people. Computer chips are the most complicated devices ever constructed. We are simply so deep in the hole that it’s hard to imagine any competition. As Max said, we’re standing on the shoulders of giants, and the shoulders are tall and prominent (i.e. they’re the only shoulders around).
Chandra noted that we have no idea what code we’ll be writing in 50 years, so why does it make sense to explore hardware speculatively? This set me off, definitely; I argued that what code we write is determined completely by the hardware we create. Of course, this isn’t completely true; “computing” was invented before computers were made. But I do hold to the idea that future paradigms will be spawned from the hardware we develop. Quantum, for example. (Sorry, that may not be a valid example, but I’m not checking myself…)
Max also at one point had a hot take, that quantum computing might not be computing. I don’t know anything about quantum computing, nor do I feel any particular way, but Max’s trolling definitely set me off. I replied that of course quantum computing was computing. The fact that we privilege the boolean computing that we’re used to as being the “one true” computing irks me (though I don’t think that was actually his intention). I argued that in an alternate timeline, we haven’t invented transistor-based, boolean, von Neumann architectures and instead have some other architecture and some other compute primitive as our base. I still haven’t squared all of these thoughts with my understanding of the theory of computation; Like, how much, if at all, of the theory of computation depends on boolean logic? I would guess none. There are still underlying assumptions made, though, and I want to understand what those are and if they could ever be broken somehow by some new physical device for computing. I guess the assumptions can be described by the functions of a Turing machine: the device must be able to hold state, compare state, and modify state. That seems pretty fundamental.
Steven made a great point: it’s easy to talk about software and hardware in the abstract, but it doesn’t make much sense without also talking about the problem that the hardware/software is meant to solve.
Ben made a very unintentionally libertarian point that this paper is lamenting the existence of opportunity cost, which, he says, always exists, and is already minimized by the free (research) market. That is, we will develop the hardware we need without external influence guiding the direction of hardware research. Again, it was the same discussion point: how much of an issue is this, really? When I was asked directly, I said, we’re not heading immanently towards the end of the field—things will be fine—but we’re not on the path to self-actualization as a field. We’re going towards maxima, with no desire to know whether they’re global maxima.
There was a lot more to this discussion, but I’m tired!