The Costs of AI: An Update

The timing of my last blog post, on the cost of running AI-based solutions for different problems, could not have come at a better time. Universal powers paid homage to my super insightful post by staging a perfect display of AI prowess is this past week: Google’s DeepMind (specifically, their AI-driven solution AlphaGo) just beat the world’s first Go player in a best of 5 match. You may remember DeepMind from my previous blog post: it was the company that had made the AI that was really good at Breakout. It turns out arcade games and millenia-old strategy board games aren’t so fundamentally different.

The timing was perfect because this provides another fantastic data point for the (actual) costs of doing superhuman things with AI. Let’s dig in!

The version of AlphaGo that just beat Lee Se-Dol is running on 1,920 CPU’s and 280 GPU’s. Let’s assume $100 a pop for the CPU’s and $1,000 each for the GPU’s (I’m woefully out of date in my hardware costs. I haven’t built my own computer since I was 16. If these are way off please let me know). Processor cost of $472,000. Round up to $1,000,000 for the other supporting hardware (little things like motherboards and memory).

If you’ll remember, that $1M price tag is surprisingly affordable compared to the $3M for the hardware IBM put together for its Jeopardy-playing Watson incarnation. Moore’s law and all that I suppose. This is a bit different though, because AlphaGo isn’t preparing answers in a couple of seconds on a quiz show. Each of the 3 matches took about 3 hours and you can be assured that the AI was churning away the whole time. Wave your hand, do some math, and it looks like it cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 for AlphaGo to win each of its matches (if you amortize costs assuming AlphaGo is doing nothing but playing Go world champions 24/7). This is clearly non-trivial cost territory: most non-professional Go players would be unwilling to pay $100 for the privilege of getting schooled by a computer. On the other hand, consider that Lee Se-Dol would have been paid $20,000 for each of his wins (had he managed to win anything).

Interesting stuff. Of course, we haven’t dug into the development cost of AlphaGo here. We know it was bought by Google for $500M a couple of years back, but I’ll leave the hand waving to the reader as homework.

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