Computational Power and the Social Impact of Artificial Intelligence

47 Pages Posted: 24 Mar 2018 Last revised: 18 Jan 2019

See all articles by Tim Hwang

Tim Hwang

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - MIT Media Laboratory

Date Written: March 23, 2018


Machine learning is a computational process. To that end, it is inextricably tied to computational power - the tangible material of chips and semiconductors that the algorithms of machine intelligence operate on. Most obviously, computational power and computing architectures shape the speed of training and inference in machine learning, and therefore influence the rate of progress in the technology. But, these relationships are more nuanced than that: hardware shapes the methods used by researchers and engineers in the design and development of machine learning models. Characteristics such as the power consumption of chips also define where and how machine learning can be used in the real world.

Despite this, many analyses of the social impact of the current wave of progress in AI have not substantively brought the dimension of hardware into their accounts. While a common trope in both the popular press and scholarly literature is to highlight the massive increase in computational power that has enabled the recent breakthroughs in machine learning, the analysis frequently goes no further than this observation around magnitude.

This paper aims to dig more deeply into the relationship between computational power and the development of machine learning. Specifically, it examines how changes in computing architectures, machine learning methodologies, and supply chains might influence the future of AI. In doing so, it seeks to trace a set of specific relationships between this underlying hardware layer and the broader social impacts and risks around AI. On one hand, this examination shines a spotlight on how hardware works to exacerbate a range of concerns around ubiquitous surveillance, technological unemployment, and geopolitical conflict. On the other, it also highlights the potentially significant role that shaping the development of computing power might play in addressing these concerns.

Suggested Citation

Hwang, Tim, Computational Power and the Social Impact of Artificial Intelligence (March 23, 2018). Available at SSRN: or

Tim Hwang (Contact Author)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - MIT Media Laboratory ( email )

20 Ames St.
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307
United States

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