Heating your home by preying on the vulnerable

17.12, Tuesday 16 Feb 2021

Nat Torkington shared this laptop with seven screens (here on Twitter) and all I could think about was how it would roast your legs.

But then Nat suggested it would be good as a grill, and it made me think: what if you could cook food with different types of big compute jobs?

Imagine a high concept restaurant where the fish is delicately fried on the waste heat from building machine learning models that are used in biotech to fold proteins, in the fight against cancer.

If the fish were instead fried from the computer mining Bitcoin (global energy consumption: about the same as Norway) and you were told that, would it taste, I don’t know, slightly bitter?

I mean – probably?

Remember, if you’re told a bottle of wine is more expensive than it is, it tastes better.


Lucky meat.


Qarnot ecological heat. Qarnot provides distributed server farms for, say, machine learning or rendering 3D graphics. Dissipating server farm waste heat is an expensive problem, and that’s why Facebook has built a data centre in the Arctic Circle, and Microsoft has started locating them underwater. Qarnot, instead, scatters its rented-out servers to homes and offices, where they are used in water boilers, or housed in handsome radiators.

How would you feel if your home was heated by the waste energy from, e.g., crunching the figures on payday loans, your feet toasty and warm from aiding and abetting the act of preying on the vulnerable?

I have some small investments, and a few years ago I asked about moving to funds that avoided oil, tobacco, guns, and the like. 50% for ethical reasons (though I don’t want to exclusively make capital-E “ethical” investments) and 50% because I believed that fossil fuels would drop faster than the then-consensus believed. At the time, all I wanted to do was see the data and make a judgement call. But the data didn’t exist.

So there’s this kind of ethical insulation that is created by the layers in the financial system. There was the time that the Archbishop of Canterbury was having a go at Wonga, which was then the poster-child payday loans service, and it turned out that the Church of England pension fund was invested in a fund of the venture capital firm Accel, which was in turn used to fund Wonga.

That was a turning point, of sorts. There are more ethical funds now, and also more data gathered and propagated up the chain.

I believe that humans, on average, have decent values. But I believe that markets have this weird kind of transparency/opacity where we can, in theory, see where the money goes, but the values can’t get through.

Like, it is so much work to know whether chicken is organic, or coffee is Fair Trade. Is the mayonnaise in my Pret sandwiches made from eggs laid by happy hens? Is the cardboard packaging produced in factories where the workers have proper pension contributions? Markets don’t allow for this kind of knowledge, by default.

Markets have a homogenising pressure; they require fungibility even if that means that we have to all collectively and silently agree to ignore provenance.

It’s interesting to speculate how we could do without markets in the conventional sense. We need markets because supply chains are long and because goods to have to be made and distributed before they are sold. But in this age of e-commerce, and infinite shelf space, and manufacturing on demand, could I tick a box and promise that “I will pay 10% more if you can prove that your facilities use only renewal energy”, and have that simply hanging there as a bounty for any manufacturer?

So if tuna were seared on the waste heat of molecular simulations used in mRNA vaccine development, the idea that it might literally taste better doesn’t feel like a psychological illusion to me, it feels like something we should take seriously – it’s the true manifestation of the deep desire to use our human values to make choices about the world just beyond our reach.

More posts tagged:
Follow-up posts:

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.