AI Iron Triangle

Alastair Somerville
3 min readMay 7, 2024

From original post

The AI iron triangle overlaid onto original model
Alastair Somerville 2024

I was reading another interview with Sam Altman about Artificial Intelligence (AI). He spoke of the huge cost of creating a generalised AI: maybe $5billion, maybe $50 billion. He didn’t talk of the extraordinary energy costs of even a single prompt.

It is clearly all Silicon Valley BS. After the last few years, it is easy to skim over the boggling amount of venture capitalist money that is burnt on products and services that have no meaningful benefit. Just this week, the reviews of AI-enabled hardware like the Rabbit show that it is simply junk.

How is so much useless crap produced?

In strategic planning, there is an idea called the Iron Triangle. What it describes is how any project is bounded by forces that shape what is designed and made. The forces are held by customers, investors, managers, regulators and competitors. The points of the triangle are named: Time, Scope and Cost. When planning and managing a project, it is held by those factors. Choices must be made. Fast may mean expensive. Perhaps it means that the product will have few features. If you want many features, you need more time and maybe more money. The Iron Triangle is a model about the forces that flex around making new products and services.

The Iron Triangle is practical and explicit.

Yet, AI seems unconstrained by this version of the triangle. What Sam Altman describes makes no sense.

Perhaps this is because it is framed by a different triangle?

AI Iron Triangle

The AI Iron Triangle has three named points too but they are not about practical delimits on project and products.

They are about Silicon Valley privilege and lack of constraints.

They are Useless, Unethical and Unsustainable.

When AI companies show off products, trained from stolen human-made work, that create bad art or total lies from text prompts, it is clear the systems are both useless and unethical.

When Sam Altman talks of projects costing billions of dollars and using millions in energy costs, it is clear the systems are unsustainable.

The AI Iron Triangle is not about the forces binding what can be made. It is a framework that shows the overwhelming arrogance and foolishness of people with too much money and too much privilege.

They make useless, unethical and unsustainable products because they can.

They are unconstrained. Perhaps we should end with this speech by Agent Smith from the Matrix?

I’d like to share a revelation I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species. I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with their surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to another area, and you multiply, and you multiply, until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague, and we are the cure.

Originally published at on May 7, 2024.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX