Monday 15 May, 2023

The Graveyard Crow

Quote of the Day

“AI represents, among other things, a profound tech-exec fantasy: an endless supply of cheap and obedient labor and a chance to take ownership of the means, of, well, everything.”

  • John Herman, writing in New York Magazine’s ‘Intelligencer’.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Three Tenors | My Way | Moon River | Because | Singin’ in the Rain


Pure schmaltz, but entertaining. And better than Nissan Dorma (as one of my kids used to call it). Interesting also, that they sang ‘I Did It My Way’ to Sinatra.

Long Read of the Day

Will AI become the New McKinsey?

This New Yorker essay by Ted Chiang is the best thing I’ve read so far about Generative AI and its implications for most of us.

I would like to propose another metaphor for the risks of artificial intelligence. I suggest that we think about A.I. as a management-consulting firm, along the lines of McKinsey & Company. Firms like McKinsey are hired for a wide variety of reasons, and A.I. systems are used for many reasons, too. But the similarities between McKinsey—a consulting firm that works with ninety per cent of the Fortune 100—and A.I. are also clear. Social-media companies use machine learning to keep users glued to their feeds. In a similar way, Purdue Pharma used McKinsey to figure out how to “turbocharge” sales of OxyContin during the opioid epidemic. Just as A.I. promises to offer managers a cheap replacement for human workers, so McKinsey and similar firms helped normalize the practice of mass layoffs as a way of increasing stock prices and executive compensation, contributing to the destruction of the middle class in America.

A former McKinsey employee has described the company as “capital’s willing executioners”: if you want something done but don’t want to get your hands dirty, McKinsey will do it for you. That escape from accountability is one of the most valuable services that management consultancies provide. Bosses have certain goals, but don’t want to be blamed for doing what’s necessary to achieve those goals; by hiring consultants, management can say that they were just following independent, expert advice. Even in its current rudimentary form, A.I. has become a way for a company to evade responsibility by saying that it’s just doing what “the algorithm” says, even though it was the company that commissioned the algorithm in the first place.

The question we should be asking is: as A.I. becomes more powerful and flexible, is there any way to keep it from being another version of McKinsey?

And the answer to that question, IMHO, is ’No’.

Read the whole piece. It’s unmissable. And if you need a primer on McKinsey, see here.

A moment’s silence, please, for the death of Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to remember the metaverse, which was quietly laid to rest a few weeks ago by its grieving adoptive parent, one Mark Zuckerberg. Those of you with long memories will remember how, in October 2021, Zuck (as he is known to his friends) excitedly announced the arrival of his new adoptee, to which he had playfully assigned the nickname “The Future”.

So delighted was he that he had even renamed his family home in her honour. Henceforth, what was formerly called “Facebook” would be known as “Meta”. In a presentation at the company’s annual conference, Zuckerberg announced the name change and detailed how his child would grow up to be a new version of cyberspace. She “will be the successor to the mobile internet”, he told a stunned audience of credulous hacks and cynical Wall Street analysts. “We’ll be able to feel present – like we’re right there with people no matter how far apart we actually are.” And no expense would be spared in ensuring that his child would fulfil her destiny.

On that last matter, at least, Zuck was as good as his word…

Do read the whole thing.

My commonplace booklet

A letter from the Editor…

…of the Irish Times, to which I subscribe. It arrived yesterday afternoon…

It opens with a reference to the paper’s ‘founding principles’ which,

describe a view of the world that is open-minded, tolerant, curious, respectful of divergent views and always attentive to the needs of minorities.

We work hard at this. As in any 24/7 news operation, some days we do better than others. But last Thursday we got it badly wrong. That day, we published online an opinion column under the headline ‘Irish women’s obsession with fake tan is problematic’, written by someone purporting to be a young immigrant woman in Ireland. It made an argument that has been aired in other countries but related it to the Irish context.

Over the course of several days, the author engaged with the relevant editorial desk – taking suggestions for edits on board, offering personal anecdotes and supplying links to relevant research. All of this was taken in good faith, and the article was published online on Thursday morning.

Less than 24 hours after publication on our digital platforms, The Irish Times became aware that the column may not have been genuine. That prompted us to remove it from the site and to initiate a review, which is ongoing. It now appears that the article and the accompanying byline photo may have been produced, at least in part, using generative AI technology. It was a hoax; the person we were corresponding with was not who they claimed to be. We had fallen victim to a deliberate and coordinated deception.

We don’t take this lightly. It was a breach of the trust between The Irish Times and its readers, and we are genuinely sorry. The incident has highlighted a gap in our pre-publication procedures. We need to make them more robust – and we will. It has also underlined one of the challenges raised by generative AI for news organisations. We, like others, will learn and adapt.

A lot of editors are going to be writing letters like this soon.

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