Monday 17 June, 2024

Excitement begins here?

Somehow, I doubt it.

Quote of the Day

“Many a good argument is ruined by some fool who knows what he is talking about.”

  • Marshall McLuhan

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Brahms | German Requiem | Valery Gergiev & London Symphony Orchestra



Long Read of the Day

How AI Will Change Democracy

Transcript of a terrific talk on AI by Bruce Schneier Schneier. Great overview, wise and informed.

To start, I want to list some of AI’s core competences. First, it is really good as a summarizer. Second, AI is good at explaining things, teaching with infinite patience. Third, and related, AI can persuade. Propaganda is an offshoot of this. Fourth, AI is fundamentally a prediction technology. Predictions about whether turning left or right will get you to your destination faster. Predictions about whether a tumor is cancerous might improve medical diagnoses. Predictions about which word is likely to come next can help compose an email. Fifth, AI can assess. Assessing requires outside context and criteria. AI is less good at assessing, but it’s getting better. Sixth, AI can decide. A decision is a prediction plus an assessment. We are already using AI to make all sorts of decisions.

How these competences translate to actual useful AI systems depends a lot on the details. We don’t know how far AI will go in replicating or replacing human cognitive functions. Or how soon that will happen. In constrained environments it can be easy. AIs already play chess and Go better than humans. Unconstrained environments are harder. There are still significant challenges to fully AI-piloted automobiles. The technologist Jaron Lanier has a nice quote, that AI does best when “human activities have been done many times before, but not in exactly the same way.”

In this talk, I am going to be largely optimistic about the technology. I’m not going to dwell on the details of how the AI systems might work. Much of what I am talking about is still in the future. Science fiction, but not unrealistic science fiction.

Where I am going to be less optimistic—and more realistic— is about the social implications of the technology…

Worth your time. Schneier (who is a security guru) describes himself as a ‘public-interest technologist’. We need more people like him.

AI as the next next Manhattan Project?

Yesterday’s Observer column:

en years ago, the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom published Superintelligence, a book exploring how superintelligent machines could be created and what the implications of such technology might be. One was that such a machine, if it were created, would be difficult to control and might even take over the world in order to achieve its goals (which in Bostrom’s celebrated thought experiment was to make paperclips).

The book was a big seller, triggering lively debates but also attracting a good deal of disagreement. Critics complained that it was based on a simplistic view of “intelligence”, that it overestimated the likelihood of superintelligent machines emerging any time soon and that it failed to suggest credible solutions for the problems that it had raised. But it had the great merit of making people think about a possibility that had hitherto been confined to the remoter fringes of academia and sci-fi.

Now, 10 years later, comes another shot at the same target…

Do read the whole thing

My commonplace booklet

If you wanted an illustration of the seismic shifts that are going on in liberal democracies, then the response to Israel’s war in Gaza would be hard to beat. The standard post-war Western reflex of unquestioning support for Israel failed to materialise, and instead we saw people taking to the streets all over the place in vocal support of the Palestinians. I don’t think that Western ruling elites have grokked the significance of this yet. And it’s difficult to understand seismic changes as you live through them. So I’m looking for signs.

Which is why I was struck by this excerpt from a blog post by Damon Linker — “On living through the end of something”:

It’s not just election results and polling data. Something has shifted. The political world in which we live is not the same political world in which I grew up (in the late-Cold War 1970s and ’80s) or the one in which I learned how to orient myself intellectually and professionally (in the post-Cold War ’90s and ’00s). Those were decades close enough in time to the centrist-liberal consensus of the mid-20th-century postwar decades that its assumptions shaped the boundaries of the possible by default.

That is no longer the case. Having observed the rapid fading of the postwar consensus as a pundit over the past decade, I’m reminded of Matthew Arnold’s well-known line about the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of retreating religious faith in the mid-19th century. Like a receding wave yanking at my feet and ankles, forcing me to recalibrate my balance to avoid falling backward onto the wet sand, I’ve felt the pulling away of a presence that once surrounded me, something taken for granted that is no longer there as it once was, with the absence growing more obtrusive with every passing year.

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