Monday 19 February, 2024

W.B.’s last resting place

Drumcliff Churchyard, Co Sligo. We always pay him a visit when we’re on the road to Donegal.

Quote of the Day

”I don’t know the question, but sex is definitely the answer.”

  • Woody Allen

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Alison Krauss, Shawn Colvin, Jerry Douglas | The Boxer | Live


Long Read of the Day

Chatbots Will Change How We Talk to People

Interesting, reflective piece by Albert Fox Cahn and Bruce Schneier in The Atlantic about how familiarity with ‘AI’ systems will have effects that we haven’t yet appreciated.

Chatbots are growing only more common, and there is reason to believe they will become ever more intimate parts of our lives. The market for AI companions, ranging from friends to romantic partners, is already crowded. Several companies are working on AI assistants, akin to secretaries or butlers, that will anticipate and satisfy our needs. And other companies are working on AI therapists, mediators, and life coaches—even simulacra of our dead relatives. More generally, chatbots will likely become the interface through which we interact with all sorts of computerized processes—an AI that responds to our style of language, every nuance of emotion, even tone of voice.

Many users will be primed to think of these AIs as friends, rather than the corporate-created systems that they are…

Read on.

One of the longer-term implications may be that this new kind of faux-intimacy will affect how we converse with… other humans. Raises the question of whether it’s the next step on the road to “Re-engineering Humanity”?

Sam Altman wants $7tn to build AGI

Yesterday’s Observer column..

Once upon a time, nobody outside tech circles had heard of Sam Altman. But then his company, OpenAI, launched ChatGPT, and suddenly he was everywhere – touring the world, giving interviews to gushing journalists, granting audiences to awestruck politicians etc. Whiplash-thin, with a charmingly wide-eyed baby face, he instantly became the acceptable face of digital capitalism.

Then the OpenAI board abruptly fired him, apparently on the grounds that he had not been, er, entirely candid with them. When Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO (who had invested $13bn in OpenAI), heard about it, though, he was mightily pissed off. And in no time all, Altman was unsacked and reinstated in the OpenAI driving seat. And the world was transfixed by the drama of it all. Which only goes to show that appearances can be deceptive.

If the world had read Tad Friend’s profile of Altman, which appeared in the New Yorker in 2016, it might have been less overawed…

Read on

Remembering Andrew

Andrew Fowles, the much loved Head Porter of my College (Wolfson) died unexpectedly last week. He was a lovely, calm, cheery and approachable colleague, and his death is deeply shocking — especially as he had just arrived back from an enjoyable holiday in Australia. He will be sorely missed.

I’ve always thought that for students the most important people in their college is not its Head (Master, Mistress, Provost or President, depending on the institution), or the Fellows or even the Senior Tutor. It’s the porters who rank highest for approachability and practical help. Which is why losing a Head Porter as good as Andrew is hard. It’s especially so in Wolfson, which — with students of 99 different nationalities this term — is the most cosmopolitan in Oxbridge. For them, the Porters’ Lodge is often the first port of call.

May he rest in peace.

My commonplace booklet

I came on this extraordinary painting — “The Death of Marat” by Jacques-Louis David — the other day and was intrigued by it. It depicts the artist’s friend, the French revolutionary leader, Jean-Paul Marat, who was killed by Charlotte Corday, a political enemy who blamed him for a series of killings of prisoners and civilians that occurred in September 1792. Corday fatally stabbed Marat while he was in his bathtub, but did not attempt to flee. She was later tried and executed for the murder.

What struck me about the painting was its extraordinary realism, so of course I disappeared down an interesting online rabbit-hole (as one does). There’s a good Wikipedia page about it, and an excellent Encyclopedia Britannica account of the background to the depicted event.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

Air Canada must honour refund policy invented by airline’s chatbot  Cautionary tale for any company thinking of entrusting its customer-service front end to a chatbot.

After months of resisting, Air Canada was forced to give a partial refund to a grieving passenger who was misled by an airline chatbot inaccurately explaining the airline’s bereavement travel policy.

On the day Jake Moffatt’s grandmother died, Moffat immediately visited Air Canada’s website to book a flight from Vancouver to Toronto. Unsure of how Air Canada’s bereavement rates worked, Moffatt asked Air Canada’s chatbot to explain.

The chatbot provided inaccurate information, encouraging Moffatt to book a flight immediately and then request a refund within 90 days. In reality, Air Canada’s policy explicitly stated that the airline will not provide refunds for bereavement travel after the flight is booked. Moffatt dutifully attempted to follow the chatbot’s advice and request a refund but was shocked that the request was rejected.

Moffatt tried for months to convince Air Canada that a refund was owed, sharing a screenshot from the chatbot that clearly claimed:

If you need to travel immediately or have already travelled and would like to submit your ticket for a reduced bereavement rate, kindly do so within 90 days of the date your ticket was issued by completing our Ticket Refund Application form.

Moffat filed a complaint with Canada’s Civil Resolution Tribunal.

According to Air Canada, Moffatt never should have trusted the chatbot and the airline should not be liable for the chatbot’s misleading information because Air Canada essentially argued that “the chatbot is a separate legal entity that is responsible for its own actions,” a court order said.

Don’t you love that guff about the chatbot being “a separate legal entity”. It’s a bit like “the dog ate my homework, Sir”.

Needless to say, it din’t wash with the Tribunal. And Air Canada seems to have terminated its errant bot.

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