Why is Google so alarmed by the prospect of a sentient machine?

This morning’s Observer column:

Some people regard GPT-3 as a genuine milestone in the evolution of artificial intelligence; it had passed the eponymous test proposed by Alan Turing in 1950 to assess the ability of a machine to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. Sceptics pointed out that training the machine had taken unconscionable amounts of computing power (with its attendant environmental footprint) to make a machine that had the communication capabilities of a youngish human. One group of critics memorably described these language machines as “stochastic parrots” (stochastic is a mathematical term for random processes).

All the tech giants have been building these parrots. Google has one called Bert – it stands for bidirectional encoder representations from transformers, since you ask. But it also has a conversational machine called LaMDA (from language model for dialog applications). And one of the company’s engineers, Blake Lemoine, has been having long conversations with it, from which he made some inferences that mightily pissed off his bosses…

Read on


Friday 17 June, 2022

Our mysterious plantlet

The consensus is that it’s a field maple. The fact that the first leaf I photographed was asymmetrical seems to have been just a freak aberration.

I should have photographed it from the top — like this. In which case the mystery disappears.

Many thanks to everyone who joined in the hunt. And apologies for the misleading photograph.


Quote of the Day

“A revolution is an opinion backed by bayonets.”

  • Napoleon

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Beethoven | Piano Sonata No. 15 in D Major, Op. 28 Pastorale | I. Allegro | Alfred Brendel

Link

I needed something restful after a frantically busy day. This was it.


Long Read of the Day

 Where does the wealth go when asset prices go down?

Nice down-to-earth essay by Noah Smith.

I’ve been writing a lot about the crashes in the stock and crypto markets. Sometimes I say stuff like “Over $2 TRILLION of notional value has now been wiped out compared to the peak in late 2021.” And some people have been asking me: Where did all that wealth go?

The short answer is: It didn’t “go” anywhere. It vanished. It stopped existing. That’s not a natural or intuitive idea — how can wealth just disappear? — so this post is an explainer of how that works. And as we’ll see, this has implications for policy, for how we think about inequality, and for how we plan our own financial futures…

Lots more, including some nice examples.


My commonplace booklet

 How to Give Directions Like My Dad

Uncomfortable reading for (grand)parents by Charles Stayton.

Sample:

Ask whether your audience is getting regular oil changes.

Tell them about Donny from your high school who wrapped his Corvair around a huge oak over by the American Legion.

Mention the extra oil filters you have lying around that happen to be an exact fit for your audience’s vehicle.

Spot on, sadly.


This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!


Thursday 16 June, 2022

Happy Bloomsday!

Oil on canvas by Jacques-Emile Blanche, 1935 Now in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Today’s the day that admirers of James Joyce’s great modernist novel Ulysses celebrate every year. Why? Because all the action in the novel takes place on a single day, 16 June, 1904, in Dublin. The name comes from the fact that the novel tracks the progress of its hero, an ad-salesman named Leopold Bloom, as he navigates his way round the city on that particular day.

For many years (except for the Covid break) I’ve hosted a lunch on the day when some friends and fellow-Joyceans gather for Burgundy and Gorgonzola sandwiches (what Leopold Bloom had for his lunch in Davey Byrne’s pub) and readings from the book.

This is a special Bloomsday because the novel was published 100 years ago this year.


Quote of the Day

”Life is too short to read a bad book.”

  • James Joyce

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Joan Sutherland | I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls | The Bohemian Girl

Link

Music plays a big part in Joyce’s work. He was himself a fine singer. This song crops up several times in Finnegans Wake and the opera itself plays a role in two of his short stories in Dubliners.


Long Read of the Day

Judge John Woolsey’s judgment on Ulysses.

An unlikely literary hero.

United States v. One Book Called Ulysses was a celebrated 1933 case in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. At issue was whether James Joyce’s novel was obscene. In deciding it was not, Judge John M. Woolsey opened the door to importation and publication of serious works of literature, even when they used coarse language or involved sexual subjects. The decision was affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, but it is Judge Woolsey’s trial court opinion which is the high point of the story.

Here it is, in all its glory.


This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!


Wednesday 15 June, 2022

An early version of Habermas’s ‘public sphere’?

An illustration of an 18th-century coffee house from the British Library’s Breaking the News exhibition that I went to yesterday.


The mystery of our mysterious plant.

Many thanks to everyone who emailed with suggestions. Turns out it’s even more complicated that I thought, and I’m trying to assess the various suggestions. More later.


Quote of the Day

“When Boris Johnson has nowhere to go, the nowhere he goes to is Northern Ireland. It is, for him, an empty space, a vacuum he can fill with any old blather that is useful to him at the time.

What suits him right now is to try to reassemble the old Brexit band of 2019 – the ERG and the DUP – in the hope that the forces that brought him to power will help keep him there.

The needs and desires of the people of Northern Ireland are neither here nor there. NI stands for Not Interested.

  • Fintan O’Toole, Irish Times, 14.06.2022*

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Boccherini | Sonata for Two Cellos in C Major, G74 | Amit Peled and Ismael Guerrero

Link


Long Read of the Day

Cory Doctorow on ‘regulatory capture’

First, some background if you’re new to this stuff…

Here’s a story about “regulatory capture”: Donald Trump appointed Ajit Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, to run the Federal Communications Commission, which is in charge of regulating companies like Verizon. Verizon — and the other big telcos and cable operators — wanted to kill Net Neutrality.

Net Neutrality is the idea that your ISP should send you the bits you request as quickly and reliably as it can. That means when you click a link, your ISP does its level best to get that link for you.

Net Neutrality’s opposite is net discrimination. That’s when your ISP is allowed to slow down or otherwise degrade your connection. Why would ISPs do this? Because it represents a new revenue source: ISPs get to charge you for your internet connection, and then charge the companies that run the services you value for “priority” access to you. If they don’t pay, your ISP can slow down their services so they’re less useful to you, prompting you to switch to a rival who did pay for priority carriage.

Internet users really don’t like network discrimination. How do we know that? Well, the FCC had to ask them (all US federal administrative agencies have to accept public comments before changing policy).

It’s a great story and nobody tells it as well as Cory.

So worth your time.


My commonplace booklet

Fascinating Hacker News thread on “Which book can attract anyone towards your field of study?” James Scott’s Seeing Like a State comes top, followed by Jane Jacobs’s The Life and Death of Great American Cities. I can vouch for both.


This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!


Tuesday 14 June, 2022

Our mystery plant

As regular readers know, I think that the great thing about being a blogger is that readers usually know more about stuff than you do.

So can I please exploit your collective IQ? My wife found this fascinating little plant growing on the gravel of our driveway, and we have racked our brains (and ransacked the various reference works we possess) to try and identify it — so far without success.

The fact that its leaves are asymmetrical seems to be a feature, not a bug, btw.

Advice/suggestions welcomed.

The photograph (taken with a macro lens) exaggerates the relative size of the leaf. Here’s a wider shot to give some perspective.


Quote of the Day

”Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.”

  • Vladimir Nabokov

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Wagner | Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg | Act 3 – Prelude

Link


Long Read of the Day

 ‘We have a populist government that is – fatally – not popular’

Terrific profile by my Observer colleague Tim Adams of Chris Patten, the kind of liberal, thoughtful Conservative who used to exist before the party was taken over by fanatics.

Patten lives in a large villa in Barnes in south-west London, next to the wooded common. There is a 1930s village atmosphere, which bankers and lawyers now pay £5m to inhabit. Visiting him is like stepping into a lost Conservative hinterland. I’m met at the door by his wife, Lavender, and their terrier, Bobby. The gracious, book-lined sitting room gives out on to a generous garden. Under a painted portrait of Patten and his wife of 51 years are photographs of their eight grandchildren. He turns off a muted symphony when I arrive. On the table is the book he’s just put down, Julia Boyd’s A Village in the Third Reich: How Ordinary Lives Were Transformed by the Rise of Fascism, and a copy of his own new book, The Hong Kong Diaries, which is the occasion for our meeting. Very nice, revealing profile of an essentially decent man.


My commonplace booklet

Well, well. IKEA is getting into Vinyl — and selling a turntable. Link


This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!


Monday 13 June, 2022

Warning: economist at work!

Portrait of Maynard Keynes by Duncan Grant, probably painted at Charleston.

You need some nerve to wear a hat like that.


Quote of the Day

”Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

  • Edmund Burke, Speech to the Electors of Bristol, 3 November, 1774

Really sound argument for representative democracy and against the idea of government by Twitter poll, but it didn’t get him elected! (Unsurprisingly.)


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Regina Spektor | Better

Link

One of my long-time favourites.


Long Read of the Day

 We Need To Talk About The Carbon Footprints Of The Rich

I hate the term ‘carbon footprint’ because it was an invention of an oil company to convince individuals that global heating is their fault, rather than that of the energy extractors. But this essay by Genevieve Guenther makes good use of the idea

The discretionary carbon footprints of the 1% are not only unjust on a symbolic level. They are also quite literally a material cause of the climate crisis. Researchers estimate that more than half of the emissions generated by humanity since our emergence on this planet have been emitted since 1990. But in these past 30 years, the emissions of the poorest 50% of people have grown hardly at all: They represented a little under 7% of global emissions in 1990, and they remain a little over 7% of global emissions today. By contrast, the richest 10% of people are responsible for 52% of cumulative global emissions — and the 1% for a full 15%.

Do read the whole thing.


As energy prices soar, the bitcoin miners may find they have struck fool’s gold

Yesterday’s Observer column:

In the bad old days, prospecting for gold was a grisly business involving hysterical crowds, pickaxes, digging, the wearing of appalling hats, standing in rivers panning for nuggets, “staking” claims and so on. The California gold rush of 1848-55, for example, brought 300,000 hopefuls to the Sierra Nevada and northern California and involved the massacre of thousands of Indigenous people.

In our day, the new gold is bitcoin, a cryptocurrency, and prospecting for it has become a genteel armchair activity, although it is called “mining”, for old times’ sake. What it actually involves is using computers to perform unfathomably complicated calculations to create cryptographic “hashes” – codes that are, in practical terms, uncrackable.

Sounds intimidating, doesn’t it? But in reality anyone can play the game. You just have to have the right kit…

Read on


My commonplace booklet

What? You didn’t know Paul Simon has a brother? Neither did I — until now. But — contrary to appearances, they’re not twins. Link


This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!


As energy prices soar, the bitcoin miners may find they have struck fool’s gold

This morning’s Observer column:

In the bad old days, prospecting for gold was a grisly business involving hysterical crowds, pickaxes, digging, the wearing of appalling hats, standing in rivers panning for nuggets, “staking” claims and so on. The California gold rush of 1848-55, for example, brought 300,000 hopefuls to the Sierra Nevada and northern California and involved the massacre of thousands of Indigenous people.

In our day, the new gold is bitcoin, a cryptocurrency, and prospecting for it has become a genteel armchair activity, although it is called “mining”, for old times’ sake. What it actually involves is using computers to perform unfathomably complicated calculations to create cryptographic “hashes” – codes that are, in practical terms, uncrackable.

Sounds intimidating, doesn’t it? But in reality anyone can play the game. You just have to have the right kit…

Read on

Friday 10 June, 2022

A year is a long time, sometimes

Our beloved cat, Zoombini, passed away a year ago today. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of her. What made her remarkable was the extent to which she craved human contact, and how communicative she could be. Every time we sat down to eat she would suddenly appear from wherever she was in the house and stand on the floor looking up at us reproachfully. In the end my wife and I gave in and set up a high stool between us at the table so she could sit as part of the company. She didn’t want food but simply to be part of what was going on.

I have dozens of lovely photographs, and a few videos, of her. This is technically a terrible picture but I love it because it captures something of her essence. It was taken on a winter’s night; she had been sitting outside the back door declining to use the cat flap and complaining loudly. Normally I would give in and open the door, after which she would regally strut in — having established her precedence over a mere servant. But that evening I felt cussed and stood my ground, and eventually she appeared on the kitchen windowsill wearing this expression of amazed puzzlement at my rank disobedience!


Quote of the Day

”It is sobering to consider that when Mozart was my age he had already been dead for a year.”

  • Tom Lehrer

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Schumann | Fantasiestücke op.73 | Jacqueline Du Pré & Gerald Moore

Link


Long Read of the Day

 ‘Homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm’

2016 essay by Yuval Noah Harari outlining a key argument of his second best-seller,  Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow on how ‘dataism’ would become the new universal religion. I enjoyed the book but was less impressed by it than I was by Sapiens — the logical conclusion of which is that humans weren’t such a good idea after all.

There’s an emerging market called Dataism, which venerates neither gods nor man – it worships data. From a Dataist perspective, we may interpret the entire human species as a single data-processing system, with individual humans serving as its chips. If so, we can also understand the whole of history as a process of improving the efficiency of this system, through four basic methods…


My commonplace booklet

Ayn Rand on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson | Aug. 1967

Link

Wow! This is an unexpected find. I haven’t ever seen her in action. And I like her even less now. I’ve often wondered how she managed to attract so many disciples — some of them very powerful and influential. For example, Alan Greenspan. And lots of folks in Silicon Valley.


This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!


Thursday 9 June, 2022

Rose-tinted lenses

Shot with DXO ONE Camera


Quote of the Day

“She thoroughly understands what no other Church has ever understood: how to deal with enthusiasts.”

  • Thomas Babington Macaulay, on the Catholic Church

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ed Pickford | The Workers’ Song

Link


Long Read of the Day

FTC: How scammers are cashing in on crypto craze

This paper from the Federal Trade Commission fits neatly with my view that the ‘crypto’ obsession is the Tulip Mania de nos jours.

And the Commission is not noted for its sense of humour.

From Super Bowl ads to Bitcoin ATMs, cryptocurrency seems to be everywhere lately. Although it’s yet to become a mainstream payment method, reports to the FTC show it’s an alarmingly common method for scammers to get peoples’ money. Since the start of 2021, more than 46,000 people have reported losing over $1 billion in crypto to scams – that’s about one out of every four dollars reported lost, more than any other payment method. The median individual reported loss? A whopping $2,600. The top cryptocurrencies people said they used to pay scammers were Bitcoin (70%), Tether (10%), and Ether (9%).

Crypto has several features that are attractive to scammers, which may help to explain why the reported losses in 2021 were nearly sixty times what they were in 2018. There’s no bank or other centralized authority to flag suspicious transactions and attempt to stop fraud before it happens. Crypto transfers can’t be reversed – once the money’s gone, there’s no getting it back. And most people are still unfamiliar with how crypto works. These considerations are not unique to crypto transactions, but they all play into the hands of scammers.

Reports point to social media and crypto as a combustible combination for fraud. Nearly half the people who reported losing crypto to a scam since 2021 said it started with an ad, post, or message on a social media platform…

And this paper only covers fraud that’s reported to the FTC.


My commonplace booklet

  • My question in Monday’s edition about whether it would be possible to drive the Kystriksveien in an EV brought a helpful reply from Seb Schmoller (Whom God Preserve) with a link to charging points on the route. And Harry Rutter sent a link to a Norwegian news item dated May 2021 suggesting that there were ambitious plans to put EV chargers on the route. I don’t think I’ll set off for it just yet.

  • With uncharacteristic effrontery, Ford surprises F-150 Lightning owners with an accessory that can recharge stranded Teslas! Link


This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!


Wednesday 8 June, 2022

Putting the horse before the cart

Just came on this and liked it. It’s by Georges Seurat and painted in 1884. Currently in the Guggenheim in New York.


Quote of the Day

””Life is a long preparation for something that never happens”

  • W.B. Yeats

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Miles Davis & Chaka Khan | Human Nature (live in Montreux 1989)

Link


Long Read of the Day

’AI’ is an ideology, not a technology

A thoughtful essay by Jaron Lanier (Whom God Preserve) on our commitment to a perilous belief that fails to recognise the agency of humans.

A leading anxiety in both the technology and foreign policy worlds today is China’s purported edge in the artificial intelligence race. The usual narrative goes like this: Without the constraints on data collection that liberal democracies impose and with the capacity to centrally direct greater resource allocation, the Chinese will outstrip the West. AI is hungry for more and more data, but the West insists on privacy. This is a luxury we cannot afford, it is said, as whichever world power achieves superhuman intelligence via AI first is likely to become dominant.

If you accept this narrative, the logic of the Chinese advantage is powerful. What if it’s wrong? Perhaps the West’s vulnerability stems not from our ideas about privacy, but from the idea of AI itself…


My commonplace booklet

(Spoiler alert: only for folks who are interested in what Apple is up to with its iPad range.)

But if you are interested, this Twitter thread by Steven Sinofski is terrific.


This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!