Wednesday, September 28, 2022
Saturday, July 16, 2022
Circumstances unpropitious, unforeseen, potentially dire have lately settled upon the household, and while I’d be disinclined in any event to enlarge upon these publicly, I’ve not a great deal of time most days to spare for even my normal none-too-frequent ruminations in these precincts. Nevertheless, sometimes turning my attention elsewhere affords a transient, as it were a palliative distraction from other cares, and it strikes me that these may be tagged with the appropriate label of “Displacement activity,” which seems as though it would be a good title for an entire blog—and which indeed (checks) proves to have been spoken for already.
Sunday, April 17, 2022
A recent piece in The New York Times—the kind of long-form journalism that, notwithstanding The Paper of Record’s many black sins in its political reporting, keeps me behind the paywall month after month—discusses the extraordinary advances that have been made in artificial intelligence over the past decade and change, with particular emphasis on the ability of cutting-edge “deep learning” software—“Generative Pre-Trained Transformer 3,” hereafter GPT-3—to parse language and to compose it. This is not Siri, or Alexa, or any of the consumer-level “assistants” with which we’re familiar, impressive as these may have seemed seven or eight years ago. Indeed, GPT-3 is not consumer-level at all, and its creators, an outfit calling itself OpenAI, are keeping the thing on a tight leash, because it is a vastly powerful tool the existence of which invites all sorts of possibilities for abuse. “The very premise that we are now having a serious debate over the best way to instill moral and civic values in our software,” the reporter concludes, “should make it clear that we have crossed an important threshold.”
Read the piece if you are able—the NYT would like you to pay for the privilege, and you ought to, but for anyone who for moral, political or financial reasons can’t see your way to purchasing it, there are ways to tunnel beneath the paywall (cough, “private” or “incognito” browsing), and the article really is worth your fifteen or twenty minutes’ attention, if not your coin.
“Artificial intelligence” has long been, rather like commercial nuclear fusion, just around a corner never cleared (“nuclear fusion is thirty years away—and always will be”). Indeed, in the 1950s there was much talk about “electronic brains,” referring to room-sized machines that deployed considerably less computational horsepower than the average cellular phone brings to bear without breaking a sweat. Nevertheless, bold predictions were being made, perhaps not entirely without dreams of sweet DARPA research grants dancing in certain academic heads, of “thinking machines” in immediate prospect. Well, you know, the Industrial Revolution had to start somewhere.
Having read “A.I. Is Mastering Language. Should We Trust What It Says?” I was moved to retrieve (and blow off its integument of dust) from the bookshelf in the hall a 1997 anthology, HAL’s Legacy, a collection of a dozen-and-a-half essays about artificial intelligence, about the vision of this presented in 2001 (a film I regard as a cultural artifact as profoundly expressing the mythos of its era as Genesis and The Iliad did for theirs) and how it inspired a generation, by now two or more, to pursue the grail of software sentience.
Are they there yet? I don’t think so. But they’re a damned sight closer than anyone could have concluded, based on these 1997 descriptions of the state of the art, that we might be by now. Put another way, progress in the field over the past quarter-century considerably exceeds advances made in military aviation between the Sopwith Camel and the B2 bomber. Seriously.
For far too many years the “Turing Test” was one of the measures of machine sentience. Another was chess, but when Kasparov fell to “Deep Blue,” that metric was tossed. As software continues to mimic and meet the Turing standard, the goalposts continue to be repositioned, and with GPT-3’s latest feats, I imagine that they’re way out at the end of the parking lot, if not into the next county altogether.
GPT-3 is not “self-aware.” For one thing, I’m reasonably sure that there’s not a “self” there. Except…except…how sure are we that there’s really a self here in our spongy grey matter? Sure, we feel that, but unless you’re going to go all “soul” on me, I hope that you will agree that human consciousness arises from a kind of “emergent behavior” on the part of a collective of preconscious subroutines, themselves based on dense electrochemical interchanges among our tightly-packed neurons. Machines will likely never replicate the essence of these processes, but I’m less confident that they can’t arrive at something resembling the product.
It is striking how conservative most of the contributors to HAL’s Legacy were. AI, at that point, was still thirty years away, at least, even to the most optimistic among them (possibly excepting Doug Lenat, whose “Cyc” project, perhaps misconceived, and certainly unrealistic given the input resources of the nineties, looks as though it may have anticipated the kind of deep learning that was eventually realizable between the vast volumes of digital intake now at hand and the wherewithal of the processing power that may presently be brought to bear to digest this).
I have said this before, and often, but I believe that, unless industrial civilization collapses—a prospect by no means uncertain—machine sentience will arrive among us. It will probably not be recognized until afterward, and with each evidence of its presence the standard of proof, those goalposts, will be picked up and transported across the state line if necessary. And, you know, the machines may talk to us, absolutely passing the Turing test, and we will still wonder “is there anyone home?” But at that point, it may be that posing the same question to ourselves will be appropriate.
Friday, April 15, 2022
I grew up reading, as they say, “voraciously,” but my diet consisted largely of trash. OK, science fiction, which was as a rule trashy in those days, and very little else. Looking back, I think the first “serious” novel I ever read outside of school assignments was All the King’s Men, which I took in when I was around fifteen or sixteen. Before I was out of high school I went on a Joseph Conrad tear and, at the instigation of my future ex-wife, began reading Hermann Hesse, few of whose books really stood up to subsequent visits. Another high school friend, learning of this, sniffed “Well, the German novelist you should be reading is Thomas Mann.” I later learned that she personally, with adolescent audacity, had not actually read any Mann, but she was the child of a family far better-read than my own, and had picked up the name and reputation by, so to speak, osmosis (a couple of years later I was talking up Mann to my friend’s mother who, amused, asked me if I’d read Proust. This was, I think, the first time that name had been spoken in my presence. “Whost?” I asked, weakly).
Still, I took my friend’s recommendation seriously and, beginning with The Magic Mountain, commenced early in 1971 to chew through the author’s entire œuvre over the course of the next eighteen months. I have come back to Der Zauberberg at approximately seven-year intervals since that time, and earlier this month completed my ninth go-around, just four years since my last.
I can’t really pin down what it is that delights me so about this book, what has kept me coming back to it since the first time I read it at eighteen. Many readers have been bored: one, in an online discussion thread I look in on, recently called it a “snoozefest.” Not for me. The novel has been a different experience each time I have taken it up. This time out was the third or fourth go-around I’ve taken with translator John E. Woods as my cicerone. My first several sessions were with the 1927 H.T. Lowe-Porter translation, to which I had become so accustomed that the first time I looked over the Woods version I was put off: I missed some of Lowe-Porter’s stately cadences. There came a point, though, early in the century, at which, having taken up her rendition anew, I found it somehow heavy sledding. At this point I purchased the Woods translation and have never looked back.
It has been said of Lowe-Porter that she contrived the unlikely feat of translating Thomas Mann into German. He was always puzzled that his English-language audiences saw him as “ponderous,” because his German readership regarded him as a deft prose stylist. He was content, however, to retain Lowe-Porter as his authorized translator, and kept cashing the checks from Alfred Knopf.
Anyway, I have loved the book anew. The set pieces are glorious, of course, but even the passages that have put some readers off—the debates between Settembrini and Naphta, for example—are so much catnip to me. I took it in at about seventy-five pages to a hundred each day, and enjoyed every session. Oddly, I don’t think I have ever persuaded my high school friend to read it, but I remain grateful to her for putting the novel in my way.
Thursday, April 7, 2022
Wednesday, March 16, 2022
On the basis of his, er, intemperate remarks today, Putin seems to be emotionally invested in this clusterfuck to an unhealthy degree. Not a good sign. You know, one thing about the commies was that they possessed a substrate of belief that history was on their side, that the triumph of the Marxist model was, so to say, preordained. IOW, they were going to win in the end, so why take unnecessary chances? Historian Stephen Kotkin, author of a massive biography of Stalin, once noted that when the Soviet archives were (briefly) made available to Western scholars, it was amusing how many of these researchers were surprised to discover that Stalin and his successors were actually…believing communists.
If Putin believes anything, it appears that he believes in Russian greatness and in the vindictiveness of a world that impedes the operation of this—by no means assured—destiny, and the referenced speech suggests that he takes this perceived insult, the threat, to Holy Russia personally. It’s difficult to see anything good coming of this.
I’ve been…not dismayed, really, but a little nonplussed to observe, in some of my internet hangouts, the intemperate responses from participants who do not ordinarily raise their voices. I can understand this, and do not fault their responses, being concerned merely that it partakes a bit of 12/7 or 9/11 war hysteria. Certainly I share the outrage, even if I am disposed by temperament not to shout.
A great many internet generals have sprung from their armchairs demanding vigorous action against the beastly foe, beginning with a no-fly zone, proceeding to NATO troops in Ukraine, and all the way up to nuke them before they nuke us. Myself, I recognize that I’m neither a military nor a foreign policy expert, and have some confidence—as I certainly would not have two years ago—that there are competent, if fallible, people making decisions on the basis of information to which I am not privy.
It does seem to me, though, that the West has reached an inflection point, if you will pardon the expression, with respect to its relations with a viciously revanchist Russia that has now begun, in Martin Amis’s memorable phrase, to fizz with rabies. Short of war, and even—even—at risk of war, we need to isolate and strangle the regime which, even though we helped midwife it thirty years ago, has figuratively and literally spread poison among its perceived foes for most of the present century, and the leader of which has proclaimed his hostile intent in unmistakable language.
None of what I say here is by means of excusing the USA’s sundry moral atrocities times past, but if we are not to live going forward in Putin’s world, Putin needs to be, in his own translated phraseology, canceled, one way or another.