Sunday, April 17, 2022

Life Turing infowartime

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

Scaling the mountain anew

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

Bucha can’t eat just one


I am reluctant to get caught up in the current war fever (or, I suppose, sanctions fever) in large part because I remember how ginned up the spurious casus belli was twenty years ago as the Cheney Shogunate prepared to invade Iraq (aluminum tubes! Chemical weapons! WMDs! “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud!”). Public sentiment was being lashed forward across the spectrum of media outlets, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Hell, a dozen years before that, under Bush the Elder, there was something like the same drumbeat, delivered along a then narrower media spectrum, and even I felt the pull of the (under those circumstances significantly less meretricious) propaganda ringing across the public discourse.

These latter weeks we are invited to condemn and excoriate the Russians for their conduct of the “special military operation” in Ukraine, and you know what? I’m all in with that.

Some context, not qualifications: I recognize that to the extent that this country could ever claim the moral high ground in matters of armed conflict, it surrendered any pretense to the commanding heights with “Operation Iraqi Freedom” (initially, it is reported, “Operation Iraqi Liberation” until some Pentagon staffer was alert enough to note the appropriate yet awkward acronym). These latter years the USA has tended to conduct its offenses against human rights remotely, and at retail, which was of course scant comfort to a given wedding party in the Helmand Province when a drone operator near the end of his shift at Langley decided to toss a couple of Hellfire missiles in the general direction of the bridesmaids. So this and sundry other deviations from decency noted, OK? Also, nothing like this level of popular outrage hereabouts when the victims in Africa and the Middle East are slain by other national actors, because They Don’t Look Like Us. Got it.


For a number of reasons not really important just now, I was fascinated with Russia/the USSR, first during my childhood in the first decade of the Cold War—I watched Khrushchev’s motorcade traverse my Southern California suburb in 1959—and particularly beginning in 1972 when over the course of a few months I discovered Nabokov (entry to come anon), read Edmund Wilson’s collection A Window on Russia, and acquired a sweetheart whose diction did not betray in the slightest that she was the daughter of émigrés who had herself grown up speaking the language of the Old Country, which was still in use at home.

I was disposed, in the seventies and eighties, to cut the Soviet Union a certain amount of slack. I always thought that Nikita Khrushchev was never granted sufficient credit either there or abroad for attempting to cut the USSR loose from Stalinism. Certainly in our domestic propaganda he was portrayed as the despot’s bloodthirsty successor (rather than blood-soaked inheritor—no one, at the end, in Stalin’s Præsediem had emerged from or survived his inner circle since the thirties with clean hands). There was little to admire in the corrupt and lazy Brezhnev, but he also wasn’t Stalin or even close to it. The Soviet Union’s lesser and greater black sins in the Khrushchev and post-Khrushchev eras are nicely described in Francis Spufford’s commentary here.

I entertained some hopes for a reformed USSR under Gorbachev. I never had high expectations of his successor, a feckless sot who rose to glory for a single moment when he mounted that tank in August 1991 and who, had some Red Army sniper put a slug in his heart on that occasion, would be justly remembered as a martyr today. Instead, he went on to break up the joint for a transient political advantage and spent the next ten years on an extended alcoholic binge before he surrendered the presidency to a successor who was apparently prepared as a condition of his elevation not to ask any awkward questions about the financial irregularities of Yeltsin’s family and cronies. And here we are.

Vladimir Putin, my near-contemporary—I have exactly two months on him—and I agree for different reasons that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a historical misfortune: I because, perhaps naïvely, I believed with Gorbachev that “socialism with a human face” was an achievable goal, that a reformed and relatively humane USSR with, perhaps, the Baltic bone removed from its throat, could join the broader human community while still maintaining a distinct social and economic model, a countervailing alternative to Capital not-Red in tooth and claw. The withdrawal of the Soviet alternative, however imperfectly(!) realized, has freed late-stage capitalism to indulge its bloodiest, most predatory and exploitive  instincts, with consequences the ends of which we have begun unhappily to descry. And on the Russian side, Putin now embodies a bitterly revanchist mindset, consumed with dreams of empire, yearning for the old days of global dread and respect: Oderint dum metuant!

So… for these and other reasons I’m a little reluctant to join in the latest spate of Russia-bashing, but you know, I’m going there anyway, notwithstanding our recent sins in Wogland, because Putin’s casus belli is even more preposterous than the Dauphin’s twenty years ago, and because the war aims, between the documented atrocities and what the country’s official news service has stated as its agenda, are nakedly genocidal (like “fascism,” this is a term that has been tossed around rather casually for a long time; like “fascism”—nakedly arisen in our own country’s diseased political ecosystem—the term is appropriate to what is in fact now Russian state policy).

I have, I repeat, been sympathetic toward Russia since childhood: it fascinated me then as the “evil” mirror image of our own polity. I have Russian friends—one actually returned to the Rodina last year after spending his childhood and young manhood stateside since the end of the former century—who I fear are all-in with the invasion: I’ve been at pains not to engage them since February. It’s accordingly painful to find myself leagued on this occasion with those who have always detested the Rooskies, and also with what I sense to be a kind of opportunistic moral outrage from certain quarters. But the outrage, wheresoever it proceeds, is well-deserved by its object. Whatever the merits or demerits of Russia’s historical grievances—and not every one of these is entirely unfounded—its conduct under Putin has placed the country outside even the most modest standards of civilized norms. Let it be, and let it remain, a pariah state, isolated and despised by the developed world. Let it rot confined within its barbaric imperial dreams. I hope that there’s a route back—Germany, after all, within living memory the very exemplar of evil, is now among the most humane and civilized countries in the world—but I’m not seeing it from here.