Newsletter No.281 — Oct 01, 2023

AI, Hardware, and Virtual Reality ⊗ From Synthetic Biology to AI ⊗ Capitalism Is Dead

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Also this week → We are not supposed to live like this ⊗ Playing with digital texts’ expandable confines ⊗ How to improve strategic planning by using foresight tools ⊗ Can AI voice generators create a podcast episode?

AI, hardware, and virtual reality

A couple of years ago I wrote a Dispatch to members (now unlocked) where I attached a few things under the title The Doctor will cyborg you now. If you jump to the hearing and AR section, you’ll see that for a while I’ve been thinking that audio would be the first broad adoption of a form of Augmented Reality. In this piece, Ben Thompson makes an intriguing case that with the addition of AI to audio, we might actually have a form of VR.

Thompson views VR as a reality where human constraints have been removed. “True virtual reality shifts time like media, place like communications, and, crucially, does so with perfect availability and infinite capacity. In this view, virtual reality is AI, and AI is virtual reality.” Admittedly, that’s a very different vision of VR, much like calling the audio breakthroughs above AR, but it’s a useful reframing. If VR is a ‘space’ where we interact, then doggedly attaching it to visuals might be a mistake. If permanently having an AI next to your ear removes time, space, and human presence, then it can be seen as a different reality. That’s his proposition anyway, to be continued. (And click through for videos of Zuck, where he basically jumps from the sinking metaverse to AI.)

There is a step-change in usability when the human constraint is removed, which is to say that ChatGPT’s vision capabilities seem less useful to me because it takes effort to invoke and interact with it, which is to further say I agree with Zuckerberg that smart glasses are an ideal form factor for this sort of capability. […]

In fact, I would argue that defining “virtual reality” to mean an immersive headset is to miss the point: virtual reality is a digital experience that has fully broken the bounds of human constraints, and in that experience the hardware is a means, not an end. Moreover, a virtual reality experience need not involve vision at all: talking with ChatGPT, for example, is an aural experience that feels more like virtual reality than the majority of experiences I’ve had in a headset.

From synthetic biology to AI: how can we survive this brave new world?

In his book The Coming Wave, Mustafa Suleyman, co-founder of DeepMind, discusses the potential risks and benefits of two emerging technologies: AI and synthetic biology. He emphasizes that these technologies are the most general-purpose we’ve seen arise in recent years, and that they have the power to shape the future in profound ways. Suleyman advocates for a process of “containment,” which would involve collaboration between AI developers, governments, and regulators to ensure that those technologies are aligned with humanity’s goals and do not spiral out of control.

The interview doesn’t go into enough detail on the idea of containment, but I’m noting for further thinking/research his use of “life and intelligence” when referring to synth bio and AI. He believes they “address the two great fundamentals of our species.” Perhaps a bit grandiose, but a thought-provoking angle.

Their consequences will be far-reaching, and may even rewrite what it means to be human as they wash over us, accelerated by other innovations like quantum computing. That’s why we need to start thinking about them now, in the hopes of aligning them with humanity’s goals, and to stop them from spinning out of control. […]

They are the most general-purpose technologies imaginable. They address the two great fundamentals of our species: intelligence and life. Everything in our human world flows from these two properties, and so anything that gets to their heart, and allows control of them at a new level, is bound to be among the most significant inventions in history. As soon as you begin to examine the trajectories and range of use cases of these two technologies, it’s clear that they will shape the future in a profound way.

Capitalism is dead. Now we have something much worse Yanis Varoufakis has a new book out, where he argues that “it’s no longer the global finance system that shapes us, but the ‘fiefdoms’ of tech firms.” It’s not a new idea, a friend of mine was talking about serfs 20 years ago (salut Karl!), but we need to keep poking at exactly what big tech represents today and it’s worth a read. ◼ Related, ‘We do not have fast companies anymore’: Cory Doctorow on where tech went wrong, and how to fix it.

We are not supposed to live like this I seem to be in a ‘this is an intriguing angle to consider’ mood. This one proposes that rediscovering a simpler way of life would not only make us happier, but would also be better for the planet. I’m noting it because Remblance talks about “rediscovering what our human-energy can achieve,” a resource “now buried deep within us as fossil-fuelled energy has overtaken our lives.” ◼ On the same beat, The Norwegian secret: how friluftsliv boosts health and happiness.

There’s a clear link here to actions that will mitigate climate change: walking, cycling, growing our own food, and other low-tech solutions such as repairing and fostering community that encourages “social connections … rather than fostering the hyper-individualism encouraged by resource-hungry digital devices.”

Playing with digital texts’ expandable confines I’ve only scrolled through so far but this longish read with lots of screen captures and links to elsewhere looks like something worth diving into if you are interested in reading, writing, annotations, and more. ◼ Adjacent topic, Writing is a thinking tool.

Futures, foresights,
forecasts & fabulations

How to improve strategic planning by using foresight tools
“The toolkit includes evidence of successful foresight applications and tools and approaches that connect foresight to strategic action.”

Creating intentional futures
“Using [Three Horizons and Challenge Mapping] in this way we are aiming to create stronger bridges between ‘what’ and ‘how’ when organising for change.”

Un/Inhabitable - Garðar Eyjólfsson with Hana Špendlíková
“In another world or on an alternative timeline, a government has erected watchtowers in the Icelandic highlands. Legions of drones are sent out from these towers, sweeping the land to scan, sense and analyse the environment.”

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation

Can AI voice generators create a podcast episode? There are dozens of new text-to-speech tools that leverage artificial intelligence and GPT to create human-sounding voices. Justin Jackson looks at some of them and wonders if you can use these tools to create compelling podcast episodes that people will listen to.

The human decisions that shape generative AI
Generative AI is influenced by the decisions made by its builders, who shape its capabilities and who benefits from it. Understanding this process helps to address issues of accountability and regulation.

A new contract for artists in the age of generative AI
Eryk Salvaggio on generative AI, copyright, creative commons licences, and rethinking the sharing framework.