This week → An engine for the imagination ⊗ Against Jackpot-Longtermism ⊗ What we talk about when we talk about The Algo ⊗ New cultural technologies ⊗ Dirty bombs and quantum warfare
Welcome back! I hope you had occasion for some time off and enjoyed some rest. I’ve been back for a week and a half and used some of that time to catch up on the dozens and dozens of newsletter received during my time off (😱) but also to make some changes to how Sentiers works. First off, issues are now sent using EmailOctopus (that’s a referral link), which I’ve been enjoying working with so far and is quite a bit less expensive than (the increasingly marketing focused) Mailchimp. Do tell me if you see anything wrong visually or if you had to fish the issue out of a sp!m folder.
Second, the members’ site was still hosted on a WordPress install, but since all Dispatches (sorry, it’s been a while since the last one of those! Action has been on the Discord) are open to everyone on sentiers.media, there wasn’t much need for a paywalled website, every member action will now take place on Memberful. I’ve made signing in and account management links easier to see and there’s no more back and forth between sites so it should be a simpler experience for everyone.
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There’s been quite a bit of talk (and annoyance) about DALL-E over the last few weeks and months. I actually find Midjourney quite a bit more interesting, and there’s a good interview at The Verge with David Holz, CEO of the lab working on that AI image-generator. One of my recurring thoughts and writing about AI is that it is/will be a lot more valuable to think of it as augmented intelligence, not as a superior one. Humans collaborating with these tools, centaur-like, hybrids of human intellect, imagination, and the “talents” of AIs.
Without using the exact same words, Holz seems to have a very similar view, being a lot more focused on human creativity leveraging AI as engines for imagination, as prototype tool, as feedback loop. The intriguing twist with Midjourney is that you can only access it through a Discord server, openly amidst the community (although that’s changing with new membership plans). To stretch the centaur moniker; a pack of centaurs each doing their thing but influenced by others around them. Quick loops of human input and machine output, interweaved with loops of influence between users.
Another intriguing aspect is that this seems like the first ML model being specifically created and evolved towards artistic goals, in the interview at least, it seems like Holz’s team operates at Jobs’ mythical intersection of “technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities” (although mostly the first two). Depending on how at ease you are with the inner workings of machine learning, you might click through the third article below first, it explains “what we talk about when we talk about The Algo,” it’s quite a good overview, but I’m mostly including it for the interaction Boykis discribes, between code logic and business logic. For Midjourney, it sounds like it might work through the interaction of code logic and art direction.
Within the next year or two, you’ll be able to make content in real time: 30 frames a second, high resolution. It’ll be expensive, but it’ll be possible. Then, in 10 years, you’ll be able to buy an Xbox with a giant AI processor, and all the games are dreams. […]
Well, there isn’t really a machine collective. Every time you ask the AI to make a picture, it doesn’t really remember or know anything else it’s ever made. It has no will, it has no goals, it has no intention, no storytelling ability. All the ego and will and stories — that’s us. It’s just like an engine. An engine has nowhere to go, but people have places to go. It’s kind of like a hive mind of people, super-powered with technology. […]
[O]ur most recent update made everything look much, much better, and you might think we did that by throwing in a lot of paintings [into the training data]. But we didn’t; we just used the user data based off what people liked making [with the model]. There was no human art put into it. […]
Every image is generated on a $20,000 server, and we have to rent those servers by the minute. I think there’s never been a service for consumers where they’re using thousands of trillions of operations in the course of 15 minutes without thinking about it. Probably by a factor of 10, I’d say it’s more compute than anything your average consumer has touched. It’s actually kind of crazy. […]
It tends to use a lot of blues and oranges. It has some favorite colors and some favorite faces. If you give it a really vague instruction, it has to go to its favorites. So, we don’t know why it happens, but there’s a particular woman’s face it likes to draw — we don’t know where it comes from, from one of our 12 training datasets — but people just call it “Miss Journey.”
I barely glanced at the last kerfuffle a little while ago, around the ideas and ideals of longtermists. It is, however, important to better understand what today’s “masters of industry” are thinking, so I did pay attention to this one by Dave Karpf. He goes into some detail on what longtermism is about and what is wrong with the “movement,” or the right and left meeting on the other side.
As with many things around American oligarchs, they are often looking and considering the correct things but from such a skewed perspective that they end up completely wrong. Something like “it’s a thin line between genius and madness.”
In one line: they value future generations to the point of focusing only on existential threats (which would kill off humans) and almost completely skipping over contemporary suffering and non-existential, but serious, threats.
My take on Karpf’s take, and my understanding of what I’ve noticed elsewhere, is that they operate from a place of virtually no empathy and basically don’t acknowledge, or realize, how privileged they are, skipping over everything between them in their present ‘king of the world’ condition and them as they imagine themselves in a far future. In other words, after years of people in power completely ignoring future generations, longtermists now use them as an excuse to think only of their klept futures instead of fixing today’s actual challenges.
I think it is a monument to something else: a profound failure of the imagination. The clock is a testament to willful blindness, as today’s tech barons whistle past the grim realities of the oncoming catastrophe that is man-made climate destabilization. Even worse: It is a reminder that social chaos is never evenly distributed. […]
The tradeoff in focusing on “existential risks” is it serves as cover for ignoring non-existential risks. Wealth inequality is a non-existential risk. Racism and sexism are non-existential risks. Even climate change, according to many longtermists, is a non-existential risk. […]
We should recognized Longtermism as something more pernicious, though. It is a philosophy that says we need not concern ourselves with the fates, the dignity, or the injustices that people living today face, because those people matter no more nor less than the people who will live millennia from now. It is a philosophy that instructs our privileged elites to imagine themselves at the fulcrum of history and ignore the suffering they might cause on their path to greatness. It is a philosophy that imagines, centuries from now, people will still tell the tales of this era, and of the great men (always men. Always.) who set the course of the future.
As already mentioned in my comments on the first piece, in this one Vicki Boykis explains what algorithms are, the interaction of code logic with business logic, how that might translate in today’s platforms, how opening black boxes or open sourcing algorithms might work, and what the challenges might be.
Every single ecommerce or content-based feed we consume online is a world unto itself that requires an enormous amount of technical and business context to untangle. […]
The model itself is usually what we think about when we think about the algorithm. But, the second part of the system is just as complex and includes a number of participants: product managers, project managers, advertising teams, content safety teams, and many, many more, in a back and forth about what The Feed should look like. […]
Opening the code of the algorithm might be a good place to start, but it’s not unlike making an architectural excavation site open to the public: without the guidance of an archaeologist to explain it, it’s just a set of pottery shards.
New cultural technologies → Read this one after the Midjourney interview above. “The development of ML tools is as big a deal as the printing press. The technology that begat copyright in the first place. But models are a medium. They aren’t copied with paper and ink. New things emerge (are spawned) out of them. […] The current media environment encourages us to take sides. To develop coarse arguments based on reactionary headlines. The biggest cultural contribution anyone can make to benefit the artists of future, today. Is to develop a nuanced position.”
Shannon Mattern for The Prepared → Your ‘Reese’s peanut butter’ moment for the week, the brilliant Mattern guest editing the brilliant Prepared, on Shaker artifacts and design, with loads and loads of things to click to.
Futures, foresights, forecasts & fabulations → Dirty bombs and quantum warfare. “[I]t’s a way to use science fiction as a futures modelling tool. It’s not science fiction, but rather science fiction thinking” ⊗ Mandy Brown wants us to Practice the future. “[P]racticing doesn’t require that you know how you’ll get somewhere, or what steps will be necessary between here and there. It asks, instead, what you want the future to be, and to act and think as if you know that future is possible.”
No.230 Asides ⊕ See Note
- 😍 🎥 🚄 🇨🇭 Why Swiss Trains are the Best in Europe. “I live in the Netherlands, where we have some pretty great trains. But there's a country in Europe that does trains better. Much better, in fact. Switzerland has some of the best trains in the entire world - second, perhaps, only to Japan. What makes these trains so good? And what is it like to actually ride them?”
- 🇪🇺 ⏱ 🚄 How far can you go by train in 5h? “This assumes interchanges are 20 minutes, and transit between stations is a little over walking speed. Therefore, these should be interpreted as optimal travel times. The journeys might not exist when taking into account real interchange times.”
- 👀 🤔 Over the next few weeks, I’ll create a series of AI-assisted artworks around Indigenous Futurism. At @prodigiumpics we use storytelling to explore meaning; here I explore alternative versions of history.
- 🌳 🍄 🦑 Evogeneao: The Tree of Life. “The Evogeneao Tree of Life diagram, and the generation counting technique used herein, was inspired by Dr. Richard Dawkins’ wonderful book The Ancestor's Tale. The smallest branches are purely illustrative and help to suggest the effect of mass extinctions on diversity, and changes in diversity through time.” (Via Subconscious.)
- 🤯 🦅 Geometric Analysis Reveals How Birds Mastered Flight. “The reasons why today’s aircraft can’t match avian maneuverability aren’t simply a matter of engineering. Although birds have been meticulously observed throughout history and have inspired designs for flying machines by Leonardo da Vinci and others through the centuries, the biomechanics that make birds’ maneuverability possible have largely been a mystery.”
- 🌛 👕 🇺🇸 UCLA scientists discover places on the moon where it’s always ‘sweater weather’. “People could potentially live and work in lunar pits and caves with steady temperatures in the 60s”
- 🤔 Arkive: A decentralized museum curated by its members. “We aim to curate, own, and create culture. Culturally significant items are being locked into private collections and controlled by a select few. We are expanding access and distributing this power through our diverse and expansive global membership.”
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