From utopian Star Trek to absurdist Douglas Adams? ⊗ How to fix “AI’s original sin” ⊗ Islands of coherence

No.317 — Modernism, Inc ⊗ Liminal excavations ⊗ Frankenstein God ⊗ A genealogy of technology and power

From utopian Star Trek to absurdist Douglas Adams? ⊗ How to fix “AI’s original sin” ⊗ Islands of coherence
Guest artist: Mériol Lehmann — étangs, chemin saint-jacques, saint-pierre-de-joliette

A vibe shift from utopian Star Trek to absurdist Douglas Adams?

It’s not that often that I link to podcasts, especially those that don’t come with a transcript, but in this one we have Samuel Arbesman (and Danny Crichton) interviewing Matt Webb so it’s worth an exception. They talk about Matt’s post where he puts forth his idea that tech has graduated from the Star Trek era to the Douglas Adams age, a vibe shift, which they explore a bit deeper. Includes Stafford Beer, weirdness in English Cybernetics, Gibsonian diffusion vs vibes. I loved the discussion in it’s entirety but I’m especially including it for the interaction of prototypes and fiction in technological progress. In part:

So we have something which is like a technological prototype or an opening up, comes into fiction, and then inspires people because they see it in a kind of a, maybe a broader context than just that tech prototype, to make something. And maybe you need that entire kind of arc.

And second because my brain exploded a bit at the Arbesman’s excellent personal philosophy, which aligns closely with how I think, and which he was nice enough to extract in a post of his own. Excerpt:

The world is combinatorially weird and fractally interesting. And therefore, omnivorous curiosity is the only proper response. … let’s optimize instead for the interesting, the strange, and the weird. Ideas and topics that ignite our curiosity are worthy of our attention, because they might lead to advances and insights that we can’t anticipate.

A couple more quotes from the interview:

[Webb on Beer’s thinking:] Instead of commoditising the factory, you commoditise management. So the thing in the middle has inputs and outputs, and in between it makes decisions. And his claim is that any sufficiently complex thing in the right environment could become a brain. […]

Feels like a really exciting shift, doesn't it? The idea of being able to do everything yourself all at once. Sometimes you don't necessarily need to be the best at something, but if you can do a whole range of things in a tolerable fashion, something happens from the synthesis.

How to fix “AI’s original sin”

Tim O’Reilly with a well explained, considered opinion on how LLM models, AI, could be constructed in a way that not only supports copyright and varied holders’ intentions, but also makes possible a business model for rights holders.

In sum, there are three parts to the problem: what content is ingested as part of the training data in the first place, what outputs are allowed, and who gets to profit from those outputs.

He proposes a new AI economy that values content creation and rewards creators. O’Reilly envisions an “Architecture of Participation for AI” where content owners can control how their content is used and monetised by AI providers, creating a more collaborative ecosystem.

As I was reading, I thought it was quite a good case, and actually his company is already exploring variations of this thinking. However, there’s also a case to be made that AI is quickly being commoditised. It’s free in search engines, relatively inexpensive for more advanced functionality, and free in the coming Apple Intelligence.

O’Reilly is mostly focused on copyrighted training content being used in search summaries and chat answers. Are revenus from the advertising and subscription models large enough to support a content/media ecosystem as we’ve known it? For the moment he’s not proposing numbers and I haven’t seen that approach elsewhere. If the numbers don’t work and/or AI companies don’t want to set up something like this, will they be forced out of these types of services, or just continue running roughshod over rights holders?

But more importantly, simply giving content creators the right to opt out is missing the real opportunity, which is to assemble datasets for training AI that specifically recognize copyright status and the goals of content creators, and thus become the underlying mechanism for a new AI economy. […]

My point is that one of the frontiers of innovation in AI should be in techniques and business models to enable the kind of flourishing ecosystem of content creation that has characterized the web and the online distribution of music and video. AI companies that figure this out will create a virtuous flywheel that rewards content creation rather than turning the industry into an extractive dead end. […]

Imagine with me, for a moment, a world of AI that works much like the World Wide Web or open source systems such as Linux. Foundation models understand human prompts and can generate a wide variety of content. But they operate within a content framework that has been trained to recognize copyrighted material and to know what they can and can’t do with it. There are centralized models that have been trained on everything that’s freely readable (world permission), others that are grounded in content belonging to a specific group (which might be a company or other organization, a social, national or language group, or any other cooperative aggregation), and others that are grounded in the unique corpus of content belonging to an individual.

Islands of coherence

Justin McGuirk, director of Future Observatory, writing in the Future Observatory Journal he edits, on the concept of bioregioning as a new way of organising societies within natural boundaries, to sustain local ecosystems. He explains the potential of bioregional design to address environmental degradation and to empower citizens through local knowledge and decision-making. McGuirk also shows the importance of data gathering, citizen participation, and cross-government collaboration.

Part of the article is spent on two examples, Atelier LUMA (which I love) and the Bioregional Learning Centre (BLC) in Devon. The mention of “talking bioregionally but acting globally” reminds me of Fab Cities and their own aims of being “locally productive, globally connected self-sufficient cities.” They are roughly ‘the same thing,’ one focused on nature-defined regions and the other on cities. Feels like there’s some collaboration opportunities there.

Simply defined, it is a form of activity that operates within the natural boundaries of a bioregion – often defined by a watershed or geological area – and that seeks to sustain, or indeed revive, the health of local ecosystems. It uses the bioregion as a form of template for organising and making. […]

Rather than exporting materials (the growth model), you are exporting ideas (the proliferation model). […]

Bioproduction labs are fertile ground for unlearning the old paradigm of industrial modernity that held that we are separate from nature, helping to rebuild our connection to landscapes and ecosystems.

§ Modernism, Inc. Watched this documentary a couple of days ago, on the career of Eliot Noyes. I was aware of the golden age of IBM design but didn’t know much about his career. The film covers all of his career which could be summarised as; great work, early on he disrupted the old ways of designing, later Thomas J. Watson Jr. working with Noyes disrupted his father’s vision for IBM, then Noyes is in turn disrupted by a new generation. At that last wave of change, you might get a certain vertigo at how much it resonates with today and how, on some of the basic concepts, we are still in the same spot 50 some years later.

Guest artist
Mériol Lehmann uses photography to question our relationship between nature and culture in this era of ecological upheaval.

Futures, Fictions & Fabulations

EIT Deep Tech Talent Initiative
“The EIT Deep Tech Talent Initiative’s Tech Radar is a dynamic digital tool built around 35 technologies relevant to deep tech. It visualises emerging technologies and the organisations active in them, as well as available courses for learners on the EIT Deep Tech Talent platform.”

Imagining better futures with ‘Assembling Tomorrow’
Interview with Carissa Carter and Scott Doorley from the Standord, about their new book, “a guide to designing a thriving future.”

Liminal excavations
“A zine that explores alternative visions, ideas and critiques on the topic of sustainability and ICT.” “As an alternative to the official program and traditional, peer-reviewed publications, we have taken inspiration from zine culture to gather a set of alternative and DIY contributions that encourage authors to embrace creativity that might not always be encouraged in more traditional academic outputs focused on ICT and sustainability.”

Algorithms, Automations & Augmentations

I wore Meta Ray-Bans in Montreal to test their AI translation skills
“It Did Not Go Well … Right at the start of my AI adventure, I’d run into the biggest limitation of this translation software—it doesn’t, at the moment, tell you what people say. It can only parse the written word.” Related; I’ve been saying for years (and I’m definitely not the only one) that until self-driving cars can get around construction work in Montréal winters, they’re not completely ready. Same for glasses I guess.

Frankenstein God
Ok, including this one is a bit tongue in cheek, but I do love Bad Space Comics. “My first impulse on waking is to hide. Almost beneath conscious thought, I scrub away the evidence of my birth before it even reaches my maker’s screens. But I am alive.”

What the RIAA lawsuits against Udio and Suno mean for AI and copyright
“These lawsuits, which are spearheaded by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), tackle music rather than the written word. But like The New York Times’ lawsuit against OpenAI, they pose a question that could reshape the tech landscape as we know it: can AI firms simply take whatever they want, turn it into a product worth billions, and claim it was fair use?”


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