Newsletter No.254 — Mar 05, 2023

Multiplayer Futures ⊗ What Has Feelings? ⊗ How I Research a New Subject

Want to understand the world & imagine better futures?

Also this week → A Legendary World-Builder on Multiverses, Revolution and the ‘Souls’ of Cities ⊗ Calibrating experiences of the future ⊗ Learning together for responsible artificial intelligence

Multiplayer futures

RADAR published a whitepaper this week, on their vision of multiplayer futures, an “imagination infrastructure” that the group can use to detect, develop, share, and try to reify futures through their processes and structures. The whole paper (see it as a long essay if you have a habit of skipping over ‘papers,’ like I often do) is heavily linked and quotes a lot of people (including yours truly) to assemble this vision, well worth a read if you are interested in topics like small groups, multiplayer collaboration, futures, emergence, Berkana Institute’s two loops, and a lot more besides.

I participate a little in RADAR but mostly lurk, and I must regularly look like this when I try to catchup to the absolute flood of great stuff constantly pouring into the Discord. So it’s with admiration for the general work that I say that I wholeheartedly agree with the conceptual vision and largely agree with 80% of the piece, but that I still look quite sideways at the “multiplayer infrastructure for Incubate” and the exit to community. I’m skeptical (or perhaps I lack imagination) at what kind of research result could plausibly be manifested by a group emerging from the process, and at how the whole group and its projects could be sustained through NFTs and crypto. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I’d tend to separate the two more and have non-crypto financing options. Regardless, great read.

[W]e’re placing our stake in the ground and putting forth a new theory of change. One that relies on interconnected emergence rather than individual innovation; one that believes mass adoption can occur much more rapidly under these circumstances; one that’s supercharged by new behaviors & new technology. […]

Recent discoveries and conversations across scientific spheres all confirm what Alan Watts knew: the world is indeed wiggly. Chaos, complexity, circumstances outside our control; interconnected, interdependent, deeply and uncomfortably unpredictable. […]

If we’re going to accelerate emerging futures, we’re going to do it in multiplayer mode — creating the conditions for pathfinders and groundbreakers to come together, learn together, and play together; to survive and thrive in a wiggly world. […]

A community of thinkers, makers, pathfinders, and groundbreakers aligned behind a shared vision of a better future. Their combined skills, talents, wisdom, and capacity aimed at creating not just new products or services, but new categories, new lifestyles, new worlds. Decentralized, distributed, and collective decision making determining where they’ll point their energy. A collective working at the level of a shared story, writing the next chapter together. […]

“Everything we attempt, everything we do, is either growing up as its roots go deeper, or it’s decomposing, leaving its lessons in the soil for the next attempt.”

What has feelings?

“As the power of AI grows, we need to have evidence of its sentience. That is why we must return to the minds of animals.” Fascinating read at Aeon, by Kristin Andrews, professor of philosophy at York University in Toronto and York Research Chair in Animal Minds (wow!), and Jonathan Birchis, associate professor in philosophy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. I don’t always list all authors and their titles but it’s very appropriate here to get an idea of the credibility behind their thinking as they explain with great insight and examples how the search for sentient species, their evolutionary background, the gaming problem, the ‘N = 1 problem’, and how the various ways of interpreting and testing for said sentience can inform our evaluation of AIs.

Even with all the great scientific bits in there, they are still ‘just’ basing all of it on their current way of defining sentience; through a specific set of markers that has a lot to do with feelings of pain and reactions to it. It might be the best way, but it’s likely only one of a few, which goes to show how complex this whole debate/research is.

The situation resembles that faced by researchers studying the origins of life, as well as researchers searching for life on other worlds. They are in a bind because, for all its diversity, we have only one confirmed instance of the evolution of life to work with. So researchers find themselves asking: which features of life on Earth are dispensable and contingent aspects of terrestrial life, and which features are indispensable and essential to all life? Is DNA needed? Metabolism? Reproduction? How are we supposed to tell? […]

It could also be that sentience has evolved only three times: once in the arthropods (including crustaceans and insects), once in the cephalopods (including octopuses) and once in the vertebrates. And we cannot entirely rule out the possibility that the last common ancestor of humans, bees and octopuses, which was a tiny worm-like creature that lived more than 500 million years ago, was itself sentient – and that therefore sentience has evolved only once on Earth. […]

With animals, there is no reason to worry about gaming. Octopuses and crabs are not using human-generated training data to mimic the behaviours we find persuasive. They have not been engineered to perform like a human. Indeed, we sometimes face a mirror-image problem: it can be very difficult to notice markers of sentience in animals quite unlike us.

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation → You are not a parrot, and a chatbot is not a human. On Emily Bender and the “octopus paper.” I haven’t read it yet but Jason has and he shares some salient points and his own useful take on ‘self-driving’ cars. ⊗ Learning together for responsible artificial intelligence. The Government of Canada’s “report of the Public Awareness Working Group.” ⊗ How WIRED will use Generative AI tools. Good policy.

How I research a new subject

I was initially reading this article by Clive Thompson for personal use or perhaps as a ‘short’ for the newsletter but, from what I gather, there are enough readers who do some form of work that integrates something that could qualify as research that I think this can be useful to a lot of people. Thompson says that “there’s no magic bullet. It’s mostly about sheer, dogged persistence” and the piece is centered on his work as a journalist but there are good tips in there for many of us. (And if you love beautiful libraries like I do, you need to click through just for the top picture.)

Point five, “follow up on everything” is especially useful for me, as it’s a variation on something I always struggle with; when is enough flânage enough? Just this Thursday, I spent 10 minutes in my newsletters folder when I wasn’t supposed to have the time. I found four of the links from this newsletter. ‘Enough’ was clearly not the moment just before those 10 minutes.

So I’ve learned to tolerate a lot of digressions in my research. I’ll look at the footnotes in a paper and read the ones that seem intriguing. I’ll be interviewing a subject and they’ll mention that their thesis supervisor was obsessed with [Topic G] Only Slightly Related To The Subject At Hand] and I’ll spend a few hours reading up on that. […]

It’s also “bursty”. I’ll spend days or weeks slogging away at a subject, learning things generally but not necessarily finding the perfect anecdotes, data points, stories and expert ideas that help me build my article. Then suddenly, bang, out of nowhere, four or five crucial elements will fall into place in a single afternoon. Then it’s back to slogging for days and days or weeks and weeks until I hit pay dirt again. […]

Saturation is the moment when you’re doing research and you feel like you’re no longer encountering novel information. You read an article or a white paper and think, huh, yeah, I already know all this stuff. Someone mentions a major expert in a field and you go, yep, already read their work.

Futures, foresights, forecasts & fabulations → A legendary worldbuilder on multiverses, revolution and the ‘souls’ of cities. Ezra Klein Interviews N.K. Jemisin and basically goes through a one-on-one worldbuilding workshop, lucky bastard. ⊗ What I’m looking for in the WIRED back catalog. Dave Karpf on his project about the magazine, interesting insights into his process, thinking, and it’s kind of critical futures. ⊗ Calibrating experiences of the future. Scott Smith of Changeist on some of their design fiction work. ⊗ Learning futures studies collaboratively. ⊗ The Dao of foresight by Alex Fergnani.


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  • 😍 📚 🇯🇵 Readers Burrow into a Bookworm Haven in Kurkku Fields’ ‘Underground Library’. “Undulating grass mounds at Kurkku Fields camouflage a meditative enclave for reading and rest. Opened last month in Kisarazu City, Japan, “Underground Library” is the project of Hiroshi Nakamura and NAP Architects, who designed the study center so that it nestles into the ground and seamlessly merges with the surrounding landscape.”
  • 😃 🖼 🇳🇱 Great idea! The Mauritshuis Museum Is Showing Remixes of Girl With a Pearl Earring in Her Absence. “The Mauritshuis museum has loaned out Girl With a Pearl Earring to the Rijksmuseum for its blockbuster, once-in-a-lifetime Johannes Vermeer exhibition. While she’s out of the building, they’re digitally displaying dozens of renditions of the artwork submitted during an open call for entries last year.”
  • 😍 🍇 🇮🇨 I’d never heard of these vineyards, incredible! The Protected Landscape of La Geria. “How can an island as dry as Lanzarote produce excellent white wines and sweet wines? The answer is the “geria”, a cone-shaped hollow excavated in natural layers of volcanic gravel several metres deep and in the centre of which a vine is planted, a wall in the shape of a half moon is then built around the vine in order to protect it from the wind. Row after row of these perfect hollows which are tinted green, ochre and black result in a most unique landscape and it helps to justify why Lanzarote has been included in The Unesco World Network of Biosphere Reserves.”
  • 🎥 🍿 A Movie Trailer Editor Deconstructs Iconic Trailers. “Bill Neil is a movie trailer editor at Buddha Jones and in this video he guides us through a short history of movie trailers — from Dr. Strangelove in the 60s to Neil’s own Nope trailer — and gently picks them apart to show us how they work.”
  • 😍 📻 Lovely! Instantly Explore the World with the Clever and Simple CityRadio. “We love how damn simple and straightforward the CityRadio is. Comprised of a simple player with modular city buttons, the device lets you instantly tune into radio stations in your city of choice. Samba in Sao Paulo? Business talk in Beijing? Talk radio in Tokyo? It’s just a click away.”
  • 🍄 💻 A look inside the lab building mushroom computers. “With fungal computers, mycelium—the branching, web-like root structure of the fungus—acts as conductors as well as the electronic components of a computer. (Remember, mushrooms are only the fruiting body of the fungus.) They can receive and send electric signals, as well as retain memory.”