Revenge of the humanities ⊗ Why peak uncertainty is a myth ⊗ “Nature, nurture, network”

No.315 — Binding the Moon & Exadelic ⊗ Reimagining migration and mobility ⊗ AI systems are learning to lie and deceive

Revenge of the humanities ⊗ Why peak uncertainty is a myth ⊗ “Nature, nurture, network”
Guest artist: Mériol Lehmann — haldes, rue du lac-noir, black lake

Revenge of the humanities

Steven Johnson with an argument I’ve made and linked to before, which is that humanities are suddenly, and surprisingly for some, back as a desirable education/skills. As we deal with algorithmic creations that have been trained on a huge swath of humanity’s knowledge, “the skills [needed] might be best acquired in a writing workshop or a philosophy seminar.”

Language models are not intelligent in the ways that even small children are intelligent, but they are already superhuman at tasks like summarization, translation (both linguistic and conceptual), and association. And when you apply those skills to artfully curated source material written by equally, but differently, gifted humans, magic can happen.

I’m not a hundred percent convinced about the humanities argument but going back to Klein’s interview with Herndon, which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago and which Johnson also referrers to, we can see LLMs as collective intelligence. A way to access a massive corpus of writing by talking to it. It seems quite … plausible? logical? intriguing? that talking to it/them with all of humanity’s language expertise might be the best way to work with it. No?

That’s kind of the intellectual part of it, weaved into it he also talks of Google’s NotebookLM, which he worked on, and which is finally available in a number of new countries, including Canada, ‘just’ six or seven months later. I’m still iffy about relying on the company for this kind of work, but I’ll definitely give it a try anyway.

Given this body of knowledge, given the abilities and limitations of the AI, and given my goals, what is the most effective question or instruction that I can propose right now? I don't know whether you're better off with a humanities background or an engineering background in developing that talent, but I do believe it has become an enormously valuable talent to have. […]

Alison Gopnik has been talking about AI for a long while as a “cultural technology,” which adds weight to the prediction that humanities skills will have increasing relevance in a world shaped by such technologies. […]

A very common trope is to treat LLMs as if they were intelligent agents going out in the world and doing things. That’s just a category mistake. A much better way of thinking about them is as a technology that allows humans to access information from many other humans and use that information to make decisions.

Why peak uncertainty is a myth

This piece by Alex Fergnani has a bit of a ‘semantic hill I’d die on’ feel, as he challenges the common belief that we are living in times of unprecedented uncertainty, arguing that high levels of uncertainty have always been a defining feature of human life, citing multiple examples of great uncertainty throughout history. He also kind of equates uncertainty with the speed of change.

My first nitpick is that he quickly dismisses the climate crisis, which to my mind represents more uncertainty than at any time, except at the peak of the cold war or perhaps when humanity was down to a few thousand individuals.

Also, although the highest examples of uncertainty today are perhaps not higher than in the past, most everyone is now aware of many of them simultaneously, and there are billions more people than at any time in the past. The ‘volume’ of uncertainty is thus definitely much greater, if you want to consider such an idea.

More importantly, although change might not be happening faster in any one spot/domain, it might be happening fast in more domains perceived by the average person. When you take all these domains together, if feels like faster change. In other words; perhaps the ‘top speed of change’ (sorry for the mixed metaphor with the peaks) hasn’t changed much, but the number of things going fast in one’s field of vision certainly has.

Fergnani’s overall argument is that executives’ feelings of uncertainty has to do with insufficient planning, and that a good foresight practice helps to prevent that. My take is that he’s right, although it’s not (or not only) because it makes for better plans, but because it can make you aware of more of the things coming at you fast. Better situational awareness, as I like to say.

These wisdoms from disparate traditions all point to the conclusion that a constantly changing nature brings about high levels of uncertainty, and that high levels of uncertainty have always been a defining feature of human life. […]

When confronting uncertainty, the best approach is to develop coping mechanisms rather than attempting to diminish or eliminate it. Without a compelling vision and robust mechanisms for dealing with uncertainty, and relying solely on a plan, every minor change in the environment makes us feel that uncertainty is increasing.

“Nature, nurture, network.”

Kevin Slavin doesn’t go for the motivational speech during his commencement address for the Cooper Union, not directly anyway, and instead explores the interconnectedness of everything through the lenses of science and art, challenging the idea of the individual self. “In addition to the 23 chromosomes you got at birth, which we call ‘nature,’ and in addition to the 20 years or so of upbringing which we call ‘nurture,’ there’s also something else that forms you: let’s call it a network.” “Nature, nurture, network.”

Slavin closes by saying that we should view ourselves as stewards of our complex beings and encouraging us to embrace being part of a larger societal network, rather than isolated individuals. (The full commencement ceremony is on Youtube here’s a direct link to the beginning of his address.)

There’s this great quote, from a kinda disreputable philosopher who thought about such things hundreds of years ago. He wrote: “every organism of appreciable size is a society.” […]

And it’s true, some stories are murderous: it was stories that killed the idea that humans were at the center of anything. The center of the universe, or history, or the tree of life. For these stories, you could be banned, you could be burned alive. That’s how much these kind of stories matter. […]

It’s science, but it arrives as a story. And we treat stories like visitors; they arrive, you host them, they hang out and then they leave. But really, stories are … more like viruses. Sometimes when they arrive, they alter the host.

§ Robin Sloan: Binding the Moon. Eliot Peper interviews Sloan about his new book. Their chat is about half and half teaser for the book and backstory about writing it. It’s also where I learnt of another time/place I’d like to be eavesdropping on; their occasional lunches together with Hannu Rajaniemi.

§ Reviews seem to be uneven—I think you might need to be ‘native’ to some of these topics to understand it—but I’m thoroughly enjoying Exadelic by Jon Evans. Silicon Valley billionnaires, magick, time travel, the multiverse, and more. Kind of DEVs meets Dr Strange meets ... Quantum Leap?

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

Futures, Fictions & Fabulations

Reimagining migration and mobility
“In the face of the world’s unprecedented pace of change, the necessity for foresight in governance and multilateral cooperation has never been more acute. Recognizing this, IOM engaged School of International Futures, a global nonprofit organization, to draw upon its ‘three horizon’ methodology and work with some of the leading migration practitioners and scholars in the world to ‘re-imagine migration and mobility’.”

Introducing Foresight: A community of practice approach
[Andy Hines] came up with a Foresight Integration Model to map out a ‘typical’ pathway for how foresight gets introduced. It captures common patterns in introducing foresight into organizations as well as offering recommendations on a best practices. In the article, we describe the CDC journey through the model.

“Explores an introspective shift in European societies through five audio-visual scenarios. We developed the project as part of the EU Policy Lab's Futures Garden, which aims to support policymakers in envisioning and working with alternative transformational futures to design more future-fit policies in co-creation with its citizens.” (Via the RADAR Discord.)

Algorithms, Automations & Augmentations

Gen AI adoption spikes and starts to generate value
Short McKinsey report. “As generative AI adoption accelerates, survey respondents report measurable benefits and increased mitigation of the risk of inaccuracy. A small group of high performers lead the way.”

AI systems are learning to lie and deceive
“‘GPT- 4, for instance, exhibits deceptive behavior in simple test scenarios 99.16% of the time,’ the University of Stuttgart researcher writes, citing his own experiments in quantifying various "maladaptive" traits in 10 different LLMs, most of which are different versions within OpenAI's GPT family.” (Via the RADAR Discord.)

Apple WWDC 2024 keynote in 18 minutes
I’m sure you’ve already seen various takes about “Apple Intelligence,” so I almost didn’t include it. But perhaps you didn’t know that The Verge makes a much shorter, much more digestible version of every Apple Keynote. The link above is to the part about AI but not AI. You might also want to read Ben Evans’ Unbundling AI after watching that keynote slice.


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  • 🐘 🤯 😔 Elephants Have Names for Each Other, Study Finds. “The use of names is rare in the animal kingdom, and it typically works by imitation. Dolphins refer to other dolphins by mimicking their signature sound. Parrots identify each other in similar fashion. Elephant calls are unusual in that they do not rely on imitation. The new findings, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, suggest that elephants may be capable of abstract thought and could possess a vocabulary that goes beyond names.”
  • 😭 😭 😭 🗺️ 🇺🇦 Beautifully done page, heart breaking visuals. What Ukraine Has Lost During Russia’s Invasion. “We analyzed every building across Ukraine that has been damaged or destroyed since Russia attacked two years ago. A vast area with some 210,000 buildings leveled across a jagged, 800-mile frontline and beyond.”
  • 🧱 🪑 🤔 🇸🇪 Ikea Will Pay You Real Money to Work in Its Virtual Roblox Store. “The Co-Worker Game, as the Swedish furniture company calls its Roblox experience, is set to open June 24 and will, in the words of a press release, allow player-employees to ‘immerse themselves in the working world of Ikea.’ Applying includes answering questions like, ‘If you were a pixelated Ikea furniture, what would you be?’ and ‘What would you do if we ran out of pixelated hot dogs in our bistro?’”
  • 😍 🤯 🍄 📃 📸 Bonkers! In Intricate Detail, Ann Wood Sprouts Myriad Mushroom Sculptures from Paper. “From delicate gills and colorful caps to plump stems with remnants of soil stuck to the bottoms, Ann Wood’s elaborate fungi look like they were just plucked from the ground, but these stunning specimens are made entirely from paper.”
  • 🦀 💉 🏥 😲 🇬🇧 NHS patients in England to be offered trials for world-first cancer vaccine. “The gamechanging jabs, which aim to provide a permanent cure, are custom-built for each patient in just a few weeks. They are tailored to the individual’s tumours and work by telling their body to hunt and kill any cancer cells and prevent the disease from coming back.”

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