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Superhistory, not superintelligence ⊗ Think about the future’s past ⊗ Why Generation X will save the web — No.173

This week → Superhistory, not superintelligence ⊗ Think about the future’s past ⊗ Why Generation X will save the web ⊗ Manufacturing mRNA vaccines is surprisingly straightforward ⊗ How the cult of Bill Gates is leading us towards a climate disaster

A year ago → The most clicked article in issue No.126 was Facing the Age of Chaos (BANI framework) by Jamais Cascio.

Read the Sentiers newsletter on technology in society, signals of change, and prospective futures.

Superhistory, not superintelligence

TL;DR: Venkatesh Rao proposes that Artificial Intelligence is actually Artificial Time, that it compresses decades, centuries of learning in hours and minutes and makes it available to us as augmentation. I.e. AlphaGo played millions of games in a short time.

This is definitely the “brain explodes” article of this issue. It might be argued that Rao has too optimistic a view of AI/AT and skips over some issues, I don’t know, but regardless it’s a great read on “simple algorithms and more data beat complex algorithms and less data,” what models and inference are, latent spaces, augmentation, latent Centaurs, etc.

It’s a fascinating theory that I know will come back to mind often in coming years, including for his take on the challenge of bias (have a read), as well as the getting more conservative as we get older. On this last one, I’d add that most people might get more conservative in their actions, like taking fewer risks and sticking to old habits, but that intellectually there is access to so much information, it’s actually possible to diversify your thinking a lot.

He also argues that we live very empty lives; if you take into account repetition and imitation, there is very little original data in each individual life, easy to compress. By contrast, one year of an AI “studying” a topic can be chock full of diverse data, hence making our one year of learning even smaller in comparison to theirs. Last thing; make sure to get to his Magnus Carlsen example to better grasp the concept.

If AI models cannot be reduced to human terms of reference, perhaps human thought can be expanded to comprehend computational terms of reference. Living in superhistory involves learning to do that. […]

The machine learning revolution has been driven by the development of a series of increasingly mathematically powerful frameworks (CNNs, transformers) that can digest increasing amounts of training data, with decreasing amounts of supervision, producing increasingly reliable inferences. […]

One way to think of this is: these AIs have already read vastly more text than I could in a thousand years, and digested it into writing minds (language models) that are effectively Ancient Ones. And their understanding of what they’ve digested is not limited by human interpretative traditions, or the identity insecurities of various intellectual traditions. […]

In many ways, I feel older than my father, who is 83. I know the world in much richer, machine-augmented ways than he does, even though I don’t yet have a prosthetic device attached to my skull. I am not smarter than him. I’ve just data-aged more than him.

Think about the future’s past

Another (softer) mind bender, this one by Christopher Butler who reflects on systematic vs emotional future thinking. The first is the structured practice, the second how we project ourselves in the future, what we might be doing, might have missed, might regret. All of which helps us to have a perspective which spans our past, present, and future selves. Or actually, one self stretched along the timeline of our life. That’s the much simplified gist of it but Butler structures this with a few books, papers, and theories. Excellent.

Thinking about the future is something we all do. Most of the time, our prospection is emotional. We think about things we desire and imagine having them. We think about things we fear, and imagine suffering them, evading them, vanquishing them. We run scenarios in our mind so that we can process present feelings by imagining we are feeling future ones. […]

A good futurist is no more psychic than Sherlock Holmes, but just as hypervigilant of patterns and deft at weaving the finest threads of cause and effect. […]

[W]hen people anticipate future temptations, they have a measurably higher chance of resisting it than do those who confront temptations without any preparation. Again, imagining the future emotionally, and exploring further how we might feel later about choices we make now, can actually change the choices we make. […]

We can create things with the purpose of serving as future beacons of the past, and we can use them now to imagine how we will feel then, and we can use that experience to shape what we do next.

Why Generation X will save the web

Politicians don’t write laws and budgets themselves, they depend on young tech policy professionals, the ones working right now are Millenials. They are proposing policies based on the current shitstorm prone internet, not the open one that was. GenX can save us all by integrating that vision in policy. If that’s true, what the heck were GenX doing when they (“we”) were the young policy pros?? Fun read nonetheless, for the great GenX perspective / description, and some things to ponder.

Insert any number of Buzzfeed listicles here about what it’s like to be a GenXer in tech: we learned on floppies and dialup; we coded out of print magazines; we sowed our teenage wild oats on the parental tether of nothing more than a coin in a pay phone; we lived entire years of our student lives without a single photograph being taken of us; we navigated 9/11 on dumb cell phones which had antennas; we now live datafied existences, raising datafied children attending datafied virtual schools, in a world where everything we were raised to believe would sort us for life turned out to be boomer bullshit. […]

Today’s young tech policy professionals are are, quite rightfully, responding to the only internet in the only world they have ever known. The awful one. The one where the internet was and is a handful of billion-pound companies. The one where the internet has only ever been petrol on a fire. The one where the internet has been essential infrastructure like water and heat, not a thing you had to request and master. The closed internet made for them. Not the open internet I got to make. […]

[M]aybe, just maybe, the best things standing in the way of their spite and their avarice and their political aspirations are the Gen X fortysomethings who saw something better about the open web, and comprehended what was on their screens in a way that nothing has ever touched them since, and still believe in what the open web can be.

Manufacturing mRNA vaccines is surprisingly straightforward

Cory Doctorow looks at some of the incredibly unequal access to vaccines between rich and poor countries, and the nefarious influence of Bill Gates’ monopolist-king “philosophy.” However, his article is centered on a peer-reviewed paper in the Journal of Advanced Manufacturing and Processing which includes some astonishing numbers on how (relatively) cheap and easy it would be to scale mRNA manufacturing capacity globally. Makes this fact even clearer: capitalists (and us by letting them go) are letting people die for the sake of the mighty dollar.

Gates’s core belief is that everything can be improved by converting it to a form of property, and then allowing the super-intelligent latent god-kings among us to monopolize it. […]

New facilities will be 99–99.9% smaller than conventional vaccine facilities. They will be 95–99.7% cheaper than conventional vaccine facilities. You could use a single room in a conventional vaccine factory to make more vaccine doses of mRNA vaccines than the entire output of the rest of the factory. New vaccines can be made 1,000% faster than previous vaccines […]

The Cuban state — like the American state — has contributed significantly to that science, but with a key difference: the dividends from those contributions are part of our common scientific heritage. That’s what real “philanthropy” is — not enclosing the commons on behalf of a monopolist who needs to be bribed to spare his neighbors from civilizational collapse.

How the cult of Bill Gates is leading us towards a climate disaster

Gates again, this time on his influence on the climate crisis, where he’s trying to get governments to focus on hypothetical technologies and the financing of private companies to pursue them, instead of simply using existing tech, and scaling fast enough to make the difference. I admit, in recent years I fell victim to the Gates PR machine and his philanthropic work. No more.

Gates’s ‘solution’ centres around increasing innovation to develop new zero carbon technologies while bringing down their green premiums. However, this is reliant on years of research and development at the public’s expense, followed by rapid roll out through the private sector – such hopes are ultimately a pipe dream, because technological transitions take far too long to be feasible with net zero by 2050. Instead, we need to focus on existing technologies, alongside social transitions, which historically take ~40 years less than technological ones.