Hannsjörg Voth, Connecting the Earth to the Stars

The Ghostchain ⊗ Future Myopia ⊗ The thrilling, dangerous world of language AI — No.176

This week → The Ghostchain. (Or taking things for what they are) ⊗ Future Myopia ⊗ The race to understand the thrilling, dangerous world of language AI ⊗ Fusion & Magic ⊗ What the Silicon Valley idealists got wrong

A year ago → The most clicked article in issue No.129 was Universal Basic Everything by TessyBritton.

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

The Ghostchain. (Or taking things for what they are)

Last week I mentioned promising concepts vs underwhelmingly execution in regards to Blockchain, NFTs, and DAOs. In various topics I’m interested in there are often (at least) three types of reactions I notice: people madly for who don’t criticize, people madly critical who don’t acknowledge pros, people pining for a public good version, or at least one not operating in a “capitalism turned to eleven” kind of framing, who kind of throw their hands up at the debate.

Geraldine Juárez seems to be mostly in the second camp with a conclusion opening on the third. I’m mentioning this because it’s a great read, with great digs at the art scene and NFTs, but I can’t help feeling that there are bits in there that might be overly on the critical side. Not sure.

I also talk about these three types because I’m coming from the third one with regards the metaverse, and Juárez ruined my vibe by introducing me to the NFTbro metaverse version. I was sad, if unsurprised, to discover this.

Web3 is another topic mentioned, which is here included in the crap fest she describes, but I keep seeing opinions of great promise for it. I’ll have to read-up, like the couple of long pieces by thejaymo that I’ve got piled up.

But enough digressions; excellent piece with lots of great points, a useful perspective on digital art, and Juárez hits her goal of articulating “with more precision the interdependence between financialisation and assetization, and to spot the broader social and political effects that turning things into digital assets have in the societies we exist in as artists.”

In the internet of assets – the casino layer of the web – who cares about workers? One vending machine per child. Do not worry, there is no need for intermediaries. The only thing needed is a public ledger devouring energy to decentralise the verification of all economic transactions concentrated within the chain of preference. […]

This frictionless machine only dispenses art as a ghost, a form that–like all exchange value–is magical and mysterious but should not be confused with aura, simply because there is no such thing as an authentic digital copy. It is not the ghost in the vending machine either. It is the ghost of property, a fictitious experience of ownership glancing back at us through our screens. Capitalised aura, perhaps. […]

But if assets are just made up narratives about the future, perhaps we can create other stories where the value of the future is brought into the present with the intention of decapitalising these chains and make it socially and politically expensive to keep adding blocks in them, until blockchain infrastructures eventually turn into abandoned ghostchains.

Future Myopia

I’ll have to go back but I’m pretty sure most articles I might have included on the climate crisis where generations were mentioned had to do with being good ancestors, thus written in the present thinking of future generations. Mehitabel Glenhaber (PhD student at the University of Southern California) is an historian and gives us an excellent essay with something we don’t see as often: the past looking to our present, and the young people of the present looking behind and forward.

They look at the Changing Climate report, written in 1983 by the Carbon Dioxide Assessment Committee, and focus on the opinion of Thomas Schelling and the executive summary by Bill Nierenberg who basically said “we know what’s going to happen, but we won’t do anything and let future generations be creative and handle it.”

Glenhaber is of the generation truly inheriting the problem—mine could have done something, did a bare minimum, but wasn’t really living it in their twenties and thirties—and “make[s] eye contact with a ghost,” contemplating what the Shellings and Nierenbergs shovelled forward, what today’s young generation is stuck with, and how to not only take-up the mission of saving the world, but doing it in respect of coming generations.

[Schelling] knows that my life must be very different from his, because he knows that his way of life is not sustainable. And, yet, he does not seem to have put much work into imagining how I might feel about the whole thing. […]

But a ghost is your problem because you live in the house in which it lived — because we live on the same planet, tied up in the same catastrophic global economic system. The world we live in is cluttered with smog, chained with shipping routes and oil pipelines, and littered with the actions of our predecessors. […]

The past may have demanded that I take up the work of repairing the planet; but I do this work so that when I meet someone from future in the archives, I’ll be able to look them in the eye.

The race to understand the thrilling, dangerous world of language AI

The excellent Karen Hao at MIT Technology Review looks at Google’s new LaMDA large language model (LLM), existing ones like GPT-3, and the numerous pitfalls and problems we already know about. Hao also includes the implications of Gebru and Mitchell’s firing by Google, Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression, and the fantastic (from what little I know) scientific collaboration project by BigScience “for an open-source LLM that could be used to conduct critical research independent of any company.”

[S]tartups are creating dozens of products and services based on the tech giants’ models. Soon enough, all of our digital interactions—when we email, search, or post on social media—will be filtered through LLMs. […]

Another will focus on developing responsible ways of sourcing the training data—seeking alternatives to simply scraping data from the web, such as transcribing historical radio archives or podcasts. The goal here is to avoid toxic language and nonconsensual collection of private information. […]

Every data point and every modelling decision is being carefully and publicly documented, so it’s easier to analyze how all the pieces affect the model’s outcomes. “It’s not just about delivering the final product,” says Angela Fan, a Facebook researcher. “We envision every single piece of it as a delivery point, as an artifact.”

Fusion & Magic

This essay by Andrew Blum is probably a tad too much on the techno-optimist side for my taste but it’s still worth a read, as he mixes a look back at some important technologies or products appearing somewhat out of nowhere, with a useful intro to superconductors and fusion. For those who’ve read Eliot Peper’s Commonwealth trilogy (you should), it’s fun imagining the article’s fusion company also called Commonwealth, and what kind of energy play they could do in case of success vs the communication infrastructure play in Peper’s books.

[T]he fabrication and testing of a two-step project. The first is a massively powerful magnet made with high-temperature superconductors. The second uses the magnet as the transformative component in a fusion reactor capable of producing more energy than it requires to operate. Called SPARC, it is especially remarkable for its relatively small size, with the entire unit taking up about the same space as a volleyball court. […]

Once that sun can be turned on and off at will, the challenge will be to extract its excess energy and package it into something resembling a power plant. Then build them, fast.

What the Silicon Valley idealists got wrong

Nicholas Carr for Engelsberg Ideas. It’s too long, but the subtitle would have been a better title, “The internet and social media were supposed to democratise knowledge and unite the world. Things didn’t quite turn out that way.” A useful debunking of the two myths who’s impacts we are now living in: about information and knowledge, and about communication and community.

It’s these connections, or associations, between pieces of information, not the individual pieces themselves, that give depth to our thoughts. The connections form the essence of our intellect, enabling us to think conceptually and critically, to solve difficult and unexpected problems, and to make leaps of inference and imagination. The richer the web of connections, the sharper the mind. […]

The research suggests, in fact, that the opposite is true: free-flowing information makes personal and cultural differences more salient. It tends to turn people against one another instead of bringing them together. […]

[N]egotiation and compromise, a renewed emphasis on civics and reasoned debate, a citizenry able to appreciate contrary perspectives and to think deeply about complex challenges. It will require less self-expression and more self-examination.

Related → The internet is flat.

The internet facilitates these powerful, complex parasocial relationships but, at the same time flattens everything that makes the messy, human elements of relationships possible. It flattens audiences, it flattens time and it flattens a lot of nuance.