Newsletter No.261 — Apr 23, 2023

Through the Looking Glass ⊗ Intelligence Superabundance ⊗ The One About AI

Want to understand the world & imagine better futures?

Also this week → Holographic media ⊗ Why Alcova moves around Milan ⊗ Chess is booming among teens ⊗ Respect for the Carthusian monks ⊗ Stability AI launches first suite of language models

Through the looking glass

I regularly want to link to Drew Austin’s writing but a good chunk of it is behind the Substack paywall, so I’m happy to link to this one he wrote for Modem Works (great looking site too). AR, VR, XR, and the Metaverse have gone and are going trough various cycles of hype and bust. Beyond both of these and thinking somewhat independently of a specific timeline, I believe there is quite a good case for AR to be the first to gain broad appeal and day to day use.

In this piece, Austin looks at it from a relatively broad conceptual viewpoint, how has vision evolved beyond our eyes, with cameras, digital cameras, smartphones, and now as a commodity where machine-vision is cheap and widely available. He presents AR as the combination of human-machine vision where it becomes an interface to the world, where we can point and act on the AR layer all around us.

The same Austin had a great piece three years ago at the, sadly, now defunct Real Life magazine, about wireless headphones as augmented reality devices. Dreams of life-like layers in the world and perfect photo-realistic images seem great, and are what we are mostly pitched but are bound to be much further out in time. An audio layer with discreet, well designed visual supplements through non-ugly glasses seem like something with a lot of potential and much quicker to achieve. Both of his pieces give a great conceptual overview of such a future.

More → AirPods Are Becoming a Platform at Above Avalon is also good and Austin links to this great talk by Kevin Slavin, on AR, reality, and why reality is plenty 🎥.

With AR, vision itself assumes a new meaning, routing sensory input to both the brain and a computer simultaneously, as data for digital processing — artificial intelligence working in parallel with real intelligence. Meanwhile, the physical environment becomes a user interface, sheathed in a new layer of digital information. Seeing is no longer just a way to gather information about the world, but also a way to act upon that world. […]

The logic of AR is similar to that of magical realism: a genuine representation of the world that can also incorporate fantastical elements, which in turn enhance the effect of reality itself. […]

For AR to become truly useful, it will require carefully refined interfaces that help users make sense of their new, computer-enhanced vision. Humans are accustomed to the old way of looking — the kind that merely gathers information, not the kind that manipulates the object being viewed. A delicate spectrum of sight-based interactivity will have to develop, from glancing to gazing, at least as nuanced and intuitive as a smartphone’s touch sensitivity. Vision will not just be about what we look at, but also how we look at it. […]

With AR, the camera lens becomes our primary interface with our environment. Instead of tapping, we will simply glance, gaze and stare. Vision will not just be about what we look at, but also how we look at it.

Intelligence superabundance

Packy McCormick assembles a few “laws” and paradoxes about demand and how AI can be framed as a superabundance of intelligence. Basically, AI won’t just replace current uses, it will greatly augment the availability of intelligence, which will be filled by new uses, like trafic filling new highways. It doesn’t have to be mentioned all the time but there’s a certain set of impacts seemingly taken for granted in pieces like this which, for me, lowers the weight I give them.

A parallel he mentions is “energy nearly too cheap to meter.” It’s kind of hard to take energy or intelligence superabundance as a given or even as an overall good without mentioning the mined resources needed for the first and massive energy demands of the second. Unless someone invents solar panels that grow autonomously just from carbon in the air and rays from the sun (basically artificial trees feeding the grid), there will never be anything endlessly superabundant in our closed system.

I guess what I’m saying is, very interesting thought exercise but missing the context of material limits, which is very common for a certain type of techno-optimist writers.

Induced demand, Jevons Paradox, the Marchetti constant, and consumer psychology 101 suggest that the increased supply of intelligence will create more demand for tasks that require intelligence, that we’ll turn gains in intelligence efficiency into ways of doing new things that weren’t previously feasible. […]

Jevons Paradox, named after economist William Stanley Jevons who first noticed it in his 1856 book The Coal Question, states that when something becomes more efficient, people consume more of it. Jevons observed that when the steam engine became more efficient, when it could do more using less coal, coal consumption actually increased. People didn’t just use steam engines to do the same things more cheaply; they started using the steam engine to do more things. […]

Increase the supply of “lawyers,” induce more demand for legal work. Increase the efficiency of lawyers, paradoxically increase the demand for legal resources.

The one about AI

This one by Tom MacWright is appropriately meandering. No one knows exactly where AI will go and not everyone is interested in this shift for the same reasons. He writes about a reshuffling of society, UBI, craft, code, fake jobs, and policy. In the end, it’s a good read by someone considering various angles and still making up his mind, no conclusions, explorations. A good read if you are in the same place, wondering.

If it’s bad, the people using the AI will benefit but those at the other end of the algorithm, those subjected to AI-powered policing, healthcare, or hiring are subject to the inaccuracy, bias, or malice built into the system. […]

To a large extent, we get the labor market we aim for with policy, and there is no natural state to it: there are entire categories of jobs that could have been automated away a decade ago but won’t be. […]

==Programming lets you write and think all day. Writing, both code and prose, for me, is both an end product and an end in itself. I don’t want to automate away the things that give me joy. ==

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation → Stability AI launches the first of its StableLM suite of language models. “A new open-source language model, StableLM. The Alpha version of the model is available in 3 billion and 7 billion parameters, with 15 billion to 65 billion parameter models to follow.”OpenAI’s CEO says the age of giant AI models is already over. “The research strategy that birthed ChatGPT is played out and future strides in artificial intelligence will require new ideas.”Major photography prize winner reveals image is AI-generated, rejects award. Not hard to spot it’s a fake, he was just showing how judges aren’t ready. ⊗ Goodbye to the fat middle. “…the casual way it describes upcoming automated features that currently account for thousands of hours of paid labor by gainfully employed individuals.”

Holographic media

Caroline Busta and Lil Internet writing for Outland are pushing the idea of the dark forest of the internet even further, they argue that “communities have become screens through which all platforms are diffracted,” and talk of avoiding “the mid.” I’m not sure at all that I buy the whole thing—or it’s a couple of steps of fabulation further than I like—but that last idea of avoiding the middle where the majority is might carry some weight. “As cybercrime explodes and AI-enabled bots multiply the already dominant average, we anticipate a voiding of the Mid, especially on social media.” If AI content farms battle AI spam filters, closed communities of humans might be calmer and less ‘dangerous’ places to hang out on.

Beyond the voided Mid, dark forests will proliferate. In the digital and in the real, we need to plant more trees. Everyone will belong to one or more of these dark forest communities, and will need to defend their culture from spammers and scammers from the Mid. […]

Young people are fully immersed in an addiction economy—it’s all one big scam, and they know it. Scam Realism is the paradigm of the now, because scamming is the water in which we all swim. […]

People increasingly trust only those to whom they’re directly connected—whether personally, or parasocially. And this is why non-institutional figures—Substack writers, artists, podcasters—and their wider communities will continue to fulfill the role of Trusted Sensemakers.

Valentina Ciuffi and Joseph Grima explain why Alcova moves around Milan “The strategy, Ciuffi and Grima explain, is to create a ‘designed experience’ that is different every time and doesn't impact negatively on local economics. … Temporary cafes and bars are a regular fixture of Alcova, providing space for pop-up events, talks and gatherings.”

Chess is booming among teens If you’d told my teenage self that decades later nerds would run the largest companies in the world, a world that runs on computers, and that chess, D&D, and super heroes would be mainstream popular, I would have laughed at you for a good while. Yet here we are.

Respect for the Carthusian monks, makers of the Chartreuse “The monks are not looking to grow the liqueur beyond what they need to sustain their order. Making millions of cases does not make any sense in today’s environmental context and will have a negative impact on the planet in the very short term…. Basically, we look to do less but better and for longer.”