Newsletter No.285 — Oct 29, 2023

Unbundling AI ⊗ Why We Need Utopias ⊗ Freedom From Work

Join Sentiers, the futures thinking observatory

Also this week → Restaurants aren’t what they used to be ⊗ Genevieve Bell, from cybernetics to Meta(verse) ⊗ Meredith Whittaker on messaging privacy ⊗ Foresight as activism ⊗ A data poisoning tool for generative AI

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Unbundling AI

Benedict Evans explores a very intriguing and solid idea. After command lines, keyboard commands, and then graphical user interfaces, it looked like perhaps natural language was the next interface. The first wave wasn’t perfect, “you could ask Alexa anything, but it could only answer ten things.” Today it’s a different but sill imperfect option, “ChatGPT will answer anything, but can you use the answer?” In other words, the ‘interface’ allows anything but you can’t trust the answer.

Evans suggests that unbundling the capabilities of language models into specialized tools and integrating them into larger products may be a way to address some of these challenges. In this view, maybe LLMs aren’t the end product but some kind of underlying service, à la Amazon Web Services. Take the massive ‘engine’ and make it more precise with another more targeted interface on top of it. His last point is perhaps the most important; until we had iPads with great pens, many thought that writing would be the next great interface, it wasn’t. LLMs look like they natural language (spoken or typed) might be the next stage, maybe it isn’t, maybe it’s just resorting to a skeuomorphism until we figure it out.

LLMs can now do perfect natural language generation, which tends to hide the flaws in the underlying model. They generate prose that is grammatically and linguistically correct, and the fact that the prose is perfect tends to hide the weakness in what the prose is expressing. […]

We think that once the hardware is perfected the rest will follow logically. And we talk to people, so surely, if we could talk to a computer, and it could talk to us, that would be better? Yet Apple now has a technically flawless pen computing model in the iPad, and how many people use the stylus to do their email? This is skeuomorphism.

Why we need utopias

I’m sharing this one for three reasons. First, for the interview itself. I do find that the word ‘utopia’ is stretched a bit, making it sound like a name for any progressive change towards a better future. Otherwise I found it excellent. The author, Kristen Ghodsee, contrasts utopias by tech bros and Saudis vs ones by the general public and arguing for our reclaiming of the word and of the dreams. Kind of daycare and healthcare vs Musk serfs on Mars. Mundane utopias perhaps?

Then I got to the second part and the second reason. The book is actually about the utopia of reimagining family life and private life, about readjusting them in a form that better fits our needs, especially under neoliberalism. Ezra Klein actually interviewed Ghodsee in June and titled that episode What Communes and other radical experiments in living together reveal, which might give you a hint why I was halfway in the first interview before I realised it was the same book as in the second. Two completely different angle on the same interviewee with the same book. That’s the third reason for sharing; the two go well together, but it’s also notable how different they are.

It’s like the Coalition for Radical Life Extension, these people out in Silicon Valley who are basically trying to be immortal. … If you’re talking about universal health care, that’s totally utopian, but immortality is totally feasible. It’s a really weird double standard that tech bros and billionaires and Saudi princes get to dream up cities in the desert or like this new plan for a utopian city in Solano County in Northern California, but the rest of us are just going to be stuck with a housing crisis and homelessness. […]

We need to decentralize and claim utopia for ourselves, understanding at the same time that utopia is always a horizon. It’s not a place that you actually ever really get to. It’s a place that you orient yourselves toward, and it’s in the orientation towards utopia that you make forward progress. […]

There’s a way in which, within all social movements, within all attempts to create a better future, or to prevent a really awful future from coming in the case of the climate crisis, there is a core group of people—I sometimes like to call them the utopian 1%—who are just out there. They’re not just dreaming of a better future, they’re actually creating that future in the present.

Freedom from work

In short; society has put so much emphasis on the economy and GDP that we in turn put a huge amount of importance on work, financially because we need it, but also in terms of expectations of fulfillment. It rarely delivers. At the same time, if we are not in control we rage against the work/job/boss/manager, but if we are indies theoretically ‘in control,’ we are always looking for something different, something better, what’s next. In both cases the expectations and the rewards are out of whack and add stress.

We have a culture that privileges work but seems unable to provide work of substance for the majority, while apparently diminishing our leisure experience too. […]

For the vast majority, work fails to deliver on its promises. There’s a disconnect between their experience and what they believe work should offer. They don’t believe there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that is their job or some career. And that’s changing our conception of work dramatically, with political and social implications,”

Restaurants aren’t what they used to be (and that’s a good thing)

There are two things that always draw my attention around businesses and business models; hybrids and reinventions. Chef Anthony Strong pretty much did both, he shares his experience of the restaurant business, of starting a temporary private dining room in a van, and of how his new pasta shop tries to reinvent the model on multiple levels, to bring more stability, piece of mind, an actual living, and a better experience for patrons.

All I had to do was throw out the definition of how a restaurant normally works and start over from scratch. […]

Our restaurant is walk-in only, so we don’t pay an online reservation platform or lose money on no-shows. Our tiny menu is efficient and minimizes waste. Our product, pasta, is affordable enough to keep profit margins sufficient even during inflationary periods. Most important, guests order at the front door with the host before being pointed to their (fully set) table, which eliminates 15 minutes of profit-killing dead time at the beginning of each meal.

§ Prof. Genevieve Bell: From cybernetics to Meta(verse). Episode 034 of Julian’s great Near Future Laboratory podcast, where Bell gives us a crash course on the history of cybernetics and how it’s entwined with the more popularised history of computing. Includes the Great Exhibition with “the Charles” (Dickens, Babbage, Darwin), the invention of boredom, public loos, the metaverse, dark smoke-filled rooms (but not really), and a lot more besides.

§ Signal app President Meredith Whittaker on messaging privacy. “There’s no way to sort of sit on us hard enough so that we start to undermine what we’re doing. Our code is open, it’s verified; our protocol implementation is open, and it’s been tried and tested. Everyone’s thrown everything against it, trying to find a vulnerability. They haven’t [found it].”

Futures, foresights,
forecasts & fabulations

Foresight as activism – researching vs. making culture
“The future of strategy is straightforward: Uphold the bureaucratic way things have always been done and study from a distance, or immerse oneself and explore the way the world truly operates to affect progress.”

Change happens if our collective imagination changes
“Imagination is a crucial component for collective agency and our broader capacity for long-term survival and thriving as a species.”

Fun meets foresight: the AI Future Booth
“How we use the text-to-image generation software Midjourney as a tool and how it has allowed us to merge low-threshold playfulness, interviewing, and expert engagement to foster the capability of Futures Literacy in our participatory format the AI Future Booth.”

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation

Why read books when you can use chatbots to talk to them instead?
Because it’s fun to read books? Still, asking questions as you read a novel or getting answers from a non fiction book might be a good use case.

This new data poisoning tool lets artists fight back against generative AI
“A new tool lets artists add invisible changes to the pixels in their art before they upload it online so that if it’s scraped into an AI training set, it can cause the resulting model to break in chaotic and unpredictable ways.”

How Mayor Eric Adams plans to expand NYC use of AI
“As the technology gets more advanced, and the implications of algorithmic bias, misinformation and privacy concerns become more apparent, the city plans to set policy around new and existing applications.”


  • 🤯 🖼️ 🇦🇺 What a story! Retired country maths teacher Robert Martiensen created thousands of artworks in secret. “Over the next 20 years, he paints relentlessly, mostly in secret, always puffing on a tobacco pipe. He works in themed series, exploring an idea or a style in rapid repetition, sometimes painting 40 versions on a theme, then moving on.” (Via Clive Thompson.)
  • 😍 🧱 “You must not fear the 1,369-brick build. Fear is the mind-killer.” Lego reveals Dune set, and a cast of incredible minifigs. “LEGO Icons Dune Atreides Royal Ornithopter, revealed on Tuesday, is a loving recreation of the dragonfly-esque vehicles used in Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction series.”
  • 🌱 🥵 💦 Maybe we now have the “no normal” instead of the “new normal”? ‘No normal seasons any more’: seed farmers struggle amid the climate crisis. “Floods, freezes and heatwaves threaten seed production as farmers scramble to produce strains that resist climate chaos”
  • 🤯 🐦 🌪️ Bird takes on typhoon for an insane 700-mile sky-high ride of his life. “Throughout the 11-hour epic flight, the bird completed five full loops in circles ranging from 50-80 km (31-50 miles) in diameter, which tracked with the typhoon’s rotation and movement. While the shearwaters usually fly below 100 m (328 ft), this brazen bird found himself in entirely new territory, soaring at an altitude of 4,700 m (15,420 ft).”
  • 🐦 💨 Do wind turbines kill birds? “Yes—but only a fraction as many as are killed by house cats, buildings, or even the fossil fuel operations that wind farms replace.”
  • 🐦 🗺️ The Bird Migration Explorer. “The National Audubon Society’s Bird Migration Explorer, which is a beautifully designed interactive map of the Western hemisphere that shows the seasonal migration patterns of more than 450 species of birds.”
  • 🛰️ 🗑️ 🇷🇺 The Soviet spacecraft cemetery in the Pacific. “Between 1971 and 2018, global space powers, including the United States, Russia, Japan and Europe, crashed more than 263 space objects in the uninhabited region of the ocean around Point Nemo.” (Via Clive Thompson.)