Nudging, Big Data, and Well-being

by Fabio Tollon

Pexels by Tyler Hendy

We often make bad choices. We eat sugary foods too often, we don’t save enough for retirement, and we don’t get enough exercise. Helpfully, the modern world presents us with a plethora of ways to overcome these weaknesses of our will. We can use calorie tracking applications to monitor our sugar intake, we can automatically have funds taken from our account to fund retirement schemes, and we can use our phones and smartwatches to make us feel bad if we haven’t exercised in a while. All of these might seem innocuous and relatively unproblematic: what is wrong with using technology to try and be a better, healthier, version of yourself?

Well, let’s first take a step back. In all of these cases what are we trying to achieve? Intuitively, the story might go something like this: we want to be better and healthier, and we know we often struggle to do so. We are weak when faced with the Snickers bar, and we can’t be bothered to exercise when we could be binging The Office for the third time this month. What seems to be happening is that our desire to do what all things considered we think is best is rendered moot by the temptation in front of us. Therefore, we try to introduce changes to our behaviour that might help us overcome these temptations. We might always eat before going shopping, reducing the chances that we are tempted by chocolate, or we could exercise first thing in the morning, before our brains have time to process what a godawful idea that might be. These solutions are based on the idea that we sometimes, predictably, act in ways that are against our own self-interest. That is to say, we are sometimes irrational, and these “solutions” are ways of getting our present selves to do what we determine is in the best interests of future selves. Key to this, though, is we as individuals get to intentionally determine the scope and content of these interventions. What happens when third parties, such as governments and corporations, try to do something similar?

Attempts at this kind of intervention are often collected under the label “nudging”, which is a term used to pick out a particular kind of behavioural modification program. The term was popularized by the now famous book, Nudge, in which Thaler and Sunstein argue in favour of “libertarian-paternalism”. Read more »

Forgetting Aristotle

by Dwight Furrow

For many of the ancient philosophers that we still read today, philosophy was not only an intellectual pursuit but a way of life, a rigorous pursuit of wisdom that can guide us through the difficult decisions and battle for self-control that characterize a human life. That view of philosophy as a practical guide faded throughout much of modern history as the idea of a “way of life” was deemed a matter of personal preference and philosophical ethics became a study of how we justify right action. But with the recognition that philosophy might speak to broader concerns than those that get a hearing in academia, this idea of philosophy as a way of life has been revived in recent years.

However, if philosophy is to be successfully conceptualized as a way of life, it will have to overcome that legacy of modern moral philosophy which has little to say about life as lived. You can sift through the works of Hume, Kant, Mill, and their heirs without discovering much that is practically useful. Of all the mainstream views in ethics, one has to return to the ancient philosophers, most notably Aristotle, and their modern interpreters to find discussions of the nature of human flourishing, practical wisdom, and the qualities of character required to achieve it. But alas, it seems to me, even that return to Aristotle is not sufficient to make the argument for philosophy as a way of life. Despite Aristotle’s laudable sensitivity to practical concerns, his work is afflicted with idealizations that limit its value for everyday moral reflection. Read more »

The ‘Soft’ Impacts of Emerging Technology

by Fabio Tollon

Getting a handle on the various ways that technology influences us is as important as it is difficult. The media is awash with claims of how this or that technology will either save us or doom us. And in some cases, it does seem as though we have a concrete grasp on the various costs and benefits that a technology provides. We know that CO2 emissions from large-scale animal agriculture are very damaging for the environment, notwithstanding the increases in food production we have seen over the years. However, such a ‘balanced’ perspective usually emerges after some time has passed and the technology has become ‘stable’, in the sense that its uses and effects are relatively well understood. We now understand, better than we did in the 1920s, for example, the disastrous effects of fossil fuels and CO2 emissions. We can see that the technology at some point provided a benefit, but that now the costs outweigh those benefits. For emerging technologies, however, such a ‘cost-benefit’ approach might not be possible in practice.

Take a simple example: imagine a private company is accused of polluting a river due to chemical runoff from a new machine they have installed (unfortunately this probably does not require much imagination and can be achieved by looking outside, depending on where you live). In order to determine whether the company is guilty or not we would investigate the effects of their activities. We could take water samples from the river and attempt to show that the chemicals used in the company’s manufacturing process are indeed present in the water. Further, we could make an argument where we show how there is a causal relationship between the presence of these chemicals and certain detrimental effects that might be observed in the area, such as loss of biodiversity, the pollution of drinking water, or an increase in diseases associated with the chemical in question. Read more »

Virtue Ethics, Technology, and the Situationist Challenge

by Fabio Tollon

In a previous article I argued that, when it comes to our moral appraisal of emerging technologies, the best normative framework to use is that of virtue ethics. The reasons for this were that virtue ethics succeeds in ways that consequentialist or deontological theories fail. Specifically, these other theories posit fixed principles that seem incapable of accommodating the unpredictable effects that emerging technologies will have not only on how we view ourselves, but also on the ways in which they will interact with our current social and cultural practices

However, while virtue ethics might be superior in the sense that it is able to be context sensitive in way that these other theories are not, it is not without problems of its own. The most significant of these is what is known as the ‘situationist challenge’, which targets the heart of virtue ethics, and argues that situational influences trump dispositional ones. In this article I will defend virtue ethics from this objection and in the process show that it remains our best means for assessing the moral effects of emerging technologies.

So, what exactly is the situationist challenge contesting? In order for any fleshed-out theory of virtue to make sense, it must be the case that something like ‘virtues’ exist and are attainable by human beings, and that they are reliably expressed by agents. For example, traits such as generosity, arrogance, and bravery are dispositions to react in particular ways to certain trait-eliciting circumstances. If agents do not react reliably in these circumstances, it makes little sense to traffic in the language of the virtues. Calling someone ‘generous’ makes no sense if they only acted the way that they did out of habit or because someone happened to be watching them. Read more »

The Value of Metaphysics

by Dwight Furrow

Among the ideas in the history of philosophy most worthy of an eye-roll is Aristotle’s claim that the study of metaphysics is the highest form of eudaimonia (variously translated as “happiness” or “flourishing”) of which human beings are capable. The metaphysician is allegedly happier than even the philosopher who makes a well-lived life the sole focus of inquiry. “Arrogant,” self-serving,” and “implausible” come immediately to mind as a first response to the argument. It’s not at all obvious that philosophers, let alone metaphysicians, are happier than anyone else nor is it obvious why the investigation of metaphysical matters is more joyful or conducive to flourishing than the investigation of other subjects.

Is there an insight here to be salvaged? Can this implausible argument about the glorious lives of metaphysicians be separated from the rest of Aristotle’s argument that philosophy is not only a way of life but the quintessentially superior way of life?

Aristotle argued that the activity of all beings is governed by their characteristic function which drives developmental processes. Reason is the characteristic function of human beings, and it’s the perfection of our capacity to reason so that we come to know the truth about a subject matter that constitutes flourishing. All human activity is directed toward this goal of flourishing although most human beings haven’t grasped its true nature or lack the necessary habits and self-control to achieve it. Thus, our pursuit of it is confused. Read more »

Virtue Ethics and Emerging Technologies

by Fabio Tollon

In 2007 Wesley Autrey noticed a young man, Cameron Hollopeter, having a seizure on a subway station in Manhattan. Autrey borrowed a pen and used it to keep Hollopeter’s jaw open. After the seizure, Hollopeter stumbled and fell from the platform onto the tracks. As Hollopeter lay there, Autry noticed the lights from an oncoming train, and so he jumped in after him. However, after getting to the tracks, he realized there would not be enough time to get Hollopeter out of harm’s way. Instead, he protected Hollopeter by moving him to a drainage trench between the tracks, throwing his body over Hollopeter’s. Both of them narrowly avoided being hit by the train, and the call was close enough that Autrey had grease on his hat afterwards. For this Autrey was awarded the Bronze Medallion, New York City’s highest award for exceptional citizenship and outstanding achievement.

In 2011, Karl-Theodore zu Guttenberg, a member of the Bundestag, was found guilty of plagiarism after a month-long public outcry.  He had plagiarized large parts of his doctoral dissertation, where it was found that he had copied whole sections of work from newspapers, undergraduate papers, speeches, and even from his supervisor. About half of his entire dissertation was stuffed with uncited work. Thousands of doctoral students and professors in Germany signed a letter lambasting then-chancellor Angela Merkel’s weak response, and eventually his degree was revoked, and he ended up resigning from the Bundestag.

Now we might ask: what explains this variation in human behaviour? Why did Guttenberg plagiarize his PhD, and why did Autrey put his life in danger to save a stranger? Read more »

Wine, Art, and the Language of Representation

by Dwight Furrow

Portrait of Ambroise Vollard, Pablo Picasso

Many works of art seem to be about something. Even if they don’t convey a clear message, they nevertheless invite thought about a subject matter and thus can be said to represent an object, process, or state-of-affairs. Does this language of representation help clarify the sense in which some wines can be considered works of art? In what sense does a wine represent something?

The obvious candidate for the subject matter of a wine is its terroir—the soil, climate, weather, and other geographical and geological features of the place in which the grapes are grown. Wine presents a subject matter—the nature of its terroir—and invites us to explore it via the flavors, aromas, and textures of the wine, just as a painting presents a subject matter and invites us to explore it via line, shape, and color. Thus, wine has the “aboutness” relationship that is generally regarded as a necessary condition for representation.

But how does wine present a subject matter? What is the nature of this “aboutness” relationship? Read more »

Does AI Need Free Will to be held Responsible?

by Fabio Tollon

We have always been a technological species. From the use of basic tools to advanced new forms of social media, we are creatures who do not just live in the world but actively seek to change it. However, we now live in a time where many believe that modern technology, especially advances driven by artificial intelligence (AI), will come to challenge our responsibility practices. Digital nudges can remind you of your mother’s birthday, ToneCheck can make sure you only write nice emails to your boss, and your smart fridge can tell you when you’ve run out of milk. The point is that our lives have always been enmeshed with technology, but our current predicament seems categorically different from anything that has come before. The technologies at our disposal today are not merely tools to various ends, but rather come to bear on our characters by importantly influencing many of our morally laden decisions and actions.

One way in which this might happen is when sufficiently autonomous technology “acts” in such a way as to challenge our usual practices of ascribing responsibility. When an AI system performs an action that results in some event that has moral significance (and where we would normally deem it appropriate to attribute moral responsibility to human agents) it seems natural that people would still have emotional responses in these situations. This is especially true if the AI is perceived as having agential characteristics. If a self-driving car harms a human being, it would be quite natural for bystanders to feel anger at the cause of the harm. However, it seems incoherent to feel angry at a chunk of metal, no matter how autonomous it might be.

Thus, we seem to have two questions here: the first is whether our responses are fitting, given the situation. The second is an empirical question of whether in fact people will behave in this way when confronted with such autonomous systems. Naturally, as a philosopher, I will try not to speculate too much with respect to the second question, and thus what I say here is mostly concerned with the first. Read more »

Philosophy of Right: Hegel in the 21st Century

by Chris Horner

Among the books of the nineteenth century that have something important to say to us now Hegel’s  Elements of the Philosophy of Right  (1820) deserves a prominent place. It’s not the obvious contender for a popular read in the 21st century. He doesn’t make it easy for himself, if getting readers was the aim as his  ‘grotesque and rocky melody’ (Marx) takes some getting used to, and one has to work a bit to to grasp his arguments. So its not a surprise that is more written about than actually read. This is a pity, as it is right up there with Plato’s Republic and Hobbes’ Leviathan as one of the great works of ethical and political philosophy, with arguably even more direct and relevant things to tell us about our society than those other two classics.  It’s a text that has been seriously misunderstood and misrepresented – most notoriously by those who represent him as having announced ‘the end of history’.  It is true that something, for Hegel, is coming to an end in our time, but it isn’t exactly history.  Hegel gives us an acute and pressingly relevant diagnosis of both the promise of modernity, and the contradictions that threaten it. Citizens in the age of Trump, Johnson, Xi Jinping and Biden would do well to attend to what he has to say in these pages. 

It is a troubling text for liberals, not because it is anti liberal in the sense of being opposed to the values liberals hold dear (dignity of the individual, freedom of conscience, rights and so on) but rather because its author regards the insights of liberals as dangerously limited. Liberalism, with its focus on the freedom of the individual, sees the function of the state as guarantor of the freedom of the individual, in the context of a civil society and free market. But for Hegel, genuine freedom means more than this. Read more »

A Neoliberal COP-out

by Fabio Tollon

From a heat dome in North America, people drowning in their basements in New York, and a climate famine in Madagascar, you would think we would have started to take the climate crisis seriously. This is to say nothing of the volumes of scientific evidence that support the theory that we are teetering on the edge of catastrophe and are in the middle of an extinction event. With this backdrop, you would be forgiven for thinking that an event with the purpose of addressing this crisis would propose significant changes to our current production and consumption patterns. As luck would have it, we seem to inhabit the worst of all possible worlds, where such a common-sense expectation is not met.

The 26th Conference of the Parties (or, COP26) promised much but delivered little. Before the event, there was a genuine sense that this might be a turning point in the fight against climate catastrophe: maybe world leaders could come to together and, for once, put the long-term welfare of our planet and those who inhabit it over short-term profit. Unfortunately, what emerged from COP26 was not very much of anything. Although the so-called Glasgow Climate Pact, agreed to at COP26, “moves the needle” it is nowhere near enough to stop global warming from exceeding the critical threshold of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels (our current pathway is for an increase of  2.4°C).

What remains clear (and what was reinforced at COP) is that there remains a gigantic disconnect between what is needed to get a handle on the climate crisis and what is being proposed. Talks of $100bn in aid from the developed to the developing world fall far short of what is actually required. John Kerry, the chief American negotiator, echoed this point by claiming that it is not billions that we need, but trillions (between $2.6tn and $4.6tn, per year). Read more »

The Scandal of Philosophy

by Dwight Furrow

Philosophy, as we teach it in the U.S. and Europe, originated in Ancient Greece, specifically in the person of Socrates who wandered the marketplace tormenting fellow citizens with incessant questions and losing his life for his efforts. For Socrates, there was one overriding question that not only defined philosophy and distinguished it from other inquiries but was a question all human beings should urgently and persistently ask. What is the best life for human beings? His answer was that only a life in pursuit of wisdom regarding what is good could be fully satisfying and complete. The implication was that philosophy was not only a way of life but the best form of life possible since it was uniquely the job of philosophy to discover wisdom.

Today, few philosophers believe philosophy is a way of life, let alone the fullest and most complete way of life. Or if they do believe it, they won’t admit it in public. Only a handful of scholars, those studying ancient Greek ethics, have much to say about wisdom. Few think the question of the best human life has an answer, and if philosophy is a way of life, it consists of trolling rivals at department meetings and writing journal articles for an audience of ten specialists.

The scandal is not that modern life has moved on from issues the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers thought were important. Surely, the question of how one ought to live remains a pertinent question for anyone to ask. The scandal is that philosophy no longer thinks of itself as providing a guide to life and seems unconcerned about this. The question we fear most coming from non-academics is “What is your philosophy of life?” In public, the question is met with embarrassed silence. In private, it is a source of mirth and derision that someone is so jejune as to think such a thing is something philosophers ought to have. Read more »

Epistemic Freedom

by Fabio Tollon

An easy way to ruin any conversation is to start talking about philosophy. An easier way to do so is to mention free will. The issue of free will (whether we have it, if it is compatible with determinism, whether it even matters, etc.) has plagued philosophers for quite some time now. This is might be worrying, as it seems very important that we are free. How else can we fairly be held responsible for what we do? If your actions are fully determined by antecedent causes, what role do you really play? Additionally, reaching a consensus on what exactly free will entails is notoriously difficult. Is it enough to have some kind of “control”? Must the world be indeterministic? Does our best science exclude the possibility of free will? And, perhaps most provocatively, perhaps we don’t have free will at all, and that it doesn’t actually matter!

What I want to do here is take a somewhat different approach to the problem of free will. Instead of trying to figure out what exactly free will is or whether we need it, I want to start with a commonly accepted intuition: most of us, at least some of the time, feel as though we are free. From a first-person perspective, it really does (at least to me) feel as though we are in control of what we do, and that there is some central “willer” behind our actions. Moreover, whether we or not we really “believe” in free will or not, it seems this feeling of freedom will not go away. Read more »

Should we Disregard the Norms of Assertion in Inter-scientific Discourse? A Response to a False Dilemma

by George Barimah, Ina Gawel, David Stoellger, and Fabio Tollon*

"Assertion" by Ina Gawel
“Assertion” by Ina Gawel

When thinking about the claims made by scientists you would be forgiven for assuming that such claims ought to be true, justified, or at the very least believed by the scientists themselves. When scientists make assertions about the way they think the world is, we expect these assertions to be, on the balance of things, backed up by the local evidence in that field.

The general aim of scientific investigations is that we uncover the truth of the matter: in physics, this might involve discovering a new particle, or realizing that what we once thought was a particle is in fact a wave, for example. This process, however, is a collective one. Scientists are not lone wolves who isolate themselves from other researchers. Rather, they work in coordinated teams, which are embedded in institutions, which have a specific operative logic. Thus, when an individual scientist “puts forward” a claim, they are making this claim to a collection of scientists, those being other experts in their field. These are the kinds of assertions that Haixin Dang and Liam Kofi Bright deal with in a recent publication: what are the norms that govern inter-scientific claims (that is, claims between scientists). When scientists assert that they have made a discovery they are making a public avowal: these are “utterances made by scientists aimed at informing the wider scientific community of some results obtained”. The “rules of the game” when it comes to these public avowals (such as the process of peer-review) presuppose that there is indeed a fact of the matter concerning which kinds of claims are worthy of being brought to the collective attention of scientists. Some assertions are proper and others improper, and there are various norms within scientific discourse that help us make such a determination.

According to Dang and Bright we can distinguish three clusters of norms when it comes to norms of assertions more generally. First, we have factive norms, the most famous of which is the knowledge norm, which essentially holds that assertions are only proper if they are true. Second, we have justification norms, which focus on the reason-responsiveness of agents. That is, can the agent provide reasons for believing their assertion. Last, there are belief norms. Belief norms suggest that for an assertion to be proper it simply has to be the case that the speaker sincerely believes in their assertion. Each norm corresponds to one of the conditions introduced at the beginning of this article and it seems to naturally support the view that scientists should maintain at least one (if not all) of these norms when making assertions in their research papers. The purpose of Dang and Bright’s paper, however, is to show that each of these norms are inappropriate in the case of inter-scientific claims. Read more »

“Responsible” AI

by Fabio Tollon

What do we mean when we talk about “responsibility”? We say things like “he is a responsible parent”, “she is responsible for the safety of the passengers”, “they are responsible for the financial crisis”, and in each case the concept of “responsibility” seems to be tracking different meanings. In the first sense it seems to track virtue, in the second sense moral obligation, and in the third accountability. My goal in this article is not to go through each and every kind of responsibility, but rather to show that there are at least two important senses of the concept that we need to take seriously when it comes to Artificial Intelligence (AI). Importantly, it will be shown that there is an intimate link between these two types of responsibility, and it is essential that researchers and practitioners keep this mind.

Recent work in moral philosophy has been concerned with issues of responsibility as they relate to the development, use, and impact of artificially intelligent systems. Oxford University Press recently published their first ever Handbook of Ethics of AI, which is devoted to tackling current ethical problems raised by AI and hopes to mitigate future harms by advancing appropriate mechanisms of governance for these systems. The book is wide-ranging (featuring over 40 unique chapters), insightful, and deeply disturbing. From gender bias in hiring, racial bias in creditworthiness and facial recognition software, and sexual bias in identifying a person’s sexual orientation, we are awash with cases of AI systematically enhancing rather than reducing structural inequality.

But how exactly should (can?) we go about operationalizing an ethics of AI in a way that ensures desirable social outcomes? And how can we hold those causally involved parties accountable, when the very nature of AI seems to make a mockery of the usual sense of control we deem appropriate in our ascriptions of moral responsibility? These are the two sense of responsibility I want to focus on here: how can we deploy AI responsibly, and how can we hold those responsible when things go wrong. Read more »

More Than Just Design: Affordances as Embodying Value in Technological Artifacts

by Fabio Tollon

It is natural to assume that technological artifacts have instrumental value. That is, the value of given technology lies in the various ways in which we can use it, no more, and no less. For example, the value of a hammer lies in our ability to make use of it to hit nails into things. Cars are valuable insofar as we can use them to get from A to B with the bare minimum of physical exertion. This way of viewing technology has immense intuitive appeal, but I think it is ultimately unconvincing. More specifically, I want to argue that technological artifacts are capable of embodying value. Some argue that this value is to be accounted for in terms of the designed properties of the artifact, but I will take a different approach. I will suggest that artifacts can come to embody values based on their affordances.

Before doing so, however, I need to convince you that the instrumental view of technology is wrong. While some technological artifacts are perhaps merely instrumentally valuable, there are others that are clearly not so There are two ways to see this. First, just reflect on all the ways which technologies are just tools waiting to be used by us but are rather mediators in our experience of reality. Technological artifacts are no longer simply “out there” waiting to be used but are rather part of who we are (or at least, who we are becoming). Wearable technology (such as fitness trackers or smart watches) provides us with a stream of biometric information. This information changes the way in which we experience ourselves and the world around us. Bombarded with this information, we might use such technology to peer pressure ourselves into exercising (Apple allows you to get updates, beamed directly to your watch, of when your friends exercise. It is an open question whether this will encourage resentment from those who see their friends have run a marathon while they spent the day on the couch eating Ritter Sport.), or we might use it to stay up to date with the latest news (by enabling smart notifications). In either case, the point is that these technologies do not merely disclose the world “as it is” to us, but rather open up new aspects of the world, and thus come to mediate our experiences. Read more »

Wine Appreciation, Irony, and a Game of Striving

by Dwight Furrow

For many wine lovers, understanding wine is hard work. We study maps of wine regions and their climates, learn about grape varietals and their characteristics, and delve into various techniques for making wine, trying to understand their influence on the final product. Then we learn a complex but arcane vocabulary for describing what we’re tasting and go to the trouble of decanting, choosing the right glass, and organizing a tasting procedure, all before getting down to the business of tasting. This business of tasting is also difficult. We sip, swish, and spit trying to extract every nuance of the wine and then puzzle over the whys and wherefores, all while comparing what we drink to other similar wines. Some of us even take copious notes to help us remember, for future reference, what this tasting experience was like.

In the meantime, we argue with each other on Twitter fighting over whether a wine is terroir-driven or a technological abomination, typical or atypical, over-oaked or under ripe. We scour Wine Spectator‘s Annual Top 100 looking for who’s up and who’s down and complain about inflated wine scores and overblown wine language.

In other words, we really seem to care about getting it right, identifying a wine’s essence and properly locating it in the wine firmament. We want our judgments to conform to the actual properties of a wine and its relations. Read more »

Pragmatism as philosophical tool design

by Dave Maier

One problem plaguing contemporary anti-Cartesians (pragmatists, Wittgensteinians, hermeneutic philosophers, etc.) is that it can seem that we are competing against each other, trying to do better than everyone else what we all want to do: get past the dualisms and other infelicities of the modern picture while at the same time absorbing its lessons and retaining its good aspects. We waste our time fighting each other instead of our common enemy. Why is it so hard to see ourselves as all on the same team?

One reason is that when push comes to shove, or even before that, we simply follow traditional philosophical practice by providing arguments to show that we are right and they are wrong, thus construing the differences among our views as constituting differences in belief rather than, for example, the practical differences between different tools or perspectives. It is as if we have internalized the traditional criticisms: that we have abandoned objective truth and the objective world it represents in favor of our own subjective purposes. No, we say, watch us talk among ourselves! We care about truth just as much as you! Phenomenology is false and pragmatism is true, as my fully rigorous and entirely professional argument shows! Assent is required, on pain of irrationality!

Even when we’re not fighting among ourselves in this way, that same metaphilosophical ideal can still cause trouble. For instance, I have chosen to present my particular brand of anti-Cartesianism as a characteristically pragmatist philosophy. Naturally I draw inspiration and/or ideas from philosophers who do not identify as pragmatists (after all, we all reject the Cartesian mirror of nature). But in practice this can lead to some discomfort. If while pushing a pragmatist line I help myself to a Wittgensteinian (or Davidsonian or Nietzschean) insight, the question will naturally arise: what entitles me to enlist these people in my cause? Am I saying Wittgenstein or Davidson was a pragmatist? What should I make of the differences between these very different philosophers? Read more »

GPT-3 Understands Nothing

by Fabio Tollon

It is becoming increasingly common to talk about technological systems in agential terms. We routinely hear about facial recognition algorithms that can identify individuals, large language models (such as GPT-3) that can produce text, and self-driving cars that can, well, drive. Recently, Forbes magazine even awarded GPT-3 “person” of the year for 2020. In this piece I’d like to take some time to reflect on GPT-3. Specifically, I’d like to push back against the narrative that GPT-3 somehow ushers in a new age of artificial intelligence.

GPT-3 (Generative Pre-trained Transformer) is a third-generation, autoregressive language model. It makes use of deep learning to produce human-like texts, such as sequences of words (or code, or other data) after being fed an initial “prompt” which it then aims to complete. The language model itself is trained on Microsoft’s Azure Supercomputer, uses 175 billion parameters (its predecessor used a mere 1.5 billion) and makes use of unlabeled datasets (such as Wikipedia). This training isn’t cheap, with a price tag of $12 million. Once trained, the system can be used in a wide array of contexts: from language translation, summarization, question answering, etc.

Most of you will recall the fanfare that surrounded The Guardians publication of an article that was written by GPT-3. Many people were astounded at the text that was produced, and indeed, this speaks to the remarkable effectiveness of this particular computational system (or perhaps it speaks more to our willingness to project understanding where there might be none, but more on this later). How GPT-3 produced this particular text is relatively simple. Basically, it takes in a query and then attempts to offer relevant answers using the massive amounts of data at its disposal to do so. How different this is, in kind, from what Google’s search engine does is debatable. In the case of Google, you wouldn’t think that it “understands” your searches. With GPT-3, however, people seemed to get the impression that it really did understand the queries, and that its answers, therefore, were a result of this supposed understanding. This of course lends far more credence to its responses, as it is natural to think that someone who understands a given topic is better placed to answer questions about that topic. To believe this in the case of GPT-3 is not just bad science fiction, it’s pure fantasy. Let me elaborate. Read more »

Review of “Epistenology: Wine as Experience” by Nicola Perullo

by Dwight Furrow

Epistenology: Wine as Experience is a peculiar name for a peculiar book, although its peculiarities make it worth reading. Coined by the author, Nicola Perullo, Professor of Aesthetics at University of Gastronomic Science near Bra, Italy, the term “Epistenology” is a portmanteau blending enology, the study of wine, with epistemology, the philosophical study of knowledge. The book is hard to categorize, which is precisely its point. Although a philosophy book about wine, it is not so much about wine as it is an attempt to think with wine, using wine as a catalyst for making connections to persons, atmospheres, and imaginative play within pregnant moments of immediate, lived experience. Although a serious work of philosophy, it only occasionally names other philosophers and refers to no previous work in the philosophy of wine or aesthetics, while advancing an intriguing alternative to professional wine evaluation and conventional wine education. It is avowedly a narrative of the author’s personal journey with wine and the lessons to be drawn from it. Derrida’s idea that every philosophy is a way of “justifying our lives in the world” is the book’s guiding light. Read more »

On the varieties of change

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

A block of tungsten and a bottle of sodium

I have been thinking a lot about change recently. 2020 seemed like a good year to do this, for several reasons. There was the political turmoil in the United States where I live. There was the global pandemic. There was the birth of our daughter. There were a few projects I worked on related to long term change on evolutionary timescales. All of these issues gave me the opportunity to think about change and some of the paradoxes associated with it. Everybody defines change in their own way, and some changes may be more important to some of us than to others, so how we react to, adapt to and enable change is ultimately very subjective. And yet we all have to deal with some very objective measures of change, at the very least those pertaining to life and death. So the paradox of change is that while it impacts us on a very subjective, personal level and each of us perceives it very differently, on another level it also unites us because of its universal aspects, aspects that can help us define our common humanity.

There was of course the pandemic that forced great changes. A way of life which we took for granted was suddenly and irrevocably changed. Careers and lives ended, we hunkered down in our homes, stopped traveling and started looking inward. For some of us who had been caught up in immediate matters of family, the pandemic even came as a welcome respite in which we got to spend more time with our significant others and children. We stepped back and reevaluated our life on the treadmill. For others, it posed a constant challenge to get work done, especially with kids whose schools were closed. For my wife and me, the pandemic was a chance to spend more time with our newborn daughter and avoid the stresses and boredom of the commute and stresses of physical meetings in the office. What can be unwelcome change for one can be unexpectedly welcome for another. In this particular case we were privileged, but the tables could well be turned. Read more »