Confessions of a Viral AI Writer

Vauhini Vara in Wired:

One night, with anxiety and anticipation, I went to GPT-3 with this sentence: “My sister was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma when I was in my freshman year of high school and she was in her junior year.”

GPT-3 picked up where my sentence left off, and out tumbled an essay in which my sister ended up cured. Its last line gutted me: “She’s doing great now.” I realized I needed to explain to the AI that my sister had died, and so I tried again, adding the fact of her death, the fact of my grief. This time, GPT-3 acknowledged the loss. Then, it turned me into a runner raising funds for a cancer organization and went off on a tangent about my athletic life.

I tried again and again. Each time, I deleted the AI’s text and added to what I’d written before, asking GPT-3 to pick up the thread later in the story. At first it kept failing. And then, on the fourth or fifth attempt, something shifted. The AI began describing grief in language that felt truer—and with each subsequent attempt, it got closer to describing what I’d gone through myself.

When the essay, called “Ghosts,” came out in The Believer in the summer of 2021, it quickly went viral. I started hearing from others who had lost loved ones and felt that the piece captured grief better than anything they’d ever read. I waited for the backlash, expecting people to criticize the publication of an AI-assisted piece of writing. It never came. Instead the essay was adapted for This American Life and anthologized in Best American Essays. It was better received, by far, than anything else I’d ever written.

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Rosemary Braun on Uncovering Patterns in Biological Complexity

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

Biological organisms are paradigmatic emergent systems. That atoms of which they are made mindlessly obey the local laws of physics; even cells and organs do their individual jobs without explicitly understanding the larger whole of which they are a part. And yet the system as a whole functions beautifully, with apparent purpose and function. How do the small parts come together to form the greater whole? I talk with biophysicist Rosemary Braun about what we’re learning about collective behavior within organisms from the modern era of huge biological datasets, especially crucial aspects like timekeeping (with bonus implications for dealing with jet lag).

More here.

“Florida Man,” explained

Kristen Arnett at Vox:

There’s a game people like to play online. In fact, there’s an entire website dedicated to it. It’s called the “Florida Man Birthday Challenge” and the premise is simple enough: You type your birthday into the site’s search bar — month, date — along with the words “FLORIDA MAN.” Whatever headline pops up becomes your official intro into the Florida Man historical record. When I type my own birthday on the site (December 16th, Sagittarius Sun), I discover that a naked Florida man once stole a pickup truck from a car dealership. That’s right. Simply walked into the dealership, fully nude, and then climbed inside a 2021 model Ram pickup and promptly drove off.

More here.

The Case for Mediocrity

Jamie Ducharme in Time:

The night before my first book came out, I lay awake envisioning all the ways it could ruin my life. What if I get sued because I made a mistake? What if I get harassed online? What if I get such bad reviews I never work in journalism again?

I’d spent the past 18 months obsessing over the project, thinking about it on a loop. I often struggled to sleep, ruminating over all the ways it might fall short. I started seeing a therapist for the first time in my life. My career was at its high point, and I had accomplished a dream so big I’d never actually thought it would come true, but my mental health had never been worse.

More here.

How to stop AI deepfakes from sinking society — and science

Nicole Jones in Nature:

This June, in the political battle leading up to the 2024 US presidential primaries, a series of images were released showing Donald Trump embracing one of his former medical advisers, Anthony Fauci. In a few of the shots, Trump is captured awkwardly kissing the face of Fauci, a health official reviled by some US conservatives for promoting masking and vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was obvious” that they were fakes, says Hany Farid, a computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of many specialists who examined the pictures. On close inspection of three of the photos, Trump’s hair is strangely blurred, the text in the background is nonsensical, the arms and hands are unnaturally placed and the details of Trump’s visible ear are not right. All are hallmarks — for now — of generative artificial intelligence (AI), also called synthetic AI.

More here.

On Matthew Barney’s “Secondary”

Samuel Fury Childs Daly at the LARB:

Despite his Yale education and his patrician tone, Barney has a working-class sensibility; watch an interview with him and you’ll see someone who speaks like an academic but dresses like a teamster. This means that Barney cuts an unusual figure in the art world. He is thoroughly a jock, and his work is so unapologetically macho that describing it can sound like parody. A “cycle” of films named after part of the scrotum? A six-hour opera about Norman Mailer? This is art by, for, and about men, even though the machismo is more mottled than it might appear at first glance.

The scenes Barney stages can be so repellent that they end up being strangely beautiful (one scatological moment from 2014’s River of Fundament will be with me forever), or so reactionary that they come full circle and become radical. Barney celebrates, and seems to revel in, the rites and emblems of a traditional masculinity that is today almost universally pathologized—especially among people who tend to work in art galleries.

more here.

On Marcottage

Kate Briggs at The Paris Review:

Marcottage could be a possible metaphor for translation. This work of provoking what plants, and perhaps also books, already know how to do, what in fact they most deeply want to do: actively creating the conditions for a new plant to root at some distance from the original, and there live separately: a “daughter-work” robust enough in its new context to throw out runners of its own, in unexpected directions, causing the network of interrelations to grow and complexify.

For me, marcottage is a way to make sense of my own translations of Barthes’s lecture courses. Officially, there have been two—two translations into English of two volumes of lecture notes published in French more than a decade ago: The Preparation of the Novel and How to Live Together. But to my mind, there have really been four: two further books, translations in a more expanded sense. This Little Art, my long essay that stays close to Barthes’s late work, frequently citing it, renarrating it, making an adjacent space to keep thinking with it.

more here.

Wednesday Poem

A beautiful wish, spoken so ardently that truth fractures,
must be fact-checked before promulgation. What otherwise
follows are shattered hearts, and disbelief in truth.
……………………………. ……………………….. —Anonymous


No blame. Anyone who wrote Howl and Kaddish
earned the right to make any possible mistake
for the rest of his life.

I just wish I hadn’t made this mistake with him.
It was during the Vietnam war
and he was giving a great protest reading
in Washington Square Park
and nobody wanted to leave.

So Ginsberg got the idea, “I’m going to shout
‘the war is over’ as loud as I can,'” he said
“and all of you run over the city
in different directions
yelling the war is over, shout it in offices,
shops, everywhere and when enough people
believe the war is over
why, not even the politicians
will be able to keep it going.”

I thought it was a great idea at the time
a truly poetic idea.

So when Ginsberg yelled I ran down the street
and leaned in the doorway
of the sort of respectable down-on-its-luck cafeteria
where librarians and minor clerks have lunch
and I yelled “the war is over.”
And a little old lady looked up
from her cottage cheese and fruit salad.
She was so ordinary she would have been invisible
except for the terrible light
filling her face as she whispered
“My son. My son is coming home.”

I got myself out of there and was sick in some bushes.
That was the first time I believed there was a war.

by Julia Vinograd
from Poetic Outlaws

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Containing AI In Open Societies

Nathan Gardels at Noema:

Mustafa Suleyman, a co-founder of DeepMind and former vice president for AI products and policy at Google, offers some deep thoughts in his just-released book, “The Coming Wave: Technology, Power and the 21st Century’s Greatest Dilemma” (written with Michael Bhaskar).

The “wave” he sees washing over all aspects of society, for better and worse, is propelled by generative AI and another general-purpose technological innovation — synthetic biology, which, powered by the processing prowess of intelligent machines, can read and rewrite genetic code and then boot up life in the lab. “For the first time core components of our technological ecosystem directly address two foundational properties of our world: intelligence and life. In other words, technology is undergoing a phase transition. No longer simply a tool, it’s going to engineer life and rival — and surpass — our own intelligence,” Suleyman writes.

more here.

The Animals Are Talking. What Does It Mean?

Sonia Shah at the New York Times:

Evidence of continuities between animal communication and human language continued to mount. The sequencing of the Neanderthal genome in 2010 suggested that we hadn’t significantly diverged from that lineage, as the theory of a “human revolution” posited. On the contrary, Neanderthal genes and those of other ancient hominins persisted in the modern human genome, evidence of how intimately we were entangled. In 2014, Jarvis found that the neural circuits that allowed songbirds to learn and produce novel sounds matched those in humans, and that the genes that regulated those circuits evolved in similar ways. The accumulating evidence left “little room for doubt,” Cedric Boeckx, a theoretical linguist at the University of Barcelona, noted in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience. “There was no ‘great leap forward.’”

As our understanding of the nature and origin of language shifted, a host of fruitful cross-disciplinary collaborations arose. Colleagues of Chomsky’s, such as the M.I.T. linguist Shigeru Miyagawa, whose early career was shaped by the precept that “we’re smart, they’re not,” applied for grants with primatologists and neuroscientists to study how human language might be related to birdsong and primate calls.

more here.

Tuesday Poem

High Quality Information

A life spent seeking it
Like a worm in the earth,
Like a hawk. Catching threads
Sketching bones
Guessing where the road goes.
Lao-tzu says
To forget what you knew is best.
That’s what I want:
To get these sights down,
Clear, right to the place
Where they fade
Back into the mind of my times.
The same old circuity
But some paths color-coded
And we’re free to go.

by Gary Snyder
Left Out in the Rain
North Point Press, 1986

Genetically Modified Pig’s Heart Is Transplanted Into a Second Patient

Roni Rabin in The New York Times:

Surgeons in Baltimore have transplanted the heart of a genetically altered pig into a man with terminal heart disease who had no other hope for treatment, the University of Maryland Medical Center announced on Friday. It is the second such procedure performed by the surgeons. The first patient, David Bennett, 57, died two months after his transplant, but the pig heart functioned well and there were no signs of acute organ rejection, a major risk in such procedures. The second patient, Lawrence Faucette, 58, a Navy veteran and married father of two in Frederick, Md., underwent the transplant surgery on Wednesday and is “recovering well and communicating with his loved ones,” the medical center said in a statement. Mr. Faucette, who had terminal heart disease and other complicated medical conditions, was so sick that he had been rejected from all transplant programs that use human donor organs.

…The transplantation was performed by Dr. Bartley Griffith, who operated on the first patient. Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, designed the protocol.

More here.

OpenAI’s GPT-4 Scores in the Top 1% of Creative Thinking

Erik Guzik in Singularity Hub:

Of all the forms of human intellect that one might expect artificial intelligence to emulate, few people would likely place creativity at the top of their list. Creativity is wonderfully mysterious—and frustratingly fleeting. It defines us as human beings—and seemingly defies the cold logic that lies behind the silicon curtain of machines.

Yet, the use of AI for creative endeavors is now growing.

New AI tools like DALL-E and Midjourney are increasingly part of creative production, and some have started to win awards for their creative output. The growing impact is both social and economic—as just one example, the potential of AI to generate new, creative content is a defining flashpoint behind the Hollywood writers strike. And if our recent study into the striking originality of AI is any indication, the emergence of AI-based creativity—along with examples of both its promise and peril—is likely just beginning.

More here.

Meeting Mumbai Again After a Life-Changing Loss

Shruti Swamy at AFAR:

It is Mumbai in November, which is to say: hot.

I have stood where I am standing many times before, in all eras of my life—as a baby wobbly on my own two feet, as a bespectacled kid with scraped knees, as an awkward teen tugging down the skirt that attracts too much attention, as a young woman backpacking after college, and as a newlywed, visiting with my husband.

This time I am here as a writer, wife, mother. I’m around the corner from the park teeming with morning walkers, in the leafy suburb of Vile Parle, on the street where my grandparents, and then my aunt, used to live in a building called Nav Samaj. I remember every inch of it: the mineral smell of the staircase, the daybed where I spent hours as a child reading piles of Reader’s Digests. The cool tile floor I’d lie on when the heat was overwhelming, the dark kitchen in which some of the most spectacular meals of my life were created. The almirah in the bedroom that held my grandmother’s starched, mothball-scented saris.

More here.

The Value Of A Whale: On The Illusions Of Green Capitalism

Leon Vlieger at The Inquisitive Biologist:

In an attempt to address climate change and other environmental problems, governments are increasingly turning to economic solutions. The underlying message is clear: capitalism might have created the problem, but capitalism can solve it. Adrienne Buller, a Senior Fellow with progressive think tank Common Wealth, is, to put it mildly, sceptical of this. From carbon credits to biodiversity offsets, she unmasks these policies for the greenwashing that they are. The Value of a Whale is a necessary corrective that is as eye-opening as it is shocking.

More here.

Justice for Neanderthals! What the debate about our long-dead cousins reveals about us

Nikhil Krishnan in The Guardian:

The past few years have seen an abundance of works of popular science about a variety of human beings who once inhabited Eurasia: “Neanderthals”. They died out, it appears, 40,000 years ago. That number – 40,000 – is as totemic to Neanderthal specialists as that better known figure, 65 million, is to dinosaur fanciers.

What distinguishes these new books isn’t just what they tell us about an extinct sub-species of humans, but the surprising passion they bring to their subject. Their authors are enraged that popular ideas about the Neanderthals lag so far behind the cutting edge of paleontological research – research that has brought the Neanderthals closer to us than they have been in 40,000 years.

More here.