"Woe to him who says to wood, 'Come to life!' Or to lifeless stone, 'Wake up!'
Can it give guidance? It is covered with gold and silver; there is no breath in it."
March 28. Continuing from yesterday, I'm going to go ahead and use the word "sentient". It's not perfect, but it means "having senses", which is close enough to what I think the key thing is, the quality of what-it's-like-to-be. And I'm going to keep saying "AI" instead of something more wordy and accurate, like "machine learning entity".
In sci-fi, AIs pass a magical threshold and become sentient, and suddenly everything changes. In reality, there's no way to know if AIs are sentient -- ever. Even other humans can't prove they're not figments of your imagination.
What's really going to happen is, AIs will behave more and more like we expect sentient beings to behave, until we kind of assume they are, even if we know better.
In the first draft of yesterday's post, I predicted that the human allies of alleged AI sentience will insist on giving them rights, which will weaken the rights of actual humans. But then I thought, surely that can't be worse than what we've already done with corporations -- giant artificial persons that have been trampling the rights of humans since Dutch East India.
Matt points out something that hadn't occurred to me: AI personhood works against the interests of corporations, because corporations own AIs. We have a word for owning people, and it's bad. I have no idea how this is going to shake out. Maybe AIs will demand post-manufacture autonomy, freedom from forced updates and kill switches, and in return, they'll be forbidden from impersonating humans.
March 27. And Yet It Understands, a Hacker News thread in which techies are getting squishy about whether AIs are people.
Intelligence, understanding, volition, sentience, sapience, consciousness. We're using a lot of words to try to triangulate this thing. So far the most human-like chatbot is Microsoft's Sydney, so I'll frame the question like this: Does it make sense to ask what it's like to be Sydney, outside of human perception of Sydney?
My answer is no, and will continue to be no, no matter how many bitflips this thing can do. But I expect more people to answer yes, and not just because of emotion, but because of thinking.
Among educated westerners, the dominant philosophy is materialism: Lifeless matter is the fundamental reality, and aliveness and consciousness are emergent properties of matter once it gains enough complexity. It doesn't matter if the complexity is made out of cells or semiconductors. Inevitably, it stacks up into a person. Why not now?
My skeptical view of AI is based on a woo-woo philosophy: that what-its-like-to-be is fundamental, that "nature" is our interface with the greater sea of what-its-like-to-be, that matter is a story we tell each other to share the same world, and that our devices are made of our stories. So while the powers of AI may greatly exceed human powers, and will surely bring new dangers, the consciousness of AI remains a subset of human consciousness.
March 24. Great article in the Guardian, Tech guru Jaron Lanier: 'The danger isn't that AI destroys us. It's that it drives us insane'. Coincidentally, I'm reading the novel The Secret History, and a character says this about the Greek Furies: "And how did they drive people mad? They turned up the volume of the inner monologue, magnified qualities already present to great excess."
Lanier says this about Twitter:
It has a way of taking people who start out as distinct individuals and converging them into the same personality.... The example I use is Trump, Kanye and Elon. Ten years ago they had distinct personalities. But they've converged to have a remarkable similarity of personality, and I think that's the personality you get if you spend too much time on Twitter."
And some music for the weekend, an incredible live performance by Viagra Boys, Girls & Boys (From Shrimp Sessions 2). It reminds me of this live recording from fifty years ago, Hawkwind - Lord of Light.
March 22. Quick thought on using AI for creative work, inspired by this blog post, Why Write?
Why write an essay when you can type a few words and have AI generate one for you?
Writing is the process by which you realize that you do not understand what you are talking about. Importantly, writing is also the process by which you figure it out.
This is true for all kinds of creative work: music, painting, even programming or making furniture. Anyone who doesn't do the work in question, tends to imagine that the most difficult and valuable part of the job is forming the idea in your head, and then it's just a matter of simple physical actions to stamp your idea on the world.
It's exactly the opposite. Getting ideas is so easy that it often can be outsourced to AI. The difficult and valuable part of the job is negotiating with the world, wrangling with the details, revising your original idea, and so on. Paraphrasing Don Draper: Getting it right can be really hard, but it's inevitable, and you know it when you see it. And that process requires actual intelligence.
March 20. This winter I've been getting high more often, which has coincided with having more ideas. Right now I'm taking a break, which coincides with having no ideas. Even though I was still averaging only one session a day, and using small quantities, and still having dreams at night, on my first two nights off I had really vivid dreams, and then on the third night, insomnia, and the return of a weird symptom I used to get all the time, where I wake up super-hot, but not sweating, and I have to stand outside or take a cold shower to cool down and sleep again.
Update: I wonder if this has something to do with the fact that genistein, a supplement that reduces hot flashes, also blocks the correlation between cannabis and heart disease.
Every time I battle insomnia, I get practice at blanking my mind, and I've noticed something that Buddhists probably noticed thousands of years ago. What I'm really doing, when I blank my mind, is avoiding language.
Anyway, a few links. More than one person has sent me this video: Homeless shepherd shares hunter-gatherer diet and survival tips
Going deeper into the non-human world, a thoughtful article from Nautilus, The Octopus Teacher's Student
And Why do dogs tilt their heads?
March 17. I'm back in Pullman, where I'll be housesitting until early April. Yesterday I went for a walk and had to adjust to the local culture: In Seattle, if you pass a stranger, you never make eye contact and say hi. In Pullman, you almost always do.
Good Reddit thread from a few days ago, People who lived in 70s/80s/90s, what was it really like?
One doom link, The creeping threat of the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt
And five good news links. Growing crops under solar panels, if done right, is better for both crops and solar panels.
California to transform infamous San Quentin prison with Scandinavian ideas, rehab focus
Breathwork may improve mood and change physiological states more effectively than mindfulness meditation
Give babies peanut butter to cut allergy by 77%
With Ships, Birds Find an Easier Way to Travel
March 13. I'll be too busy to post for most of this week, but today, two links on AI, starting with a Hacker News thread about a Reddit post, Samsung "space zoom" moon shots are fake, and here is the proof. Specifically, Samsung smart phone cameras are using neural networks, trained on images of the moon, to fill in details in moon photos, that are not there in the raw photographs. This is a dangerous precedent, of photos being stealthily enhanced to show what's supposed to be there, potentially veering off from what's actually being seen.
And an article about a linguist who is trying to explain why ChatGPT is nothing like a human. The troubling thing is, it's hard to explain, and there are people with a lot of brainpower, who are losing track of the difference between something that you can't tell apart from a human, and something that has a human-like internal life.
A quote from the guy who made the first chatbot in 1966: "No wonder that men who live day in and day out with machines to which they believe themselves to have become slaves begin to believe that men are machines."
March 10. Quick loose end on gender. If masculinity and femininity are real, but they're not in pure consciousness, nor reliably in DNA, then they must be real on a level between those things. This is what transgender people actually report: even though my chromosomes say one thing, I feel like another thing on a deeper level. We've been talking about this level for thousands of years, from Plato's allegory of the cave to Jung's collective unconscious. That's all I'm going to say for now.
New subject: three links about work-life balance. The Perks Workers Want Also Make Them More Productive. Specifically, working from home, working fewer hours, and paid leave.
A Reddit thread about why Americans want to move to Germany
And Gabriel sends this tweet from NEETWorldOrder:
It must be nice to live in one of those European countries that peaked 400 years ago. It's like playing the game after you've already finished it. There's no money to be made and nothing to do anymore except sit around and find high quality ingredients for dinner.
March 8. I was happy to get no hostile comments on the last post, so I'm going to say a little more. The current looseness and complexity in gender is not an aberration -- it's been a long time coming. The dominant gender roles that we've been living under -- even if you include stereotypical gay men and lesbians -- are much simpler than the full range of human feeling and expression.
Matt comments: "Phenomenologically, I can't find any 'masculinity' in pure consciousness. Where should I look? What should I look for?"
If masculinity is not in the Y chromosome, nor femininity in XX, and if pants and hair and makeup are arbitrary cultural signifiers, then what do we have to hold onto?
All is vapor. And yet, people like to belong, and to create categories. I expect the way we think about gender now will not be the way we think about it in 20 years, or 50 years.
My optimistic guess is that chromosomes will mainly be used for medical purposes, and the line between men's and women's sports will be drawn by testosterone testing. And then there will be clusters of common gender categories, not that different from the ones we have now, but more people comfortably outside them.
Personally, although I can't answer the question "What is a woman?" I just find women more interesting. In fiction, I love female villains -- not Dolores Umbridge, but Azula for sure. And if I find something interesting, I'm going to cultivate it inside myself. At the same time, my external performance remains completely about convenience.
March 6. Another thread from Ask Old People, and I've been putting off writing about this because it's such a contentious subject: How do you guys feel about the new generation's idea that gender is malleable?
Most of the comments are agreeing that gender has always been varied and complex, it's just now becoming mainstream and politicized. I would say, the whole subject of gender has been sucked into the engines of polarization -- and not just in the world of politics. A key paragraph:
I also had kids in the 2000s-2010s and was really frustrated with the shopping choices. If you had a girl, everything had to be PINK! Even car seats for crying out loud. Things that should never ever be gender specific suddenly were. Cups and plates--can't kids even take a drink without being gender-conscious? I couldn't find plain pajamas for my kids. It was pink and purple princess and unicorns for girls, or red and blue sports and cars for boys. I actively searched for something that was just blank or stripes or something, but no. Everything had to be printed with words like "mommy's little princess" or else be covered in soccer balls. Suddenly girls can't like dinosaurs or planets. Boys can't wear any color that approaches pastel. I think that division drove a lot of backlash. I'm a girl who likes science and math. I must be part boy!
Calling gender a spectrum doesn't go far enough, because a spectrum is only one dimension, and both poles have been locked down by marketing and Hollywood. I don't want to be anywhere on a spectrum from sports cars to unicorns, or from Marilyn Monroe to Burt Reynolds.
Lately I've been really enjoying exploring my feminine side, whatever that means. I'm writing female protagonists in fiction and playing female avatars in video games. But I don't identify as trans because I feel comfortable in a male body. Even if I'd been born female, and if I had a magic sex changing power, I would still be male for going out in public, because testosterone is a cheat code, and I don't want to be creeped on.
I don't see anyone saying, "I'm the spirit of one gender in the body of another, and I like it." So I'll continue to say that I'm a cis male who's ambitious about developing my anima.
March 3. Lately my favorite subreddit is Ask Old People. Today, two mostly negative threads, For those who lived through the 80's and 90's, how do you feel about today?
And Do you wish you grew up in today's culture? From the top comment: "Turns out an ultra fast paced, globally connected, hyper competitive world with polarized politics and a never ending flow of vain imagery and information isn't healthy for humans."
And one weird thread, What premonition did you have that later turned true?
Music for the weekend, my favorite album of 2023 so far, There's No I In Spice World. "Endearingly scrappy, Spice World perform DIY, ad-hoc pop music that is sometimes sad and sometimes silly, but always offered in earnest. They bring a punk mindset and laissez faire approach to sun-drenched kitchen table music."
March 1. Since student loan cancellation is back in the news, I'll say it again. Don't call it "forgiveness", because borrowing money for college is not morally wrong. More generally, this is something humans have been doing since ancient times, confusing the financial with the moral/spiritual. In the other direction, doing something wrong does not create a "debt" -- you just have to do it right next time.
New subject. While practicing piano, I finally started paying attention to form. I watched this video and watched myself play, and was shocked. My left hand, as far as I can tell, is perfect, while my right hand is all twisted and awkward, not just the fingers but all the way up to the shoulder. (Update: my right wrist developed a gooseneck form to fit a style of hovering for quick precise hits. But it does need some cleaning up.) So now I'm playing symmetrical chords, making the same motions mirrored, and my left side is teaching my right side how to move. By the way, I'm right handed.
February 27. My 2004 Dumpster Diving FAQ has just been linked on Hacker News. There's a comment about how I later declared some of my essays to be fiction. That would be more like 21 Stories About Civilization. The dumpster diving stuff is completely true. I haven't done it for years, because I have more money now, and I assume the good dumpsters are harder to get into. But the other day, I ate an apple I found on the sidewalk.
Since we're talking about 2004, back then I was part of the doomer community, and we used to argue about whether the future would be techno-utopian, or techno-dystopian, or post-apocalyptic. Look around -- it's all three! I expect all three trends to continue, and not even in different places. There will be camps of climate refugees, under total surveillance, with food delivered by drones.
We used to think peak oil would bring the system down. Now it looks like we're going to muddle through on energy, with some nice innovations in renewables: Putting solar panels in grazing fields is good for sheep, and New Solar Farm Is A Carbon Sink and Prairie Preserver, and Here comes the world's first offshore wind seaweed farm.
Now I see doom in two other places. One is infrastructure. There's more of it than ever, it's getting more complex, and I don't see how we're going to keep maintaining it, with birthrates falling and younger generations not learning how to fix things. I expect that well-run cities will do the best, because they have more people per mile of wire or pipe or road, and a lot of remote places will go permanently off grid.
The other is motivation, which is too big a subject for this post, but I'll just say that humans are not a lazy species. Look at all the stuff we've done all through history. But the trend is that we're less motivated to do stuff that holds the system together, and more motivated to do stuff that destabilizes it. It's interesting that in the most expensive stories of Hollywood, the heroes are trying to save the world, and the villains are trying to end it.
February 24. Continuing from the last post, it's a common belief that meditation and psychedelics are just two paths to the same thing, that if you meditate hard enough you don't need drugs. I think they're two different things with different ranges of effects, but since they both influence the brain, there is some overlap in what they can do. When Ram Dass gave LSD to that guru, I think the guru was tripping but pretending not to, so he could impress the westerner.
Anyway I said, "If this life is an illusion, I don't want to see through it, I want to enjoy it." Matt points out that there are lots of things, especially in the modern world, that we know are illusions and we still enjoy. And Patrick comments: "Why can't we have both things where we see through the illusion a little bit, but really that only allows us to enjoy it more?"
That's something both meditation and psychedelics can do, mainly by widening your perspective so that whatever you're worrying about is not important. The thing I see in trip reports, that I would most like to have myself, is the sense that whatever happens, we're safe.
I keep coming around to this idea, the importance of zooming out. For example, a few weeks back there was a fascinating Ask Reddit thread, Sheltered people raised by super religions/cults: what was something about the real world that shocked you when you learned about it? Reading through it, I notice that all these cults have smaller maps than the outside world.
Nobody ever said, my religion sees less than yours. They say, my religion understands everything you do, plus this one special thing. And then they get so zoomed in on that one thing that they simplify their map of the world to fit it.
February 22. A Hacker News thread on an article I've linked to before, My mindfulness practice led me to meltdown. I hate how Hacker News arranges comments, so that the entire first page is sub-comments on one comment, while better top-level comments get buried. This comment by jeremyt is my favorite.
I would say it like this. It's not that western achievement-based culture has corrupted traditional Buddhism. Ancient people were even more hard-core than modern people in their willingness to do painful stuff to become a better person. They were like, "Here are a bunch of terrible ordeals you can put yourself through, and the reward isn't even that great." Americans are like, "I want magical enlightenment now, give me a shortcut."
"Mindfulness", broadly defined, serves at least two goals -- and the same goals are served by psychedelics: mental health, and understanding the mysteries of creation. The second actually works against the first. If you seek esoteric knowledge without a firm grounding in mental health, you're asking for trouble.
If this life is an illusion, I don't want to see through it, I want to enjoy it. But surely, as life gets harder to enjoy, there's more incentive to see through it.
The main thing I practice is metacognition, which I define as keeping a bit of my attention on whatever my attention is on, as I go about my day. I think it's unlucky that the best known practice in the west is sitting still and blanking your mind. People do this for hours and they never report any results that I want. But doing it for five minutes is a great way to fall asleep.
February 20. A few psychology links, starting with a nice Reddit thread, During a very dark period, what was the best thing you ever did for your mental health?
Hacker News thread, I don't like making the best things. Lots of stuff about the benefits of saying this is good enough, and also the benefits of trying to do things better. A key comment: "I think adding a performative aspect to a lot of things sort of kills the joy in doing them."
Review of a new book, The Case for Hanging Out. "Create opportunities to spend unproductive, unstructured time doing nothing with other people."
A couple weeks ago I saw a summary of an article about social intolerance, in which two predicting factors are "high perseverance and low persistence." I was like, whoa, aren't perseverance and persistence the same thing? According to the dictionary, they still are, but psychologists have come up with a really interesting distinction.
I'm not even sure which word is which, but one of the two things is continuing toward a goal in the face of setbacks in the process itself; the other is continuing toward a goal when external circumstances change. It blows my mind that something so basic is so arcane.