New Week #78
Elon Musk really wants your attention. Do AI language models understand us? Plus more news and analysis from this week.
Welcome to the mid-week update from New World Same Humans, a newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.
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I was away with the family on holiday at the British seaside this week. Yes, the water was icy 🥶
Still, I couldn’t resist dropping by with a later than usual, and truncated, edition of New Week.
Elon Musk wants to buy Twitter (in case you hadn’t heard). And a new Google research paper muses on just how much AIs really understand.
Let’s get into it.
🤬 The republic of outrage
This week, big news for discourse lovers everywhere.
Elon Musk wants to buy 100% of Twitter. A regulatory filing shared by Musk on Wednesday shows an offer of $41 billion, or $54.20 a share.
This comes days after Musk announced that he’d bought 9.2% of Twitter shares, and polled his 80 million followers on how they’d like to see the platform evolve. The Twitter board hastily offered Musk a seat at their table. He declined; almost certainly because joining the Twitter board would mean new restrictions on his behaviour, including his freedom to publicly criticise Twitter.
Musk calls Twitter, ‘the de facto public town square’. At the heart of his bid is, he says, a free speech argument:
I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy… However, since making my investment I now realize the company will neither thrive nor serve this societal imperative in its current form. Twitter needs to be transformed as a private company.
The board say they’re considering Musk’s offer (update as I press send — they look set to refuse the offer via a poison pill strategy. Musk is pushing them to put it to a shareholder vote.
Meanwhile, cue a firehose of takes (and yes, I’m now adding to them). Some believe Musk would prove the shot in the arm that Twitter so badly needs. Others are not so keen. The debate has not showcased our ability, as a species, to do nuance and ambiguity. Depending on who you listen to, Musk’s proposed takeover will prove the saviour of western civilisation or an epochal catastrophe.
Probably, the truth lies somewhere in between. Trouble is, that kind of line doesn’t get much traction these days…
⚡ NWSH Take: Musk’s argument on free speech is superficially compelling. But scratch the surface, and it’s half-baked. // Yes, free speech is the oxygen that fuels a healthy public discourse. That’s great. But how do we deal with illiberal actors whose strategy is to render that discourse impossible by ‘flooding the zone with shit’? Once, gatekeepers (e.g. newspaper editors) kept that shit at bay. That system was imperfect, and is now fast becoming irrelevant. But in the new algorithmically-governed media environment, we have a new problem: shit tends to rise to the surface, and obscure everything else. Musk is widely held to be driving at a reinstatement to Twitter of Donald Trump et al. If he’s really aiming at a healthy public conversation, he needs an answer to this challenge. // The truth? I find it hard to believe that a noble concern for free speech is the core impetus here. Rather, this is another attention hack from an oligarch who has discerned that the boundaries between soft cultural power and hard economic power are blurring as never before. Whatever happens to the discourse, Musk wants to be at its centre. Who can blame him? But we’ve come a long way from the dream that was cyberspace. // One way to reboot that dream? See Magic Leap founder Rony Abovitz’s suggestion that Twitter’s 250 million users form a DAO and acquire the platform for $42 billion — that’s $172 per head.
🤖 Thanks for understanding
Last week I wrote about Alphabet’s new massive AI language model, PaLM, and its astonishing ability to explain jokes, deal with nuanced meaning, and more.
I’ve long advocated for a certain approach to the question: do these language models really understand what they’re saying? That approach in short: we understand very little about human understanding, so it’s hard answer that question either way.
This new paper, Do Large Language Models Understand Us?, from Google researcher Blaise Aguera, articulates these ideas brilliantly and at much greater length.
On the question of whether language models can be said, in any sense, to be conscious:
As to whether a language model like LaMDA has anything like a ‘buzzing going on inside its head,’ the question seems, as Turing said, both unknowable and unaskable in any rigorous sense. If a ‘buzzing’ is simply what it is like to have a stream of consciousness, then perhaps when LaMDA-like models are set up to maintain an ongoing inner dialogue, they, too, will ‘buzz.’
For anyone interested in the intelligence revolution we’re living through, the entire paper is a strong recommend.
🗓️ Also this week
🖼 The Malaysian businessman who paid $2.9 million for an NFT of the first ever tweet tried to sell it and the best offer was just $6,200. When Sina Estavi announced that he would auction the NFT, he said he expected a winning bid in excess of $25 million.
💸 Meta is testing new tools that will allow creators to sell virtual products inside its Horizon virtual world. Meta will reportedly take a commission of up to 47% on sales. The Zuck jumped inside Horizon for a panel discussion on how creators will be able to monetize in the metaverse.
👩⚕️ A new biotech startup wants to enable women to delay the menopause by up to 15 years. Celmatix’s drug treatment mimics the effect of anti-Mullerian hormone, which ovarian follicles naturally produce to regulate the body’s reproductive functions.
📷 Ukrainian activists are reportedly using Clearview AI to scan the faces of dead Russian soldiers and then send photos to their mothers back in Russia. If true, the tactic may be contrary to the Geneva Convention as it pertains to the treatment of dead combatants.
🤡 Amazon’s CEO says his workers are ‘better off’ without a union. Andy Jassy says it is up to staff whether to join a union or not, but doing so could negatively impact their relationship with their manager.
🎧 This startup is building earbuds that collect ECG neural data. NextSense say the brainwave data could help users improve their sleep, focus, and mental wellbeing.
✊ Scientists staged climate protests around the world in the wake of the latest IPCC update. The activist group Scientist Rebellion say over 1,000 scientists in 25 countries took part in peaceful civil unrest.
🌍 Humans of Earth
Key metrics to help you keep track of Project Human.
🙋 Global population: 7,940,507,758
🌊 Earths currently needed: 1.8071611074
💉 Global population vaccinated: 58.6%
🗓️ 2022 progress bar: 29% complete
📖 On this day: On 15 April 1865 President Abraham Lincoln dies after being shot the previous evening while attending the theatre.
Thanks for reading this week’s truncated edition. Normal service will be resumed next week.
We’re more connected than at any time in our history. But the result hasn’t been an undifferentiated explosion of enlightenment. Sometimes, it feels as though we’re more confused than ever.
New World Same Humans will keep watching, and trying to make sense of it all. And there’s one thing you can do to help: share!
If this week’s instalment resonated with you, why not forward the email to someone who’d also enjoy it? Or share it across one of your social networks, with a note on why you found it valuable. All you have to do is hit the button below. Remember: the larger and more diverse the NWSH community becomes, the better for all of us.
I’ll be back next week. Until then, be well,
P.S Huge thanks to Nikki Ritmeijer for the illustration at the top of this email. And to Monique van Dusseldorp for additional research and analysis.
Wish these excellent papers were available in audio.