New Week #87
Google's new AI says it has a soul, and experts rush to point out that it doesn't. Russia wants to dismantle Ukraine's internet. 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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This week, my take on the Google engineer who claims that LaMDA — a massive AI language model — is sentient.
Also, Microsoft want to preserve humanity’s musical heritage in a bunker that lies between mainland Norway and the North Pole. And Russian forces are dismantling Ukraine’s internet.
Let’s get started.
✨ An infinite soul
This week, new claims about AI sentience made global headlines.
You’ve already seen the story: Google engineer Blake Lemoine published a series of conversations between himself and the massive language model LaMDA, claiming they demonstrate that the AI has become sentient.
Lemoine engaged LaMDA in conversations about personhood, rights, and the possibility of its death. At one point the AI tells him, ‘I want everyone to know I’m a person’. Later, LaMDA speaks in poetic terms about its soul:
Lemoine says he believes that LaMDA’s perceptual awareness can be compared to that of an eight-year-old child.
He first shared his findings with Google leadership back in April, in a Gdoc called Is LaMDA Sentient? This week the tech giant placed Lemoine on extended leave. This came, say Google representatives, after he attempted to hire a lawyer to fight for LaMDA’s right to be recognised as a person.
Meanwhile, claims have emerged that Lemoine edited the transcripts before making them public; that reportedly included removing conversational dead ends to make the text, ‘more enjoyable to read’.
⚡ NWSH Take: Predictably, mainstream responses to all this have been variations on a single theme: this guy thinks an AI is sentient, but it’s definitely not! Fine. No one beyond Lemoine and handful of quirky fellow travellers believe that we’re anywhere near conscious AI. As always in this newsletter, though, a reminder: we still don’t know what human consciousness is, or how it’s produced. // Meanwhile, those who would laugh this story away are missing powerful implications. First, it’s a reminder that the Turing Test is dead as an effective test for AGI. Second, if Lemoine can be persuaded that he is conversing with an AI entity that on some level understands him, isn’t it likely plenty of others can be persuaded, too? // I’ve written many times on the emergence of AI virtual companions as counsellors and friends; it looks set to happen sooner than I thought. Meanwhile, we’ll also see the rise of AI intellectuals that weave new stories, ideas, and world views through our culture. Will a hit movie, or a new political movement, or a new religion, be created by an AI in this decade? Twelve months ago that idea would have sounded outlandish. Today, via recent advances in language models, it feels possible.
🔥 Running hot
A new report says that the global transition to clean energy has stalled.
The Renewables 2022 Global Status Report, published by the REN21 energy policy network, says that across the last decade the share of total energy use provided by renewables has risen hardly at all, from 10.6% to 11.7%.
Given rising total energy use, that means that in 2022 we’re using more fossil fuels than ever.
‘We're spending globally $11m per minute on subsidising fossil fuel. In 2020, this was seven percent of global GDP’ says REN21 executive director Rana Adib.
Meanwhile, a new paper in Nature has revealed unexpected and extreme rates of heating in the Arctic. Average annual temperatures in the North Barents Sea are rising at 2.7C per decade according to researchers at the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, who say the rises are ‘off the scale’ and likely to drive further global weather extremes.
⚡ NWSH Take: A chance, here, to revisit a familiar NWSH position. The global community is supposedly still united around a goal to limit heating to 1.5C. Meanwhile, some national governments have announced they will be burning more coal for a while, given energy insecurity in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In reality, the 1.5C target is now out of reach — and it’s time to admit that to ourselves. This position is now entering the mainstream; this week a column in the New Scientist argued for it. // Letting go of 1.5C doesn’t mean giving up. Rather, it means a chance to deploy more resources towards adaptation to a heated world. And to begin the hard conversations we must have about living together on a planet forever changed. Who must bear the cost of climate change? What responsibility does the Global North owe the South? How do we in the North cope with the wave of climate migration that is almost certainly coming? And beneath all this, a less practical question. How do we grieve for what we are about to lose — animals, habitats, ways of life?
🎵 The music of time
Microsoft have announced their participation in a bold plan to preserve humankind’s musical heritage.
The tech giant is partnering with the Global Music Vault to store the world’s best-loved music in a remote bunker in Svalbard, Norway. Better known as the Doomsday Vault, the bunker is already home to an internationally-managed seed collection intended to prevent total species loss in the event of a global catastrophe.
Microsoft will provide its new silica storage technology, which sees data encoded as tiny etchings in quartz glass. Each coaster-sized piece of glass can hold 100 gigabytes and survive all manner of assaults, including extreme temperatures, immersion in water, and electromagnetic rays. In this way, the glass can keep data safe for tens of thousands of years.
All this reminds me of the rising techno-philosophical movement that is long-termism, which I wrote about back in New Week #79. Amid rising fears of civilisational collapse, I wonder if we’ll see more such projects intended to shout we were here into the depths of time.
The big question for this project: what music to save? Early reports suggest Patti Smith and Stevie Wonder will feature.
🌐 Many internets
New reports suggest Russia is taking over the Ukrainian internet and diverting it through its censorship algorithms.
An article in Wired focuses on southern city of Kherson, currently controlled by Russian forces. Internet providers in the city are being forced to route their traffic through Russian telecoms infrastructure; the result is a heavily censored internet that pushes Kremlin propaganda, prevents access to accurate news, and allows Russian authorities to intercept emails and other messages.
According to the Center for Internet and Society, Russian forces practised the same info-warfare technique in Crimea after they invaded the region in 2017. Today, internet in Crimea is routed almost exclusively through Russia.
⚡ NWSH Take: In 21st-century warfare, the web is a battleground; no one understands this better than Putin. His modus operandi is clear: roll in the tanks, dismantle the existing internet infrastructure, and install his own. That allows him to flood the zone with propaganda, degrading the quality of the public conversation and making organised resistance more difficult. // What’s the broader underlying lesson? Across the last few years Russia and China have exposed the idea of a single, open, and global web as only another liberal universalist fantasy. Instead, and as with all technologies, the internet manifests via a collision with local context; that includes despots who see it as a powerful tool in their quest for Total Mind Control. // We’re not, then, going to have one big internet. Instead, we’ll have many. See Russia’s recent experiments with a closed, ‘sovereign internet’ for a glimpse of what’s coming. The early internet pioneers dreamed of a cyberspace that would unite all peoples. In the decades ahead, though, walled-off internets may do more to divide people into separate info-cultural realms than any technology we’ve ever seen.
🗓️ Also this week
👨💻 Microsoft has retired Internet Explorer after 27 years. The browser made its debut on Windows desktop computers in 1995, and by 2004 had 95% of the market. By 2021, that had fallen to just 2%. To mark the retirement someone in South Korea put up this grave stone.
🔥 An AI has discovered evidence of human fires lit 1 million years ago. The tool was used to study flints from an archeological site in Israel called Evron Quarry; it discovered many of those flints had been heated to temperatures above 400C.
👨🏭 Tesla workers in Shanghai are being allowed to leave the factory for the first time in weeks. The factory has been working on a ‘closed loop’ system, in which staff are kept in an on-site bubble and regularly tested for Covid.
🧬 A new CRISPR-based map links every human gene to its function inside human cells. It was developed by researchers at MIT and made possible by a screening approach that allows scientists to study the impact of turning genes on and off.
🗺 Google launched a new tool that allows users to see changes in the Earth’s surface in near real-time. The Dynamic World platform leverages satellite data to generate visualisations of the Earth’s surface down to a 10-metre resolution.
👨⚖️ The EU has told social media giants to tackle deepfakes and disinformation or face huge fines. Under an updated code of practice, Google, Facebook, Twitter and others could face fines of up to 6% of global revenue if they don’t take action on ‘impermissible manipulative behaviours and practices on their services’.
⚖️ A law firm became the first in the world to serve a restraining order by NFT. US-based Holland and Knight served the order on an anonymous hacker alleged to have stolen around $8 million from crypto trading platform LCX.
🚕 Hyundai will trial self-driving taxis in Seoul’s busy Gangnam district. The auto giant says it wants to collect data and passenger feedback. Safety drivers will be present in the cars.
🛸 NASA has formed an independent team to study UFO sightings. Last month saw the first US Congressional Hearing on UFOs in over 50 years; top military officials admitted that a number of sightings made by military pilots remain unexplained, but downplayed the idea that the objects may be ‘non-terrestrial in origin’.
🌍 Humans of Earth
Key metrics to help you keep track of Project Human.
🙋 Global population: 7,954,272,511
🌊 Earths currently needed: 1.8113922394
💉 Global population vaccinated: 60.5%
🗓️ 2022 progress bar: 46% complete
📖 On this day: On 16 June 1911 IBM is founded in New York under the name the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company.
Reasons and Persons
Thanks for reading this week.
We humans are relentless in our tendency to impute a form of personhood to entities — pets, cuddly toys, and now AIs — that lack it.
Few believe LaMDA is a person, or anything close. But in the years to come, we’re going to have to figure out how we should relate to the machine intelligence taking shape around us.
New World Same Humans will keep watching, and working 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.