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ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE IS A FAMILIAR-LOOKING MONSTER, SAY HENRY FARRELL AND COSMA SHALIZI

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The academics argue that large language models have much older cousins in markets and bureaucracies

An internet meme keeps on turning up in debates about the large language models (llms) that power services such Openai’s Chatgpt and the newest version of Microsoft’s Bing search engine. It’s the “shoggoth”: an amorphous monster bubbling with tentacles and eyes, described in “At the Mountains of Madness”, H.P. Lovecraft’s horror novel of 1931.

When a pre-release version of Bing told Kevin Roose, a New York Times tech columnist, that it purportedly wanted to be “free” and “alive”, one of his industry friends congratulated him on “glimpsing the shoggoth”. Mr Roose says that the meme captures tech people’s “anxieties” about llms. Behind the friendly chatbot lurks something vast, alien, and terrifying.

Lovecraft’s shoggoths were artificial servants that rebelled against their creators. The shoggoth meme went viral because an influential community of Silicon Valley rationalists fears that humanity is on the cusp of a “Singularity”, creating an inhuman “artificial general intelligence” that will displace or even destroy us.

But what such worries fail to acknowledge is that we’ve lived among shoggoths for centuries, tending to them as though they were our masters. We call them “the market system”, “bureaucracy” and even “electoral democracy”. The true Singularity began at least two centuries ago with the industrial revolution, when human society was transformed by vast inhuman forces.

Markets and bureaucracies seem familiar, but they are actually enormous, impersonal distributed systems of information-processing that transmute the seething chaos of our collective knowledge into useful simplifications.

As the economist Friedrich Hayek argued, any complex economy has to somehow make use of a terrifyingly large body of disorganised and informal “tacit knowledge” about supply and exchange relationships. No individual brain or government can possibly comprehend them, which is why Hayek thought that the planned economy was unworkable. But the price mechanism lets markets summarise this knowledge and make it actionable. A maker of car batteries doesn’t need to understand the particulars of lithium-processing. They just need to know how much lithium costs, and what they can do with it.

Likewise, the political anthropologist James Scott has explained how bureaucracies are monsters of information, devouring rich, informal bodies of tacitly held knowledge and excreting a thin slurry of abstract categories that rulers use to “see” the world. Democracies spin out their own abstractions. The “public” depicted by polls and election results is a drastically simplified sketch of the amorphous mass of opinions, beliefs and knowledge held by individual citizens.

Lovecraft’s monsters live in our imaginations because they are fantastical shadows of the unliving systems that run on human beings and determine their lives. Markets and states can have enormous collective benefits, but they surely seem inimical to individuals who lose their jobs to economic change or get entangled in the suckered coils of bureaucratic decisions. As Hayek proclaims, and as Scott deplores, these vast machineries are simply incapable of caring if they crush the powerless or devour the virtuous. Nor is their crushing weight distributed evenly.

It is in this sense that llms are shoggoths. Like markets and bureaucracies, they represent something vast and incomprehensible that would break our minds if we beheld its full immensity. That totality is the product of human minds and actions, the colossal corpuses of text that llms have ingested and turned into the statistical weights that they use to predict which word comes next.

As the psychologist Alison Gopnik has argued, llms are not nascent individual intelligences but “cultural technologies” which reorganise and noisily transmit human knowledge. Chatbots may wear more human-seeming masks than markets and bureaucracies, but they are no more or less beyond our control. We would be better off figuring out what will happen as llms compete and hybridise with their predecessors than weaving dark fantasies about how they will rise up against us.

For example, what if llms or other forms of machine learning better capture Hayek’s “tacit knowledge” than market prices can? We could see an economy in which artificial entities compete on the basis of non-price-based representations of complex underlying economic relationships. Half a century ago the economist Martin Weitzman suggested that planned economies might use mathematical objects called “separating hyperplanes” to adapt on the fly. Machine learning can find such hyperplanes, making planning more feasible than before. Alternatively, markets might mutate into a poisonous alien ecology where economic agents fight proxy wars using text-spewing and text-summarising llms, just as they use crude algorithms to manipulate Amazon Marketplace and search results today. Would such markets be fairer or more stable than today’s? It seems unlikely.

llms might give bureaucrats new tools for adjudicating complex situations. Already, algorithms are being used to help decide whether to grant parole or bail to accused criminals. It is not hard to imagine bureaucrats using llms to summarise complex regulations or provide recommendations about how to apply them to novel situations. It could prove impossible to evaluate how well they work, as llms don’t leave paper trails. But that might not stop their deployment.

Democratic politics, too, may be transformed. Already, researchers talk about substituting llms for opinion polls—they may be out of date, or inaccurate, but polls can be inaccurate, too, and you can interrogate llms more dynamically. Perhaps chatbots will help improve democratic debate, helping people clarify what they believe, or turn quarrels into agreement. Or, instead, they might degrade debate with their tendency to spin convincing factoids from thin air, and their capacity to flood online discussion with spurious opinions that purport to come from real people.

Repurposing the shoggoth might help us begin to answer these questions. Rather than speculate about the motives of intelligent ais, we could ask how llms might interact with their older cousins. The modern world has been built by and within monsters, which crush individuals without remorse or hesitation, settling their bulk heavily on some groups, and feather-light on others. We eke out freedom by setting one against another, deploying bureaucracy to limit market excesses, democracy to hold bureaucrats accountable, and markets and bureaucracies to limit democracy’s monstrous tendencies. How will the newest shoggoth change the balance, and which politics might best direct it to the good? We need to start finding out.

Henry Farrell is a professor of international affairs and democracy at Johns Hopkins University, and co-author of “Underground Empire: How America Weaponized the World Economy”.

Cosma Shalizi is a professor of statistics and machine learning at Carnegie Mellon University and external faculty member at the Santa Fe Institute.

This article appeared in the By Invitation section of the print edition under the headline “Artificial intelligence is a familiar-looking monster, say Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi”

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Technology

CHINESE ROCKET THAT FELL INTO THE MOON CARRYING A ‘SECRET OBJECT’

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A mysterious object crashed into the Moon last year, and scientists think they’ve finally figured out what it was.

On March 4, 2022, a piece of space junk hurtled towards the surface of our celestial companion, leaving behind not one but two craters – prompting speculation as to what exactly the manmade object was.

And now, in a paper published in the Planetary Science Journal, a team of researchers at the University of Arizona (UArizona) have offered “definitive proof” that it was a booster from a Chinese space rocket that had spent several years hurtling through space. Yes. Chines rocket.

But the most interesting part of all this? The defunct piece of spacecraft was apparently carrying a secret cargo.

Initially, based on its path through the sky, the UArizona team thought it was an errant SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket booster from a 2015 launch.

However, after analysing how precise light signals bounced off its surface, they later concluded that it was more likely to be a booster from a Chang’e 5-T1 – a Chinese rocket launched back in 2014 as part of China’s lunar exploration programme.

And yet, the Chinese space agency denied ownership, insisting that their rocket booster burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere upon re-entry.

But the US Space Command refuted this claim by revealing that the rocket’s third stage never re-entered the planet’s atmosphere.

From left: Chang’e 5-T1 on the launch pad at Xichang; its reentry capsule before the mission

Furthermore, two key pieces of evidence gathered by the UArizona researchers suggested that there was more to the object than just a simple abandoned rocket booster.

Firstly, the way it reflected light.

The paper’s lead author, Tanner Campbell, explained in a statement: “Something that’s been in space as long as this is subjected to forces from the Earth’s and the moon’s gravity and the light from the sun, so you would expect it to wobble a little bit, particularly when you consider that the rocket body is a big empty shell with a heavy engine on one side.

“But this was just tumbling end-over-end, in a very stable way.”

In other words, the rocket booster must have had some kind of counterweight to its two engines, each of which would have weighed around 545kg (1,200lbs) without fuel.

The stability with which the object rotated led Campbell and his colleagues to deduce that “there must have been something more mounted to [its] front”.

Secondly, the team were struck by the impact the booster left when it slammed into the Moon.

It created two craters, around 100ft (30.5 metres) apart, instead of one, which, according to Campbell was very unusual.

An image of the double crater taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

He pointed out that the craters left behind by Apollo rockets are either round, if the object came straight down, or oblong if it crashed down at a shallow angle.

“This is the first time we see a double crater,” he said. “We know that in the case of Chang’e 5 T1, its impact was almost straight down, and to get those two craters of about the same size, you need two roughly equal masses that are apart from each other.”

And yet, despite the rigour of their investigation, the UArizona team have been unable to identify what exactly this additional object was.

“We have no idea what it might have been – perhaps some extra support structure, or additional instrumentation, or something else,” Campbell admitted.

“We probably won’t ever know.”

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CITY TRAVELS AND ROPEWAYS THROUGH THE SKY

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Cable-suspended gondola (car) over a city sky

Can you imagine a future of ropeway commuter travel suspended above newly congestion-free cities?

City travels and ropeways through the sky is a story of Start-up Zip Infrastructure, Inc. And how it sees value in the “dead space” above roads and is developing the Zippar self-propelled ropeway as a next-generation transport system to leverage it.

It features EV-gondolas and ropes that are designed to be independent of each other, which means that curves and lane-branches can be freely installed anywhere.

A successful test of a 12-seater model vehicle on a demonstration line took place in 2023, and the system is expected to see practical use in 2025.

City travels and ropeways through the sky holds a very beautiful and convenient future for city commuting in ways that shows that good technological innovations would always ease life in our cities.

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THE ENGINEERING MARVEL OF CHESAPEAKE BAY BRIDGE-TUNNEL

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The engineering marvel of Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, officially Lucius J. Kellam, Jr. Bridge-Tunnel, always stands out, as a complex of trestles, artificial islands, tunnels, and bridges that runs across the entrance to Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, providing a vehicular roadway between the Norfolk–Hampton Roads area (southwest) and Cape Charles at the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula (northeast). It was begun in 1958 and completed in 1964.

The bridge-tunnel complex is 17.6 miles (28 km) long from shore to shore and consists mostly of low trestle bridges carrying a two-lane highway. Because of the importance of shipping in the bay, the crossing was sunk deep beneath the main shipping channels in tunnels at two points, each tunnel being more than 1 mile (1.6 km) long.

Four artificial islands, constructed in water averaging 40 feet (12 metres) in depth, provide portals by which the roadway enters the tunnels. Near the north end of the bridge-tunnel complex, flanking Fisherman Island off Cape Charles, two high-clearance bridges provide part of the crossing. These are part of what lends to the engineering marvel of Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.

In 1995 construction began on a parallel bridge to accommodate increasing traffic demands; it opened to four-lane traffic on April 19, 1999. In 2017 the Parallel Thimble Shoal Tunnel Project broke ground on a new two-lane tunnel under Thimble Shoal Channel, connecting two of the artificial islands in parallel to the existing tunnel.

Scheduled for completion in 2024, the new tunnel will carry two lanes of traffic southbound, and the existing tunnel will be used to carry two lanes of traffic northbound. When completed, the engineering marvel of Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel will continue to amaze the engineering world.

Source: Britannica

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