Beauty is in the eye of those capable of beholding

How amazing and interesting is GPT-3? Pretty amazing and pretty interesting. Is it intelligent and can it be said to understand us? No. But that hasn’t stopped a lot of attention-grabbing demonstrations of the (remarkable) words it’s able to string together under human supervision.

This human supervision is crucial when it comes to producing an impressive result, and crudely takes three forms: modifying the “seed” text used to set things off; selecting between alternative responses as they’re generated on a sentence-by-sentence basis, which helps to maintain coherence and an illusion of understanding; and repeating both of these processes, with variations…

Normality is something you know by its absence. As I watch things that used to be ordinary slip away, I’m trying to capture something like lived experience in the form of day-by-day extracts from news sources. There’s little pattern to their selection beyond a desire to echo the way our perceptions chase after events, belatedly resolving them into new patterns — into tenuous new normalities.

“It is perfectly true, as the philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards…”

Soren Kierkegaard, Journals


“The World Health Organisation said it…

Staying connected in a time of isolation

I was commissioned to write something for the UK’s Daily Express about the fundamentals of getting connected during coronavirus, aimed at older and unconfident internet users (and anyone wanting to help them).

They’ve kindly allowed me to reproduce a version of it online, so here it is. Being written for a print newspaper, it wasn’t intended to be an exhaustive set of step-by-step instructions or links. …

Technologists believe the ethical challenges of A.I. can be solved with code, but the challenges are far more complex

Image: Apisit Sorin / EyeEm/Getty Images

Artificial intelligence should treat all people fairly, empower everyone, perform reliably and safely, be understandable, be secure and respect privacy, and have algorithmic accountability. It should be aligned with existing human values, be explainable, be fair, and respect user data rights. It should be used for socially beneficial purposes, and always remain under meaningful human control. Got that? Good.

These are some of the high-level headings under which Microsoft, IBM, and Google-owned DeepMind respectively set out their ethical principles for the development and deployment of A.I. They’re also, pretty much by definition, A Good Thing. …

Photo : NATIONAL ARCHIVES # 26-G-2343, Credit U.S. Coast Guard.

My mother’s partner was born in 1919 and died in 2006. As I get older, I find the life he lived more and more remarkable — in part because so much of it was ordinary for men of his generation. From a provincial background he was plucked into conflict, travelled across half the globe, then made a life in England. And that life helped me to see the world as it was to him: its peace bloodily won, its decency fragile.

He was a psychiatrist, but long before he pursued this specialism he saw service as a medical officer in…

When I was seven or eight years old, I used to pick up paperback novels in bookshops and stare at them: thick squat books with huge shiny letters on their covers and titles hinting at horror, thrills or murder. Some of the authors’ names were bigger than the titles. Stephen King. James Herbert. Len Deighton. Writers in an adult world I knew nothing about and wanted to join.

Sometimes, I’d do something I’ve noticed my five-year-old son now loves to do with grown-up books. I’d flick to the very end and see how many pages there were. The more, the…

In her book Addiction by Design, the anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll explores the Las Vegas gambling industry as an epitome of pleasure-seeking human-machine interactions. “In a historical moment when transactions between humans and machines unfold at an ever greater level of intimacy and on an ever greater scale,” Schüll writes. “Computers, video games, mobile phones, iPods, and the like have become a means through which individuals can manage their affective states and create a personal buffer zone against the uncertainties and worries of their world.”

In Schüll’s telling, gambling technologies succeed because they offer a relentlessly refined species of retreat…

The sci-fi writers Tom Chatfield and Julian Gough discuss how games are becoming an important route to understanding a uniquely challenging moment in history

Credit: Tom Eversley / EyeEm/Getty Images

I’m often struck, when talking to transhumanists and thinkers focused on the far technological future, by how often video games come up — specifically through the idea of adjusting the difficulty level of reality. If you can just accrue enough computational power and data and insight, they argue, you’ll reach a point at which you can fix things. Reality becomes a game. And the plot of Julian Gough’s latest novel, Connect, ends up doing something like that — alongside plenty of other unexpected things.

As well as both writing techno-thrillers, Julian and I have each written for and about video…

Why we must stop obsessing about perfection and embrace being wrong

What does it mean to change your mind? If we’re talking about something that truly matters to you, being wrong is a kind of moral shock, a realignment of personality and purpose. It’s a kind of life experience akin to other great shocks. Some of us are one kind of person before we have children and another kind of person afterward — not all at once, not overnight, but as our experience of parenthood seeps into old assumptions and alters them. Similarly, a realignment of reasoning is never brought about by reason alone. …

Don’t speak quite yet, memory

Speaking at the South by Southwest conference back in 2010, the computer scientist and philosopher Jaron Lanier asked his audience to stop typing, put away their devices and pay him complete attention. “The most important reason to stop multitasking,” he explained, “isn’t to make me feel respected, but to make you exist. If you listen first, and write later, then whatever you write will have had time to filter through your brain, and you’ll be in what you say. This is what makes you exist. If you are only a reflector of information, are you really there?”

As the old…

Tom Chatfield

Author, tech philosopher. Critical thinking textbooks, tech thrillers, explorations of what it means to use tech well

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