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Sam Altman and the veil of ignorance

(This is not about Altman having been removed as CEO of OpenAI)

During the APEC forum on Thursday, Sam Altman has been cited to having said the following thing: "Four times now in the history of OpenAI—the most recent time was just in the last couple of weeks—I’ve gotten to be in the room when we push the veil of ignorance back and the frontier of discovery forward. And getting to do that is like the professional honor of a lifetime."

He meant that as an uplifting quote to describe how awesome his company and their achievements are.

I find it deeply worrying. Why?

The "veil of ignorance" (also known as the original position) is a thought experiment introduced by John Rawls, one of the leading American moral and political philosophers of the 20th century. The goal is to think about the fairness of a society or a social system without you knowing where in the system you end up: are you on top or at the bottom? What are your skills, your talents? Who are your friends? Do you have disabilities? What is your gender, your family history?

The whole point is to *not* push the veil of ignorance back, otherwise you'll create an unfair system. It is a good tool to think about the coming disruptions by AI technology.

The fact that he's using that specific term but is obviously entirely oblivious to its meaning tells us that there was a path that term took, probably from someone working on ethics to then-CEO Altman, and that someone didn't listen. The meaning was lost, and the beautiful phrase was entirely repurposed.

Given that's coming from the then-CEO of the company that claims and insists on, again and again (without substantial proof) that they are doing all this for the greater benefit of all humanity, that are, despite their name, increasingly closing their results, making public scrutiny increasingly difficult if not impossible - well, I find that worrying. The quote indicates that they have no idea about a basic tool towards evaluating fairness, even worse, have heard about it - but they have not listened or comprehended.



Strong recommendation for "Babel" by R.F. Kuang. It's a speculative fiction story set in 1830s Oxford with an, as far as I can tell, novel premise: one can cast spells (although they don't call it spells but it's just science in this world) by using two words that translate into each other, and the semantic difference between the two words - because no translation is perfect - is the effect of the spell. But the effect can only be achieved if you have a speaker who's fluent enough in both languages to have a native understanding of the difference.

One example would be the French parcelle and the English parcel, both meaning package, but the French still carries some of the former "to split into parts", with the effect that packages are lighter and easier to transport for the Royal Mail.

The story remains comfortable for the first half of the volume, with beautiful world building, character drawing, and the tranquil academic life of Oxford students, but then it suddenly picks up speed, and we can experience the events unfold with a merciless speed. The end is just in the right place, and it leaves me to yearn to revisit this world and the desire to learn what happened next.

The volume discusses some heavy topics - colonialism, dependency on technology, fairness, what is allowed in a revolution, the "neutrality" of science - and while we are still in the first half of the volume, it feels very on the nose, very theoretical - but that changes dramatically as we swing into the second half of the volume, and suddenly all these theoretical discussions become very immediate. Which does remind me of student life, where discussions about different political systems and abstract notions of justice are just as prevalent and as consequence-free as they seem to be here, at first.

The book was recommended by the Lingthusiasm podcast, which is how I found it.

I came for the linguistic premise, but I stayed for the characters and their fates in a colonial world.


Existential crises

I think the likelihood of AI killing all humans is bigger than the likelihood of climate change killing all humans.

Nevertheless I think that we should worry and act much more about climate change than about AI.

Allow me to explain.

Both AI and climate change will, in this century, force changes to basically every aspect of the lives of basically every single person on the planet. Some people may benefit, some may not. The impact of both will be drastic and irreversible. I expect the year 2100 to look very different from 2000.

Climate change will lead to billions of people to suffer, and to many deaths. It will destroy the current livelihoods of many millions of people. Many people will be forced to leave their homes, not because they want to, but because they have to in order to survive. Richer countries with sufficient infrastructure to deal with the direct impact of a changed climate will have to decide how to deal with the millions of people who want to live and who want their children not to die. We will see suffering on a scale never seen before, simply because there have never been this many humans on the planet.

But it won't be an existential threat to humanity (the word humanity has at least two meanings: 1) the species as a whole, and 2) certain values we associate with humans. Unfortunately, I only refer to the first meaning. The second meaning will most certainly face a threat). Humanity will survive, without a doubt. There are enough resources, there are enough rich and powerful people, to allow millions of us to shelter away from the most life threatening consequences of climate change. Millions will survive for sure. Potentially at the costs of many millions lives and the suffering of billions. Whole food chains, whole ecosystems may collapse. Whole countries may be abandoned. But humanity will survive.

What about AI? I believe that AI can be a huge boon. It may allow for much more prosperity, if we spread out the gains widely. It can remove a lot of toil from the life of many people. It can make many people more effective and productive. But history has shown that we're not exactly great at sharing gains widely. AI will lead to disruptions in many economic sectors. If we're not careful (and we likely aren't) it might lead to many people suffering from poverty. None of these pose an existential threat to humanity.

But there are outlandish scenarios which I think might have a tiny chance of becoming true and which can kill every human. Even a full blown Terminator scenario where drones hunt every human because the AI has decided that extermination is the right step. Or, much simpler, that in our idiocy we let AI supervise some of our gigantic nuclear arsenal, and that goes wrong. But again, I merely think these possible, but not in the slightest likely. An asteroid hitting Earth and killing most of us is likelier if you ask my gut.

Killing all humans is a high bar. It is an important bar for so called long-termists, who may posit that the death of four or five billion people isn't significant enough to worry about, just a bump in the long term. They'd say that they want to focus on what's truly important. I find that reasoning understandable, but morally indefensible.

In summary: there are currently too many resources devoted to thinking about the threat of AI as an existential crisis. We should focus on the short term effect of AI and aim to avoid as many of the negative effects as possible and to share the spoils of the positive effects. We're likely to end up with socializing the negative effects, particularly amongst the weakest members of society, and privatizing the benefits. That's bad.

We really need to devote more resources towards avoiding climate change as far as still possible, and towards shielding people and the environment from the negative effects of climate change. I am afraid we're failing at that. And that will cause far more negative impact in the course of this century than any AI will.


Wikidata crossed 2 billion edits

The Wikidata community edited Wikidata 2 billion times!

Wikidata is, to the best of my knowledge, the first and only wiki to cross 2 billion edits (the second most edited one being English Wikipedia with 1.18 billion edits).

Edit Nr 2,000,000,000 was adding the first person plural future of the Italian verb 'grugnire' (to grunt) by user Luca.favorido.

Wikidata also celebrated 11 years since launch with the hybrid WikidataCon 2023 in Taipei last weekend.

It took from 2012 to 2019 to get the first billion, and from 2019 to now for the second. As they say, the first billion is the hardest.

That the two billionth edit happens right on the Birthday is a nice surprise.


The letter Đ

The letter Đ was introduced to Serbo-Croatian by Đuro Daničić, according to Wikipedia. I found that highly amusing, that he introduced the letter that is the first letter in his name.

Wikipedia also claims that he was born Đorđe Popović, and all I can think of is "nah, that can't be right".

That would be like Jebediah Springfield who was born in a cabin that he helped build.


Pastir Loda

Vladimir Nazor is likely the most famous author from the island of Brač, the island my parents are from. His most acclaimed book seems to be Pastir Loda, Loda the Shepherd. It tells the story of a satyr that, through accidents and storms, was stranded on the island of Brač, and how he lived on Brač for the next almost two thousand years.

It is difficult to find many of his works, they are often out of print. And there isn't much available online, either. Since Nazor died in 1949, his works are in the public domain. I acquired a copy of Pastir Loda from an antique book shop in Zagreb, which I then forwarded to a friend in Denmark who has a book scanner, and who scanned the book so I can make the PDF available now.

The book is written in Croatian. There is a German translation, but that won't get into the public domain until 2043 (the translator lived until 1972), and according to WorldCat there is a Czech translation, and according to Wikipedia a Hungarian translation. For both I don't know who the translator is, and so I don't know the copyright status of these translations. I also don't know if the book has ever been translated to other languages.

I wish to find the time to upload and transcribe the content on Wikisource, and then maybe even do a translation of it into English. For now I upload the book to, and I also make it available on my own Website. I want to upload it to Wikimedia Commons, but I immediately stumbled upon the first issue, that it seems that to upload it to Commons the book needs to be published before 1928 and the author has to be dead for more than 70 years (I think that should be an or). I am checking on Commons if I can upload it or not.

Until then, here's the Download:


F in Croatian

I was writing some checks to find errors in the lexical data in Wikidata for Croatian, and one of the things I tried was to check whether the letters in the words are all part of the Croatian alphabet. But instead of just taking a list, or writing down from memory, I looked at the data, and added letter after letter. And then I was surprised to find that the letter "f" only appears in loanwords. And I look it up in the Croatian Encyclopedia and it simply states that "f" is not a letter of the old slavic language.

I was mindblown. I speak this language since I can remember, and i didn't notice that there is no "f" but in loanwords. And "f" seems like such a fundamental sound! But no, wrong!

If you speak a slavic language, do you have the letter "f"?


Do you hear the people sing?

"Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men..."

Yesterday, a London performance of Les Miserables was interrupted by protesters raising awareness about climate change.

The audience booed.

It seems the audience was unhappy about having to experience protests and unrest during the performance of protests and unrest they wanted to enjoy.

The hypocrisy is rich in this one, but a very well engineered and expected one. But I guess only with the luxury of being detached from the actual event one can afford to enjoy the hypocrisy. I assume that for many people attending a West End London production of Les Miserables aims to be a proper highlight of the year, if not more. It's something that children gift their parents for the 30th wedding anniversary. It may be the reason for a trip to London. In addition, attending a performance like this is an escapist act, that you don't want interrupted with the problems of the real world. And given that it is a life performance, it seems disrespectful to the cast, to the artists, who pour their lives into their roles.

On the other side, the existential dread about climate change, and the insufficient actions by world leaders seem to demand increasingly bolder action and more attention. We are teaching our kids that they should act if something is not right. And we are telling them about the predictions for climate change. And then we are surprised if they try to do something? The message that climate change will be extremely disruptive to our lives and that we need to act much more decisively has obviously not yet been understood by enough people. And we, humanity, our leaders, elected or not, are most certainly not yet doing enough to try to prevent or at least mitigate the effects of climate change that are starting to roll over us.

It would be good, but admittedly unlikely, if both sides could appreciate the other more. Maybe the audience might be a bit appreciative of seeing the people sing the song of angry men in real. And maybe the protesters could choose their targets a bit more wisely. Why choose art? There are more disruptive targets if you were to protest the oil industry than a performance of Les Miserables. To be honest, if i were working for the oil industry, this is exactly the kind of actions I would be setting up. And with people who are actually into the cause. That way I can ensure that people will talk about interrupted theater productions and defaced paintings, instead of again having the hottest year in history, of floods, heatwaves, hurricanes, and the thousands of people who already died due to climate change induced catastrophes - and the billions more whose life will be turned upside down.


Immortal relationships

I saw a beautiful meme yesterday that said that from the perspective of a cat or dog, humans are like elves who live for five hundred years and yet aren't afraid to bond with them for their whole life. And it is depicted as beautiful and wholesome.

It's so different from all those stories of immortals, think of Vampires or Highlander or the Sandman, where the immortals get bitter, or live in misery and loss, or become aloof and uncaring about human lives and their short life spans, and where it hurts them more than it does them good.

There seem to be more stories exploring the friendship of immortals with short-lived creatures, be it in Rings of Power with the relationship of Elrond and Durin, be it the relation of Star Trek's Zora with the crew of the Discovery or especially with Craft in the short movie Calypso, or between the Eternal Sersi and Dane Whitman. All these relations seem to be depicted more positively and less tragic.

In my opinion that's a good thing. It highlights the good parts in us that we should aspire to. It shows us what we can be, based in a very common perception, the relationship to our cats and dogs. Stories are magic, in it's truest sense. Stories have an influence on the world, they help us understand the world, imagine the impact we can have, explore us who we can be. That's why I'm happy to see these more positive takes on that trope compared to the tragic takes of the past.

(I don't know if any of this is true. I think it would require at least some work to actually capture instances of such stories, classify and tally them, to see if that really is the case. I'm not claiming I've done that groundwork, but just capture an observation that I'd like to be true, but can't really vouch for it.)


Molly Holzschlag (1963-2023)

May her memory be a blessing.

She taught the Web to many, and she fought for the Web of many.


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