Sunday Scaries (02/07/21)

Societal implications of language models, solar eclipse, the goose that lays the golden egg

Hi everyone,

Writing to you from Jackson Hole, where we’ve been lucky enough to get 40 inches of snow since I arrived last Wednesday.

This mountain is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It’s filled with natural terrain that puts other resorts to shame. There is enough sheer rock and powder here to keep even the most adventurous riders entertained for a lifetime.


In this week’s edition

Understanding the Capabilities, Limitations, and Societal Impact of Large Language Models

Artificial intelligence researchers from Stanford and OpenAI met in 2020 to discuss the implications of language models like GPT-3. The preprint for the session recently became available. It includes meeting minutes and a summary of the discussion. The talk was split into two parts: technical implications and societal implications.

The technical stuff is interesting but, to me, the societal implications of machines that can talk like people are even more fascinating. One excerpt that caught my attention:

A major discussion point considered the deliberate misuse of language models for purposes such as generating disinformation. More specifically, models like GPT-3 can be used to create false, misleading, or propagandistic essays, tweets, and news stories de novo. […] Relatedly, someone suggested that the existence of systems like GPT-3 should spur more use of cryptography to authenticate media.

Lindy score: 2022

First Six-star System Where All Six Stars Undergo Eclipses

We’re learning that our solar system is boring compared to what’s possible. In this case, it’s a six-star system where the suns rotate each other in a complex and beautiful pattern.

One of my favorite Asimov stories, Nightfall, is based on a similar premise. It was inspired by a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

"If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God!"

Lindy score: 2022

Alan Kay Email Excerpts

Alan Kay is often called the “father of personal computing”. A digital pioneer, he is well known for his work on programming languages and time at Xerox PARC, the research lab that invented the mouse and graphical user interface.

This post is a mismash of emails that Alan has sent over the years. My favorite story is one he tells about a talk he gave to corporate executives:

I once gave a talk to Disney executives about "new ways to kill the geese that lay the golden eggs". For example, set up deadlines and quotas for the eggs. Make the geese into managers. Make the geese go to meetings to justify their diet and day to day processes. Demand golden coins from the geese rather than eggs. Demand platinum rather than gold. Require that the geese make plans and explain just how they will make the eggs that will be laid. Etc.

Lindy score: 2025

Have a great week,

Phil