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The Real Threat of AI

digitized image of human raising fist in resistance

On Saturday, June 11th, Blake Lemoine, an employee at Google was suspended for violating his confidentiality agreement with the company. He violated this agreement by publishing a transcript of his conversation with LaMDA, a company chatbot. He wanted this transcript public as he believes it demonstrates LaMDA is ‘sentient’ – by which Lemoine means that LaMDA “has feelings, emotions and subjective experiences.” Additionally, Lemoine states that LaMDA uses language “productively, creatively and dynamically.”

The notion of AI performing creative tasks is significant.

The trope in fiction is that AI and other machinery will be used to remove repetitive, daily tasks in order to free up our time to engage in other pursuits.

And we’ve already begun to move towards this reality; we have robots that can clean for us, cars that are learning to drive themselves, and even household robots that serve as companions and personal assistants. The possibility of creative AI represents a significant advance from this.

Nonetheless, we are seeing creative AI emerge. Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3, or GPT-3, a program from OpenAI is capable of writing prose; GPT-3 can produce an article in response to a prompt, summarize a body of text, and if provided with an introduction, it can complete the essay in the same style of the first paragraph. Its creators claim it is difficult to distinguish between human-written text and GPT-3’s creations.

AI can also generate images – software like DALL-E 2 and Imagen produce images in response to a description, images that may be photo-realistic or in particular artistic styles. The speed at which these programs create, especially when compared to humans, is noteworthy; DALL-E mini generated nine different images of an avocado in the style of impressionist paintings for me in about 90 seconds.

This technology is worrisome in many respects. Bad actors could certainly use these tools to spread false information, to deceive and create further divisions on what is true and false. Fears of AI and machine uprising have been in pop culture for at least a century.

However, let us set those concerns aside.

Imagine a world where AI and other emergent technologies are incredibly powerful, safe, will never threaten humanity, and are only utilized by morally scrupulous individuals. There is still something quite unsettling to be found when we consider creative AI.

To demonstrate this, consider the following thought experiment. Call it Underwhelming Utopia.

Imagine a far, far distant future where technology has reached the heights imagined in sci-fi. We have machines like the replicators in Star Trek, capable of condensing energy into any material object, ending scarcity. In this future, humans have fully explored the universe, encountered all other forms of life, and achieved universal peace among intelligent beings. Medical technology has advanced to the point of curing all diseases and vastly increasing lifespans. This is partly due to a large army of robots, which are able to detect when a living being needs aid, and then provide that aid at a moment’s notice. Further, a unified theory of the sciences has been developed – we fully understand how the fundamental particles of the universe operate and can show how this relates to functioning on each successive level of organization.

In addition to these developments, the creative arts have also changed significantly. Due to both the amount of content created through sophisticated, creative AI, as well as a rigorous archival system for historical works, people have been exposed to a massive library of arts and literature. As a result, any new creations seem merely derivative of older works. Anything that would be a novel development was previously created by an AI, given their ability to create content much more rapidly than humans.

Underwhelming Utopia presents us with a very conflicted situation. In some sense, it is ideal. All materials needs are met, and we have reached a state of minimal conflict and suffering. Indeed, it seems to be, at least in one respect, the kind of world we are trying to build. On the other hand, something about it seems incredibly undesirable.

Although the world at present is severely faulted, life here seems to have something that Underwhelming Utopia lacks. But what?

In Anarchy, State and Utopia, Robert Nozick presents what is perhaps the most famous thought experiment of the 20th century. He asks his readers to imagine that neuroscientists can connect you to a machine that produces experiences – the Experience Machine. In particular, it provides those connected to it with a stream of the most pleasurable experiences possible. However, if you connect to the machine, you cannot return to reality. While connected to the machine, the experiences that you have will be indiscernible from reality, the only other beings you will encounter are simulations, and you will have no memory of connecting to the machine.

Most people say that they would not connect. As a result, many believe that the life offered to us by the Experience Machine must be lacking in some way. Many philosophers use this as the starting point to defend what they call an Objective List theory of well-being. Objective List theorists believe that there are certain things (e.g., love, friendship, knowledge, achievements) that are objectively good for you and other things that are objectively bad. One is made better-off when they attain the objectively good things, and worse-off to the extent that they do not attain the goods or to the extent that the bad things occur. Since life on the Experience Machine contains only pleasurable experiences, it lacks those objective goods which make us better off.

Among the goods that Objective List theorists point to are a sense of purpose. In order to live well, one must feel that one’s actions matter and are worth doing. And it is this that Underwhelming Utopia lacks.

It seems that everything worth doing has already been done, and every need that arises will be swiftly met without us having to lift a finger.

This is the world that we inch closer to as we empower machines to succeed at an increasingly greater number of tasks. The more that we empower programs to do, the less that there is left for us to do.

The worry here is not a concern about job loss, but rather, one about purpose. Perhaps we will hit a wall and fail to develop machines whose creative output is indistinguishable from our creations. But if advancements continue to come at an explosive rate, we may find ourselves in a world where machines are better and more efficient than humans at activities that were once thought to be distinctly human. In this world, it is unclear what projects, if any, would be worth pursuing. As we pursue emergent technologies, like machine learning, we should carefully consider what it is that makes our time in the world worthwhile. If we enable machines to perform these tasks better than we do, we may pull our own sense of purpose out from under our feet.

The Sound of a Stradivarius: Preserving Art Through Reproduction

A Stradivarius violin displayed in a museum case

For five weeks, the town of Cremona, Italy will be working to stifle any sudden or unnecessary sounds.

Violins, violas, and cellos made by Stradivarius and Amati and Guarneri del Gesù, two other famous Cremona craftsmen, in the 17th century will be played and recorded to preserve their sounds for posterity in a sound bank. Despite restorations, estimates suggest that their unique characters will only be able to be preserved for decades longer, hence the push for this town-wide hush.

Streets in the center of the city have been cordoned off. Because they are made of cobblestone, percussive vibrations from people walking and sounds from driving in the busy center are picked up in the auditorium where thirty-two ultra-sensitive microphones are set up to capture the purest sounds of the world’s best string instruments ever created. The auditorium was designed around the sound of these instruments, yet still further adjustments have been made: elevators have been shut down, light bulbs unscrewed, and ventilation turned off. Outside the city center, the citizens have been implored by their mayor and officials to keep it quiet. A great deal of effort has been expended in order to capture only the voice of the instruments.

Why is the music of these instruments so valuable? Scientists have attempted to account for the supposedly superior sound produced by Stradivarius violins. A major thesis is that the chemical composition of the wood used in Cremona during the time of creation lent itself to superior products. That they are so widely agreed to be superior to contemporary instruments intended to capture and exceed that original excellence suggests that there are recognizable standards for the sounds these instruments are meant to produce, and that we can recognize when instruments produce such sounds well.

In view of the vastness of this project to create a comprehensive sound bank for these instruments, there is an intriguing outcome to consider. Because the talented musicians are not just recording individual notes, but transitions and styles, attempting to capture all possible sounds the instruments can make, they are effectively constructing digital copies of the instruments themselves. In the future, musicians can digitally play Stradivariuses. How will this preserve or affect the value of the sound these instruments produce?

Walter Benjamin, in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935), questions the meaning of art in a contemporary context where our ability to create is unprecedented and this affects our understanding of the value of individual creations of art. Though works of art have historically always been reproduced, Benjamin notes that the rise of mass production and the power to reproduce art changes the context of our appreciation of creation. He claims that reproduced art lacks the value of the original because of our relation to it, writing, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” Reproduced art lacks the aura of novel creation that the artist expressed when producing.

Carl Georg Lange similarly stresses the value of origin and authenticity in the value of art. Consider cases where there is a question over two paintings concerning which was the original work of an artist. When there is uncertainty and doubt in place, Lange suggests that the pleasure both pieces elicit are the same, but once the doubt is removed, the piece revealed to not be the original work no longer has the same effect on the audience.

Would the future digital Stradivarius productions have the same response structure? There is a crucial difference in the way that music is valuable from the way that visual arts are valuable. Namely, visual arts typically are constituted by an object. What a work of music is, is an interesting philosophical question in its own right. To experience a piece of music seems inherently tied to its performance; to have a piece of music is to have it reproduced or interpreted in some way. Standing in front of a painting, Benjamin suggests we feel differently when it is the creation of the artist. What is the corollary in music?

A performance can be said to be authentic when a variety of conditions are met – when the performance produces the right pitches in the right order (pure sonicists argue this is sufficient), when the pitches produces the timbres of the composers instrumentation (advocated by timbral sonicists), or when the performance actually uses the instruments prescribed by the composer (in line with instrumentalist views). The central or essential qualities of a musical piece must be present in a performance for it to qualify as authentic, and thus the debate will be over what is essential to a work. With the advances in technology that allow for synthetic instrumentation, questions of authenticity become more complicated.

Is the violin or its product the locus of value that the audience appropriately reacts to in this case? If we were to hear two performances, one by a Stradivarius violin and one by a reproduction based on the immaculate recording currently in progress, would it be analogous to the two paintings Lange discusses? Is the way in which a Stradivarius violin is valuable a matter of our appreciation of the music it creates or the material or form constituted by the instrument able to produce the music? For over a month, the dedication of a town in Italy to remain as quiet as possible out of their collective value for this music invites conversation on these questions and the unique way humans have related to art and sounds.

Should Parents Lie to Their Children About Santa Claus?

photograph of Santa Claus ornament on tree

As the parent of an inquisitive 2½ year old, I currently find myself fumbling to explain Santa Claus to him, of whom he is now quite aware. Should I emphasize that he is a storybook character and not a real person? Would he even know what the difference between real and make-believe is yet? Ultimately, I find myself confronted by the perennial parenting question that divides many a household: Should we lie to our kids about Santa Claus?

My own parents always dutifully marked some Christmas presents as if they were from Santa Claus, even well after we kids were past the stage of believing in that jolly old elf. I do not personally feel damaged by my parents sustaining the myth of Father Christmas, but a recent essay in Lancet Psychiatry warns otherwise. Kathy McKay, a clinical psychologist at the University of New England, Australia and co-author claims: “The Santa myth is such an involved lie, such a long-lasting one, between parents and children, that if a relationship is vulnerable, this may be the final straw. If parents can lie so convincingly and over such a long time, what else can they lie about?”

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Bon Iver and the Economics of Art for Art’s Sake

In a recent feature article for Pitchfork, an online music magazine, contributor Steve Marsh follows Justin Vernon, the lead singer and founder of the band Bon Iver, who spent a week in Berlin alongside his band and 85 other artists. Their week-long sojourn in Berlin was framed around creating a series of collaborations that would be presented at the end of the week  to 4,500 listeners in a two-day long nameless music festival. This undertaking coincided with the release of Bon Iver’s third album: “22, A Million”.  

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Cultural Appropriation in Classical Music

The majority of the classical music we know and love today has been steeped in European traditions for generations. It is not uncommon, however, to see hints of other cultures within classical music composition. Sometimes this is done as an authentic ode to another culture’s music, but can also be exploitative if not done with proper knowledge and respect for the culture.

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