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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The new Apple of my AI

As I continue migrating to my new 15" M3 Mac Air.

Ok, then...

...The artificial-intelligence apocalypse is a new fear that keeps many up at night, a terror born of great advances that seem to suggest that, if we are not very careful, we may—with our own hands—bring forth a future where humanity has no place. This strange nightmare is a credible danger only because so many of our dreams are threatening to come true. It is the culmination of a long process that hearkens back to the origins of civilization itself, to the time when the world was filled with magic and dread, and the only way to guarantee our survival was to call down the power of the gods.

Apotheosis has always haunted the soul of humankind. Since ancient times we have suffered the longing to become gods and exceed the limits nature has placed on us. To achieve this, we built altars and performed rituals to ask for wisdom, blessings, and the means to reach beyond our capabilities. While we tend to believe that it is only now, in the modern world, that power and knowledge carry great risks, primitive knowledge was also dangerous, because in antiquity a part of our understanding of the world and ourselves did not come from us, but from the Other. From the gods, from spirits, from raging voices that spoke in silence.

At the heart of the mysteries of the Vedas, revealed by the people of India, lies the Altar of Fire: a sacrificial construct made from bricks laid down in precise mathematical proportions to form the shape of a huge bird of prey—an eagle, or a hawk, perhaps. According to Roberto Calasso, it was a gift from the primordial deity at the origin of everything: Prajapati, Lord of Creatures. When his children, the gods, complained that they could not escape from Death, he gave them precise instructions for how to build an altar that would permit them to ascend to heaven and attain immortality: “Take three hundred and sixty border stones and ten thousand, eight hundred bricks, as many as there are hours in a year,” he said. “Each brick shall have a name. Place them in five layers. Add more bricks to a total of eleven thousand, five hundred and fifty-six.” The gods built the altar and fled from Mrtyu, Death itself. However, Death prevented human beings from doing the same. We were not allowed to become immortal with our bodies; we could only aspire to everlasting works. The Vedic people continued to erect the Altar of Fire for thousands of years: with time, according to Calasso, they realized that every brick was a thought, that thoughts piled on top of each other created a wall—the mind, the power of attention—and that that mind, when properly developed, could fly like a bird with outstretched wings and conquer the skies.

Seen from afar by people who were not aware of what was being made, these men and women must surely have looked like bricklayers gone mad. And that same frantic folly seems to possess those who, in recent decades, have dedicated their hearts and minds to the building of a new mathematical construct, a soulless copy of certain aspects of our thinking that we have chosen to name “artificial intelligence,” a tool so formidable that, if we are to believe the most zealous among its devotees, will help us reach the heavens and become immortal.

Raw and abstract power, AI lacks body, consciousness, or desire, and so, some might say, it is incapable of generating that primordial heat that the Vedas call tapas—the ardor of the mind, the fervor from which all existence emerges—and that still burns, however faintly, within each and every one of us. Should we trust the most optimistic voices coming from Silicon Valley, AI could be the vehicle we use to create boundless wealth, cure all ills, heal the planet, and move toward immortality, while the pessimists warn that it may be our downfall. Has our time come to join the gods eternal? Or will our digital offspring usurp the Altar of Fire and use it for their own ends, as we ourselves stole that knowledge, originally intended for the gods? It’s far too early to tell. But we can be certain of one thing, since we have learned it, time and time again, from the punishing tales of our mythologies: it is never safe to call on the gods, or even come close to them…
A Harper's Magazine subscriber long-read.

Below, another of my books in progress:

In the mid-nineteenth century, the mathematician George Boole heard the voice of God. As he crossed a field near his home in England, he had a mystical experience and came to believe he would uncover the rules underlying human thought…

Before Boole, the disciplines of logic and mathematics had developed quite separately for more than a thousand years. His new logic functioned with only two values—true and false—and with it he could not only do math but analyze philosophical statements and propositions to divine their veracity or falsehood. Boole put his new type of logic to use on something that to him, a deeply religious man, was a spiritual necessity: to demonstrate that God was incapable of evil…

Boole was a man inhabited by the spirit of his time, a spirit that was very different from ours: he believed that the human mind was rational and functioned according to the same laws that shape the larger universe; by painstakingly uncovering those laws, not only could we understand the world and reveal the hidden mechanisms that produce and guide our own thoughts, we could actually peer into the mind of Divinity. After confronting the problem of evil, he continued to develop his ideas, trying to create a calculus to reduce all logical syllogisms, deductions, and inferences to the manipulation of mathematical symbols, and to cast a precise foundation for the theory of probability. This resulted in his greatest work: An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, a book that laid out the rules of his new symbolic logic and also outlined, in the opening chapter, his grand intention to capture, with mathematics, the language of that ghost that whispers within the tortuous pathways of our minds:
The design of the following treatise is to investigate the fundamental laws of those operations of the mind by which reasoning is performed; to give expression to them in the symbolical language of a Calculus, and upon this foundation to establish the science of Logic and construct its method.
Boole was convinced that our minds operate on a fundamental basis of logic, but he died without having reached his goal of creating a system to understand thought

His work was inconsequential during his lifetime and ignored for more than eighty years after his death, until one day a young graduate student at MIT chanced upon The Laws of Thought, immersed himself in Boole’s strange algebraic logic, and created a practical application that has, since then, affected every aspect of our lives.

His name was Claude Shannon, a mathematician and electrical engineer who was working on the most advanced thinking machine of his time (Vannevar Bush’s differential analyzer, an early computer as big as an entire room), when he realized that Boole’s two-value logic was the perfect system with which to design electronic circuits. Electrical switches use binary values (0 for off and 1 for on), and they can be controlled by the logical operations created by the English mathematician. Incredibly complex computations can be made just by exploiting a simple duality: true or false, on or off, 1 or 0. That duality is the cornerstone of the Information Age…

A couple of additional titles will soon come into play.
Inheritance has yet to be released. The blurb:
“An insightful and breathtaking exploration of humanity’s evolutionary baggage that explains some of our species’ greatest successes and failures.” —Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens

The ancient inheritance that made us who we are—and is now driving us to ruin.

Each of us is endowed with an inheritance—a set of evolved biases and cultural tools that shape every facet of our behavior. For countless generations, this inheritance has taken us to ever greater heights: driving the rise of more sophisticated technologies, more organized religions, more expansive empires. But now, for the first time, it’s failing us. We find ourselves hurtling toward a future of unprecedented political polarization, deadlier war, and irreparable environmental destruction.

In Inheritance, renowned anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse offers a sweeping account of how our biases have shaped humanity’s past and imperil its future. He argues that three biases—conformism, religiosity, and tribalism—drive human behavior everywhere. Forged by natural selection and harnessed by thousands of years of cultural evolution, these biases catalyzed the greatest transformations in human history, from the birth of agriculture and the arrival of the first kings to the rise and fall of human sacrifice and the creation of multiethnic empires. Taking us deep into modern-day tribes, including terrorist cells and predatory ad agencies, Whitehouse shows how, as we lose the cultural scaffolding that allowed us to manage our biases, the world we’ve built is spiraling out of control.

By uncovering how human nature has shaped our collective history, Inheritance unveils a surprising new path to solving our most urgent modern problems. The result is a powerful reappraisal of the human journey, one that transforms our understanding of who we are, and who we could be.
Superconvergence, from the Science Magazine review:
…Replete with unprecedented opportunities and existential risks hitherto unimaginable in life’s history, the new world we are entering transcends geographical boundaries, and—as a result of humankind’s global interdependencies—it must, by necessity, exist in a no-man’s-land beyond the mandates of ideologies and nation-states. Its topography is defined not by geological events and evolution by natural selection so much as by the intersection of several exponential human-made technologies. Most notably, these include the generation of machine learning intelligence that can interrogate big data to define generative “rules” of biology and the post- Darwinian engineering of living systems through the systematic rewriting of their genetic code.

Acknowledging the intrinsic mutability of natural life and its ever-changing biochemistry and morphology, Metzl is unable to align himself with UNESCO’s 1997 Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights. To argue that the current version of the human genome is sacred is to negate its prior iterations, including the multiple species of human that preceded us but disappeared along the way. The sequences of all Earth’s species are in a simultaneous state of being and becoming, Metzl argues. Life is intrinsically fluid.

Although we are still learning to write complex genomes rapidly, accurately, without sequence limitation, and at low cost, and our ability to author novel genomes remains stymied by our inability to unpick the generative laws of biology, it is just a matter of time before we transform biology into a predictable engineering material, at which point we will be able to recast life into desired forms. But while human-engineered living materials and biologically inspired devices offer potential solutions to the world’s most challenging problems, our rudimentary understanding of complex ecosystems and the darker sides of human nature cast long shadows, signaling the need for caution.

Metzl provides some wonderful examples of how artificial species and bioengineering, often perceived as adversaries of natural life, could help address several of the most important issues of the moment. These challenges include climate change, desertification, deforestation, pollution (including the 79,000-metric-ton patch of garbage the size of Alaska in the Pacific Ocean), the collapse of oceanic ecosystems, habitat loss, global population increase, and the diminution of species biodiversity. By rewriting the genomes of crops and increasing the efficiency of agriculture, we can reduce the need to convert additional wild habitats into farmland, he writes. Additionally, the use of bioengineering to make sustainable biofuels, biocomputing, bio foodstuffs, biodegradable plastics, and DNA information–storing materials will help reduce global warming.

Meanwhile, artificial intelligence (AI) can free up human time. By 2022, DeepMind’s AlphaFold program had predicted the structures of 214 million proteins—a feat that would have taken as long as 642 million years to achieve using conventional methods. As Metzl comments, this places “millions of years back into the pot of human innovation time.” The ability to hack human biology using AI will also have a tremendous impact on the human health span and life span, not least through AI-designed drugs, he predicts.

Metzl is right when he concludes that we have reached a “critical moment in human history” and that “reengineered biology will play a central role in the future of our species.” We will need to define a new North Star—a manifesto for life—to assist with its navigation. Metzl argues for the establishment of a new international body with depoliticized autonomy to focus on establishing common responses to shared global existential challenges. He suggests that this process could be kick-started by convening a summit aimed at establishing aligned governance guidelines for the revolutionary new technologies we are creating.
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