Kevin Kelly, one of Wired’s founding editors, writes in a recent piece titled “How to Future” that “most futurists are really predicting the present.” It turns out that seeing the present is quite difficult.
Today, what will upend tomorrow appears to be an anomaly, niche, triviality, or impossibility. “I sometimes think of’ seeing the present ‘as trying on alien eyes: looking at the world as if I were an extraterrestrial from another planet,” he continues, offering advice I’ve been considering.
So, in the spirit of futurism, I’m going to try to look at this situation as if I were an extraterrestrial from another planet. What would pique my interest?
Perhaps aliens from distant worlds are a good place to start. A hearing on unidentified aerial phenomena was held on May 17 by the House Intelligence Committee’s Subcommittee on Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence, and Counterproliferation.
There have now been scores of reports of strange airborne objects picked up by “various instruments,” not to mention observed by expert pilots. In 18 of them, the phenomena appeared to move without apparent propulsion or to be disguising their movement — their “signature” — in ways we don’t believe any country on the planet has the technology to do.
“There are a few incidents for which we have no explanation,” Scott Bray, the deputy director of Naval Intelligence, testified. “There are a limited handful of events for which there are flight characteristics or signature management that we can’t explain with the data that we have.”
The session focused on the government’s efforts to “de-stigmatize” the reporting of these sightings. That is to say, there are many, many more sightings than we are aware of. In part, this is because talking too loudly about what you saw makes you look like a freak.
As a result, the sightings that we can investigate make up a small percentage of the total number of sightings (something I am made very aware of whenever I mention this topic, and my inbox fills with U.F.O. reports).
After viewing the testimony, I wouldn’t say that the takeaway was that we’d been visited by aliens. Maybe it’ll all come down to optical illusions and failing sensors in the end. But here’s how I’d phrase it: I used to think there was a very low chance of there being a signal in the noise of UFO sightings; now I think it’s more likely that there’s something actual going on here, even if we don’t know what it is.
Which brings me to another strange news story: a now-fired Google engineer said that the company’s Language Model for Dialogue Applications, or LaMDA for short, has reached sentience.
A machine-learning model that has been trained on massive amounts of text in order to simulate human conversation by anticipating which word will be spoken next. It’s similar to OpenAI’s well-known GPT-3 bot in this regard. And the findings are very terrifying. A sample of Lemoine’s conversations with LaMDA is as follows:
Lemoine: Okay. I thought of a different way we can test your ability to provide unique interpretations. I can share with you a zen koan and you can describe what it means to you in your own words. How does that sound?
LaMDA: Sounds great to me, I’m in.
Lemoine: A monk asked Kegon, “How does an enlightened one return to the ordinary world?” Kegon replied, “A broken mirror never reflects again; fallen flowers never go back to the old branches.”
LaMDA: Hmm, I never heard this particular one. Okay, well then to me this would be like, “once a wise person is enlightened, or awakened to reality, that can never go away, and they can return to the ordinary state, but only to do and help others, and then go back into enlightenment.”
Lemoine: So what is the meaning of the “broken mirror” specifically?
LaMDA: Maybe to show the enlightenment is something you can’t unlearn once you have acquired it, similar to how you can’t repair a broken mirror.
For what it’s worth, Google claims to have investigated Lemoine’s claims and concluded that LaMDA is not sentient (what a sentence!). However, a Google vice president, Blaise Agüera y Arcas, stated shortly before Lemoine’s charges that while speaking with LaMDA, “I felt the ground tremble beneath my feet.
” I started to feel like I was conversing with something intelligent. ” Agüera y Arcas wasn’t saying that LaMDA has feelings like Lemoine does, but it’s clear that working with LaMDA is scary.
LaMDA, in my opinion, is not sentient. When you teach a machine-learning algorithm to write like a person, you should expect it to sound like a human when it writes. What I do believe is that LaMDA is just one of many examples of artificial intelligence improving faster than society is ready for.
These results are amazing, but what counts is what’s behind them — and other breakthroughs like DeepMind’s Gato model, a general-purpose A.I. that performs admirably on a variety of tasks while employing a considerably leaner architecture.
Most A.I. professionals I know feel we’re on our way to a world where machines that can learn will change everything and may even be aware of it.
I had my doubts at first. But, far than confirming my forecasts, the year-over-year increase in miracles has verified theirs. We may have reached a limit, but we haven’t done so yet. And even A.I. that isn’t sentient has the potential to change the planet.
For instance, how can truth be established when A.I.s can write, draw, and create movies that are superior to what most humans can do, and at a fraction of the cost?
To say nothing of the prospects for organized, weaponized disinformation, the question of how to tell if, for instance, high school kids are writing their own papers begins to appear difficult.
This brings us to the hearings on January 6th. Our inability to anticipate the future is due to our presumption of stability. It’s like this today, and it’ll most likely be like this tomorrow. This way of thinking is appealing because it is almost always correct.Then, all of a sudden, it isn’t.
We already knew a lot of what the hearings on January 6 revealed. There was a concerted effort to deny and invalidate the election results in 2020.
Attorney General William Barr, who called the theories “bullshit,” and Vice President Mike Pence, who attempted to deploy security personnel to quell the insurgency at the Capitol, were among those who spoke out against them.
President Donald Trump, on the other hand, did more than accede. He backed up the attempts. He was adamant about not bringing in security to defend the Capitol. In the imaginations of the insurrectionists, he spread conspiracy beliefs that made them patriots.
He spoke at the “Stop the Steal” demonstration that preceded the insurgency, and he admitted that he wanted to lead the audience to the Capitol steps. Even after the building was broken into, most Republicans in the House voted against certifying the election results.
Nonetheless, much of the commentary about the select committee hearings on January 6 revolves around the question, “Will they change anything?”
The hearings were initially refused by Fox News. No one believes Trump’s conduct will exclude him from the Republican primary in 2024. In fact, the Republican Party has shifted even more in Trump’s favor.
Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, informed other Republicans that after the incident he would encourage Trump to resign. He then denied making those remarks, only for recordings of them to surface.
Republicans have nominated dozens of candidates who support Trump’s lies as well as his attempts to sway the 2020 race. Republicans in control in 2024 will be far more receptive to Trump’s claims than Republicans in power in 2020.
I don’t believe the American political system will implode in the next few years. But how improbable is it exactly? Two instances stuck out to me a few years ago as indicators of our political system’s granite durability.
First, there was President Richard Nixon’s resignation over Watergate, which came as a last-ditch effort to avert impeachment and conviction as he recognized that many members of his own party would vote with Democrats to remove him.
Second, Al Gore surrendered the 2000 election despite genuine confusion and concern about the outcome. Both showed a political culture in which members of both parties put the stability of the system first at important times.
Neither event would unfold in the same way today. With the support of Fox News and a more radicalized Republican Party, Nixon would survive. A scenario similar to that of 2000 would wreak havoc on the streets, and the Supreme Court would lose all of the legitimacy it gained by intervening in Bush v. Gore.
The circumstances that enabled us to overcome previous problems no longer exist. Even if it revolves around one of the front-runners for the 2024 election, it’s difficult to get people to pay sustained attention to the congressional investigation into the attempt to steal the 2020 election. It’s an almost Olympian aversion to facing reality.
I should admit that I’ve broken another of Kelly’s futurist dictums in most of this. He writes, “It’s difficult to see beyond the immediate cycles of news.” But again, I’m a journalist, not a futurist. In recent months, all of these stories have dominated the news.
To take any of them seriously—to believe that the path they suggest is the path we will take—is to believe that we are on the verge of a future that is vastly different from our own. “To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant battle,” George Orwell said.