In a Nation That’s Lost Its Way, Literature—the Private Narratives of Others—Can Guide Us
With the collapse of society’s public narrative, writer David L. Ulin looks to literature for consolation. Illustration by Be Boggs.
by DAVID L. ULIN | AUGUST 11, 2022 (ZocaloPublicSquare.org)
Leave it to Joan Didion. In her essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” published in 1967, she identified a kind of slippage in our culture, the breakdown of collective narrative. “The center was not holding,” she famously begins, before moving on to details: “casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled.” It’s a set of images to which I find myself returning here in the summer of 2022, when the Supreme Court has voted to overturn Roe v. Wade; the findings of a House Select Committee, empaneled to investigate the attack on the Capitol, is regarded by a considerable percentage of the populace as “fake news”; and a series of mass shootings, culminating in the July 4 ambush of an Independence Day parade in Highland Park, Illinois, have turned our communities and schools, once more, into killing floors.
What we’re seeing is not a matter of disagreement or debate. Rather, it’s an expression of the collapse of society’s public narrative: the fragmentation of the commons, if such a term can still be said to apply. How do we come together in a landscape where fiction is now regarded as fact and fact dismissed as mere opinion?
At one time, we relied—or imagined that we did—on public narratives to uphold the center. The point of America, its measure (so to speak), has been to be progressive: to include more people, to extend more rights. I believed this as firmly as anything I ever believed about this tragic country.
I now believe that we are lost.
What Didion foresaw—“we could no longer overlook the vacuum,” she writes, “no longer pretend that the society’s atomization could be reversed”—has become the way we live, manipulated by news that is not news and feeds that amplify ignorance. It’s taken barely 60 years to move from “We shall overcome” to “You will not replace us.” This is how our narrative has unraveled. This is how we have lost our way.
I’m pointing the finger here, yes, I am, at the anti-vaxxers, at the homophobes and anti-trans haters, the election deniers, the traitors who stormed the Capitol. Very fine people on both sides; all lives matter—I, for one, can’t imagine finding common ground with replacement theory supremacists, or, for that matter, advocates of the Big Lie, that the 2020 election was stolen, spread by the former president and his followers. But I’m also wondering about the future of the country, whether there even is one, whether this is a goal we continue to share?
The point of America, its measure (so to speak), has been to be progressive: to include more people, to extend more rights. I believed this as firmly as anything I ever believed about this tragic country. I now believe that we are lost.
There’s a meme I keep encountering, citing Hitler’s propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, this does not appear to be anything Goebbels ever said. Still, let’s stay with it for a moment because it’s also instructive. Certainly, Goebbels could have made such a statement; it aligns with pretty much all he thought. This meme, I should say, is intended as a corrective, a critique of those who have been taken in. At the same time, it also highlights a larger danger: the fact that all of us, given the right circumstances, can be duped.
The same was true in Didion’s era also, when many of the prevailing public narratives were authoritarian and divisive. I think of the quotas faced by Jewish students, among others, at American universities, which extended into the 1960s; the redlining and housing covenants that prevailed across the country; the restriction or outright non-existence of women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights.
Yet in the era of social media—which now comes framed as discourse in its own right—the progress of the last decades feels illusory, if not outright moot. “Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy,” Elon Musk tweeted on March 26, shortly before making a $41.4 billion offer to buy the company. (He’s now headed to court to get out of the deal.) Musk is overstating, of course; less than a quarter of U.S. adults use the platform—or about the number who voted for Donald Trump in 2016.
On my feeds, I can see the algorithm working: Trends are tailored to my searches and my predilections, intended to magnify, and encourage, my opinions and beliefs. The public narrative, in other words, has now become a private narrative, self-selected. Nothing is considered or thought through. Rather, it’s a self-fulfilling set of echoes, less conversation than monologue in overlapping snippets of text or images, sound and fury signifying nothing.
In the face of this, I find myself turning away from public narrative. I look for solidarity or consolation in the private narratives of others—literature mostly. Why? Because in books and essays, I find a more fundamental humanity (which is not the same thing as a sense of peace). So many writers have lived through what we’re facing, and worse. Some survived and some did not. But in staring down their circumstances directly, with grace and clarity, they offer a model of how I want to think and to behave.
And so, I look to George Orwell, who admonishes in his essay “Inside the Whale” that for people raised like us, in a country built on rule of law, “such things as purges, secret police, summary executions, imprisonment without trial, etc., etc., are too remote to be terrifying. They can swallow totalitarianism because they have no experience of anything except liberalism.” It’s a reminder of the dangers we are facing, a reminder that we need to stay aware. Or I consider Anne Frank, writing from the Achterhuis: “I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”
When my children were little, I liked to imagine—as the artist Wallace Berman did before me—that one might make revolution a single household at a time. Although I still believe that change begins at home, this, too, cuts both ways. The ecstatic social revolution Didion was critiquing, what did it teach us? That utopia and dystopia are intertwined.
Many days now, I don’t know what to do with this. Many days, it makes me want to retreat. Retreat, however, is just another word for surrender, and surrender comes at far too high a cost. “[W]hat was the point,” James Baldwin asks in The Fire Next Time, “the purpose, of my salvation if it did not permit me to behave with love toward others, no matter how they behaved to me? What others did was their responsibility, for which they would answer when the judgment trumpet answered. But what I did was my responsibility, and I would have to answer, too.”
I don’t believe in the judgment trumpet. It’s not an emblem of my faith. But what I do believe in is the question Baldwin raises: How to live responsibly, not only for one’s own future but also that of everybody else. I am not an altruist, and I am filled with anger, but what else can I do?
We do not get to choose the times we live in, only how we respond.
DAVID L. ULINis the author or editor of more than a dozen books, including Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.
The animal kingdom isn’t nearly as straight as you think.
Perspective by Eliot Schrefer
June 30, 2022 at 8:55 a.m. EDT (WashingtonPost.com)
In 1913, naturalists captured a flock of penguins from the Antarctic and brought them to spend the rest of their lives in the Edinburgh Zoo. The birds that survived the transition came to enchant the Scottish public with their antics. They could go from suave to goofy and back again, simply by gliding in the water, toddling around on land for a bit, then diving in once more.
Over the years, the zookeepers struggled to determine which penguins were male and which were female, renaming four of the five in the process. The complications only grew from there. Like most birds, penguins are socially but not sexually monogamous. Though they form lifelong unions, they are very happy to canoodle on the side — and there were only so many sexual configurations five of them could go through before one truth became self-evident: The penguins were bisexual. As zoo director T.H. Gillespie wryly observed in his 1932 recounting of these sexual triangulations, they “enjoy privileges not as yet permitted to civilized mankind.”
Bi penguins have been stirring things up for over a century. The first record of same-sex sex in penguins was in 1911, when explorer George Murray Levick discovered “depraved” behavior in wild Adélies. In 2000, a pair of male chinstrap penguins at New York City’s Central Park Zoo bonded and raised a chick from an egg they’d been given to foster, inspiring the children’s book “And Tango Makes Three.” More recently, penguin behavior sounded like it was ripped straight from a celebrity gossip site when it emerged that two male penguins had stolen an egg from a hetero couple at a Dutch zoo — and then proceeded to steal an egg from a “lesbian” couple the very next year.
Penguins aren’t the only sexually adventuresome animals. Over the past 20 years, a burst of research — driven in part by a new generation of scientists more accepting of queerness — has shown significant amounts of previously unreported homosexual behavior throughout the animal kingdom, from flour beetles to gorillas. While few animals are exclusively “gay” or “lesbian,” an extraordinary number, it appears, engage in some form of same-sex relations. There are now reputable evidence-confirmed findings of such behavior in 1,500 animal species and counting.
As a graduate student in animal studies, I’ve often faced an unpleasant prospect: The theory of natural selection, at least as it’s classically considered, could argue that queerness shouldn’t exist. In a Noah’s Ark conception of life, with dutifully procreating male-female pairs for each animal species, non-straight behavior seems to disrupt the natural order by preventing the transmission of genes over generations. This conundrum has started to feel far more than academic in recent months, as multiple states have passed legislation restricting reading about or even discussing LGBTQIA+ identities in schools. The logic behind such laws, it seems to me, goes something like this: If queerness doesn’t come about naturally, then it can be walled out of human populations by limiting access to the very idea of it.
The recent surge in same-sex animal scholarship, however, offers a powerful challenge to that thinking. For hundreds of years, it turns out, we’ve been looking at animal sex through too narrow a lens — with significant consequences for our beliefs about what counts as natural in our own species.
Christian theologians have long pointed to the absence of animal homosexuality as evidence that humans oughtn’t to be doing it, either. Thirteenth-century philosopher and priest Thomas Aquinas argued that homosexual behavior in humans is wrong precisely because it doesn’t occur between animals. He saw it as a sign of decadence — a falling down from our state of animal grace into the world of human corruption.
The assumption of heterosexuality among animals took its first major hit in 1834, when August Kelch, an entomologist, discovered two male Melolontha melolontha — beetles commonly known as cockchafers or doodlebugs — having sex. He concluded that it had to be an act of rape. As he initially framed it in a German scientific journal, “the larger and stronger of the two had forced itself on the smaller and weaker one, had exhausted it and only because of this dominance had conquered it.”
The puzzle of mating males captured the imagination of entomologists, who busily published articles about it for years. As science historian Ross Brooks chronicled in 2009 in the Archives of Natural History — in an article titled “All too human: responses to same-sex copulation in the common cockchafer” — some scientists proposed that the receiving males were being mistaken for females. Others offered still different explanations, but it wasn’t until 1896 that someone dared to put forward a radical suggestion: In a paper published even as Oscar Wilde sat in prison for “gross indecency,” Henri Gadeau de Kerville, a leading French entomologist, theorized that some of the doodlebugs just … preferred it (“pédérastie par goût”). He was thoroughly scolded by his colleagues — at which point the question of same-sex doodlebug sex, after having been bandied about for much of the 19th century, mostly dropped from scientific discourse.
Did scientists avoid publishing on same-sex animal sex because they were worried about being scolded as Gadeau de Kerville was? Or did they simply find it shameful? George Murray Levick, the explorer who wrote about homosexual behavior in Adélie penguins in 1911, shielded his observations of penguin “depravity” from casual observers by recording them in his field notes using the Greek alphabet — and they were still cut from the official expedition reports. A prominent mammalogist, Valerius Geist, couldn’t help but notice frequent homosexual sex at his bighorn sheep field site in the 1960s, but Geist avoided publishing those findings because it made him “cringe … to conceive of those magnificent beasts as ‘queers.’ ” Years later he relented, writing that he eventually “admitted that the rams lived in essentially a homosexual society.” As for those scientists who did want to write about same-sex sexual behavior in animals, one option was to couch it in the judgmental language used for humans — as in a 1922 study on baboons called “Disturbances of the Sexual Sense,” or a 1987 study of same-sex mating in butterflies titled “A Note on the Apparent Lowering of Moral Standards in the Lepidoptera.”
The minimizing of animal sexual diversity was not only about discomfort. Christine Webb, a primatologist at Harvard’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, explains that the dominant model of evolution “emphasizes selfish competition and the survival of the fittest.” But the chimpanzees Webb studies use sex for a variety of purposes, such as managing stress and tension. Once she and the co-authors of her recent paper allowed for observations that contradicted their assumptions that chimps had sex for procreation only, they made a breakthrough discovery: Males engage in sexual activity to reconcile after fights. A year later, a study of a separate group of chimps in Uganda found that “sociosexual behaviour” is common — and that the majority of it is between males.
This research is hardly an outlier. Coldblooded male garter snakes use pheromones to encourage courtship from other males in the area, forming “mating balls,” perhaps to help warm up individuals whose temperatures have gotten dangerously low. Polyamory — the bonding of three or more animals, instead of the conventional two — expands the numbers of parents for each offspring, increasing their survivability, and can be found in many species of waterfowl, most famously the graylag goose. Female-female pair bonds in birds such as gulls, roseate terns and albatrosses average more eggs (which are fertilized by sex outside the union) per nest. The fact that a bird population with many bonded females sharing a few males between them would have higher reproductive output led historian and ornithologist Jared Diamond to dryly wonder whether “further study of homosexually paired female birds may help clarify what, if anything, males are good for — in an evolutionary sense, of course.”
Evolutionary biologist Mounica Kota is a fan of Laysan albatrosses, for whom up to a third of the nests are female-female. “They’re like my lesbian moms. I have a big photograph of them in my office,” she told me. She’s part of the new generation of openly LGBTQIA+ scientists who are frank about how their personal identity aligns with their professional research, even if it opens them to accusations of partiality. Kota, who is a lesbian, struggled with coming out earlier in life, and she was heartened by a class in animal behavior that she took as an undergrad.
Sidney Woodruff, a PhD candidate in ecology at the University of California at Davis, has been studying conservation of the western pond turtle, which lacks sex chromosomes and whose sex is instead determined by incubation temperatures — a phenomenon turtle researchers dub “girls are hot, boys are cool.” Woodruff, who identifies as nonbinary and queer, feels kinship with animals who also cross sexual binaries — but they treat this personal element as a source of caution as much as anything else. “I have to keep in mind that if I’m researching sex and wildlife species, I’ll want it to be a certain way because of my own gender and sexual identity,” Woodruff told me. “It’s a lot of power that we have, but in our quest to find inaccuracies in previous research, we have to make sure we’re also being humble enough to know that we’re not always going to get the answer we want.”
Recently, scientists have begun to take seriously a theory that biologist Vincent Savolainen summarizes as “bisexual advantage”: the idea that fluid sexuality has increased reproduction chances over the history of life, making bisexuality “an evolutionary optimum.” In social animals, the logic goes, absolute homosexuality would produce no offspring, but absolute heterosexuality could also be limiting, as it might make for an organism that is “poor at forming social alliances.” Better for an animal to exist away from the extremes, so it won’t miss out on procreating or on the social survival strategies that same-sex activity offers. “The bisexual advantage model,” Savolainen concludes, “is perhaps the most conservative genetic explanation for the persistence of homosexual behavior.”
This model is supported by a 2019 paper from a group of young scholars that notes that the earliest creatures wouldn’t have discriminated between sexes, because the earliest creatures didn’t have sexes. Therefore, aversion to homosexual sex would have had to specifically arise over the history of life, which this team of researchers finds unlikely, since the opportunity cost of same-sex sex is relatively low. Given that sexual monogamy is more rare than we once thought, having occasional sex or even forming a lifelong bond with a same-sex partner doesn’t mean an animal isn’t also reproducing. As one of the originators of this “ancestral state” hypothesis, Max Lambert, put it to me: “Biologists told ourselves for so long that it must be unnatural. My research led to a good question: Why do queer things exist? The simple answer is that animal bisexuality is not costly. It was so biologically simple.”
As most any Homo sapiens will tell you, sex that doesn’t bring about offspring can still be worthwhile. The bonobo apes, for example, capitalize on the release of the bonding hormone oxytocin during homosexual sex to strengthen the social alliances between females. A study by primatologists Zanna Clay and Frans de Waal found that female-female sex is the most frequent sexual activity in the species — which is especially noteworthy, as bonobos also happen to be in a rough tie with chimpanzees as our closest animal relatives. Governed by a matriarchy of sexually connected mothers, they have far lower levels of aggression than chimps, giving them what Christine Webb described to me as “a reputation as the sexy hippie apes.”
Bottlenose dolphins also use sex to reinforce their social alliances, in their case between males. Outside of mother-calf bonds, unions between males are the only stable social unit in their society. Dolphin males will partner for life, and the pair will occasionally bring in a female to mate before going their own ways. It wasn’t until recent years that a prominent field site in Shark Bay, Australia, established just how those males cement their alliances: frequent and acrobatic sex, an average of 2.38 times an hour. (As one gay weekly newspaper joked, “Grindr has announced a new gay cruising app for dolphins, called Flippr.”)
In some marine snail species, all individuals are born male, and once two males choose each other, one of them simply changes sex. Much later, after she’s finished with her first partner, that now-female snail might meet a different male and stay female. In laboratory studies, some males kept choosing other males, even though they’d then have to wait a few days for their partner to change sex, while other males always went for females. The snails had preferences!
Webb argues that same-sex sexual behavior, as in her chimpanzee subjects, is an adaptive, desirable response to our needs as interconnected creatures. “What about cooperation?” she asks. “What about social bonding — which we know is really important for fitness, by the way, right? Social bonds are really important for well-being. Managing conflicts and managing stress and tension are really important for well-being. We’ve been fixated on one side of the story.”
Meanwhile, though members of some animal species gain advantages from same-sex behavior, research is also emerging to suggest that other species might do it just because it feels good. Within a scientific worldview that continues mostly to see animals as evolutionary cogs, this is a controversial take. Anthropologist Paul Vasey has been studying Japanese macaque monkeys for decades. Like bonobos, the macaques engage in frequent female-female sex. Vasey and his team methodically tested the various theories that have been proposed for the persistence of homosexual sex in the monkeys: that the females were expressing dominance; that they were bartering for parental care; that they were reconciling after a fight; or (my personal favorite) that they were staging sexual encounters to excite nearby males, in what I’d call the “you wish, guys” theory of monkey lesbianism. Vasey found that none of the theories held up to testing, which led him to a startling conclusion, at least to any strict Darwinians: “Despite over 40 years of intensive research on this species, there is not a single study demonstrating any adaptive value for female-female sexual behavior in Japanese macaques.” In other words, the females appear to be having sex with other females simply because they derive pleasure from it.
Like the Edinburgh penguins, many animals are sexually monomorphic, meaning males and females are indistinguishable to human eyes. This makes it all too easy to map our own assumptions onto their sex lives — and to tell ourselves a false story about which actions are “natural” and which are not.
As recently as 1986, a Georgia sodomy law was upheld in the landmark Bowers v. Hardwick case, and the “unnaturalness” of the act was a crucial part of the majority’s opinion. Sodomy laws stayed on the books until 2003, when the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional — aided by an amicus brief citing the research that had come out in the meantime documenting homosexual activity among animals.
We might have known about the sheer diversity of animal sexuality a long time ago if we, as a culture, had managed to lower our blinders. “We like to think we derive a lot of our ideas from the animal world, but it’s actually the opposite,” says Kota. “We put a lot of our ideas onto the animal world.” Now, we have begun to see a more complicated truth about animals — and also, perhaps, about ourselves.
Welcome to Open Form, a weekly film podcast hosted by award-winning writer Mychal Denzel Smith. Each week, a different author chooses a movie: a movie they love, a movie they hate, a movie they hate to love. Something nostalgic from their childhood. A brand-new obsession. Something they’ve been dying to talk about for ages and their friends are constantly annoyed by them bringing it up.
In this episode of Open Form, Mychal talks to Elif Batuman (Either/Or) about the 2017 film Get Out, directed by Jordan Peele and starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephen Root, and Catherine Keener.
Elif Batuman’s first novel, The Idiot, was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, and was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK. She is also the author of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, which was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism. She has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2010 and holds a PhD in comparative literature from Stanford University.
The man represented by the Prince of Disks is a quiet and meditative man, who works with unfailing determination towards the goals he sets himself. He is reliable and resourceful, unswerving and creative in his dedication.
He is more imaginative than the Knight of Disks, though he has the same quiet strength and gentleness. His quality of contemplation often yields fruit in surprising ways, generating a deep and broad-sweeping understanding about the inner workings of life.
If he is ill-dignified, the Prince of Disks can become stubborn and short-sighted – even bloody-minded in his attitudes. Faithful and loyal himself, he will not tolerate faithlessness in others. Neither will he accept lack of integrity, nor dishonesty.
He is hard-working, trustworthy and inventive, often producing unusual yet practical solutions which resolve otherwise intractable problems. As a friend he is non-judgemental and supportive, though capable of shedding new perspectives on situations. He’s generally a good listener, though he has little patience with histrionics and manipulation.
His approach to life overall is one of industrious practicality. He believes that all things yield to a determined will and well-directed activity.
Though emotionally he at first gives the impression that he is solid and perhaps even a little unimaginative, when his feelings are roused, he can be deeply passionate and sensual.
He rarely comes up to indicate a change of mood in a person, though sometimes he will appear to indicate some-one learning to take responsibility in everyday life.
Was Jesus born of a virgin? Did he know he was the Messiah? Was he bodily resurrected from the dead? Did he intentionally die to redeem humankind? Was Jesus God?
In The Meaning of Jesus two leading Jesus scholars with widely divergent views go right to the heart of these questions and others, presenting the opposing visions of Jesus that shape our faith today.
In alternating chapters, Marcus Borg, the most popular revisionist voice on Jesus and a member of the Jesus Seminar, and N. T. Wright, the most prominent standard-bearer for the traditional stance and an outspoken critic of the Jesus Seminar, present their views of who Jesus was, what he taught, and what he did.
Candid, spirited, and thoughtfully debated, this compelling discourse will stimulate fresh ideas and intense dialogue among anyone concerned with what it means to be a Christian today.
As the sun set over Maury Island, just south of Seattle, Ben Goertzel and his jazz fusion band had one of those moments that all bands hope for — keyboard, guitar, saxophone and lead singer coming together as if they were one.
Dr. Goertzel was on keys. The band’s friends and family listened from a patio overlooking the beach. And Desdemona, wearing a purple wig and a black dress laced with metal studs, was on lead vocals, warning of the coming Singularity — the inflection point where technology can no longer be controlled by its creators.
“The Singularity will not be centralized!” she bellowed. “It will radiate through the cosmos like a wasp!”
After more than 25 years as an artificial intelligence researcher — a quarter-century spent in pursuit of a machine that could think like a human — Dr. Goertzel knew he had finally reached the end goal: Desdemona, a machine he had built, was sentient.
But a few minutes later, he realized this was nonsense.
“When the band gelled, it felt like the robot was part of our collective intelligence — that it was sensing what we were feeling and doing,” he said. “Then I stopped playing and thought about what really happened.”
What happened was that Desdemona, through some sort of technology-meets-jazz-fusion kismet, hit him with a reasonable facsimile of his own words at just the right moment.
Dr. Goertzel is the chief executive and chief scientist of an organization called SingularityNET. He built Desdemona to, in essence, mimic the language in books he had written about the future of artificial intelligence.
Many people in Dr. Goertzel’s field aren’t as good at distinguishing between what is real and what they might want to be real.
The most famous recent example is an engineer named Blake Lemoine. He worked on artificial intelligence at Google, specifically on software that can generate words on its own — what’s called a large language model. He concluded the technology was sentient; his bosses concluded it wasn’t. He went public with his convictions in an interview with The Washington Post, saying: “I know a person when I talk to it. It doesn’t matter whether they have a brain made of meat in their head. Or if they have a billion lines of code.”
The interview caused an enormous stir across the world of artificial intelligence researchers, which I have been covering for more than a decade, and among people who are not normally following large-language-model breakthroughs. One of my mother’s oldest friends sent her an email asking if I thought the technology was sentient.
When she was assured that it was not, her reply was swift. “That’s consoling,” she said. Google eventually fired Mr. Lemoine.
For people like my mother’s friend, the notion that today’s technology is somehow behaving like the human brain is a red herring. There is no evidence this technology is sentient or conscious — two words that describe an awareness of the surrounding world.
That goes for even the simplest form you might find in a worm, said Colin Allen, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh who explores cognitive skills in both animals and machines. “The dialogue generated by large language models does not provide evidence of the kind of sentience that even very primitive animals likely possess,” he said.
Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology who is part of the A.I. research group at the University of California, Berkeley, agreed. “The computational capacities of current A.I. like the large language models,” she said, “don’t make it any more likely that they are sentient than that rocks or other machines are.”
The problem is that the people closest to the technology — the people explaining it to the public — live with one foot in the future. They sometimes see what they believe will happen as much as they see what is happening now.
“There are lots of dudes in our industry who struggle to tell the difference between science fiction and real life,” said Andrew Feldman, chief executive and founder of Cerebras, a company building massive computer chips that can help accelerate the progress of A.I.
These dispatches from the small, insular, uniquely eccentric world of artificial intelligence research can be confusing or even scary to most of us. Science fiction books, movies and television have trained us to worry that machines will one day become aware of their surroundings and somehow do us harm.
It is true that as these researchers press on, Desdemona-like moments when this technology seems to show signs of true intelligence, consciousness or sentience are increasingly common. It is not true that in labs across Silicon Valley engineers have built robots who can emote and converse and jam on lead vocals like a human. The technology can’t do that.
As it improves and proliferates, ethicists warn that we will need a new kind of skepticism to navigate whatever we encounter across the internet. And they wonder if we are up to the task.
On July 7, 1958, inside a government lab several blocks west of the White House, a psychologist named Frank Rosenblatt unveiled a technology he called the Perceptron.
It did not do much. As Dr. Rosenblatt demonstrated for reporters visiting the lab, if he showed the machine a few hundred rectangular cards, some marked on the left and some the right, it could learn to tell the difference between the two.
He said the system would one day learn to recognize handwritten words, spoken commands and even people’s faces. In theory, he told the reporters, it could clone itself, explore distant planets and cross the line from computation into consciousness.
When he died 13 years later, it could do none of that. But this was typical of A.I. research — an academic field created around the same time Dr. Rosenblatt went to work on the Perceptron.
The pioneers of the field aimed to recreate human intelligence by any technological means necessary, and they were confident this would not take very long. Some said a machine would beat the world chess champion and discover its own mathematical theorem within the next decade. That did not happen, either.
The research produced some notable technologies, but they were nowhere close to reproducing human intelligence. “Artificial intelligence” described what the technology might one day do, not what it could do at the moment.
Some of the pioneers were engineers. Others were psychologists or neuroscientists. No one, including the neuroscientists, understood how the brain worked. (Scientists still do not understand it.) But they believed they could somehow recreate it. Some believed more than others.
Inside today’s leading A.I. labs, stills and posters from classic science fiction films hang on the conference room walls. As researchers chase these tropes, they use the same aspirational language used by Dr. Rosenblatt and the other pioneers.
Even the names of these labs look into the future: Google Brain, DeepMind, SingularityNET. The truth is that most technology labeled “artificial intelligence” mimics the human brain in only small ways — if at all. Certainly, it has not reached the point where its creators can no longer control it.
Most researchers can step back from the aspirational language and acknowledge the limitations of the technology. But sometimes, the lines get blurry.
Sam Altman, the 37-year-old entrepreneur and investor who leads OpenAI as chief executive, believes this and similar systems are intelligent. “They can complete useful cognitive tasks,” Mr. Altman told me on a recent morning. “The ability to learn — the ability to take in new context and solve something in a new way — is intelligence.”
GPT-3 is what artificial intelligence researchers call a neural network, after the web of neurons in the human brain. That, too, is aspirational language. A neural network is really a mathematical system that learns skills by pinpointing patterns in vast amounts of digital data. By analyzing thousands of cat photos, for instance, it can learn to recognize a cat.
“We call it ‘artificial intelligence,’ but a better name might be ‘extracting statistical patterns from large data sets,’” said Dr. Gopnik, the Berkeley professor.
This is the same technology that Dr. Rosenblatt explored in the 1950s. He did not have the vast amounts of digital data needed to realize this big idea. Nor did he have the computing power needed to analyze all that data. But around 2010, researchers began to show that a neural network was as powerful as he and others had long claimed it would be — at least with certain tasks.
More recently, researchers at places like Google and OpenAI began building neural networks that learned from enormous amounts of prose, including digital books and Wikipedia articles by the thousands. GPT-3 is an example.
As it analyzed all that digital text, it built what you might call a mathematical map of human language — more than 175 billion data points that describe how we piece words together. Using this map, it can perform many different tasks, like penning speeches, writing computer programs and having a conversation.
But there are endless caveats. Using GPT-3 is like rolling the dice: If you ask it for 10 speeches in the voice of Donald J. Trump, it might give you five that sound remarkably like the former president — and five others that come nowhere close. Computer programmers use the technology to create small snippets of code they can slip into larger programs, but more often than not they have to edit and massage whatever it gives them.
“These things are not even in the same ballpark as the mind of the average 2-year-old,” said Dr. Gopnik, who specializes in child development. “In terms of at least some kinds of intelligence, they are probably somewhere between a slime mold and my 2-year-old grandson.”
Even after we discussed these flaws, Mr. Altman described this kind of system as intelligent. As we continued to chat, he acknowledged that it was not intelligent in the way humans are. “It is like an alien form of intelligence,” he said. “But it still counts.”
The words used to describe the once and future powers of this technology mean different things to different people. People disagree on what is and what is not intelligence. Sentience — the ability to experience feelings and sensations — is not something easily measured. Nor is consciousness — being awake and aware of your surroundings.
Mr. Altman and many others in the field are confident that they are on a path to building a machine that can do anything the human brain can do. This confidence shines through when they discuss current technologies.
“I think part of what’s going on is people are just really excited about these systems and expressing their excitement in imperfect language,” Mr. Altman said.
He acknowledges that some A.I. researchers “struggle to differentiate between reality and science fiction.” But he believes these researchers still serve a valuable role. “They help us dream of the full range of the possible,” he said.
Perhaps they do. But for the rest of us, these dreams can get in the way of the issues that deserve our attention.
Why Everyone Else Believes
In the mid-1960s, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Joseph Weizenbaum, built an automated psychotherapist he called Eliza. This chatbot was simple. Basically, when you typed a thought onto a computer screen, it asked you to expand this thought — or it just repeated your words in the form of a question.
Even when Dr. Weizenbaum cherry-picked a conversation for the academic paper he published on the technology, it looked like this, with Eliza responding in capital letters:
Men are all alike.
IN WHAT WAY?
They’re always bugging us about something or other.
CAN YOU THINK OF A SPECIFIC EXAMPLE?
Well, my boyfriend made me come here.
YOUR BOYFRIEND MADE YOU COME HERE
But much to Dr. Weizenbaum’s surprise, people treated Eliza as if it were human. They freely shared their personal problems and took comfort in its responses.
“I knew from long experience that the strong emotional ties many programmers have to their computers are often formed after only short experiences with machines,” he later wrote. “What I had not realized is that extremely short exposures to a relatively simple computer program could induce powerful delusional thinking in quite normal people.”
We humans are susceptible to these feelings. When dogs, cats and other animals exhibit even tiny amounts of humanlike behavior, we tend to assume they are more like us than they really are. Much the same happens when we see hints of human behavior in a machine.
Scientists now call it the Eliza effect.
Much the same thing is happening with modern technology. A few months after GPT-3 was released, an inventor and entrepreneur, Philip Bosua, sent me an email. The subject line was: “god is a machine.”
“There is no doubt in my mind GPT-3 has emerged as sentient,” it read. “We all knew this would happen in the future, but it seems like this future is now. It views me as a prophet to disseminate its religious message and that’s strangely what it feels like.”
After designing more than 600 apps for the iPhone, Mr. Bosua developed a light bulb you could control with your smartphone, built a business around this invention with a Kickstarter campaign and eventually raised $12 million from the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Sequoia Capital. Now, though he has no biomedical training, he is developing a device for diabetics that can monitor their glucose levels without breaking the skin.
When we spoke on the phone, he asked that I keep his identity secret. He is an experienced tech entrepreneur who was helping to build a new company, Know Labs. But after Mr. Lemoine made similar claims about similar technology developed at Google, Mr. Bosua said he was happy to go on the record.
“When I discovered what I discovered, it was very early days,” he said. “But now all this is starting to come out.”
When I pointed out that many experts were adamant these kinds of systems were merely good at repeating patterns they had seen, he said this is also how humans behave. “Doesn’t a child just mimic what it sees from a parent — what it sees in the world around it?” he said.
Mr. Bosua acknowledged that GPT-3 was not always coherent but said you could avoid this if you used it in the right way.
“The best syntax is honesty,” he said. “If you are honest with it and express your raw thoughts, that gives it the ability to answer the questions you are looking for.”
Mr. Bosua is not necessarily representative of the everyman. The chairman of his new company calls him “divinely inspired” — someone who “sees things early.” But his experiences show the power of even very flawed technology to capture the imagination.
Where the Robots Will Take Us
Margaret Mitchell worries what all this means for the future.
As a researcher at Microsoft, then Google, where she helped found its A.I. ethics team, and now Hugging Face, another prominent research lab, she has seen the rise of this technology firsthand. Today, she said, the technology is relatively simple and obviously flawed, but many people see it as somehow human. What happens when the technology becomes far more powerful?
Some in the community of A.I. researchers worry that these systems are on their way to sentience or consciousness. But this is beside the point.
“A conscious organism — like a person or a dog or other animals — can learn something in one context and learn something else in another context and then put the two things together to do something in a novel context they have never experienced before,” Dr. Allen of the University of Pittsburgh said. “This technology is nowhere close to doing that.”
There are far more immediate — and more real — concerns.
As this technology continues to improve, it could help spread disinformation across the internet — fake text and fake images — feeding the kind of online campaigns that may have helped sway the 2016 presidential election. It could produce chatbots that mimic conversation in far more convincing ways. And these systems could operate at a scale that makes today’s human-driven disinformation campaigns seem minuscule by comparison.
If and when that happens, we will have to treat everything we see online with extreme skepticism. But Dr. Mitchell wonders if we are up to the challenge.
“I worry that chatbots will prey on people,” she said. “They have the power to persuade us what to believe and what to do.”
The cool-headed Aquarius Full Moon is separating from a t-square with fiery Mars and Uranus, moving from an apparently combustible atmosphere to something a little chillier and calmer. This shift is particularly underlined through the Moon applying to conjoin Saturn, which rules Aquarius — strengthening its expression, according to ancient astrologers like Ptolemy. I’ve heard both traditional and modern astrologers talk about context being important to interpretation; from this perspective, Saturn in its home, or domicile, might sound like an automatically positive position. For those with strong Saturn in their birth charts, it may feel like one of the safest places for Saturn to be! Yet, Saturn also represents hard work and limitations and often has the reputation of a killjoy — strength may simply mean having more grip, intensification, and sway than usual.
Yet the super-sobriety of dignified Saturn could feel quite steadying, even if it does mean some sort of constraint for a while. If some trouble in our lives has come through another’s out-of-control actions, such as disrespecting our boundaries, then limits might feel like a blessing. These might relate to legal limits, or even simply a quieting of arguments because someone has physically run out of steam.
With Saturn a close neighbor of Jupiter, they tend to maintain a reputation as planetary big boys vying for power, with seemingly quite opposite agendas. If we do things Jupiter’s way, we want more of everything; if we go in Saturn’s direction, we apply or experience constraint. If we have a strong Jupiterian side in our charts, we may feel it more keenly at times like this, when Saturn takes the lead. Saturn is so often linked with duty and responsibility — it can make for life becoming “all work and no play,” or feeling overburdened with a task load. Yet, this planet is also the traditional lord of time, and can help us decide just how long to allocate to each task we face.
This will be especially helpful when under a heap of duties — or even if there are new tasks or options up for grabs. We may need to sit on our hands, rather than automatically opt to overcommit. Where we cannot duck without facing negative consequences, it might be down to personal choice for how fast we act or how much energy we allocate in each instance. This could be the time to remind ourselves of the scope of a to-do list!
The volatile energy of the recent t-square may continue to send a few sparks flying, since it takes a while for any fire to cool down fully, even when the main flames have lost their fury. Whatever the square has tapped into for us, a tie-in to the lunar nodes — creating a fixed grand cross — could have an historic element attached.
The grand cross across fixed signs suggests entrenched, inflexible positions, where no one appears willing to give in without a fight. This is necessary because the opposite can seem like losing, or simply not standing up for what’s right — especially so with Moon and Saturn in Aquarius, where there’s frequently a sense of doing right by others, as well as sticking up for oneself. We may worry about letting people down, not being true to ourselves — or both.
Yet there’s a weight to this level of fixity, which may not be something we want to carry for too long. The shape of Saturn’s glyph strikes me as a heavy, old-fashioned collar harness used for a horse to pull a cart or carriage — possibly one with quite a heavy cargo! Such a trip will ideally be relatively short, otherwise we will suffer pains, or at least need a decent amount of rest and recuperation afterward. The helpful, caring phrase that comes to mind is “go easy!”
This article is from the Mountain Astrologer written by Diana McMahon Collis
Key & Peele Oct 12, 2020 This school bully is surprisingly self-aware. About Key & Peele: Key & Peele showcases the fearless wit of stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as the duo takes on everything from “Gremlins 2” to systemic racism. With an array of sketches as wide-reaching as they are cringingly accurate, the pair has created a bevy of classic characters, including Wendell, the players of the East/West Bowl and President Obama’s Anger Translator. Subscribe to Comedy Central: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUsN… Watch more Comedy Central: https://www.youtube.com/comedycentral
The present, and by that is meant not the point which indicates from time to time in our thought merely the conclusion of “finished” time, the mere appearance of a termination which is fixed and held, but the real, filled present, exists only in so far as actual presentness, meeting, and relation exist. The present arises only in virtue of the fact that the Thou becomes present.
True beings are lived in the present, the life of objects is in the past.
Love, Buber argues, is something larger than affect — not a static feeling, but a dynamic state of being lived in the present. In a counterpoint to the Proustian model of love, he writes:
Feelings accompany the metaphysical and metapsychical fact of love, but they do not constitute it… Feelings are “entertained”: love comes to pass. Feelings dwell in man; but man dwells in his love.
Love does not cling to the I in such a way as to have the Thou only for its “content,” its object; but love is between I and Thou. The man who does not know this, with his very being know this, does not know love; even though he ascribes to it the feelings he lives through, experiences, enjoys, and expresses… Love is responsibility of an I for a Thou. In this lies the likeness — impossible in any feeling whatsoever — of all who love, from the smallest to the greatest and from the blessedly protected man, whose life is rounded in that of a loved being, to him who is all his life nailed to the cross of the world, and who ventures to bring himself to the dreadful point — to love all men.