Approximations and Denials of Reality

Ted Chiang on ChatGPT; Paul Krugman on the GOP’s Orwellian take on the world; and epistemology.

Ted Chiang, The New Yorker, 9 Feb 2023: ChatGPT Is a Blurry JPEG of the Web, subtitled “OpenAI’s chatbot offers paraphrases, whereas Google offers quotes. Which do we prefer?”

Here’s a longish article by none other than famed science fiction writer (and tech writer) Ted Chiang, in The New Yorker, about how the AI app ChatGPT works, beginning with a story about how modern photocopiers work.

In the original floor plan, each of the house’s three rooms was accompanied by a rectangle specifying its area: the rooms were 14.13, 21.11, and 17.42 square metres, respectively. However, in the photocopy, all three rooms were labelled as being 14.13 square metres in size. The company contacted the computer scientist David Kriesel to investigate this seemingly inconceivable result.

Digital files are compressed to save space, so sometimes images are distorted. In this case, the compression algorithm thought the small blobs of text specifying areas were all the same, and so at the other end, printed them out as identical.

Chiang goes on: If you tried to download the entire Internet, and used such a compression scheme, what would you get? Well, something like what the ChatGPT app is spitting out.

What I’ve described sounds a lot like ChatGPT, or most any other large language model. Think of ChatGPT as a blurry JPEG of all the text on the Web. It retains much of the information on the Web, in the same way that a JPEG retains much of the information of a higher-resolution image, but, if you’re looking for an exact sequence of bits, you won’t find it; all you will ever get is an approximation. But, because the approximation is presented in the form of grammatical text, which ChatGPT excels at creating, it’s usually acceptable. You’re still looking at a blurry JPEG, but the blurriness occurs in a way that doesn’t make the picture as a whole look less sharp.

A long, thoughtful piece, that ends:

There’s nothing magical or mystical about writing, but it involves more than placing an existing document on an unreliable photocopier and pressing the Print button. It’s possible that, in the future, we will build an A.I. that is capable of writing good prose based on nothing but its own experience of the world. The day we achieve that will be momentous indeed—but that day lies far beyond our prediction horizon. In the meantime, it’s reasonable to ask, What use is there in having something that rephrases the Web? If we were losing our access to the Internet forever and had to store a copy on a private server with limited space, a large language model like ChatGPT might be a good solution, assuming that it could be kept from fabricating. But we aren’t losing our access to the Internet. So just how much use is a blurry JPEG, when you still have the original?


Now a few more political links, which as always, are truly about trying to understand epistemology — how and why humans think and come to conclusions about how the world works. And how, given the priorities of survival (in the evolutionary sense) those conclusions are both right (for survival) and wrong (about what’s actually real).

NY Times, Paul Krugman, 9 Feb 2023: War Is Peace, Freedom Is Slavery, Democrats Are Radicals

This is another response to Biden’s SOTU speech the other night.

Delivering the Republican response, Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed that the United States is divided between two parties, one of which is mainly focused on bread-and-butter issues that matter to regular people, while the other is obsessed with waging culture war. This is also true. But she got her parties mixed up — Republicans, not Democrats, are the culture warriors who’ve lost touch with ordinary Americans’ concerns.

He fact-checks the issue about Medicare and Social Security, shouts of “liar!”, and Rick Scott’s record. How Republican arithmetic doesn’t add up.

But let’s talk about the Sanders response to Biden, which was even more revealing.

Sanders’s speech was a diatribe against wokeness. This is standard G.O.P. fare these days and exactly what you’d expect in, say, an address at the Conservative Political Action Conference. But this wasn’t a CPAC speech; it was meant to address the nation as a whole and rebut the president of the United States.


So as Greg Sargent of The Washington Post points out, it was remarkable that Sanders spoke largely in right-wing insider jargon. She boasted of eliminating C.R.T. in her state, without even explaining the abbreviation; how many Americans know that it stands for “critical race theory,” let alone why that’s supposed to be such a bad thing?

For that matter, focus groups suggest that most people don’t know what “wokeness” means, or why they should fear it.

But wait, it gets worse. Sanders seemed to say (although her syntax was a bit garbled) that woke policy was responsible for “high gas prices” and “empty grocery shelves.”

So first of all, how does that work? How did critical race theory cause a global spike in crude oil prices, which raised prices at the pump all around the world? How did it snarl supply chains and cause a worldwide shortage of shipping containers?

And so on. This piece touches on what I’m gradually coming to realize: Most people don’t pay attention to anything outside their immediate circumstances. I saw a Facebook post from one of my friends commenting about a John McWhorter piece in NYT about the changing meanings of words, and he said nobody (i.e. the vast majority of the population) will read this! Language changes, it just happens, as does everything else.


Finally, just three headlines.

Media Matters, Matt Gertz, 8 Feb 2023: The GOP rebuttal to Biden’s State of the Union address was indistinguishable from a Fox News monologue

Salon, Amanda Marcotte, 8 Feb 2023: Bless their hearts! The Christian right attempts to mount a revival, subtitled “The Satanic panic over the Grammys is part of a larger fundamentalist bid to make themselves relevant again”

New York Times, Stuart A. Thompson, 9 Feb 2023: Steve Bannon’s Podcast Is Top Misinformation Spreader, Study Says, subtitled “A large podcast study found that Mr. Bannon’s ‘War Room’ had more falsehoods and unsubstantiated claims than other political talk shows.”

The runners-up are, of course, other right-wing outlets: Charlie Kirk; Rush Limbaugh [someone running his legacy site, presumably]; Michael Savage; Bret Weinstein; Daniel Horowitz… Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Rudy Guilani.

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