Tags: cryptobollocks

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Tuesday, July 4th, 2023

“Web3” and “AI”

A short talk delivered at a gathering in Brighton by the Design Business Association in July 2023 on the topic of “Web3, AI and Design”.

Hello. I was asked by the Design Business Association to talk to you today about “web3 and AI.”

I’d like to explain what those terms mean.

“Web3”

Let’s start with “web3.” Fortunately I don’t have to come up with an explanation for this term because my friend Heydon Pickering has recorded a video entitled “what is web 3.0?

What is web trois point nought?

Web uno dot zilch was/is a system of interconnected documents traversible by hyperlink.

However, web deux full stop nowt was/is a system of interconnected documents traversible by hyperlink.

On the other hand, web drei dot zilch is a system of interconnected documents traversible by hyperlink.

Should you wish to upgrade to web three point uno, expect a system of interconnected documents traversible by hyperlink.

If we ever get to web noventa y cinco, you can bet your sweet @rse, it will be a system of interconnected documents traversible by f*!king hyperlink.

There you have it. “Web3” is a completely meaningless term. If someone uses it, they’re probably trying to sell you something.

If you ask for a definition, you’ll get a response like “something something decentralisation something something blockchain.”

As soon as someone mentions blockchain, you can tune out. It’s the classic example of a solution in search of a problem (although it’s still early days; it’s only been …more than a decade).

I can give you a defintion of what a blockchain is. A blockchain is multiple copies of a spreadsheet.

I find it useful to be able to do mental substitions like that when it comes to buzzwords. Like, remember when everyone was talking about “the cloud” but no one was asking what that actually meant? Well, by mentally substituting “the cloud” with “someone else’s server” you get a much better handle on the buzzword.

So, with “web3” out of the way, we can move onto the next buzzword. AI.

“AI”

The letters A and I are supposed to stand for Artificial Intelligence. It’s a term that’s almost as old as digital computing itself. It goes right back to the 1950s.

These days we’d use the term Artificial General Intelligence—AGI—to talk about that original vision of making computers as smart as people.

Vision is the right term here, because AGI remains a thought experiment. This is the realm of super intelligence: world-ending AI overlords; paperclip maximisers; Roko’s basilisk.

These are all fascinating thought experiments but they’re in the same arena as speculative technologies like faster-than-light travel or time travel. I’m happy to talk about any of those theoretically-possible topics, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about today.

When you hear about AI today, you’re probably hearing about specific technologies like large language models and machine learning.

Let’s take a look at large language models and their visual counterparts, diffusion models. They both work in the same way. You take a metric shit ton of data and you assign each one to a token. So you’ve got a numeric token that represents a bigger item: a phrase in a piece of text, or an object in an image.

The author Ted Chiang used a really good analogy to describe this process when he said ChatGPT is like a blurry JPEG of the web.

Just as image formats like JPG use compression to smush image data, these models use compression to smush data into tokens.

By the way, the GPT part of ChatGPT stands for Generative Pre-trained Transformer. The pre-training is that metric shit ton of data I mentioned. The generative part is about combining—or transforming—tokens in a way that should make probabalistic sense.

Terminology

Here’s some more terminology that comes up when people talk about these tools.

Overfitting. This is when the output produced by a generative pre-trained transformer is too close to the original data that fed the model. Another word for overfitting is plagiarism.

Hallucinations. People use this word when the output produced by a generative pre-trained transformer strays too far from reality. Another word for this is lying. Although the truth is that all of the output is a form of hallucination—that’s the generative part. Sometimes the output happens to match objective reality. Sometimes it doesn’t.

What about the term AI itself? Is there a more accurate term we could be using?

I’m going to quote Ted Chiang again. He proposes that a more accurate term is applied statistics. I like that. It points to the probabalistic nature of these tools: take an enormous amount of inputs, then generate something that feels similar based on implied correlations.

I like to think of “AI” as a kind of advanced autocomplete. I don’t say that to denigrate it. Quite the opposite. Autocomplete is something that appears mundane on the surface but has an incredible amount of complexity underneath: real-time parsing of input, a massive database of existing language, and on-the-fly predictions of the next most suitable word. Large language models do the same thing, but on a bigger scale.

What’s it good for?

So what is AI good for? Or rather, what is a language or diffusion model good for? Or what is applied statistics or advanced autocomplete good for?

Transformation. These tools are really good at transforming between formats. Text to speech. Speech to text. Text to images. Long form to short form. Short form to long form.

Think of transcripts. Summaries. These are smart uses of this kind of technology.

Coding, to a certain extent, can be considered a form of transformation. I’ve written books on programming, and I always advise people to first write out what they want in English. Then translate each line of English into the programming language. Large language models do a pretty good job of this right now, but you still need a knowledgable programmer to check the output for errors—there will be errors.

(As for long-form and short-form text transformations, the end game may be an internet filled with large language models endlessly converting our written communications.)

When it comes to the design process, these tools are good at quantity, not quality. If you need to generate some lorem ipsum placeholder text—or images—go for it.

What they won’t help with is problem definition. And it turns out that understanding and defining the problem is the really hard part of the design process.

Use these tools for inputs, not outputs. I would never publish the output of one of these tools publicly. But I might use one of these tools at the beginning of the process to get over the blank page. If I want to get a bunch of mediocre ideas out of the way quickly, these tools can help.

There’s an older definition of the intialism AI that dairy farmers would be familiar with, when “the AI man” would visit the farm. In that context, AI stands for artificial insemination. Perhaps thats also a more helpful definition of AI tools in the design process.

But, like I said, the outputs are not for public release. For one thing, the generated outputs aren’t automatically copyrighted. That’s only fair. Technically, it’s not your work. It is quite literally derivative.

Why all the hype?

Everything I’ve described here is potentially useful in some circumstances, but not Earth-shattering. So what’s with all the hype?

Venture capital. With this model of funding, belief in a technology’s future matters more than the technology’s actual future.

We’ve already seen this in action with self-driving cars, the metaverse, and cryptobollocks. Reality never matched the over-inflated expectations but that made no difference to the people profiting from the investments in those technologies (as long as they make sure to get out in time).

By the way, have you noticed how all your crypto spam has been replaced by AI spam? Your spam folder is a good gauge of what’s hot in venture capital circles right now.

The hype around AI is benefiting from a namespace clash. Remember, AI as in applied statistics or advanced autocomplete has nothing in common with AI as in Artificial General Intelligence. But because the same term is applied to both, the AI hype machine can piggyback on the AGI discourse.

It’s as if we decided to call self-driving cars “time machines”— we’d be debating the ethics of time travel as though it were plausible.

For a refreshing counter-example, take a look at what Apple is saying about AI. Or rather, what it isn’t saying. In the most recent Apple keynote, the term AI wasn’t mentioned once.

Technology blogger Om Malik wrote:

One of the most noticeable aspects of the keynote was the distinct lack of mention of AI or ChatGPT.

I think this was a missed marketing opportunity for the company.

I couldn’t disagree more. Apple is using machine learning a-plenty: facial recognition, categorising your photos, and more. But instead of over-inflating that work with the term AI, they stick to the more descriptive term of machine learning.

I think this will pay off when the inevitable hype crash comes. Other companies, that have tied their value to the mast of AI will see their stock prices tank. But because Apple is not associating themselves with that term, they’re well positioned to ride out that crash.

What should you do?

Alright, it’s time for me to wrap this up with some practical words of advice.

Beware of the Law of the instrument. You know the one: when all you have is a hammer, everything looks a nail. There’s a corollary to that: when the market is investing heavily in hammers, everyone’s going to try to convince you that the world is full of nails. See if you can instead cultivate a genuine sense of nailspotting.

It should ring alarm bells if you find yourself thinking “how can I find a use for this technology?” Rather, spend your time figuring out what problem you’re trying to solve and only then evaluate which technologies might help you.

Never make any decision out of fear. FOMO—Fear Of Missing Out—has been weaponised again and again, by crypto, by “web3”, by “AI”.

The message is always the same: “don’t get left behind!”

“It’s inevitable!” they cry. But you know what’s genuinely inevitable? Climate change. So maybe focus your energy there.

Links

I’ll leave you with some links.

I highly recommend you get a copy of the book, The Intelligence Illusion by Baldur Bjarnason. You can find it at illusion.baldurbjarnason.com

The subtitle is “a practical guide to the business risks of generative AI.” It doesn’t get into philosophical debates on potential future advances. Instead it concentrates squarely on the pros and cons of using these tools in your business today. It’s backed up by tons of research with copious amounts of footnotes and citations if you want to dive deeper into any of the issues.

If you don’t have time to read the whole book, Baldur has also created a kind of cheat sheet. Go to needtoknow.fyi and you can a one-page list of cards to help you become an AI bullshit detector.

I keep track of interesting developments in this space on my own website, tagging with “machine learning” at adactio.com/tags/machinelearning

Thank you very much for your time today.

Wednesday, April 12th, 2023

Bitcoin is Commoditized Waste - by Rusty Foster

It’s a popular myth that a Bitcoin’s value is based on nothing, just pulled out of thin air by math. But that’s not true—Bitcoin is a way to commoditize energy consumption without accidentally producing anything useful. Other energy-intensive industries tend to convert energy into useful materials like aluminum or cement. Bitcoin converts electricity into waste heat and records its destruction in the form of numbers, which can then be traded for other numbers but not used to make anything people need or converted back into energy.

Saturday, March 18th, 2023

Jeepers Frigging Cripes Crypto and NFTs are so stupid and dumb and bad and I can’t even. I’m out. Goodbye. Burn it down please. - Chris Coyier

Literally every experience I have in this world is gross at best and criminally evil at worst. Who it benefits that actually needs the benfefit is vanishingly few.

Here are some rhetorical questions from Chris:

How many years into this are we with no practical use cases for the world? How many resources have to be burned before this is seen?

Saturday, March 4th, 2023

Those meddling kids! The Reverse Scooby-Doo theory of tech innovation comes with the excuses baked in | Nieman Journalism Lab

Manufactured inevitability a.k.a bullshit:

There’s a standard trope that tech evangelists deploy when they talk about the latest fad. It goes something like this:

  1. Technology XYZ is arriving. It will be incredible for everyone. It is basically inevitable.
  2. The only thing that can stop it is regulators and/or incumbent industries. If they are so foolish as to stand in its way, then we won’t be rewarded with the glorious future that I am promising.

We can think of this rhetorical move as a Reverse Scooby-Doo. It’s as though Silicon Valley has assumed the role of a Scooby-Doo villain — but decided in this case that he’s actually the hero. (“We would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it wasn’t for those meddling regulators!”)

The critical point is that their faith in the promise of the technology is balanced against a revulsion towards existing institutions. (The future is bright! Unless they make it dim.) If the future doesn’t turn out as predicted, those meddlers are to blame. It builds a safety valve into their model of the future, rendering all predictions unfalsifiable.

Wednesday, February 15th, 2023

Brandolini’s blockchain

I’ve already written about how much I enjoyed hosting Leading Design San Francisco last week.

All the speakers were terrific. Lola’s talk was particularly …um, interesting:

In this talk, Lola will share her adventures in the world of blockchain, the hostility she experienced in her first go-round in 2018, and why she’s chosen to head back to a technology that is going through its largest reputational and social crisis to date.

Wait …I was supposed to stand on stage and introduce a talk that was (at least partly) about blockchain? I have opinions.

As it turned out, Lola warned me that I’d be making an appearance in her talk. She was going to quote that blog post. Before the talk, I asked her how obnoxious I could be about blockchain in her intro. She told me to bring it.

So in the introduction, I deployed all the sarcasm I had in me and said:

Listen, we designers have a tendency to be over-critical of things sometimes. There are all these ideas that we dismiss: phrenology, homeopathy, flat-earthism …blockchain. Haters gonna hate.

I remember somebody asking online a while back, “Why the hate for web3?” And someone I know responded by saying “We hate it because we understand it.” I think there’s a lot of truth to that.

But look, just because blockchains are powering crypto ponzi schemes and N F fucking Ts, it’s worth remembering that it’s also simply a technology. It’s a technological solution in search of a problem.

To be fair, it’s still early days. After all, it’s only been over a decade now.

It’s like the law of instrument says; when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Blockchain is like that. Except the hammer is also made of glass.

Anyway, Lola is going to defend the indefensible and talk about blockchain. One thing to keep in mind is this: remember when everyone was talking about “The Cloud”? And then it turned out that you could substitute the phrase “someone else’s server” for “The Cloud?” Well, every time you hear Lola say the word “blockchain”, I’d like you to mentally substitute the phrase “multiple copies of a spreadsheet.”

Please give an open mind and a warm welcome to Lola Oyelayo Pearson!

I got some laughs. I also got lots of gasps and pearl-clutching, as though I were saying something taboo. Welcome to San Francisco.

Lola gave as good as she got. I got a roasting in her talk.

And just to clarify, Lola and I are friends—this was a consensual smackdown.

There was a very serious point to Lola’s talk. Cryptobollocks and other blockchain-powered schemes have historically been very bro-y, and exploitative of non-bro communities. Lola wants to fight that trend.

I get it. But it reminds me a bit of the justifications you hear from people who go to work at Facebook claiming that they can do more good from the inside. Whatever helps you sleep at night.

The crux of Lola’s belief is this: blockchain technology is inevitable, therefore it is uncumbent on us as ethical designers to ensure that the technology is deployed in a way that empowers people instead of exploiting them.

But I take issue with the premise. Blockchain technology is not inevitable. That’s the worst kind of technological determinism. It’s defeatist. It’s a depressing view of “progress” driven not by people, but by technological forces beyond our control.

I refuse to accept that anti-humanist deterministic view.

In any case, for technological determinism to have any validity, there needs to be something to it. At least virtual reality and machine learning are based on some actual technologies. In the case of cryptobollocks, there is no there there. There is nothing except the hype, which is why you’ll see blockchain enthusiasts trying to ride the coattails of trending technologies in a logical fallacy that goes something like this:

  1. There are technologies that will be really big in the future,
  2. blockchain is a technology, therefore
  3. blockchain will be really big in the future.

Blockchain is bullshit. It isn’t even very clever bullshit. And it certainly isn’t inevitable.