Tags: language



Thursday, September 21st, 2023

Tuesday, September 19th, 2023

Simon’s rule

I got a nice email from someone regarding my recent posts about performance on The Session. They said:

I hope this message finds you well. First and foremost, I want to express how impressed I am with the overall performance of https://thesession.org/. It’s a fantastic resource for music enthusiasts like me.

How nice! I responded, thanking them for the kind words.

They sent a follow-up clarification:

Awesome, anyway there was an issue in my message.

The line ‘It’s a fantastic resource for music enthusiasts like me.’ added by chatGPT and I didn’t notice.

I imagine this is what it feels like when you’re on a phone call with someone and towards the end of the call you hear a distinct flushing sound.

I wrote back and told them about Simon’s rule:

I will not publish anything that takes someone else longer to read than it took me to write.

That just feels so rude!

I think that’s a good rule.

Friday, September 15th, 2023

We’re still not innovating with AI-generated UI.

Prototypes and production:

It looks like it will be a great tool for prototyping. A tool to help developers that don’t have experience with CSS and layout to have a starting point. As someone who spent some time building smoke and mirrors prototypes for UX research, I welcome tools like this.

What concerns me is the assertion that this is production-grade code when it simply is not.

Sunday, September 10th, 2023

Squish Meets Structure: Designing with Language Models

The slides and transcript from a great talk by Maggie Appleton, including this perfect description of the vibes we get from large language models:

It feels like they’re either geniuses playing dumb or dumb machines playing genius, but we don’t know which.

Wednesday, September 6th, 2023

Making Large Language Models work for you

Another great talk from Simon that explains large language models in a hype-free way.

Wednesday, August 9th, 2023


I just described prototype code as code to be thrown away. On that topic…

I’ve been observing how people are programming with large language models and I’ve seen a few trends.

The first thing that just about everyone agrees on is that the code produced by a generative tool is not fit for public consumption. At least not straight away. It definitely needs to be checked and tested. If you enjoy debugging and doing code reviews, this might be right up your street.

The other option is to not use these tools for production code at all. Instead use them for throwaway code. That could be prototyping. But it could also be the code for those annoying admin tasks that you don’t do very often.

Take content migration. Say you need to grab a data dump, do some operations on the data to transform it in some way, and then pipe the results into a new content management system.

That’s almost certainly something you’d want to automate with bespoke code. Once the content migration is done, the code can be thrown away.

Read Matt’s account of coding up his Braggoscope. The code needed to spider a thousand web pages, extract data from those pages, find similarities, and output the newly-structured data in a different format.

I’ve noticed that these are just the kind of tasks that large language models are pretty good at. In effect you’re training the tool on your own very specific data and getting it to do your drudge work for you.

To me, it feels right that the usefulness happens on your own machine. You don’t put the machine-generated code in front of other humans.

Monday, August 7th, 2023

Documentation for GPTBot - OpenAI API

Now that the horse has bolted—and ransacked the web—you can shut the barn door:

To disallow GPTBot to access your site you can add the GPTBot to your site’s robots.txt:

User-agent: GPTBot
Disallow: /

Saturday, August 5th, 2023

“If It Sounds Like Sci-Fi, It Probably Is”

Emily M. Bender:

I dislike the term because “artificial intelligence” suggests that there’s more going on than there is, that these things are autonomous thinking entities rather than tools and simply kinds of automation. If we focus on them as autonomous thinking entities or we spin out that fantasy, it is easier to lose track of the people in the picture, both the people who should be accountable for what the systems are doing and the people whose labor and data are being exploited to create them in the first place.

Alternative terms:

  • Stochastic parrots
  • Spicy autocomplete
  • Mad Libs
  • Magic Eight Ball

And this is worth shouting from the rooftops:

The threat is not the generative “AI” itself. It’s the way that management might choose to use it.

Catching up on the weird world of LLMs

This is a really clear, practical, level-headed explanatory talk from Simon. You can read the transcript or watch the video.

Wednesday, July 12th, 2023

Pulling my site from Google over AI training – Tracy Durnell

I’m not down with Google swallowing everything posted on the internet to train their generative AI models.

A principled approach to evolving choice and control for web content

This would mean a lot more if it happened before the wholesale harvesting of everyone’s work.

But I’m sure Google will put a mighty fine lock on that stable door that the horse bolted from.

Tuesday, July 11th, 2023


Back when the web was young, it wasn’t yet clear what the rules were. Like, could you really just link to something without asking permission?

Then came some legal rulings to establish that, yes, on the web you can just link to anything without checking if it’s okay first.

What about search engines and directories? Technically they’re rifling through all the stuff we publish and reposting snippets of it. Is that okay?

Again, through some legal precedents—but mostly common agreement—everyone decided that on balance it was fine. After all, those snippets they publish are helping your site get traffic.

In short order, search came to rule the web. And Google came to rule search.

The mutually beneficial arrangement persisted uneasily. Despite Google’s search results pages getting worse and worse in recent years, the company’s huge market share of search means you generally want to be in their good books.

Google’s business model relies on us publishing web pages so that they can put ads around the search results linking to that content, and we rely on Google to send people to our websites by responding smartly to search queries.

That has now changed. Instead of responding to search queries by linking to the web pages we’ve made, Google is instead generating dodgy summaries rife with hallucina… lies (a psychic hotline, basically).

Google still benefits from us publishing web pages. We no longer benefit from Google slurping up those web pages.

With AI, tech has broken the web’s social contract:

Google has steadily been manoeuvring their search engine results to more and more replace the pages in the results.

As Chris puts it:

Me, I just think it’s fuckin’ rude.

Google is a portal to the web. Google is an amazing tool for finding relevant websites to go to. That was useful when it was made, and it’s nothing but grown in usefulness. Google should be encouraging and fighting for the open web. But now they’re like, actually we’re just going to suck up your website, put it in a blender with all other websites, and spit out word smoothies for people instead of sending them to your website. Instead.

Ben proposes an update to robots.txt that would allow us to specify licensing information:

Robots.txt needs an update for the 2020s. Instead of just saying what content can be indexed, it should also grant rights.

Like crawl my site only to provide search results not train your LLM.

It’s a solid proposal. But Google has absolutely no incentive to implement it. They hold all the power.

Or do they?

There is still the nuclear option in robots.txt:

User-agent: Googlebot
Disallow: /

That’s what Vasilis is doing:

I have been looking for ways to not allow companies to use my stuff without asking, and so far I coulnd’t find any. But since this policy change I realised that there is a simple one: block google’s bots from visiting your website.

The general consensus is that this is nuts. “If you don’t appear in Google’s results, you might as well not be on the web!” is the common cry.

I’m not so sure. At least when it comes to personal websites, search isn’t how people get to your site. They get to your site from RSS, newsletters, links shared on social media or on Slack.

And isn’t it an uncomfortable feeling to think that there’s a third party service that you absolutely must appease? It’s the same kind of justification used by people who are still on Twitter even though it’s now a right-wing transphobic cesspit. “If I’m not on Twitter, I might as well not be on the web!”

The situation with Google reminds me of what Robin said about Twitter:

The speed with which Twitter recedes in your mind will shock you. Like a demon from a folktale, the kind that only gains power when you invite it into your home, the platform melts like mist when that invitation is rescinded.

We can rescind our invitation to Google.

Monday, July 10th, 2023

Fruit Of The Poisonous LLaMA? – Terence Eden’s Blog

I want to live in a future where Artificial Intelligences can relieve humans of the drudgery of labour. But I don’t want to live in a future which is built by ripping-off people against their will.

Saturday, July 8th, 2023

How to report better on artificial intelligence - Columbia Journalism Review

  • Be skeptical of PR hype
  • Question the training data
  • Evaluate the model
  • Consider downstream harms

Wednesday, July 5th, 2023

The LLMentalist Effect: how chat-based Large Language Models replicate the mechanisms of a psychic’s con

Taken together, these flaws make LLMs look less like an information technology and more like a modern mechanisation of the psychic hotline.

Delegating your decision-making, ranking, assessment, strategising, analysis, or any other form of reasoning to a chatbot becomes the functional equivalent to phoning a psychic for advice.

Imagine Google or a major tech company trying to fix their search engine by adding a psychic hotline to their front page? That’s what they’re doing with Bard.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Word Count 53: The state of AI and the Goodreads fiasco

Could the tsunami of AI shite turn out to be a flash flood? Might the models rapidly degrade into uselessness or soon be sued or blocked out of existence? Will users rebel as their experience of the internet is degraded?

In my most optimistic moments, I find myself hoping that the whole AI edifice will come tumbling down as tools disintegrate, people realise how unreliable they are, and how valuable human-generated and curated information really is. But it’s not a safe bet.

Saturday, July 1st, 2023

Introducing AI Help: Your Trusted Companion for Web Development | MDN Blog

As part of this pointless push, an “AI explain” button appeared on MDN articles. This terrible idea actually got pushed to production (bypassing the usual deploy steps) where it lasted less than a day.

You can read the havoc it wreaked in the short term. We’ll find out how much long-term damage it has done to trust in Mozilla and MDN.

This may be the worst use of a large language model I’ve seen since synthentic users (if you click that link, no it’s not a joke: “user research without the users” is what they’re actually proposing).

Monday, June 26th, 2023

In new AI hype frenzy, tech is applying the label to everything now

Today’s AI promoters are trying to have it both ways: They insist that AI is crossing a profound boundary into untrodden territory with unfathomable risks. But they also define AI so broadly as to include almost any large-scale, statistically-driven computer program.

Under this definition, everything from the Google search engine to the iPhone’s face-recognition unlocking tool to the Facebook newsfeed algorithm is already “AI-driven” — and has been for years.

Tuesday, June 20th, 2023

A prayer wheel for capitalism

Why “AI” won’t help you get past the blank page in any meaningful way:

The value in writing lies in what we discover while writing.