How do you know but every bird
that cuts the airy way
Is an immense world of delight,
closed by your senses five?
— William Blake1
Ladies and gentlemen,
Although as I speak I’m very sad, I’m also equally as thrilled to welcome you to the year of two thousand and twenty. I cannot say this about myself, but I sure thing can say that about you, who did your loved ones proud last year, did you not?
What can I say, China is really fucked up with their vehement orthodoxy, gulags for Uyghurs folk, and whatnot. But there’s no way we are going to talk about that. To borrow the words of the late Pete Shelley, “Whatever happened to Chairman Mao?" Unfortunately, similar things are bound to happen in many other places. It doesn’t quite matter whether you live in the US, China, Russia, or countries like UK, Germany, Norway… We will be controlled by means of surveillance increasingly moreso.
Brace for impact.
On the other hand, it’s all not too bad. Bright people are now getting better at seizing power by whatever civilized means possible. Dominic Cummings2 is the prime example of that. I came to realise that there is currently no way to bring change to bureaucracy, unless one’s able to convincingly demonstrate blatant disregard for some established process. The political class is merely too strong, and its loyalties are ultimately aligned with the entrenched set of very outdated views on how the public is ought to be managed. It’s not sufficient to merely respect these values, and incorporate them into your own, as then one can choose to easily deconstruct your position in the given dialectic. We have known for a long time already that it’s the case. Even Trotsky himself expected this, really. Now, some would likely pin-point the turning point in Western civil discourse to the election of President Donald Trump in the US, or to Brexit in the UK, for that matter. I do not subscribe to this analysis in the least. Regardless of what opinion one holds of Mr Cummings, surely they can travel back to 2014, and watch a Hangouts recording of his talk, The Hollow Men3. To me, it’s now very clear he since had showed some stunning consistency in his method. I should think that his analysis was at least as sharp back then, as it is now, so obviously the turn started much, much earlier than 2016.
I’m not particularly interested in the conventional power levers, but I care a great deal about AI, an unconventional power lever. We are yet to figure out good definitions for, yet alone discover—general artificial intelligence. However, it doesn’t stop analysts from speculating about the existing techniques already, i.e. there are such claims that machine learning is fundamentally conservative4. Unorthodox levers require unorthodox thinking, of course. I should vouch AI researchers to take philosophy of language more seriously. Thanks to efforts done by OpenAI, we are now capable of generating plausible text, which is not limited to one domain: news, fiction, poems, and computer code5. If you were to ask any capable researcher as to whether it brought AI any closer to understanding natural language, they would probably tell you it’s not the case. Please don’t get me wrong; it’s beautiful that we can do this, but one should be careful not to think that the model itself makes any attempt at discourse, at any point. If anything, it will only make discourse analysis more complicated: when computers are capable of generating artificial texts, which statistically appear not at all so different from meaningful texts, you have a harder time telling them apart.
So long, spam filters. (For the time being!)
Gmail will continue to be good at what it does, although if I understand this correctly, it never relied on language in the first place, but metadata. I would predict that with further regulation, and more privacy built into our computer systems by design, they should end up with less metadata, and as a consequence of that, the quality of these filters will suffer a lot. Now imagine how easily metadata can be manipulated, once you have control over it.
There are no more tricks left.
Clearly, we need to understand language better.