Archive for the ‘Music and Cultural Criticism’ Category

ChatGPT is dangerous — but not in the way you think

Friday, February 10th, 2023

Originally published in the New York post February 5 2023

There’s a reason the phrase is “artificial intelligence,” not “artificial sensibility” or “artificial personality.” Intelligence is the easier human attribute to copy and surpass. Spending some time playing with the chatbot ChatGPT clarifies the difference and why it matters.

Some worry about bad actors using apps like ChatGPT to efficiently create disinformation or mashups of discredited conspiracy theories. Others look at the remarkable facility of the free app, introduced in November, and fear a near-future where it’s indistinguishable from a human, passing the Turing test and heralding “the singularity” of countless sci-fi stories.

No less than Elon Musk hinted at this in tweeting, “ChatGPT is scary good. We are not far from dangerously strong AI.” But Musk, like fellow least-popular Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, co-founded OpenAI, which developed and owns ChatGPT.

Neither threat is a big danger, for the same reason something else is: the possible proliferation of junk prose without the feeling of a narrator — a personality or sensibility — behind it. If we start feeding our young on it, it’ll have consequences far worse than a potato-chip-and-soda diet.

Ironically, and fortunately, AIs will force us to unpack what’s special about human narration.

Right now, my cats have more personality than ChatGPT, probably because being embodied and subject to pain and pleasure creates what we perceive as personality, however basic. The app can write music, lyrics and code — but not distinctive English.

ChatGPT prose is like stage scenery: windows into nothing, walls an inch thick. Experimenting with the app suggests there’s no there there.

Reading a good writer, or sometimes a bad one, you feel a personality behind the words, even in an essay on a scientific question. It goes to reading’s heart.

When asked why they read fiction, people often say, “To relax.” More reflective sorts may add, “and to experience life from other perspectives.” What we overlook and never name is what makes these things possible: the felt presence of another being behind the narration. So far, there’s been little reason to think this being wouldn’t be human.

We humans need to spend hours a day with our kind to flourish, and some books, read at some times, can give us this experience more effectively than being with our families or friends. It’s what makes books a balm for loneliness and part of a humane education. Every hour spent reading is an hour spent, if not necessarily in good company, practicing receptivity to others, learning to hear rhythm and text and subtext.

Reading’s not the only way to become acculturated, but it’s a very efficient one. That’s one reason early-reading programs are a key intervention in impoverished communities — and why overscheduling kids with organized activities is not necessarily producing smarter or more humane grownups. They would be better off reading. As long as a human has written what they read.

We feel the personal presence in the driest nonfiction, where even tepid expressions like “We must not forget” or “This is a misunderstanding” remind us emotions are at play. Passionate essayists, of course, use a very different, urgent language — AI hate speech won’t compare.

Narrative’s individual nature ought to be obvious. Writers have tics and style signatures that identify their prose (and catch plagiarists). These idiosyncrasies are nothing less than their life histories.

Start with a writer’s parents, birthplace, childhood. Someone might have absorbed Ciceronian cadences in high-school Latin or gospel-preaching’s rhythms from childhood church or both. Add a professor who insisted on minimal adjectives, a friend who was a Shakespearean actor. Finally, the writer’s mood that day.

How would you tell ChatGPT to imitate this set of unpredictable interactions? History has formed the writer’s personality over years. AI-generated prose lacks this; it’s like expecting to make a 12-year-old Pomerol overnight.

The app is good at imitating styles — a high-probability combination of words — and it’ll get better. It will sound more and more like what you ask it to imitate, whether Borat or the King James Bible. But it won’t sound like the self it doesn’t have.

The bright spot is that the singularity and its accompanying worries aren’t close at all. Some argue it’s just a matter of time. But a transcendent personality, with the layers of influences that make an appealing narrator, isn’t going to emerge from more and more repetitions of a search function, any more than wine will come out when you cut a grape into bits. It’s a different thing entirely.

The dark specter for now is the threat of floods of almost-free junk prose, the equivalent of industrial junk food or fashion but cheaper. A few hundred years ago in the West, everyone wore hand-spun cloth and hand-sewn clothing. Now only the super-rich do. Will our society embrace AI-generated prose as the literary equivalent of mass fast fashion, a cheap substitute that everyone uses occasionally? Will we come to see human-made prose as a luxury like couture clothes?

This will have grave consequences not only for the already-precarious incomes of human writers but for the education of young humans, who will not read much for fun — or turn out the same.

Curfews Don’t Protect People

Monday, July 6th, 2020

(Originally published in The Bulwark 6/3/20

Yesterday afternoon, President George W. Bush and Laura Bush released an extraordinary statement on the death of George Floyd. It says what needs to be said by every American across the political spectrum: “It remains a shocking failure that many African Americans, especially young African American men, are harassed and threatened in their own country.”

This is in the grand tradition of Republican support for civil rights and the classic tenets of liberalism. It reminds me why I voted for W. twice and used to be a registered Republican.

But that was back in the day when Republicans stood for limited government, strict adherence to the Constitution, and using economic freedom to improve everyone’s lives, not for shredding the Constitution and pitting Americans against each other while using public positions for private profit.

So last night I sat in my house in New York’s West Village, listening to helicopters overhead, forbidden to walk outside because we have an 8 p.m. curfew until Sunday. Because of the curfew local food shops, supermarkets, and restaurants offering takeout had to close as early as 5:00 p.m.—at a moment when they were just beginning to revive.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my 10 years covering counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, not only because of the familiar helicopter noise. There are analogies to restoring order in a violence-afflicted urban environment. It’s often just called community policing, an old idea involving getting cops out of their cars and having them walk their beats and get to know people. It works.

But instead of reaching out, the NYPD is retreating.

Monday morning, when I walked past my local police precinct in the West Village, the Sixth, I was dismayed to see that the street full of police cars was closed by a barrier at both ends. Not only does this make it more difficult and psychologically uninviting for citizens to enter to report a crime, it gives criminals and law-abiding citizens alike the idea that the police are afraid of them. And this is in one of Manhattan’s richest zip codes.

Podcast episode cover image
PODCAST · JULY 06 2020
Josh Kraushaar on Base-First Politics
On today’s Bulwark Podcast, Josh Kraushaar joins Charlie Sykes to discuss base-first politics and the 2020 election, Mt….
The NYPD and departments nationwide need to be out there talking to citizens, rebuilding trust and discussing grievances. So do our mayors. Yet at a press conference today, Mayor Bill de Blasio was egregiously rude and disrespectful to reporters who asked about some much-photographed instances of looting nearly under the police’s eyes. De Blasio is locked in a struggle with Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has been very critical of the NYPD’s failure to rein in looting and advocated bringing in the National Guard.

As de Blasio correctly pointed out, bringing in outsiders who don’t know how NYC works could well lead to more violence.

But Cuomo is right that the NYPD are badly led and badly trained. If I were an outsider looking in (as I was in Afghanistan), I would call the NYPD an Irish-American militia, not a servant of the public. Though the force is only 53 percent white, NYPD leadership is still 72 percent non-Hispanic white, and arrogant in the way militia leaders are.

This may be the place to note that police in the United States are not in huge danger from criminals, especially in New York City where there are severe penalties for unlicensed handguns. No New York City cops were murdered in the line of duty in 2019, for instance. And across the United States, only 38 law-enforcement officers were shot and killed in the line of duty between January and mid-December 2019 (not counting deaths by friendly fire).

Overall, just over a thousand American civilians were killed by the police in 2019. And, totaling data from 2013 to 2019, NYC has had the lowest rate of police killings of civilians among U.S. cities with over a million people.

As these figures suggest, American police should not be afraid to engage with the community. I remember the remark of a bright young American captain I met in Afghanistan, Derrick Hernandez, who said to me, “If you tell me to defend this district center I’m not going to sit inside it.” It’s very easy for a fortress to become a self-licking ice cream cone—Army lingo for an outpost that exists only to defend itself, not to make the surrounding territory safer. Sure sounds like an NYC precinct house.

Curfews are very dumb. You can’t draw a line in the sand unless you’re prepared to defend it. If people break curfew, the government looks weak. Such rules breed contempt, not respect, for the law. Americans don’t like being told what to do, where to go, and what time to go there.

And order isn’t maintained by curfews that are unenforceable—or unfairly enforced—in a city of 8 million. Police Commissioner Dermot Shea opposed a curfew on Monday on the Today show. The NYPD department chief, Terence Monahan—who took a knee with protesters in Washington Square Park early Monday night—also said on Monday that he thought a curfew was unnecessary. Mayor de Blasio admitted in his press conference this morning that the curfew is unenforceable, more of an excuse for immediate arrest of criminals. Monahan made much the same point this morning on Today: “Protesters that were still protesting past 8 peacefully we allowed to continue, but when a group of people who were looking to cause mayhem broke off, we were able to take care of them very quickly.”

Mayor de Blasio doesn’t get it that there is a link between commerce being shut and the streets becoming dangerous, regardless of the George Floyd protests. Deserted streets are never safe streets. Taking law-abiding people off the streets leaves more space for criminality; it means those who remain can do what they want with less fear of censure from their fellow citizens. And looting leads store owners to board up storefronts, which in turn suggests that anything is possible, further eroding security.

What makes a city safe? Commerce and the resultant foot traffic by law-abiding citizens.

Last night, the NYPD managed to protect Soho’s stores from a repetition of earlier looting—by the simple expedient of blocking traffic. This could have been done without a curfew. It would be far better—and would not escalate tensions, and would invite far less risk of uneven discriminatory enforcement—if the streets were kept open, stores were allowed to stay open as they wished, and police stood at the ready to deal with problems as they arose.

New Approaches in New York City

Monday, July 6th, 2020

(originally published in The Bulwark 5/17/20

Share on Twitter Share via email Print
As the rate of new COVID-19 deaths in New York City falls, this is a moment for the city to engage in self-scrutiny and plan for the future, using the imagination our citizens are famous for in creative fields. We need to rescue ourselves economically while rethinking the nature of our city—fixing the plane while learning to fly it.

Why do we need a fundamental rethinking? Because, at least until an effective vaccine is widely available, people are unlikely to want to return to their former social and economic behaviors. For instance, in a recent poll (weighted to match the nation’s demographics), some 67 percent of respondents said they would be uncomfortable shopping in a retail clothing store, while 78 percent would be uncomfortable eating out. Whether or not these risk assessments are rational, they must be taken into account by business owners and government officials.

And the adaptations we make now can help us better to handle future pandemics with less drastic economic interruptions than this time. Because it is all but certain that there will be more pandemics, and that they will be even worse than this one.

We need a modular city that can, when necessary, be reconfigured for different levels of social distancing. At the same time that we attend to these nuts-and-bolts issues, we must preserve New York’s status as a great city, arguably the world’s capital. This requires nurturing what makes New York special: diversity, the arts, energy, ambition, and opportunity.

Podcast episode cover image
PODCAST · JULY 06 2020
Josh Kraushaar on Base-First Politics
On today’s Bulwark Podcast, Josh Kraushaar joins Charlie Sykes to discuss base-first politics and the 2020 election, Mt….
Great cities produce a mix of industry, culture, and entertainment, drawing residents and visitors. In the nearly six decades since the publication of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, we have realized that cities need robust mixed-use neighborhoods, and that commerce makes streets safe and inviting. Today we have miles of closed storefronts and streets deserted after dark except for the homeless. Successful cities also have an esprit de corps, a sense of inclusion. We now need to figure out how to provide all this even as the city likely depopulates, more people work from home, and almost everyone is worse off financially.

But there is a silver lining. Due to the switch to working from home and the decommercialization of the streets, we are at a perfect moment to rethink many of the tired clichés that have guided our city planning.

It’s time for frankness: The New York of recent years wasn’t that fascinating. Manhattan and upscale parts of Brooklyn have become increasingly sterile, homogenized, and slick, full of chain stores found elsewhere. Even many of the more interesting streets have become monocultures of restaurants and nail salons with the occasional liquor store, $1 (how?) pizza, and doggie spa. (I should note here that—as Dutch computer scientist Lora Aroyo has reminded me—such homogenization is evident in most big European cities, too, even those with far more regulations than in the United States, and even those with pedestrian areas.)

We now know that at least two urban “truths” are false: Most of us need to come into an office five days a week. And most forms of exercise and entertainment must occur indoors.

We should overturn another, related myth that says that Manhattan can’t offer pedestrian streets in the way London, Paris, Milan, Rome, Seville, and hundreds of European cities do.

We can continue to enjoy one of the few unequivocal silver linings of the pandemic: freedom from traffic noise and cleaner air. We can walk, run, and bike, for the moment, without cars or trucks on many of our streets—in fact, the pandemic has resulted in the longest stretch without a single pedestrian fatality since 1983. As the city reopens and attempts to find a new normal, would greater pedestrianization cripple commerce? Amazon already functions perfectly well using hand carts for the last 100 yards. Taxis and ride-share services could let most fares off at the nearest corner. Think about the reductions in fumes directly outside residences and businesses.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed eventually opening a hundred miles of New York City streets to pedestrians but his concept seems to be purely for walking and biking, not commerce. I propose pedestrianization as a way of jumpstarting post-pandemic commerce, too.

Here, offered for public debate, are a few suggestions for how we might pedestrianize while reimagining vibrant street-level commerce with social distancing.

(1) Pedestrianize every second or third crosstown Manhattan street. This can be attempted experimentally at first, starting just on the weekends, before it is expanded to full-time. Do the same for major shopping/dining arteries like Bleecker, Broadway, West Fourth, 14th, 23rd, 34th, 57th. Some of these very different streets should have bike lanes, but not all. I don’t know Brooklyn or Queens or the Bronx well enough to offer specific guidance, but there are places in each where it would be appropriate to do the same. (This good idea, along with many bad ones, was proposed in Paul and Percival Goodman’s 1947 master plan for Manhattan.)

(2) Use the streets as our citizens see fit. We are going to need more outdoor space for safe exercise and leisure, not only as parks, but as ice-skating rinks, as dog runs, as safe-distance playgrounds, as outdoor theaters, as outdoor gyms, quarter-mile running tracks (how about some with soft surfaces?), sculpture gardens, mini farmers’ markets—and gardens to grow the produce to sell there. (A bit more self-sufficiency in food production sounds good right about now, doesn’t it?)

We will discover new uses as we go along. And all this activity is bound to foster not only new bonds between neighbors, but new business ideas.

(3) To bring jittery riders back to mass transit, try low-capacity, open-air buses along high-traffic routes. (I owe this idea to Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute, who was in turn inspired by a 1970 paper.) Make them free, at least to start. While we’re at it, institute taxi stands to prevent idling, and add bus lanes on all crosstown routes. (These ideas I owe to bicycle historian Pryor Dodge.)

(4) Our brand is culture. Theater as we know it began outdoors. Encourage theater troupes to move from venue to venue in the warmer months. How about standup comedy? Dance? String quartets? There are already very successful outdoor programs for tango and swing around Manhattan. Lots of under-used public space in the city could be repurposed easily and cheaply as theaters with simple nonpermanent seating—including some of the sitting areas along Broadway.

If the number of empty storefronts threatens to turn into blight, encourage (but don’t subsidize) their use by artists and gallerists.

There is much more we might consider, including changes to how schools work. Is there any reason that New York, or indeed most of North America, must stick to the school calendar in which the summer months are scheduled for vacation? And would students and teachers benefit from finding ways to move suitable classes outside?

Finally, a word about fairness. Too many of our citizens have been excluded from many of the city’s pleasures by the inequality that accompanied the massive economic shift of the last decades. Not everyone can spend $16 on a movie and $37 for a half roast chicken after. They are even excluded from the patrimony of all, with most museums charging $25 admission. (They should all be pay-what-you-can for residents, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) We need more signals from our government that we are all in this together, that we are fellow citizens and not just consumers living alongside each other.

In this spirit I propose a media campaign—preferably national not only local—to target obesity and diabetes, the preventable pre-existing conditions that make Americans vulnerable to COVID-19 in a way Europeans aren’t. “The fact that 42 percent of this country is clinically obese amplifies the impact and reach of the virus,” says Brooklyn ER physician Mert Erogul.

Many people choosing—on some level—to be grossly overweight has helped to cause the deaths of other people and contributed to the job losses of millions. Of course, some bad lifestyle choices are foisted upon poor people by fast-food chains and agribusiness—and Mike Bloomberg’s oft-ridiculed attack on big sodas looks pretty prescient now. This is a big, complicated discussion, one that will require some creative policy thinking, but we should start having it now, while this pandemic is still with us and before a worse one arrives.