New Week #83
Are DeepMind close to a general artificial intelligence? The UN warns of a global food crisis. Plus more news and analysis from this week.
Welcome to the mid-week update from New World Same Humans, a newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.
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This week, a new DeepMind research paper sparks an argument over the dream that is AGI.
Also, the UN warns that we’re approaching a chilling global food shortage. And everyone (including me) is talking metaverse.
Let’s get into it.
🧠 Mind craft
This week, news of yet another advance from Google’s AI team at DeepMind.
The DeepMind team published a paper on a ‘generalist agent’ called Gato. Essentially, Gato is special because it can effectively perform a wide range of tasks, from playing video games, to generating convincing human-like text outputs, to controlling a robotic arm.
The wow-factor AIs we’ve witnessed in recent years, such as GPT-3 and DALL.E, are narrow: they’re trained to be great at a single task. But since the dawn of machine intelligence the dream has always been general intelligence, or AGI. That is, an AI that can generalise its competence across a near-infinite range of tasks in the way we humans can.
Gato is a big deal because it may be a step towards that end. The extent to which it brings us closer to AGI, though, was contested this week. Some observers say it’s not really a ‘generalist agent’, but more a bunch of narrow AIs strapped together. DeepMind researcher Nando de Freitas replied to those claims on Twitter with a bold argument that Gato does get us closer; the only task now, he says, is to scale up the models we’re using. The entire thread is worth a look:
⚡ NWSH Take: AI breakthroughs are coming at a remarkable rate. Only last month I led with news of Google’s massive new language model, PaLM. My primary feeling? Via one quiet research paper after another, something Earth-shattering is taking shape. We have little sense of the true implications. We’re not ready. // Even AI specialists have no real idea whether AGI is close, or possible, or whether Gato gets us closer. What is increasingly clear, though, is that we urgently need a more meaningful public discussion of the implications of machine intelligence. That means the industrial and economic implications, sure. But also the philosophical ones. Are these machines truly intelligent? Do they understand us? Are they conscious? AI sceptics argue the answer on all counts is an obvious no. That position is becoming harder to sustain, principally because we have a limited understanding of the terms involved; see New Week #78 for more on all that. // The deepest longterm implication, then, could be a reassessment of what we mean by understanding, consciousness, and associated terms. That means the realisation that human understanding is only one form of understanding. That we are amid an entirely new kind of entity, with its own way of seeing the world; one that is just as legitimate as ours.
🌾 The coming starvation
The UN has warned of a global food shortage that may last for years.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the key factor; the two countries account for 30% of the world’s wheat supply — that’s 12% of the world’s calories according to the Economist — and exports have collapsed since the Russian invasion. Meanwhile China, the world’s largest wheat producer, says bad weather means this year’s harvest is likely to be the worst ever.
This has been the result for wheat prices:
António Guterres, the UN secretary general, said this week that the crisis ‘threatens to tip tens of millions of people over the edge into food insecurity, followed by malnutrition, mass hunger and famine.’
It’s estimated that 250 million are already on the brink of famine, and that the number who cannot be sure of getting enough calories has risen by 400 million, to 1.6 billion. The world’s poorest will, unsurprisingly, be hardest hit; according to the IMF, in sub-Saharan Africa a typical household spends as much as 40% of its income on necessary calories.
⚡ NWSH Take: This newsletter deals in the structural forces reshaping our shared future. When it started, probably few of us expected global food crisis to be high on the list in 2022. And if that sounds naive, then guilty as charged. // All this comes to a world, and especially to poorer economies in the Global South, already weakened by Covid. And much like Covid it’s another signal of the ways in which a highly globalised world can deliver powerful networked shocks, such that an invasion in eastern Europe risks triggering famine in Sudan. // The only answer, then, is unified global action. First, the NATO alliance must act to reopen Ukraine’s grain exports; it would be a humanitarian intervention as significant as anything else we’re doing in that country. In the medium-term we need to build greater local resilience to food shocks, so that vulnerable countries are not dependent on fragile global systems. And given the impacts of global heating, pretty much every country will be vulnerable soon.
💥 Did someone say metaverse?
I’m speaking a lot about the metaverse at the moment. In fact, I’ve spoken at five in-person events across the last four weeks, and at every single one I was asked to talk about it.
No surprise, given the torrent of metaverse news that arrives each week. This week was no different.
The US military, we’re told, is building its own metaverse. Serie A football came to the metaverse when a game between AC Milan and Fiorentina was broadcast to 10,000 fans in a virtual environment. Sony CEO Yoshida says his company plans to play a leading role in the evolution of the metaverse.
Yes, there’s a lot of hype right now. But look beyond that and something powerful is emerging. Virtual and simulated worlds as domains of meaningful human experience.
I talk about all this in the latest episode of the NEXT Show, which was set live this week. The talk is on the intersection of web3 and the metaverse; yes, two hyped technologies for the price (free!) of one talk. My purpose was to reach beyond the hype by encouraging innovators to see these changes through the lens of fundamental human needs.
If somehow this newsletter has not sated your appetite for my web3 and metaverse POVs, then check it out:
🗓️ Also this week
👶 China says it will ban learning apps aimed at pre-schoolers. The move is the latest in a line of measures intended to limit the time that young people spend online. Last week I flagged the ban on young people watching livestreams after 10pm. The CCP is evidently concerned about the impact of screen times on young minds; they may be interested in this paper in Nature that says video games can raise IQ in children.
🍏 Apple is rethinking its insistence that staff return to the office for three days each week. The turnaround comes after its head of Machine Learning, Ian Goodfellow, cited the policy in an announcement that he is leaving the company. Goodfellow has now joined DeepMind.
🌔 Scientists have grown plants in soil from the Moon. NASA-funded researchers planted seeds in soil collected during the Apollo missions; they began to sprout after a few days.
🚗 Mercedes launched its Drive Pilot automated driving system in Germany. The Level 3 system can control the speed of the vehicle and guide it within its lane, and is available for €5,000 in the S-Class.
👨🚀 A new private space academy will train astronauts for industry. The Star Harbor Academy in Colorado will be staffed by former NASA astronauts, and wants to tap the multi-billion dollar market in private space travel.
😑 A US startup has raised $17 million to develop a smart gun. Biofire Technologies says the gun will use fingerprint recognition to ensure only registered users can pull the trigger. Guns were the leading cause of child death in the US in 2020 according to CDC data.
🐭 Gene therapy safely extended the lifespan of a group of mice. The treatment improved biomarkers associated with ageing and extended lifespan by up to 41% with no increased risk of cancer.
☎️ Hackers created a robocaller to troll Russian government officials. The activist group Obfuscated Dreams of Scheherazade made a bot that allows anyone to schedule a call between various Russian officials and then listen to the confusion that ensues when those officials join the call.
🌍 Humans of Earth
Key metrics to help you keep track of Project Human.
🙋 Global population: 7,948,092,309
🌊 Earths currently needed: 1.8094925136
💉 Global population vaccinated: 59.7%
🗓️ 2022 progress bar: 38% complete
📖 On this day: On 19 May 1971 the Soviet Union launched the unmanned probe Mars 2. Its descent module crash landed in November 1971, becoming the first human-made object to touch the Martian surface.
Thanks for reading this week.
Our quest to understand the machine minds emerging around us is only beginning. Right now, the discussion tends to revolve around a single theme: is machine intelligence like human intelligence? My guess is that a large part of the work ahead will lie in coming to realise that this question is limiting. Machines are developing their own way of seeing the world.
New World Same Humans will keep watching. And there’s one thing you can do to help: share!
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I’ll be back next week. Until then, be well,
P.S Huge thanks to Nikki Ritmeijer for the illustration at the top of this email. And to Monique van Dusseldorp for additional research and analysis.