Why the godfather of artificial intelligence fears his creation

Dr. Geoffrey Hinton, an artificial intelligence pioneer, at his home in Toronto on Monday, April 24, 2023. Hinton is leaving Google so that he can freely share his concern that AI could cause the world serious harm. (Chloe Ellingson/The New York Times)

From Joshua Rothman for The New Yorker: “People say it’s just glorified autocomplete,” Geoffrey Hinton told me. “Now, let’s analyze that. Suppose you want to be really good at predicting the next word. If you want to be really good, you have to understand what’s being said. That’s the only way. So by training something to be really good at predicting the next word, you’re actually forcing it to understand. Yes, it’s ‘autocomplete’—but you didn’t think through what it means to have a really good autocomplete.” Hinton thinks that “large language models,” such as GPT, which powers OpenAI’s chatbots, can comprehend the meanings of words and ideas. And that they are either close to or are already able to reason in the same kind of way that human brains do. And that could be dangerous.”

The rise and fall of the bank robbery capital of the world

From Peter Houlahan: “Less than an hour later, the man the FBI called The Yankee walked out of Imperial Bank in Westwood, practically in the shadow of the Federal Building that houses the FBI’s L.A. Bank Robbery Squad, with $4,190. Diving into rush hour traffic on the 405 Freeway, The Yankee headed over the hills to the San Fernando Valley and pulled a final job just before closing time at the First Interstate in Encino for a take of $2,413.  Four hours, six heists, $13,197. As impressive as The Yankee’s performance had been, a record for bank licks by one person in a single day, It did not entirely shock the FBI agents in bank robbery squad. This was L.A. after all, and by 1983, L.A. had long established itself as the undisputed “Bank Robbery Capital of the World.”

Tiny robots made from human cells can heal damaged tissue

These microscopic robots can swim through your eyeball fluids - Mirror  Online

From Matthew Hutson for Nature: “Scientists have developed tiny robots made of human cells that are able to repair damaged neural tissue. The ‘anthrobots’ were made using human tracheal cells and might, in future, be used in personalized medicine. Developmental biologist Michael Levin at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, and his colleagues had previously developed tiny robots using clumps of embryonic frog cells. But the medical applications of these ‘xenobots’ were limited, because they weren’t derived from human cells and because they had to be manually carved into the desired shape. The researchers have now developed self-assembling anthrobots from human skin cells and are investigating their therapeutic potential using tissue grown in the laboratory.”

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Hedge funds are financing prospectors who search the ocean floor for lost treasure

From Bloomberg: “When the ship got back to Reykjavik, the captain and two operations managers were taken to be interviewed by Icelandic detectives. At no point did the Icelandic authorities learn the identity of this mysterious client, the backer of the expedition. They couldn’t have known that the German ship was one of dozens he’s pursued over the years. Media reports about wrecks this man has found or recovered have described him variously as an anonymous London financier, “the unknown salvor” and “the Originator.” He’s marshaled a high-tech operation to recover the lost treasures of history, spanning centuries and entire civilizations and covering most of the blue portion of the planet. And he’s managed to keep this remarkable enterprise secret—until now.”

Inside the greatest collection of dictionaries that librarians have ever seen

From April White for Atlas Obscura: “Madeline Kripke’s first dictionary was a copy of Webster’s Collegiate that her parents gave her when she was a fifth grader in Omaha in the early 1950s. By the time of her death in 2020, at age 76, she had amassed a collection of dictionaries that occupied every flat surface of her two-bedroom Manhattan apartment—and overflowed into several warehouse spaces. Many believe that this chaotic, personal library is the world’s largest compendium of words and their usage. More than 1,500 boxes arrived at Indiana University in late 2021, accompanied by a catalog detailing some 6,000 volumes. But that’s only a fraction of the total. By the fall, the count stood at about 9,700 and there’s still a long way to go. The latest estimate of the total is about 20,000.”

The earliest set of playing cards dates back to the 15th century

From Tim Husband for The Met: “The earliest preserved European playing cards belong to a luxury deck known as The Stuttgart Playing Cards, which date to about 1430. Exquisitely hand painted on a gold ground, each card is a work of art. The high quality of the painting and remarkably good state of preservation indicate that the pack was likely commissioned as a collector’s item rather than for play. The original commissioner is unknown, but these exceptionally fine and unusually large cards soon found their way into the collections of the dukes of Bavaria. They are first mentioned in an inventory of the archducal Kunstkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, that was compiled in 1598. The suit signs of the set are Falcons, Ducks, Hounds, and Stags, and each suit comprises 13 cards.”

Going over my list of goals for 2023

Acknowledgements: I find a lot of these links myself, through RSS feeds etc. But I also get some from other newsletters that I rely on as “serendipty engines,” such as Rusty Foster’s Today In Tabs, Clive Thompson’s Linkfest, Maria Popova’s website The Marginalian, The Morning News from Rosecrans Baldwin, Why Is This Interesting, Dan Lewis’s Now I Know, Robert Cottrell and Caroline Crampton’s The Browser, Sheehan Quirke AKA The Cultural Tutor, the Smithsonian magazine, and JSTOR Daily. If you come across something you think should be included here, feel free to email me.

My $500 million Mars Rover mistake: A failure story

From Chris Lewicki: “Some mistakes feel worse than death. A February evening in 2003 started out routine at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA. I gowned up in cleanroom garb and passed into the High Bay 1 airlock in Building 179 where nearly all of NASA’s historic interplanetary spacecraft have been built since the Moon-bound Ranger series in the 1960s. After years of work by thousands of engineers, technicians, and scientists, there were only two weeks remaining before the Spirit Mars Rover would be transported to Cape Canaveral in Florida for launch ahead of its sibling, Opportunity.”

Literary fight club: What started the great poets brawl of 1968

Flashback Review: Fight Club

From Nick Ripatrizone for Literary Hub: “One Saturday evening in 1968, the poets battled on Long Island. Drinks spilled into the grass. Punches were flung; some landed. Chilean and French poets stood on a porch and laughed while the Americans brawled. A glass table shattered. Bloody-nosed poets staggered into the coming darkness. Allen Ginsberg fell to his knees and prayed. The World Poetry Conference at Stony Brook University was almost over. At the center of it all was Jim Harrison, a self-described “nasty item,” a prominent, if obnoxious, student in comparative literature. He had no business graduating.”

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Piecing together the details of my father’s murder

From Eren Orbey for the New Yorker: “One night in August of 1999, on a summer trip back to Ankara, our dad was murdered. G was twelve and I was three. We were both there when it happened, along with our mom, but I was too young to remember. My dad’s murder was as fundamental and as unknowable as my own birth. My grief had the clumsy fit of a hand-me-down. As far as I can recall, no one in the family explained his death to me. My mom considered my obliviousness a blessing. “He’s a normal boy,” she’d tell people. From a young age, I tried to assemble the story bit by bit, scrounging for information and writing it down. But G always seemed protective of her recollections from that night and skeptical of my self-appointed role as family scribe.”

For decades, a Florida woman had no sense of smell. Can she get it back?

Barbara Walker revels in the aroma of Nina’s Wood Fired Pizza while on a smelling adventure at the Bay Area Renaissance Festival in March in Dade City. After decades without a sense of smell, she has devoted herself to trying to train her ability back.

From Lana DeGregory at the Tampa Bay Times: “The first smell was lemon. At least she thought it was lemon. Barbara Walker hadn’t smelled a thing in 34 years. She walked out of the lanai, through the yard. The closer she got to her actual lemon tree, the stronger the aroma seemed. She inhaled its branches, leaves, flowers, immersing herself in the fresh, biting fragrance, overcome. At dinner, she couldn’t contain herself. “I think I’m starting to smell again!” Her teenage daughters were skeptical. After all these years? Her husband laughed. “You’re hallucinating.” No, she insisted that evening in 2021. “I smelled the blooms.” Barb lost her sense of smell at age 21, after a car accident.”

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Why John F. Kennedy kept a coconut shell on his desk

From Kat Eschner for Smithsonian magazine: “Throughout his brief presidency, John F. Kennedy kept a paperweight on his desk made out of half a coconut shell preserved in a piece of wood. It was one of two mementos Kennedy retained of the most dramatic moment in his World War II service. The other, more constant reminder was his back. During the war, Kennedy commanded a patrol torpedo boat in the South Pacific. On August 2, 1943, his boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. The future president swam more than three miles to the nearest island, towing an injured crewmate by holding the strap of his life jacket in his teeth. After an exhausting swim, Kennedy arrived at a small unoccupied island with his remaining crew–including the injured companion.”

How the Swiss were cured of a strange disease at the turn of the century

From Jonah Goodman for the London Review of Books: “At the turn of the century, the Swiss were plagued by strange, interlinked medical conditions, which existed elsewhere to a degree, but in Switzerland were endemic in more than 80 per cent of the country. It was a curse that had a mark: the goitre, a bulge of flesh protruding from the front of the neck, sometimes so large that it weighed on the windpipe, giving bearers a characteristic wheeze. It was often disguised by collars and high necklines, but its true extent is laid bare by conscription data. In 1921, nearly 30 per cent of 19-year-old Swiss conscripts had a goitre. In the cantons of Luzern and Obwalden, one in four men were exempt from military service due to goitres so large they struggled to breathe.”

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NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins gave up the Olympics to go into space

From Jessica Watkins at Atlas Obscura: “I joined the national team as a junior in college. At the time, rugby wasn’t in the Olympics, so the women’s national team was working toward the Rugby World Cup. Eventually, I was able to participate, and a little bit later on, while I was in grad school, I went back and trained with the team for the Olympics. Rugby sevens, a condensed version of the game, was added to the Olympics in 2016. Each team has seven players instead of 15, and you play for seven-minute halves instead of 40. But ultimately I decided to finish my PhD instead. At the time, I was in the fourth year of my PhD, and every chance I had I would drive down to the Olympic Training Center. It was about two-and-a-half hours each way. So, I had to make a decision. I wanted to be in the Olympics, but I had always dreamed of being an astronaut.” 

Chuck Feeney gave away his $8 billion fortune and hardly anyone knew it was happening

Chuck Feeney: the incredible story of the billionaire who died broke |  lovemoney.com

From Effective Altruism: “Philanthropist Chuck Feeney died on October 9, at 92. He founded one of the largest private charitable foundations in history, giving away his entire fortune within his lifetime. He was almost obsessively secretive in his giving, and set a standard of seriousness which inspired the Giving Pledge. In 1982 he started The Atlantic Foundation, the first of The Atlantic Philanthropies. But there was no fanfare, because at the same time Feeney had decided his giving, and thus his role as the funding source for Atlantic, would be entirely anonymous. Atlantic Philanthropies would require that grantees do not disclose the source of their donation. To finance Atlantic, Feeney transferred his entire 38.75% stake in the Duty Free Stores chain to Atlantic in 1984. For more than a decade, even Feeney’s partner was oblivious to the transfer of ownership.”

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How a botched restoration of Jesus helped a Spanish town

From Dan Lewis at Now I Know: “If you visited the Sanctuary of Mercy church in Borja, Spain before 2012, you would have seen a fresco painted on its walls titled “Ecce Homo” (or “Behold the Man”), a depiction of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns. Originally painted in 1930, it didn’t age well and required some restoration. Restoration, though, wasn’t in the budget; instead, that role fell to a volunteer, 80-something-year-old parishioner Cecilia Giménez. Giménez took it upon herself to touch up the fresco, aiming to bring it back to its original glory. News and pictures of the botched restoration quickly spread through the Internet, giving Ecce Homo its first taste of fame. Dubbed “Potato Jesus” because of the subject’s newfound resemblance to a tuber, the painting became a meme, inspiring many photoshopped parodies. And with that attention came visitors.”

Can a passenger hack an airplane? Ethical hacker Ken Munro has the answer

Russian manufacturer test-flies prototype widebody passenger airplane | CNN

From Why Is This Interesting? “An ongoing theme in action movies and thrillers is someone hacking a plane. The question, of course, is whether that is even possible. Security specialist/hacker Ken Munro set out to answer that question. He discovered that an airplane boneyard—where retired planes go to be taken apart—was willing to accept a bit of cash in exchange for his tinkering with the innards of the plane’s computing systems. What Ken discovered was that it’s thankfully not possible to hack into a plane’s control systems via the seatback entertainment. However, he did discover a significant weakness in his research: electronic flight bags, which pilots use to calculate things like the power needed for takeoff and landing. Unfortunately, it turns out these things aren’t particularly secure: many weren’t locked down and allowed the loading of random apps.”

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How Kittie Knox changed bicycling forever in the 1800s

From Joe Biel: “Kittie Knox is the reason that bicycling is more than just another leisure sport for the wealthy. As a Black teenager, she created the world that she wanted to see from the seat of her bike. Today, you can see the results of Kittie’s success in the hundreds of cities around the globe where a bicycle is used to have a happier commute, as a social galvanizer among disparate individuals, as a political leveraging tool, or for tall bike jousting. Much has been written of the bicycle as the great liberator of wealthy women from restrictive clothing. But as you will see here, it was working class women like Kittie who changed the paradigm and made the bicycle into an actual liberator of women. While the upper classes clung to long, awkward skirts and tried to prevent women from embracing social bicycling at all, Kittie was out there showing them how it was done; what the future would hold.”

The 16th century “Florentine Codex” has been digitized and is available online

From Maya Pontone for Hyperallergic: “After centuries of remaining largely inaccessible to the public, a rare manuscript featuring 2,500 pages of detailed illustrations and text documenting the history and culture of 16th-century Mexico is now available online. The Digital Florentine Codex, a seven-year project by Los Angeles’s Getty Research Institute, features new transcriptions and translations, updated summaries, searchable texts and images, and more. Modeled after medieval European encyclopedias, the Florentine Codex is a three-volume, 12-book collection written in Spanish and Nahuatl documenting the daily life and customs of the Mexica (Aztec) people, as well as other information including astronomy, flora, and fauna, during the time of Spanish conquest. It was originally created by Bernardino de Sahagún, a Spanish Franciscan friar.”

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When you get asked to a private audience with the Pope

From Patricia Lockwood at the LRB: “The invitation​ said ‘black dress for Ladies’. ‘You’re not allowed to be whiter than him,’ my husband, Jason, instructs. ‘He has to be the whitest. And you cannot wear a hat because that is his thing.’ We are discussing the pope, who has woken one morning, at the age of 86, with a sudden craving to meet artists. An event has been proposed: a celebration in the Sistine Chapel on 23 June with the pope and two hundred honoured guests, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the contemporary and modern art collection at the Vatican Museums. I am somehow one of these two hundred; either that, or it is a trap. Uneasily, I pack a suitcase. My black dress for Ladies might be a swimsuit cover-up; it looks like what a nun who is also a widow would wear to the Y.”

Former Playboy model turned Italian princess is evicted from her 16th century mansion

Rita with portrait

From Christopher Parker for the Smithsonian: “A Roman villa bearing a priceless, one-of-a-kind Caravaggio ceiling painting. A bitter dispute between a Texas-born princess and the Italian son of her deceased husband. And now, a public eviction on the streets of Rome, complete with reporters and a quartet of bichon frise dogs. HRita Boncompagni Ludovisi, born Rita Carpenter and formerly Rita Jenrette, was escorted out of her home of 20 years last Thursday by police. The move followed a January eviction order by an Italian judge, who cited her failure to maintain the 600-year-old house. The house, situated just off Rome’s Via Veneto, has been in the family since its construction. The Boncompagni Ludovisi clan includes Pope Gregory XIII, who established the Gregorian calendar during his papacy. Rita Jenrette married Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi in 2009.”

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What it’s like to be a writer in North Korea

From Kim Ju-Song for The Dial: “Aspiring writers in North Korea must register with the Korean Writers’ Union and participate in annual writing workshops. KWU editors evaluate each work on its ideological merits before allowing its publication. There are particularly strict rules regarding how the leaders and the Party may be depicted in literature. Literary success means becoming a “professional revolutionary” with lots of perks: a three-month “creativity leave” every year, permission to travel freely around the country, and special housing privileges.I had joined the KWU in the late 1980s. At that time, the only foreign literature ordinary North Koreans could access was that of other socialist nations, chiefly the USSR and China. Then I discovered the existence of a secret library with 100 copies of forbidden foreign works. Any mismanagement of the 100-copy collection would be prosecuted as a political crime.”

A memorial for my Netflix DVD queue

Netflix will end its DVD-by-mail service : NPR

From Andrew Trees for Smartset: “I still remember my excitement that first time — the red and white envelope from Netflix arriving in my New York City mailbox like a present waiting to be opened. No more schlepping to a video store only to find out that the movie you wanted to see wasn’t there. You used to put all of the films you wanted to see into a list that Netflix dubbed the “queue.” But the queue quickly became much more — a kind of running commentary on the state of my life. Much like books, the number of films I wanted to see far outran the number of films I had time to watch. But the beauty of Netflix was that it could keep track of all of those films for me until the queue itself became a kind of biography of the various phases of my life. And so, I come to my final confession — my current queue count. It stands at 485. I find it regularly mocking me. But Netflix has saved me from myself. They have finally shuttered their DVD-by-mail service.”

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Before Thanksgiving, there was the Order of Good Cheer

From Laura Kiniry for Atlas Obscura: “Four centuries ago, the settlers of a small French outpost perched on the north bank of Nova Scotia’s Annapolis River came up with the novel idea of founding an organization that would not only feed its members, but also uplift spirits during the long and brutally cold winter. Led by cartographer Samuel de Champlain, the Order of Good Cheer went on to become what’s considered America’s first social club, not to mention an inspiration for the Thanksgiving celebrations that would follow. The Order of Good Cheer featured epic feasts that took place weekly in Port-Royal, the then-capital of Acadia, a colony of New France, over the winter of 1606–07. “

When you have an identical twin, but they are inside your body

From Helena de Bres for Aeon magazine: “In Washington state in 2002, Lydia Fairchild nearly lost custody of her three children, when a test revealed that none of them shared her DNA. It turned out that Fairchild’s body was populated with cells from a non-identical twin she’d unknowingly had before birth, making her, in effect, the biological aunt of her own children. The technical term for Fairchild is a ‘human chimera’: a person composed of cells that are genetically distinct. This can happen artificially, through a transfusion or transplant, or naturally, through the early absorption of a twin zygote. Scientists estimate that 36 per cent of twin pregnancies involve a vanishing twin.”

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