(2021-04-18) Hoel The Semantic Apocalypse

Erik Hoel: The Semantic Apocalypse. Now that real AI is actually here driving cars, writing poetry, making music, and filtering your spam, the detail that has made all the difference is that these machines don’t think like us. In fact, these “intelligences” probably don’t think at all. They fit neither of the archetypal roles. What they definitely do, however, is copy. This piece irked me. Thread

They are pattern completers, not pattern inventors. Their cognitive mode is mimetic. (mash-up?)

It’s now just a matter of time until our world becomes a Jurassic Park filled with newly-issued work by long-dead creators

perhaps creators will embrace this strange sort of immortality. Maybe they will eagerly train neural networks on their own work; every artist becoming the master of an atelier formed from themselves.

Will the art forms that are easily produced by these new technologies become diluted, maybe even abandoned?

There are some areas in which this has already occurred. Indeed, professional chess is a perfect example, for it is still a viable subculture and activity decades after computer domination.

Lee Se-dol, the South Korean Go world champion, must have felt this. He announced this year he would stop playing professional Go because of the AI program AlphaGo, which trounced him in a series of games

Humans will still play Go. Of course they will. But games occur on a restricted playing field in order to see which person (each abiding by the same arbitrary constraints) wins

How much will it really matter if there is a “certified human” sticker on a script or a song or a painting?

the creative world has been split in two. On one side are the types of artistic production that can be automated by these neural networks. On the other side are those that cannot be, or will resist it for decades or centuries. Improvisational jazz and classic music are easy to mimic, but the vibrato intonations of the human voice are surprisingly difficult to emulate. Neural networks can write beautiful poetry or short articles, but their novels collapse into nonsensical heaps.

Perhaps in the future each of us will have such a replica living on after us, trained on the digital effluvia we’ve left behind.

This mimetic ability takes what were previously merely philosophical thought experiments and thrusts them into everyday life. For such creative cloning is all light but no heat. All syntax but no semantics.

All creators have around them the blur of what they almost created, derivable from what they did create, and the only constraint to pulling all those works that were never written or never painted or never produced is the amount of available data.

It makes it literally true that an oeuvre lives on long after the author is dead.

So then what, exactly, is the semantic content of an AI-produced work of Hildegard von Bingen? It is a “deep fake” of meaning. Such a work points to nothing, signifies nothing, embodies no spiritual longing. It is pure syntax. For art this is the semantic apocalypse.

Consider the self-published poetry collection put out just months ago by Kane Hsieh, Transformer Poetry... (GPT-2)... This shakes me to my core. Not because it is such a perfect facsimile of Shakespeare. The poem is not even that good, overall

Still. It is not a bad poem either. A human very much could have written it. There are some good lines. Even some artful lines. Especially that last one.

that line was written by a thing that never loved, saw, nor heard

Imagine a future website where every time you click refresh a new and perfect Shakespeare sonnet is generated on the page in front of you. And you click again and again and again and again. Imagine then, your dread.

Yet much cultural doomsday prophesizing occurred before the AI revolution really began

in 2010 David Shield published a book called Reality Hunger about the ennui that can come from consuming too much fiction, whether from novels or TV shows, and the resultant hunger for connections to reality.

Yet it seems to me that all fiction now, in this first decade after the advent of what no one can deny is genuinely artificial intelligence, must involve some sort of tie to reality simply by necessity, just to differentiate itself from what these new technologies can produce.

This is because real world events still have an indexical significance that “deep fakes” of meaning cannot have.

So I don’t find it a coincidence that literary fiction has moved toward auto-fiction, almost as if to preemptively protect itself. Authors like Karl Ove Knausgaard command the literary scene because speaking from experience not only avoids the social justice criticism of appropriating others as tools to tell stories with, but also is an implicit acknowledgement that, in this day and age, the connection to the real, the referential quality of literature, is the only way to ground it with meaning.

This is what the contemporary reader expects and demands of literature. It makes the reading experience a kind of ritual, a sacred rite of passage for the individual, and this process becomes the crux of the relationship between the reader and author.

Perhaps the most terrifying thing is that these neural networks aren’t doing anything different than what we’ve been doing all along. Maybe we’ve been fooling ourselves for millennia that our pretty patterns are original rather than purely mimetic

So perhaps there’s not much of a difference, and words never had meaning in the way we thought they did. After all, do you think we poor humans even wrote this essay in its entirety? We didn’t.

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