Only Natural

Nature, science, language, values, feral beliefs...

Entries for April 2023

                  reflected unnaturally
LLM contortions amplifying distortions...
April 24, 2023

Artificial Natural Language and Nature Continued

Some people have suggested that future-watchers have a tendency to overestimate the immediate impacts of new technologies, and underestimate their longer term effects. If this is true, how is it significant? Last week I considered some basic objections to the unregulated deployment of rapidly-evolving LLM text generators - but we can get even more pessimistic.

Despite the obvious risks, some people will still think that LLM text generators process language like actual human minds do. Some will even think that LLM text generators are (or will eventually be) "sentient". Others will think this is "just another technology with both good and bad potential uses". While such flawed thinking might not cause individuals any obvious immediate personal harm, emerging collective harm is another matter.

Ever increasing numbers of humans on the planet results in ever increasing social and technological complexity. Inevitably, the more people there are rushing around, the more everything gets complicated. Meanwhile, increasing sophistication in understanding, analysis and control to match the increasing socio-technological complexity clearly isn't happening. In fact, dogmatic oversimplification seems to be accumulating. Blanket rejection of "regulation" is common - even though most people accept the need for traffic lights. LLM text generators trained on this body of oversimplification won't be much help, and humans trained on the results of that could be further handicapped.

Humans are already trained to think as briefly and superficially as possible. Anything more has been made to seem like a waste of time and energy, or worse. The result is a lot of junk food for the mind - infotainment designed to be addictive. It doesn't have to be that way. We can do our own evidence-based thinking. Nobody can stop us. We can learn enough to spot the bias and spin of celebrity commentators. If we gather information widely enough to test claims continuously, we can think deeply enough and widely enough to understand how conspiracy mongers and bullshit artists try to exploit us. And how they get us to exploit ourselves - which happens when "freedom" essentially means the freedom to be ignorant.

The fact that LLM text generators - among other technologies - have been released with no framework for regulation is very significant. We wouldn't want to stifle innovation or cause any competitive disadvantage, would we? Social concerns face the same struggles against financial profit as environmental concerns. Of course there will be some "positive" uses of text and image generators. "Advantages" of this technology will be highly hyped, while the dangers will be largely overlooked or dismissed. Critics may be disparaged as "Luddites", or at least "anti-progress". Oversimplification works.

If continued "improvement" in these technologies mostly means they will seem more convincing, will they just be producing more convincing falsehoods? The more people become mesmerised by text, chat, and image generators, and the more fake texts and videos destroy trust in documentation, the more people will lose touch with reality. This will likely diminish their understanding of their place in nature. Could they eventually come to think they don't need any nature at all?

                  Growth versus the future
How will Old Growth fare in a world of LLMs?
April 17, 2023

Artificial Natural Language and Nature

GPT text generators are currently topical in the news. So-called Large Language Model (LLM) based "AI" text generators have been let loose on the internet and will likely be used by corporations, agencies and political actors to replace, or "augment" some human sources of text. Considering our history, particularly with "social media", these technologies may well be employed in ways that greatly amplify the misuse of language. And if pictures are still worth a thousand words, the image generating versions of these technologies will also likely be misused.  

"Artificial Intelligence" sure looks like an oxymoron. LLMs know nothing of truth, or reality - they are just designed to output the result of word association probabilities calculated algorithmically in response to a query. As text generators, they cannot actually "know" anything. For input, they have been given an immense body of training text which inevitably includes much misinformation. Who knows what percentage of the training text includes lies. LLMs seem both error-prone and convincing, which is not a good combination if the goal is to understand reality.

Timber companies might call a clearcut in a forest a "harvest", and companies hyping LLMs are calling errors and misinformation from their products "hallucinations". This is an example of a euphemism that is also an anthropomorphism. Just as some people ascribe human-like thoughts to other creatures, and even to trees in some cases, LLMs are now described as "thinking" and even "feeling" like humans. The reverse also crops up when commentators imagine that human minds function like LLMs. This tendency to "mechanopomorphise" ourselves is revealing, and continues a tradition of comparing the brain to a computer and cognition to computation. 

If someone says an LLM text generator didn't give the right answer and instead just "made stuff up", that language implies agency where there is none. The model actually output erroneous text as a result of the probabilities it was structured around. It can't "make things up"; it can only output different combinations of text that it has been exposed to.

LLMs don't experience the real world. They can't touch a tree. Any text that describes touching a tree is not at all like actually touching a tree. Text describing the smells of a forest is not at all like smelling a forest. Human minds develop from embodied experiences with the real world. LLMs should not be metaphorically compared to a human mind no matter how much their generated text might look similar to text created by human minds.

Thinking that LLMs function "like human minds" may seem to add some power to the hype, but it is actually circular anthropomorphism: LLM designers make guesses about how humans "process" language, then they try to code something like such "processes" in their algorithms, and then, confronted with the output, some people think "yes, that's the same way humans do language!" But it really only reflects how LLM designers have learned to think humans use language.

At some point, perhaps, the internet text used to train LLMs may consist largely of text generated by LLMs. At that point the circularity will collapse, and much damage will have been done.

                      branches and light
A yearly event in a cascading series of processes
April 10, 2023

Natural Language and Nature

Our language has long been full of euphemisms. As the song says: "Everybody knows...". Rather than getting old, people become elderly and slip into their "golden years". Some people don't lie, they utter "disinformation". And then eventually there is "armed intervention", with "casualties" and "collateral damage". It is not just fear of unpleasantness that spawns the use of euphemisms. They are commonly used for manipulation and control.

Timber companies sometimes use the word "harvest" for tree cutting practices that include clearcuts and other high-volume extraction techniques. Calling it "harvesting" trees helps to make it sound like a normal agricultural activity with trees as the "crop". This reassuring word obscures the fact that the complex biodiversity of forests is nothing like an agricultural crop. The word also helps to smooth the transition to the idea that tree plantations intended to replace the forest are a simple matter too.

Timber managers sometimes claim to remove forest cover in patterns that "mimic natural disturbances", whatever that might mean. Are they trying to achieve some sort of naturalness-by-association? How significant are the differences between the mimic and the real thing? How does the frequency and extent of tree cutting disturbances compare to natural disturbances? How does the combination of both sorts of disturbance affect forests and the way forests affect climate? Does strip mining mountainsides "mimic" the effects of glaciation and erosion?

How often is the word "natural", or a claim of "naturalness", falsely invoked to forestall or minimise objections? By now, it should be no surprise that language is often used for manipulation. Some people think this is no big deal - or perhaps just unavoidable - just one more annoying fact of life.

And how does all this relate to the Large Language Model (LLM) text generators like GPT 4 that are suddenly in the news? Those text generators are surrounded by euphemism and anthropormorphism, for one thing. They are also useful for promoting falsehoods. That will be another topic.

Sequoia branches and light
Light lighting, branches branching, tree growing
April 3, 2023

Have you only seen one tree?

Taking a few minutes to look into the branches of a giant urban sequoia can be aesthetically pleasing and engaging. (We might consider where we are "taking" the minutes from, but that's another topic.) Giant sequoia branches can be quite massive, beautifully contorted, and deeply textured. Some branches are so massive and extend so far that it is a wonder they can support themselves. Especially when you realise how heavy their leaves are.

It may also seem impressive that such trees are available for viewing in heavily-populated areas for anyone who cares to "take" some of those minutes. Would this qualify as an "ecosystem service", or is that just a silly idea?

Humans often seem to be impressed with BIG things, but there is far more to giant sequoias than their size. How do they manage so well so far from their natural range? And surrounded by city infrastructure. What kinds of habitats might they provide for other organisms?

Urban settings are unnatural spaces. What about plants within them? If the sequoias are left to grow - not pruned or crowded into beds like tulips - would we be inclined to call the trees themselves natural? Would it matter? And then, it is natural for some of us to appreciate the natural, complex beauty of the trees we are looking at. Oh, but is that a different kind of "natural"?

Sometimes, overlooking the different roles a word or phrase may play (or misplay) in different contexts can result in confusion, or worse. Calling the aggregate of street and yard trees in a city an "urban forest" might seem innocuous, and may be well-intentioned. But even if many residents understand that it is not truly a forest, and why it is not, this use of the word can muddle minds. Forests, and the ecosystems they comprise, are natural. No matter how appealing, the juxtapositions of species planted in urban settings are not natural - even though they consist of species that grow naturally somewhere in the world.

In the midst of an unnatural landscape, however, urban sequoias are a majestic example of how aesthetically pleasing flora, unaltered by humans, can be.

Curious sequoiadendron giganteum topiary
Curious sequoiadendron giganteum topiary
March 28, 2023

What are the giant sequoias doing in Victoria, BC?

How might we think about the giant sequoias and coast redwoods growing in and around Victoria, BC? They're not all big and old - many are relatively small and young. The really big, older trees are certainly impressive: even their branches can be massive, and their height is remarkable. The dark, reddish, richly-textured bark interacts with the light on the filamentous green-grey leaves in pleasing ways.The younger trees may get as large in another century or so.

But none of the sequoias in Victoria exist in a natural ecosystem, or even in a grove, or stand. They seem not just out of context, they seem out of place. How do they survive, and perhaps even appear to thrive, in such unnatural surroundings?

There is also the matter of numbers. If the hundreds of sequoias now scattered around Victoria were all concentrated in one place, we could be looking at an amazing small forest stand. Or if there were only a half-dozen giant sequoias, they might seem rare, more special, and placed in a different category in our minds. Total numbers and distribution could affect our sense of value, even without considering the value of any absent ecosystem.

Of course, other street and yard trees - or the "urban forest" - manage to survive in the absence of natural ecosystems. Some species are better than others for that purpose, and can tolerate the conditions for longer. We are very fortunate that they can.