(Roughly) Daily

“O brave new world, that has such people in ‘t!”*…

The estimable Steven Johnson suggests that the creation of Disney’s masterpiece, Snow White, gives us a preview of what may be coming with AI algorithms sophisticated enough to pass for sentient beings…

… You can make the argument that the single most dramatic acceleration point in the history of illusion occurred between the years of 1928 and 1937, the years between the release of Steamboat Willie [here], Disney’s breakthrough sound cartoon introducing Mickey Mouse, and the completion of his masterpiece, Snow White, the first long-form animated film in history [here— actually the first full-length animated feature produced in the U.S; the first produced anywhere in color]. It is hard to think of another stretch where the formal possibilities of an artistic medium expanded in such a dramatic fashion, in such a short amount of time.

[There follows an fascinating history of the Disney Studios technical innovations that made Snow White possible, and an account of the film;’s remarkable premiere…]

In just nine years, Disney and his team had transformed a quaint illusion—the dancing mouse is whistling!—into an expressive form so vivid and realistic that it could bring people to tears. Disney and his team had created the ultimate illusion: fictional characters created by hand, etched onto celluloid, and projected at twenty-four frames per second, that were somehow so believably human that it was almost impossible not to feel empathy for them.

Those weeping spectators at the Snow White premiere signaled a fundamental change in the relationship between human beings and the illusions concocted to amuse them. Complexity theorists have a term for this kind of change in physical systems: phase transitions. Alter one property of a system—lowering the temperature of a cloud of steam, for instance—and for a while the changes are linear: the steam gets steadily cooler. But then, at a certain threshold point, a fundamental shift happens: below 212 degrees Fahrenheit, the gas becomes liquid water. That moment marks the phase transition: not just cooler steam, but something altogether different.

It is possible—maybe even likely—that a further twist awaits us. When Charles Babbage encountered an automaton of a ballerina as a child in the early 1800s, the “irresistible eyes” of the mechanism convinced him that there was something lifelike in the machine.  Those robotic facial expressions would seem laughable to a modern viewer, but animatronics has made a great deal of progress since then. There may well be a comparable threshold in simulated emotion—via robotics or digital animation, or even the text chat of an AI like LaMDA—that makes it near impossible for humans not to form emotional bonds with a simulated being. We knew the dwarfs in Snow White were not real, but we couldn’t keep ourselves from weeping for their lost princess in sympathy with them. Imagine a world populated by machines or digital simulations that fill our lives with comparable illusion, only this time the virtual beings are not following a storyboard sketched out in Disney’s studios, but instead responding to the twists and turns and unmet emotional needs of our own lives. (The brilliant Spike Jonze film Her imagined this scenario using only a voice.) There is likely to be the equivalent of a Turing Test for artificial emotional intelligence: a machine real enough to elicit an emotional attachment. It may well be that the first simulated intelligence to trigger that connection will be some kind of voice-only assistant, a descendant of software like Alexa or Siri—only these assistants will have such fluid conversational skills and growing knowledge of our own individual needs and habits that we will find ourselves compelled to think of them as more than machines, just as we were compelled to think of those first movie stars as more than just flickering lights on a fabric screen. Once we pass that threshold, a bizarre new world may open up, a world where our lives are accompanied by simulated friends…

Are we in for a phase-shift in our understanding of companionship? “Natural Magic,” from @stevenbjohnson, adapted from his book Wonderland: How Play Made The Modern World.

And for a different, but aposite perspective, from the ever-illuminating L. M. Sacasas (@LMSacasas), see “LaMDA, Lemoine, and the Allures of Digital Re-enchantment.”

* Shakespeare, The Tempest


As we rethink relationships, we might recall that it was on this date in 2007 that the original iPhone was introduced. Generally downplayed by traditional technology pundits after its announcement six months earlier, the iPhone was greeted by long lines of buyers around the country on that first day. Quickly becoming a phenomenon, one million iPhones were sold in only 74 days. Since those early days, the ensuing iPhone models have continued to set sales records and have radically changed not only the smartphone and technology industries, but the world in which they operate as well.

The original iPhone


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