(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘social science

“If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, everyone will need to consider that it may not have actually hatched from an egg”*…

Boris Eldagsen won the creative open category at this year’s Sony World Photography Award with his entry “Pseudomnesia: The Electrician.” He rejected award after revealing that his submission was generated by AI. (source, and more background)

Emerging technology is being used (as ever it has been) to exploit our reflexive assumptions. Victor R. Lee suggests that it’s time to to recalibrate how authenticity is judged…

It turns out that that pop stars Drake and The Weeknd didn’t suddenly drop a new track that went viral on TikTok and YouTube in April 2023. The photograph that won an international photography competition that same month wasn’t a real photograph. And the image of Pope Francis sporting a Balenciaga jacket that appeared in March 2023? That was also a fake.

All were made with the help of generative artifical intelligence, the new technology that can generate humanlike text, audio, and images on demand through programs such as ChatGPT, Midjourney, and Bard, among others.

There’s certainly something unsettling about the ease with which people can be duped by these fakes, and I see it as a harbinger of an authenticity crisis that raises some difficult questions.

How will voters know whether a video of a political candidate saying something offensive was real or generated by AI? Will people be willing to pay artists for their work when AI can create something visually stunning? Why follow certain authors when stories in their writing style will be freely circulating on the internet?

I’ve been seeing the anxiety play out all around me at Stanford University, where I’m a professor and also lead a large generative AI and education initiative.

With text, image, audio, and video all becoming easier for anyone to produce through new generative AI tools, I believe people are going to need to reexamine and recalibrate how authenticity is judged in the first place.

Fortunately, social science offers some guidance.

Long before generative AI and ChatGPT rose to the fore, people had been probing what makes something feel authentic…

Rethinking Authenticity in the Era of Generative AI,” from @VicariousLee in @undarkmag. Eminently worth reading in full.

And to put these issues into a socio-economic context, see Ted Chiang‘s “Will A.I. Become the New McKinsey?” (and closer to the theme of the piece above, his earlier “ChatGPT Is a Blurry JPEG of the Web“).

* Victor R. Lee (in the article linked above)


As we ruminate on the real, we might send sentient birthday greetings to Oliver Selfridge; he was born on this date in 1926. A mathematician, he became an early– and seminal– computer scientist: a pioneer in artificial intelligence, and “the father of machine perception.”

Marvin Minsky considered Selfridge to be one of his mentors, and with Selfridge organized the 1956 Dartmouth workshop that is considered the founding event of artificial intelligence as a field. Selfridge wrote important early papers on neural networkspattern recognition, and machine learning; and his “Pandemonium” paper (1959) is generally recognized as a classic in artificial intelligence. In it, Selfridge introduced the notion of “demons” that record events as they occur, recognize patterns in those events, and may trigger subsequent events according to patterns they recognize– which, over time, gave rise to aspect-oriented programming.


“The functionalist organization, by privileging progress (i.e. time), causes the condition of its own possibility”*…

Meet the new boss, painfully similar to the old boss…

While people in and around the tech industry debate whether algorithms are political at all, social scientists take the politics as a given, asking instead how this politics unfolds: how algorithms concretely govern. What we call “high-tech modernism”—the application of machine learning algorithms to organize our social, economic, and political life—has a dual logic. On the one hand, like traditional bureaucracy, it is an engine of classification, even if it categorizes people and things very differently. On the other, like the market, it provides a means of self-adjusting allocation, though its feedback loops work differently from the price system. Perhaps the most important consequence of high-tech modernism for the contemporary moral political economy is how it weaves hierarchy and data-gathering into the warp and woof of everyday life, replacing visible feedback loops with invisible ones, and suggesting that highly mediated outcomes are in fact the unmediated expression of people’s own true wishes…

From Henry Farrell and Marion Fourcade, a reminder that’s what’s old is new again: “The Moral Economy of High-Tech Modernism,” in an issue of Daedalus, edited by Farrell and Margaret Levi (@margaretlevi).

See also: “The Algorithm Society and Its Discontents” (or here) by Brad DeLong (@delong).

Apposite: “What Greek myths can teach us about the dangers of AI.”

(Image above: source)

* “The functionalist organization, by privileging progress (i.e. time), causes the condition of its own possibility–space itself–to be forgotten: space thus becomes the blind spot in a scientific and political technology. This is the way in which the Concept-city functions: a place of transformations and appropriations, the object of various kinds of interference but also a subject that is constantly enriched by new attributes, it is simultaneously the machinery and the hero of modernity.” – Michel de Certeau


As we ponder platforms, we might recall that it was on this date in 1955 that the first computer operating system was demonstrated…

Computer pioneer Doug Ross demonstrates the Director tape for MIT’s Whirlwind machine. It’s a new idea: a permanent set of instructions on how the computer should operate.

Six years in the making, MIT’s Whirlwind computer was the first digital computer that could display real-time text and graphics on a video terminal, which was then just a large oscilloscope screen. Whirlwind used 4,500 vacuum tubes to process data…

Another one of its contributions was Director, a set of programming instructions…

March 8, 1955: The Mother of All Operating Systems

The first permanent set of instructions for a computer, it was in essence the first operating system. Loaded by paper tape, Director allowed operators to load multiple problems in Whirlwind by taking advantage of newer, faster photoelectric tape reader technology, eliminating the need for manual human intervention in changing tapes on older mechanical tape readers.

Ross explaining the system (source)

“Rumors and reports of man’s relation with animals are the world’s oldest news stories, headlined in the stars of the zodiac, posted on the walls of prehistoric caves”*…

Aerial view of a kite in the Khaybar area of north-west Saudi Arabia. These ancient hunting structures were named ‘kites’ by aviators in the 1920s because, observed from above, their form is reminiscent of old-fashioned child’s kites with streamers.

… and on the surface of the desert. Vittoria Benzine explains…

In the 1920s, British Royal Air Force pilots over the Middle East recorded the first sightings of what they dubbed desert kites—massive patterns carved into rocky land, often resembling the famous flying toy.

Archaeologists have since debated the purpose of these enigmas, which appear across geographies and eras, dating back to the Neolithic Period (10,000–2,200 B.C.E.) in Jordan, the early Bronze Age (3,300–2,100 B.C.E.) in Israel’s Negev Desert, and the Middle Bronze Age (2,100–1,550 B.C.E.) in Armenia. Some thought they were cultural cornerstones. Still more posited they were pens for domesticating animals.

Three recent peer-reviewed papers confirm popular hypotheses that the desert kites actually served as mass hunting traps, allowing early desert dwellers to kill entire herds of game at once. While they were active, the kites funneled gazelle and ibex down tapered, wall-lined paths which ended in massive pits or sudden cliffs where creatures were trapped and killed. The kites’s particular placement, length, and shape generally demonstrate a sophisticated knowledge of landscapes and animal behaviors…

The full story at “Scientists Have Cracked the Origins of ‘Desert Kites,’ Massive Prehistoric Patterns That Were Carved into the Middle Eastern Desert,” from @vittoriabenzine in @artnet.

* Lewis Lapham


As we we admire ingenuity, we might spare a thought for Siegfried Frederick (“S.F.” or “Fred”) Nadel; he died on this date in 1956. An anthropologist who did important work in Africa, he is best remembered as a theorist whose work built on the thinking of Bronislaw Malinowski, sociologist Max Weber, philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, and psychologist Kurt Koffka. In The Foundations of Social Anthropology (1951) he asserted that the main task of the science is to explain as well as to describe aim-controlled, purposive behaviour. Suggesting that sociological facts emerge from psychological facts, he argued that full explanations are to be derived from psychological exploration of motivation and consciousness. And in his posthumous Theory of Social Structure (1958), regarded as one of the 20th century’s foremost theoretical works in the social sciences, Nadel examined social roles, which he considered to be crucial in the analysis of social structure.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 14, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Homo sapiens, the only creature endowed with reason, is also the only creature to pin its existence on things unreasonable”*…

We appeared 800,000-300,000 years ago, or in the last 1.5%-5.3% of hominid history

How, Sarah Constantin asks, did we humans get so smart?

If you zoom way out and look at the history of life on Earth, humans evolved incredibly recently. The Hominidae — the family that includes orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and humans — only arose 20 million years ago, in the most recent 0.5% of evolutionary history.

Within the Hominidae, in turn, Homo sapiens is a very recent development [see image at top]. We appeared 800,000-300,000 years ago, or in the last 1.5%-5.3% of hominid history.

If you look at early hominid “technological” milestones like tool use or cooking, though, they’re a lot more spread out over time. That’s interesting.

There’s nothing to suggest that a single physical change in brains should have given us both tool use and fire, for instance; if that were the case, you’d expect to see them show up at the same time.

Purposeful problem-solving behaviors like tool use and cooking are not unique to hominids; some other mammals and birds use tools, and lots of vertebrates (including birds and fish) can learn to solve puzzles to get a food reward. The general class of “problem-solving behavior” that we see, to one degree or another, in many vertebrates, doesn’t seem to have arisen surprisingly fast compared to the existence of animals in general.

However, to the extent that Homo sapiens has unique cognitive abilities, those did show up surprisingly recently, and it makes sense to privilege the hypothesis that they have a common physical cause.

So what are these special human-unique cognitive abilities?…

Is Human Intelligence Simple? Part 1: Evolution and Archaeology,” from @s_r_constantin. Part 2 is here.

* Henri Bergson


As we study our species, we might send self-examining birthday greetings to Giambattista Vico; he was born on this date in 1668.  A political philosopher, rhetorician, historian, and jurist, Vico was one of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers.  Best known for the Scienza Nuova (1725, often published in English as New Science), he famously criticized the expansion and development of modern rationalism and was an apologist for classical antiquity.

He was an important precursor of systemic and complexity thinking (as opposed to Cartesian analysis and other kinds of reductionism); and he can be credited with the first exposition of the fundamental aspects of social science (and so, is considered by many to be the first forerunner of cultural anthropology and ethnography), though his views did not necessarily influence the first social scientists.  Vico is often claimed to have fathered modern philosophy of history (although the term is not found in his text; Vico speaks of a “history of philosophy narrated philosophically’).  While he was not strictly speaking a historicist, interest in him has been driven by historicists (like Isaiah Berlin).


“Relationships have two key components: ‘being close’ and ‘feeling close’.”*…

The marvelous Matt Webb muses on Dunbar’s Number…

150, Dunbar’s number, is the natural size of human social groups. Robin Dunbar’s 1993 paper, where he put forward this hypothesis, is a great read – it’s got twists and turns, so much more in it than just the 150 number…

Dunbar’s number and how speaking is 2.8x better than picking fleas,” from @genmon.

Dunbar’s original paper is here.

* Robin Dunbar


As we ruminate on relationships, we might recall that this date in 1954 was, according to the True Knowledge Answer Engine, the most boring day since 1900. The site analyzed more than 300 million historical facts and discovered that April 11, 1954 was the most uneventful news day of the 20th century. No typically newsworthy events occurred at all… though of course now the day has become a bit more newsworthy because it has the distinction of being so completely uneventful.

Photo by left-hand (license)
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