Max Barry is the author of seven novels and the creator of the popular online game NationStates. He also once found a sock full of pennies. He lives in Melbourne, Australia, with his wife and two daughters. Sometimes he coaches kids' netball.

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Mon 17

Everyone Except Me is Wrong About AI

What Max Reckons I wrote about AI already, but that was about how we’re all going to die. Since then, the conversation has become more nuanced. Now I’m encountering more subtle ideas I think are totally wrong. So because I know better, here’s why.

  1. “AI is already here.”

    ChatBots are good at figuring out what comes next when you start a sentence with, “The capitol of Antigua is…” That’s pretty cool. We didn’t have that before. But it’s not intelligence. It’s almost the opposite of intelligence, like the difference between the kid in high school who was always studying and that guy who never studied but could talk and is now a real estate agent. Both can sound smart but only one knows what he’s talking about.

    BY THE WAY, it’s very on-brand for Earth 2023 that our robots are designed to sound plausible rather than be correct. Remember in Star Wars how C-3PO delivered a precise survival probability of flying into an asteroid field? (3720 to 1.) And Han Solo was like, “Shut up, C-3PO,” because he was too cool and handsome to be bothered by math. OR SO WE THOUGHT, because that was the kind of AI we were imagining in the 1980s: AI that was, before anything else, correct.

    But if C-3PO was a ChatBot, no wonder Han had no time for his bullshit. All C-3PO could do was regurgitate what other people tended to say about surviving asteroid fields, on average.

  2. “AI is almost here.”

    Sure, ChatBots have their flaws, like asserting gross fabrications with confidence, but look at the rate of progress! Check out how Stable Diffusion can produce high-quality images in seconds by quietly aggregating decades of work by uncredited artists! It’s not perfect, but imagine where we’ll be in a few years!

    I will concede that AI has made tremendous progress in these two critical areas:

    1. pretending to know what it’s talking about
    2. stealing from artists

    I’m not contesting that. But I don’t agree that honing these skills will lead to genuine AI, of the C-3PO variety, which is basically a person, only artificial. To get that, we need AI that can perceive things, and form an internal model of reality, and use it to make predictions. If instead it’s only good at imitating what everyone else does, that’s not really AI. It’s just statistics.

  3. “AI is just statistics.”

    So, yes, everyone realized that if you call your 18-line Python program an “AI,” it gets more interest. Now when someone says “AI,” they might mean C-3PO, or ChatGPT, or just a plain old computer program that until six months ago was a utility or model or algorithm.

    When we mean C-3PO, we should probably say “AGI” (artificial general intelligence), or “strong AI,” but nobody likes redefining terms just because they’ve been appropriated, so we don’t. We do believe, though, that there’s a big difference between an AI that is self-aware, has a mental model of reality, and can fall in love, and an AI that auto-aggregates blog posts. We only feel bad about turning off the first one.

    However, even the C-3PO type of AI will undoubtedly be “just statistics.” The problem with “it’s just statistics” is the “just.” It implies that statistics can never lead to anything life-like. And that truly intelligent, conscious creatures like us possess something entirely separate and perhaps magical, which nobody is likely to engineer anytime soon.

    This is a dumb comfort thought. Chickens are just beak and feathers. Trees are just wood and leaves. Humans are just food and chemistry. We can dismiss anything like that. The universe doesn’t care what you’re made out of.

  4. “AI is not already here.”

    We seem to think there’s a line, to which we’re creeping toward with AI that’s increasingly sophisticated, until suddenly: Eureka! It has gained anima, a soul, consciousness, some special quality that we will admit to sharing with it. And then we have AI citizens, who should probably have rights, and not be property.

    So we try to guess when this line might be crossed—next year, twenty years, a hundred years, never? We eye each AI iteration, considering how human-like it is, whether it has finally gained the necessary soul/anima/consciousness/je ne sais quoi. But there is no line. There’s no binary yes/no. There wasn’t when life emerged from the primordial soup, or became intelligent, or recognizably human.

    AI will never gain the special magical quality that makes us truly intelligent beings, because we don’t have it, either. We’re wasting our time when we try to figure out how human-like the machines are; we should examine how machine-like we already are.

    Because we’re predictable as heck. We develop mechanical faults. The Wikipedia page on free will is 16,000 words long and both-sides it.*

    We are creatures of chemistry and biology. They might be probability and statistics. Potato, potato. There’s life all around us, of varying shades; intelligence of all kinds. We live in a universe that isn’t picky about what you’re made of. We’re here now, but so are they.

Bonus ideas:

  • The Alignment Problem

    This is the idea that the real problem with AI is figuring out how to make it do what we want but without the part where it destroys humanity because it didn’t realize that when we asked for paperclips, we meant without plundering the Earth’s core. Okay, sure. That’s a good first step. But aligning it with human morality only helps so long as there aren’t humans who want to plunder Earth’s core, too. And there are. Also there are humans who don’t want to plunder Earth’s core, necessarily, but do want to have a job and get paid, and capitalism is awesome at packaging those people up into core-plundering machines.

  • AI will be good unless we make it bad, so let’s just not do that

    This one speaks to a pervasive failing on the part of smart people, which is the belief that once they figure out a solution, they’ve solved the problem. But we figured out how to avoid catastrophic climate change decades ago; we’re just not doing it. There is no “we.” “We” can’t decide anything. “You” can just not build bad AI. You can’t stop me from doing it.

* The illustrative photo and caption at the top of that Wikipedia page on free will is fantastic, by the way.

Wed 05

Stochastic Road Murder

What Max Reckons A similar ad for a Ram 1500 truck with the tag line, EATS UTES FOR BREAKFAST

The free market is great and all, but I do have an issue with this part, where companies promote 2.5-ton urban assault vehicles to people who can be talked into dropping $100,000 by telling them it’s big.

That’s the tag line on a billboard I passed on Sunday, my daughter in the car, the L plates up, as she learns to drive. “IT’S BIG,” says the billboard, that’s the whole tagline, and the Ford F150 is all grille, as seen from the perspective of someone small who’s about to go under the wheels.

Not that the tray is big, or the mileage is big, oh no! Those would be rational arguments, and it’s all emotional appeals for these cars, like “EATS OTHER CARS FOR BREAKFAST,” that’s another one.

I’m a very reasonable person, so I don’t want to ban big cars. I just think we should start jailing marketing people who decide the target market for steroid trucks is irrational people. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the marketing people are personally running down kids in the streets. They just may as well be. Either click Send on your creatives, or trot on down to street level and take a baseball bat to a pedestrian; either way, you’re going to cause a predictable level of harm.

It’s simple economics: Capitalism demands that we jail those marketers. It’s not a morality issue. Maybe you’re fine with a few broken bodies in the service of letting fragile men feel alpha, and, well, okay, but the free market demands we correctly allocate costs to those who produce them. So if we’re rewarding marketers with bags of cash for putting murder cars in the hands of the people we absolutely least want to have murder cars, we must also present them with the invoice for the ensuing pedestrian bodies.

It’s about setting correct market incentives. You wouldn’t even have to jail that many marketing people. Well, maybe you would. To send a message. But I think even a few marketing people in jail, or, you know, heavily fined, or publicly humiliated, all those are good, would be enough to insert a little pause into a marketing exec’s thoughts. Just a little pause, right after: “I love the simple emotive pull of this ‘LEAVES OTHER ROAD USERS FOR DEAD’ campaign, that’ll speak clearly to dudes who perceive lane changes as personal attacks.” Let’s see where that pause gets us.

Tue 14

End of the World, with Terminators

What Max Reckons So this AI business, huh, this is getting some traction. It’s evolving so fast, just the other day I had to go back and take out all the parts in the book I’m working on that carefully establish the plausibility of competent AI in the near future. Luckily I’m familiar with topics that become exponentially more absurd while you’re writing about them, because I got started in political satire.

People wonder if AI will destroy us all, and please, don’t worry, because of course it will and there’s nothing you can do about it. Honestly, people are asking the wrong question with AI. The question isn’t whether it will destroy us but how.

And people have the wrong idea about that, too, from sci-fi stories and Terminator movies where it’s humans versus machines. You wish. That would be great. Imagine the solidarity in a noble fight for the future of the species.

A shot from the movie Terminator 2 of a scary robot holding a gun But no, no, it will be more like Elon Musk has a Terminator, and Apple has ten Terminators, and the US Government has some Terminators but they don’t work properly and are under investigation. Also Democrats have their own Terminators and so do the Republicans and Rupert Murdoch and everyone, basically, with money to spend and influence to accumulate.

You don’t have a Terminator. You can, like, rent five percent of a Terminator to help do your taxes.

But everyone else, everyone up there, has Terminators. And they fight, but not each other, because that’s risky: a Terminator going head to head with another Terminator. You don’t do that unless you’re sure your Terminator will win. Smarter is deploying your Terminator to acquire more power and wealth from people who don’t have Terminators. Then you can afford more Terminators.

So this is scams run by Terminators, right, you see how filled up the world has become with scams, well, imagine those scams but now they’re created by something smarter than you. They look and sound authentic, they know how persuasion works better than you do, and now there are masses of people sending money and voting based on something that isn’t even real. I mean, that’s today, right, so add Terminators and multiply.

We’ve connected the world and opened windows to its every corner and you know what, people are still people, jammed full of flaws, believing anything that tickles the cortex. We have good people at the top, but also people who don’t give a damn about anyone outside their own inner circle, who have been richly rewarded for this personality trait, and now they can afford Terminators. You can see how AI will destroy us because it’s already happening; it’s this, amplified, so that the next time someone wants to entrench some poverty, or kick a trillion-dollar bill to the next generation, a Terminator helps them do it.

With money we will get Terminators, Caesar said, and with Terminators we will get money; that’s how it happens. I’m not afraid of AI; AI will allow us to unlock wonders. But I’m afraid of your AI.

Sat 12

NationStates Turns Twenty

Max So I normally keep my NationStates stuff separate from this blog. But it’s 20 years today since I launched a little web game in the hope that it would promote my novel Jennifer Government, and help prevent it from sinking without a trace like my debut novel. So I’m cross-posting.

Twenty years! For perspective, the web itself is only thirty-three.

Here are some things that didn’t exist when I created NationStates: MySpace, Digg, World of Warcraft, Facebook, XBox Live, iTunes, Skype, Firefox, Chrome, iPhones, Reddit, Twitter, Wordpress.

NationStates began in a time where any idiot could make a website and people would go check it out, because there weren’t many to choose from. In 2002, I was that idiot, learning to code from a book, hacking the site together, and emailing a few friends. Then they told a few friends, and almost immediately, it was in the newspapers, even the New York Times, because that was newsworthy back then, some dork’s website.

Almost all the websites from 2002 are now gone. And like a geriatric who’s outlived his contemporaries, I marvel at the fact that this one is still freaking here. Everyone thinks you can put something online and it will just hang around forever because that’s how the internet works, but that’s not true at all, not even for the dumbest, most static pages like THIS IS TIM’S WORLD WIDE WEB PAGE, UNDER CONSTRUCTION, COOL STUFF COMING SOON, because sometime in the last twenty years, Tim’s web host got bought out and shut down, taking Tim’s dancing baby GIF with it, and now, at best, there are a few snapshots filed away in an internet archive.

Sites that do things, interactive sites, like NationStates, are hard to keep alive. They have so many ways to die. I’m incredibly proud that NationStates is here twenty years and eight million nations later, with as many players as ever. That’s magical. I credit:

  • Not selling the site. I came close. In retrospect, the buyer would have spent 12 months squeezing users for money before everyone left.

  • Moderators. Oh my god, moderators. They do so much, every day, for nothing, and without them, the site would almost immediately become somewhere you wouldn’t want to visit. Some mods have been here from the beginning. Many have clocked up over a decade. So much is thanks to mods.

  • The community. I can’t even explain this because I don’t fully understand it. I made a site where you could create a nation and talk to people. The community did everything else, i.e. turned that into something interesting, with political intrigue, relationships, lore, rules; basically the vast majority of what makes NationStates worth your time. This includes regional leaders, ordinary nations, World Assembly Delegates, admin, Roleplay Mentors, Founders, dispatch authors, World Census trophy chasers, forum regulars, forum irregulars, anyone who’s taken the time to explain something to someone new to the site, card traders, everyone.

  • The people who buy Site Supporter, Postmaster, Postmaster-General, and Telegram Stamps. Most people don’t, and that’s totally fine, but the lights wouldn’t have stayed on without those who do.

  • Managing the tech stack. All the tech from 2002 is slow, insecure, missing essential features, and three thousand times harder to work on that what’s available today. It also can’t be replaced without losing 20 years of bug fixes. So far we have managed to steer a path between killing the site from negligence and killing it from overly ambitious upgrades. And we keep adding features! To a 20-year-old codebase! Written in Perl!

Happy Birthday everyone.



Mon 24

We Care a Lot

What Max Reckons You know what’s amazing: We can create things just by caring. That’s all you need to do. Just care. Two people care about each other: Pow! Now there’s a relationship. Before, nothing. But now anything might happen. They might move in together, quit jobs, travel, get in a fight.

It doesn’t just work on people. It can be anything. Look at all those sports teams who kick a ball or whatever and it’s televised and people flock to watch in giant stadiums. Just because we care! The kicking of the ball itself is pointless. That has no intrinsic value. It is clearly worthless. But we care about it! So actually it’s worth a lot! It’s driving economies and generating debate and making people wear scarves of particular colors.

TV shows. Religions. Novels. Everything! Everything in the world has value if someone cares about it! And only then!

This is a major background theme in Providence, by the way, which I have never seen anyone notice. I actually really want to talk about it sometime but can’t because I have to spoil the whole novel. Anyway, whenever I get to thinking that we’re all powerless motes in a maelstrom of external forces, and have no free will, I remember I can make something important by caring about it. And no-one can stop me! That’s the thing! I can care about whatever I like! Grass! Kids’ netball! Background themes in novels! You might think these things are stupid and worthless, but too late! I already cared about them! You know what that home-stitched doll of Marlene from Apathy and Other Small Victories is worth on eBay? Something! Because I like it!

Caring is amazing. As far as I can figure out, it’s the sole reason our existence is more than a bunch of physics: You can care about anything, at any time, for any reason. And when you do, you change the universe.

Nobody knows how this happens! We have no idea what makes someone care! We have only been able to persuade people to act like they care, which, okay, is pretty good, but not the same thing. (I once wrote 90% of a novel that I didn’t really care about. It was not the same.) Making people act like they care about things they actually don’t is a fundamental part of our world economy; just imagine if we couldn’t do that. I mean, you think there’s a staffing shortage now. Caring is so important, we pour unthinkable amounts of time and money into faking it.

Then there’s the other part. If you stop caring, you can kill things. Everything has a threshold, and when it receives less care than that, it dies. It just dies. And, again, you can do this in your head. You don’t need to make a plan. You don’t need to perform any particular deed. You can just stop caring. See how long that thing lasts.

Tue 21

I Don’t Believe in Free Will

Max Look I’m no philosopher, but in the last blog, I mentioned I don’t believe in free will any more, and Jeffrey was like, uh, what, so here is my take.

This isn’t going to be one of those dumb theoretical arguments where I make you accept that X is true and then aha then logically you must believe Y. Oh no no. This is pure feels. Here we go.

  1. Chickens. I have owned chickens. Well, not owned. Rented. They are robots. I could write a 100-line program that generates behavior indistinguishable from a real chicken. If chickens have free will, boy, is it hard to tell.

  2. Code. I program sometimes. The code has no free will. It does what I tell it. But it can be at least as unpredictable as chickens.

  3. Brains. People are easily persuaded. I mean, frighteningly so. The older I get, the more the brain seems like a machine with a bunch of controls painted on.

  4. Stories. People crave a narrative. You know that optical illusion where you see things out of the corner of your eye that aren’t there, because your brain sketches in something that would make sense? That’s all of us, all the time.

  5. Probability. We don’t get it. We assign cause and effect to anything that moves. Like, real talk, the universe is an ocean of roiling chaos, where everything is determined by uncaring forces beyond our control. But we thirst for narrative order, so a thing can’t just happen, it has to have a moral purpose. And we are prepared to invent one.

  6. Sports. I like running numbers on things. It turns out that all team sport is basically rolling a bunch of dice and shouting, “The blue dice have started to believe in themselves, they’ve got all the momentum.” This is really just an example of #5 but I didn’t want the paragraph to be that long.

  7. Everything is the same. You’re not so different from a chicken. It’s just a matter of degree. The world isn’t merely non-binary but non-categorical.

  8. Extrapolation. From time to time, I realize people are a bit more predictable than I’d thought. This happens much more often than the other way around. I can follow this trend to its logical conclusion.

  9. Motive. Absence of control is scary. We like to believe we’re in charge of things. That’s suspicious.

  10. And: Whenever I tell someone, they say, “Well, if I don’t have free will, how would I be able to do THIS?” and wave their hands about. They all do this.

    That’s basically it. I could be wrong. It’s just the way I’m leaning these days.

    It doesn’t change anything, by the way. I don’t like people any less just because they’re wet determinism machines. If anything, it’s endearing. I mean, look at the humans, waving their hands, thinking they’re making choices. That’s adorable. And I’m not going to murder anyone. Even if I can’t avoid it, I feel like I can, and want to avoid that situation. Just like if we’re all living in a computer simulation, being mean to people remains bad, and has exactly the same consequences. Not that we’re living in a computer simulation. That idea is just crazy. It would be a simulation on some kind of device we’ve never heard of.

    P.S. I have also read a lot of Philip K. Dick. That could also be a factor.

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