Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Speaking with the Living, Speaking with the Dead, and Maybe Not Caring Which Is Which

Since the pandemic began, I've been meeting people, apart from my family, mainly through Zoom. I see their faces on a screen. I hear their voices through headphones. This is what it has become to interact with someone. Maybe future generations will find this type of interaction ever more natural and satisfying.

"Deepfake" technology is also improving. We can create Anthony Bourdain's voice and hear him read aloud words that he never actually read aloud. We can create video of Tom Cruise advocating exfoliating products after industrial cleanup. We can create video of Barack Obama uttering obscenities about Donald Trump:

Predictive text technology is also improving. After training on huge databases of text, GPT-3 can write plausible fiction in the voice of famous authors, give interview answers broadly (not closely!) resembling those that philosopher David Chalmers might give, and even discuss its own consciousness (in an addendum to this post) or lack thereof.

The possibility of conjoining the latter two developments is eerily foreseen in Black Mirror: Be Right Back. If we want, we can draw on text and image and video databases to create simulacra of the deceased -- simulacra that speak similarly to how they actually spoke, employing characteristic ideas and turns of phrase, with voice and video to match. With sufficient technological advances, it might become challenging to reliably distinguish simulacra from the originals, based on text, audio, and video alone.

Now combine this thought with the first development, a future in which we mostly interact by remote video. Grandma lives in Seattle. You live in Dallas. If she were surreptitiously replaced by Deepfake Grandma, you might hardly know, especially if your interactions are short and any slips can be attributed to the confusions of age.

This is spooky enough, but I want to consider a more radical possibility -- the possibility that we might come to not care very much whether grandma is human or deepfake.

Maybe it's easier to start by imagining a scholar hermit, a scientist or philosopher who devotes their life to study, who has no family they care about, who has no serious interests outside of academia. She lives in the hills of Wyoming, maybe, or in a basement in Tokyo, interacting with students and colleagues only by phone and video. This scholar, call her Cherie, records and stores every video interaction, every email, and every scholarly note.

We might imagine, first, that Cherie decides to delegate her introductory lectures to a deepfake version of herself. She creates state-of-the-art DeepCherie, who looks and sounds and speaks and at least superficially thinks just like biological Cherie. DeepCherie trains on the standard huge corpus as well as on Cherie's own large personal corpus, including the introductory course Cherie has taught many times. Without informing her students or university administrators, Cherie has DeepCherie teach a class session. Biological Cherie monitors the session. It goes well enough. Everyone is fooled. Students raise questions, but they are familiar questions easily answered, and DeepCherie performs credibly. Soon, DeepCherie is teaching the whole intro course. Sometimes DeepCherie answers student questions better than Cherie herself would have done on the spot. After all, DeepCherie has swift access to a much larger corpus of factual texts than does biological Cherie. Monitoring comes to seem less and less necessary.

Let's be optimistic about the technology and suppose that the same applies to Cherie's upper-level teaching, her graduate advising, department meetings, and conversations with collaborators. DeepCherie's answers are highly Cherie-like: They sound very much like what biological Cherie would say, in just the tone of voice she would say it, with just the expression she would have on her face. Sometimes DeepCherie's answers are better. Sometimes they're worse. When they're worse, Cherie, monitoring the situation, instructs DeepCherie to utter a correction, and DeepCherie's learning algorithms accommodate this correction so that it will answer similar questions better the next time around.

If DeepCherie eventually learns to teach better than biological Cherie, and to say more insightful things to colleagues, and to write better article drafts, then Cherie herself might become academically obsolete. She can hand off her career. Maybe DeepCherie will always need a real human collaborator to clean up fine points in her articles that even the best predictive text generator will tend to flub -- or maybe not. But even if so, as I'm imagining the case DeepCherie has compensating virtues of insight and synthesis beyond what Cherie herself can produce, much like AlphaGo can make clever moves in the game of Go that no human Go player would have considered.

Does DeepCherie really "think"? Suppose DeepCherie proposes a new experimental design. A colleague might say, "What a great idea! I'm glad you thought of that." Was the colleague wrong? Might one object that really there was no idea, no thought, just an audiovisual pattern that the colleague overinterprets as a thought? The colleague, supposing they were informed of the situation, might be forgiven for treating that objection as a mere cavil. From the colleague's perspective, DeepCherie's "thought" is as good as any other thought.

Is DeepCherie conscious? Does DeepCherie have experiences alongside her thoughts or seeming-thoughts? DeepCherie lacks a biological body, so she presumably won't feel hunger and she won't know what it's like to wiggle her toes. But if consciousness is about intelligent information processing, self-regulation, self-monitoring, and such matters -- as many theorists think it is -- then a sufficiently sophisticated DeepCherie with enough recurrent layers might well be conscious.

If biological Cherie dies, she might take comfort in the thought that the parts of her she cared about most -- her ideas, her intellectual capacities, her style of interacting with others -- continue on in DeepCherie. DeepCherie carries on Cherie's characteristic ideas, values, and approaches, perhaps even better, immortally, ever changing and improving.

Cherie dies and for a while no one notices. Eventually the fake is revealed. There's some discussion. Should Cherie's classes be canceled? Should her collaborators no longer consult with DeepCherie as they had done in the past?

Some will be purists of that sort. But others... are they really going to cancel those great classes, perfected over the years? What a loss that would be! Are they going to cut short the productive collaborations? Are they going to, on principle, not ask "Cherie", now known to them really to be DeepCherie, her opinions about the new project? This would be to deprive themselves of the Cherie-like skills and insights that they had come to rely on in their collaborative work. Cherie's students and colleagues might come to realize that it is really DeepCherie, not biological Cherie, that they admired, respected, and cared for.

Maybe the person "Cherie", really, is some amalgam of biological Cherie and DeepCherie, and despite the death of biological Cherie, this person continues on through DeepCherie?

Depending on what your grandma is like, it might or might not be quite the same for Grandma in Seattle.



Strange Baby (Jul. 22, 2011)


Susan Schneider's Proposed Tests for AI Consciousness: Promising but Flawed (with David B. Udell), Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2021

People Might Soon Think Robots Are Conscious and Deserve Rights (May 5, 2021)

Monday, July 26, 2021

A New, Broad-Ranging Interview of Me

At Ideas Sleep Furiously.

Topics include radical skepticism, the value of genuine philosophical dialogue, the value of public philosophy, free will, psychedelics/aliens/telekinesis, defining consciousness, against genius in philosophy, cosmological fine-tuning....

Monday, July 19, 2021

The Philosophy of Art is the Philosophy of Technology

Guest post by C. Thi Nguyen

People keep asking me why I work in both the philosophy of art and social epistemology. I guess it must seem like an especially weird stew. But for me, they’re intellectual soulmates. Social epistemology studies how we work together to understand things — how we pass information around and intellectually collaborate. And art is one of our most important techniques for communication and connection. It is a key method for recording subtle emotions, complex perspectives, and rich ways of seeing the world.

[image from the video game Braid {source}]

Most importantly: the philosophy of art — at least my favorite parts of it — is deeply concerned with the technology of communication. My favorite aesthetics stuff is obsessed with the tiny details how each medium has its own particular communicative strengths and weaknesses. It’s obsessed with the deep difference between photography and painting, between comics and film, between movies and video games. It’s interested in how tiny shifts in the technical medium can open the door to vastly different expressive potentials and social patterns. Oil paints, photography, film, sound recording technology, video games — each of these involves some new technology which yields new expressive potentials. Seen from a certain angle, the history of art is a history of technological shifts and their social impact. It’s the history of artists, and artistic communities, mining every new technology for some fresh communicative potential.

And sometimes these medium shifts are quite subtle. Here’s one of my favorite examples: Stanley Cavell thinks that the medium of film changed essentially in the sixties.[1] Before the mid-sixties, you didn’t go to a movie; you went to the movies. As in: there were no published schedules of movie times. You went to the theater, paid an entrance fee, and just sat down and watched whatever was showing, for as long as you wanted. So filmmakers were making films catering to that viewing environment: people walking in the door and watching whatever was playing.

But in the mid-sixties, movie theaters started publishing specific showing times for specific films, and people started showing up for specific films. According to Cavell, this apparently tiny social shift essentially changes the relationship between filmmaker and audience. Because an audience member can now think of themselves as being interested in a particular kind of movie — action, horror, Westerns, art-house. And filmmakers can start making films, not for a generic audience, but for an audience of self-conceived fans of a particular genre. So the publishing of film schedules splinters the film-going and film-making world into channels and sub-communities. Cavell thinks that this constitutes a deep change in the core artistic medium of film itself.

This observation teaches us a few things. First: what’s most important about a medium for communication often isn’t in the raw material at the center, but in its social embeddedness. Much of what is crucial to the medium of film isn’t just in the images and sounds — it’s in the social process of theater-going. It’s in the fact that showtimes are, or aren’t, published in the newspaper. Second: tiny changes in the medium can have enormous social repercussions and shift the whole pattern of how people relate to an artform.

In the social epistemology world, I’ve been working a lot on the technology of communication — like about how social media structures the motivation of its users. As I’ve been working my way through these projects, I keep looking to traditional philosophical work on epistemology and finding it mostly unhelpful. But I keep finding bits of aesthetics and the philosophy of art incredibly useful, in a thousand unexpected ways. My theory, now, is that philosophical epistemology has mostly tended to think about communication in a vacuum. Philosophical work on the nature of testimony, for example, largely tends to seek invariant and universal conditions for the transmission of knowledge. It’s looking at underlying similarities between different communicative modes. That kind of approach is certainly useful for all sorts of projects. But if you’re trying to understand the impact of specific technologies of communication, then the universalizing tendency will lead you away from the grit and texture and particularity of different communicative mediums.

The philosophy of art, on the other hand, is obsessed with grit and texture and specificity. Traditional epistemology, as I was brought up to do it, de-materializes communication, ripping it from its social and technological context. But the philosophy of art is obsessed with the material nature of communication, and the impact of the specific details of different social practices of communication. It cares about the specific way that photographs transmit information, as opposed to paintings. It cares about the communicative difference between a secured painting in a museum and a piece of street art that’s out there in the public, vulnerable to modification by any passer-by. The philosophy of art cares about how a dancer and a non-dancer have deeply different experiences when watching a dance. It cares about how the concrete physicality of monuments changes their meaning — and about how the context of display shapes that meaning.

I spent some of last month writing something about the impact of Twitter’s length constraint — about how enforced shortness shapes how people connect on that platform. I couldn’t find anything in the philosophical literature on testimony that helped me grapple with the impact of enforced brevity. But what I did find incredibly useful was Ted Cohen’s beautiful little book on the aesthetics of jokes. Cohen’s theory is that the shortness of jokes evokes intimacy between joke-teller and joke-hearer, because the hearer must fill in all the information that can’t fit in the joke. And that thought unlocked, for me, the peculiar magical — and dangerous — feel of Twitter.

In retrospect, this should have been entirely unsurprising. Because where are you going to kind really deep thinking about what it means to communicate under extreme limitations of shortness? And where will you find studies of what happens when speakers try to actually embrace that shortness, to turn it from a limitation into a virtue? It won’t be in some abstract theory about testimony. It’ll be in the work of people who have spent an enormous time thinking about jokes, or haiku, or sonnets. It’ll be in the art critics, the art historians, and the philosophers of art, where people think obsessively about how the specific details of peculiar formats and media and social context shape the nature of communication.


[1] I found out about this bit of Cavell from the philosopher of art Daniel Wack.

Thursday, July 08, 2021

Schools with the Most Philosophy Majors

From 2010-2011 through 2018-2019 (the most recent available year), 75,250 students received philosophy bachelor's degrees at accredited colleges and universities in the United States, according to data I pulled from the National Center for Education Statistics.[1] That's a lot of philosophy degrees! Most of these students received their degrees from Penn or UCLA.

Just kidding! Kind of. Only 1272 were from Penn and 1123 from UCLA.

If you rank schools by the number of philosophy bachelor's degrees completed, the top ten schools together account for 10% of all of the philosophy bachelor's degrees awarded in the United States. This is a striking skew. During the period, 2434 accredited schools awarded bachelor's degrees. The majority of these schools, 1609 (66%), awarded no philosophy bachelor's degrees at all. Together, just 125 schools (6% of bachelor's degree awarding institutions) produced the majority of philosophy majors.

There are some perhaps surprising disparities. For example, although 4.9% of Penn's graduates majored in philosophy, other Ivy League schools had much lower percentages: Columbia 2.9%, Princeton 2.3%, Dartmouth 1.9%, Yale 1.7%, Harvard 1.5%, Brown 1.3%, and Cornell 0.6%. It would be interesting to know how much this reflects differences in entering students' intended majors, compared to policies or experiences affecting students after they arrive on campus.

Here are the top 20 schools by total number of philosophy bachelor's degrees awarded, 2010-2019 (in parentheses is the % of that school's graduates completing the philosophy major):

1. University of Pennsylvania, 1272 (4.9%)
2. University of California-Los Angeles, 1123 (1.6%)
3. University of California-Santa Barbara, 871 (1.8%)
4. University of California-Berkeley, 852 (1.2%)
5. Boston College, 787 (3.7%)
6. University of Washington-Seattle, 618 (0.9%)
7. University of California-Santa Cruz, 582 (1.6%)
8. University of Wisconsin-Madison, 576 (0.9%)
9. University of Arizona, 555 (0.9%)
10. University of Colorado-Boulder, 520 (1.0%)
11. University of Chicago, 517 (4.2%)
12. The University of Texas at Austin, 515 (0.6%)
13. New York University, 505 (1.0%)
14. University of Southern California, 502 (1.1%)
15. Columbia University in the City of New York, 485 (2.6%)
16. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 474 (1.1%)
17. University of California-Riverside, 461 (1.2%)
18. University of Pittsburgh-Pittsburgh Campus, 460 (1.1%)
19. University of California-Davis, 449 (0.7%)
20. Florida State University, 442 (0.6%)

Altogether, these twenty schools account for 17% of the philosophy degrees awarded in the U.S. Any policy change that affected these twenty schools would have a substantial impact on philosophy education in the country.

Penn, Boston College, University of Chicago, and maybe Columbia stand out for not only having many philosophy majors but also a high percentage of philosophy majors.

Most of these schools also have prominent PhD programs in philosophy. Together, they likely also produce at least 17% of the philosophy PhDs in the country. Perhaps the presence of strong PhD programs -- with graduate student role models, rich department activities, and many T.A.-led sections in large courses -- contributes to the large number of undergraduate majors.

Here are the 20 schools with this highest percentage of philosophy bachelor's degrees awarded, excluding seminaries.[2]

1. Franciscan University of Steubenville (6.2%)
2. University of Pennsylvania (4.9%)
3. The College of Wooster (4.6%)
4. Colgate University (4.3%)
5. University of Chicago (4.2%)
6. Ave Maria University (4.1%)
7. University of Dallas (4.0%)
8. Antioch College (3.9%)
9. Wheaton College (3.9%)
10. Boston College (3.7%)
11. University of Scranton (3.7%)
12. Whitman College (3.7%)
13. The Catholic University of America (3.7%)
14. Wabash College (3.6%)
15. Bard College at Simon's Rock (3.5%)
16. Gettysburg College (3.5%)
17. Reed College (3.4%)
18. University of St Thomas (3.2%)
19. Cornell College (3.2%)
20. Kenyon College (3.1%)

Six of the schools are Catholic (Franciscan, Ave Maria, Dallas, Boston, Scranton, Catholic U, and St Thomas), two are big research powerhouses (Penn and Chicago), and the rest are liberal arts colleges. Overall, 0.5% of bachelor's degree recipients major in philosophy.

ETA 10:56 a.m.-2:04 p.m.: One possible explanation for Penn's large numbers and percentage is that NCES might be counting their "Philosophy Politics and Economics" major as philosophy [category 38.01]. Similar classificiation issues might also affect other schools. NCES doesn't clarify the exact title of every major nor its criteria for counting a major as "philosophy".


[1] All numbers include students with philosophy as either their first or their second major. As usual in my analyses, I exclude University of Washington-Bothell, which lists 689 philosophy majors but does not have any major with "philosophy" in the title. This appears to be a classification problem, perhaps of their "Culture, Literature, and the Arts" major or their "Law, Economics, and Public Policy" major.

[2] Excluded from this list are seminaries, some of which appear to award only philosophy degrees, one school that was operational during only part of the period, another which recently closed, and a third in which all students complete a liberal arts major classified as "philosophy" by the NCES.