News 29.01.24: Five Essential Articles from Around the Web

News 29.01.24: Five Essential Articles from Around the Web
News 29.01.24: Five Essential Articles from Around the Web
News 29.01.24: Five Essential Articles from Around the Web

In 1971, with great fanfare, President Richard Nixon announced the War on Cancer. Modern medicine, he declared, would finally end this great scourge.

But years later, when scholars evaluated this effort, the verdict was clear: cancer had won. Yes, there were incremental inroads in fighting it with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, but the number of cancer deaths remained stubbornly high. Cancer is still the second-leading killer in the U.S., next to cardiovascular diseases. Worldwide, it killed 9.5 million people in 2018.

The fundamental problem with the War on Cancer was that scientists did not know what cancer really was. There was a raging debate about whether this dreaded disease was caused by a single factor, or a confusing collection of them, such as diet, pollution, genetics, viruses, radiation, smoking or just bad luck.

Several decades later, advances in genetics and biotechnology have finally revealed the answer. At the most fundamental level, cancer is a disease of our genes, but it can be triggered by environmental poisons, radiation and other factors like plain bad luck. In fact, cancer is not one disease at all, but thousands of different types of mutations in our genes. There are now encyclopedias of the various types of cancers that cause healthy cells to suddenly proliferate and kill the host.

Read the rest of this article at: Noema

In a video of the Air Force Academy’s graduation ceremony last June, Joe Biden, wearing a navy suit and a blue ball cap, shakes the hand of a smiling cadet before turning to walk back to his seat. But, instead of smoothly exiting stage left, the President takes an inelegant nosedive. “There are just too many clips of this man falling,” one commenter wrote on the TikTok account of NBC News, where a video of the incident has been viewed 2.5 million times. “I genuinely feel bad for him,” another said, displaying a pitying empathy that might make Biden’s advisers cringe. “Falling like this at his age is very serious,” the podcaster Robby Starbuck wrote in a post that included a full video of the incident. “He’s in no condition to run.” Brendon Leslie, a conservative media personality, tweeted a photo of Biden being helped up and wrote, “The state of America in one picture.”

It’s true that Biden, who is eighty-one, has seen his feet make an enemy of him from time to time. In March, 2021, after the President stumbled while climbing the stairs to board Air Force One, the New York Post aggregated the inevitable memes, including one that showed former President Donald Trump driving a golf ball that bopped Biden in the back of the head. In June, 2022, Biden fell off his bike during a ride near his vacation home, in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, and the moment—which looked painful—was caught on camera by bystanders. In September, 2023, when the President momentarily lost his balance walking down the stairs of Air Force One, Fox News devoted an entire article to the near-stumble. Biden’s struggles with steps have become such a flash point that, last November, video shot from a distance of someone tumbling down the stairs of Air Force One, after the plane had landed in Poland, set off a wave of misinformation on social media that the tumbler had been Biden. The Associated Press issued a fact-check article about the incident, clarifying that its own reporters had watched Biden walk down the plane’s stairs unscathed.

Loss of balance is a normal part of the aging process. In Biden’s most recent physical, from February, 2023, the White House physician Kevin O’Connor issued the President a clean bill of health but noted that he has spinal arthritis, which, along with a foot injury, accounts for his stiff gait. Axios reported that Biden was wearing sneakers more, working out with a physical therapist to improve his balance, and that his team had found a shorter set of stairs for him to use when entering and exiting Air Force One. The White House has often dismissed news cycles involving the President’s battles with gravity as distractions from issues that voters are worried about, such as abortion access and prescription-drug costs. But polls consistently show that a large majority of Americans (and a majority of Democrats) think Biden is too old to be effective for another term in office. The President’s approval rating, meanwhile, just about matches what Trump’s was following Trump’s attempt to overturn the election on January 6, 2021. Inflation is down. The stock market is hitting record highs. Setting aside nebulous factors such as the “vibecession,” it seems reasonable to assume that Biden’s low favorability correlates with doubts about his age. Trump is seventy-seven and often rambling and shouty on the stump. And yet he seems much less affected by the question of age. Why? The answer might be, in a word, memes.

Read the rest of this article at: The New Yorker

News 29.01.24: Five Essential Articles from Around the Web

It looked like an aluminum beach ball with four car antennas sticking out. Stuffed with radio transmitters, history’s first human-made satellite emitted a spectral beeping signal from its solitary orbit for just three weeks before its batteries died. That was enough to terrify the world.

The Soviet Union’s 1957 surprise launch of Sputnik was, famously, the jump scare that startled the United States into a space race. But in a lesser-known series of events, Sputnik’s appearance also frightened many of Earth’s non-superpowers into taking decisive action. Facing the real possibility—just 12 years after Hiroshima—that Moscow and Washington were about to turn the commanding heights of space into rival platforms for mass annihilation, a group of diplomats at the United Nations began looking for a way to preemptively contain the two rivals. As NASA and the Soviet Space Agency jockeyed to outdo each other’s rockets, a UN committee slogged for 10 years to come up with a treaty that could successfully balance the interests of Russia, the US, and the rest of the world, before it was too late.

Read the rest of this article at: Wired

News 29.01.24: Five Essential Articles from Around the Web

Artificial intelligence seems more powerful than ever, with chatbots like Bard and ChatGPT capable of producing uncannily humanlike text. But for all their talents, these bots still leave researchers wondering: Do such models actually understand what they are saying? “Clearly, some people believe they do,” said the AI pioneer Geoff Hinton in a recent conversation with Andrew Ng, “and some people believe they are just stochastic parrots.”

This evocative phrase comes from a 2021 paper co-authored by Emily Bender, a computational linguist at the University of Washington. It suggests that large language models (LLMs) — which form the basis of modern chatbots — generate text only by combining information they have already seen “without any reference to meaning,” the authors wrote, which makes an LLM “a stochastic parrot.”

These models power many of today’s biggest and best chatbots, so Hinton argued that it’s time to determine the extent of what they understand. The question, to him, is more than academic. “So long as we have those differences” of opinion, he said to Ng, “we are not going to be able to come to a consensus about dangers.”

New research may have intimations of an answer. A theory developed by Sanjeev Arora of Princeton University and Anirudh Goyal, a research scientist at Google DeepMind, suggests that the largest of today’s LLMs are not stochastic parrots. The authors argue that as these models get bigger and are trained on more data, they improve on individual language-related abilities and also develop new ones by combining skills in a manner that hints at understanding — combinations that were unlikely to exist in the training data.

This theoretical approach, which provides a mathematically provable argument for how and why an LLM can develop so many abilities, has convinced experts like Hinton, and others. And when Arora and his team tested some of its predictions, they found that these models behaved almost exactly as expected. From all accounts, they’ve made a strong case that the largest LLMs are not just parroting what they’ve seen before.

“[They] cannot be just mimicking what has been seen in the training data,” said Sébastien Bubeck, a mathematician and computer scientist at Microsoft Research who was not part of the work. “That’s the basic insight.”

Read the rest of this article at: Quanta Magazine

News 29.01.24: Five Essential Articles from Around the Web

The disappearance of the Scots language from its native land is more than a linguistic conundrum. It is testament to Scotland’s distinctive status within the British Isles and its complex relationship with England, both of whom once spoke related but distinct Germanic tongues.

Every January, Scots around the world gather to celebrate the life and work of their national poet: Robert Burns. The centrepiece of this communal birthday celebration is a voluptuous, savoury sphere of offal, onion, oatmeal, suet, and spices encased in a sheep’s stomach. The famed and unfairly reviled haggis, in other words. Its entrance is traditionally accompanied by the playing of bagpipes, after which one lucky individual is tasked with giving the Address to the Haggis.

Written by Burns in 1786, its opening lines are some of the best-known lines of poetry in Scotland:

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,

Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!

When the poem reaches its climax, a knife is drawn:

His knife see rustic Labour dicht,

And then plunged into the haggis, tearing it open:

An’cut you up wi’ ready slicht,

Trenching your gushing entrails bricht,

Like ony ditch;

And then, O what a glorious sicht,

Warm-reekin, rich!

The disembowelled haggis is now ready to eat, traditionally served with ‘neeps and tatties’ (mashed turnips and potatoes). Beverages are consumed, further poems are read, and the night concludes.

It does not take a trained linguist to notice that the language deployed by Burns to address Scotland’s national dish is far from standard English. It is far even from a ‘Scottish accent’, let alone Scottish Standard English. The language of Burns’ poem is in fact not English at all, but Scots, the country’s native Germanic tongue.

By Burns’ time its spelling was influenced enough by English that it appears like a strange dialect of it, accentuated by the apostrophes that are used in writing to convey colloquial speech, but it was not always so. Though they shared a common linguistic ancestor, Scots and English developed independently for centuries.

An English herald delivering a message to the (French) Queen of Scotland in 1560 found himself sufficiently perplexed by the ‘Scottyshe tongue’ that he ‘well not understanding [it] was forced to speak French’. In the same era Scandinavian, Dutch, French, and German sources all attest to awareness of a separate Scottish language. An Italian scholar resident in England even noted that Elizabeth I spoke ‘Greeke, Latine, Italian, French, Spanish, Scottish, Flemish and English’.

Read the rest of this article at: Engelsberg Ideas