News 22.04.24: Five Essential Articles from Around the Web

News 22.04.24: Five Essential Articles from Around the Web
News 22.04.24: Five Essential Articles from Around the Web
News 22.04.24: Five Essential Articles from Around the Web

On the afternoon of March 11th, 2011, Mitsuyoshi Hirai, the chief engineer of the cable maintenance ship Ocean Link, was sitting in his cabin 20 miles off Japan’s eastern coast, completing the paperwork that comes at the end of every repair. Two weeks earlier, something — you rarely knew what — damaged the 13,000-mile fiber optic cable connecting Kitaibaraki, Japan, and Point Arena, California. Alarms went off; calls were made; and the next day, Hirai was sailing out of the port in Yokohama to fix it.

The repair was now nearly done. All that remained was to rebury the cable on the seafloor, which they were doing using a bulldozer-sized remotely operated submersible named Marcas — and, of course, the paperwork.

Suddenly, the ship began to shudder. Hirai got to his feet, found he could barely stand, and staggered out of his cabin, grasping the handrail as he pulled himself up the narrow stairway to the bridge. “Engine trouble?” Hirai asked the captain, who’d already checked and replied that everything seemed normal. The ship continued to tremble. Looking out from the bridge, the sea appeared to be boiling.

A sketch of the Ocean Link in port in Yokohama transitions into a video of the ship. A bird flies overhead and waves lap at its hull.

They turned on the television. An emergency alert showed that an earthquake had struck 130 miles northeast of their location. The shaking finally stopped, and in the silence, Hirai’s mind leapt to what would come next: a tsunami.

Hirai feared these waves more than most people. He had grown up hearing the story of how one afternoon in 1923, his aunt felt the ground shake, swept up her two-year-old brother, and sprinted uphill to the cemetery, narrowly escaping floods and fires that killed over 100,000 people. That child became Hirai’s father, so he owed his existence to his aunt’s quick thinking. Now, he found himself in the same position. He knew tsunamis become dangerous when all the water displaced by the quake reaches shallow water and slows and grows taller. The Ocean Link, floating in less than 500 feet of water, was too shallow for comfort.


Read the rest of this article at: The Verge

Recently, Bonaventure Dossou learned of an alarming tendency in a popular AI model. The program described Fon—a language spoken by Dossou’s mother and millions of others in Benin and neighboring countries—as “a fictional language.”


This result, which I replicated, is not unusual. Dossou is accustomed to the feeling that his culture is unseen by technology that so easily serves other people. He grew up with no Wikipedia pages in Fon, and no translation programs to help him communicate with his mother in French, in which he is more fluent. “When we have a technology that treats something as simple and fundamental as our name as an error, it robs us of our personhood,” Dossou told me.


The rise of the internet, alongside decades of American hegemony, made English into a common tongue for business, politics, science, and entertainment. More than half of all websites are in English, yet more than 80 percent of people in the world don’t speak the language. Even basic aspects of digital life—searching with Google, talking to Siri, relying on autocorrect, simply typing on a smartphone—have long been closed off to much of the world. And now the generative-AI boom, despite promises to bridge languages and cultures, may only further entrench the dominance of English in life on and off the web.


Scale is central to this technology. Compared with previous generations, today’s AI requires orders of magnitude more computing power and training data, all to create the humanlike language that has bedazzled so many users of ChatGPT and other programs. Much of the information that generative AI “learns” from is simply scraped from the open web. For that reason, the preponderance of English-language text online could mean that generative AI works best in English, cementing a cultural bias in a technology that has been marketed for its potential to “benefit humanity as a whole.” Some other languages are also well positioned for the generative-AI age, but only a handful: Nearly 90 percent of websites are written in just 10 languages (English, Russian, Spanish, German, French, Japanese, Turkish, Portuguese, Italian, and Persian).


Some 7,000 languages are spoken in the world. Google Translate supports 133 of them. Chatbots from OpenAI, Google, and Anthropic are still more constrained. “There’s a sharp cliff in performance,” Sara Hooker, a computer scientist and the head of Cohere for AI, a nonprofit research arm of the tech company Cohere, told me. “Most of the highest-performance [language] models serve eight to 10 languages. After that, there’s almost a vacuum.” As chatbots, translation devices, and voice assistants become a crucial way to navigate the web, that rising tide of generative AI could wash out thousands of Indigenous and low-resource languages such as Fon—languages that lack sufficient text with which to train AI models.


“Many people ignore those languages, both from a linguistic standpoint and from a computational standpoint,” Ife Adebara, an AI researcher and a computational linguist at the University of British Columbia, told me. Younger generations will have less and less incentive to learn their forebears’ tongues. And this is not just a matter of replicating existing issues with the web: If generative AI indeed becomes the portal through which the internet is accessed, then billions of people may in fact be worse off than they are today.



Adebara and Dossou, who is now a computer scientist at Canada’s McGill University, work with Masakhane, a collective of researchers building AI tools for African languages. Masakhane, in turn, is part of a growing, global effort racing against the clock to create software for, and hopefully save, languages that are poorly represented on the web. In recent decades, “there has been enormous progress in modeling low-resource languages,” Alexandra Birch, a machine-translation researcher at the University of Edinburgh, told me.


In a promising development that speaks to generative AI’s capacity to surprise, computer scientists have discovered that some AI programs can pinpoint aspects of communication that transcend a specific language. Perhaps the technology could be used to make the web more aware of less common tongues. A program trained on languages for which a decent amount of data are available—English, French, or Russian, say—will then perform better in a lower-resourced language, such as Fon or Punjabi. “Every language is going to have something like a subject or a verb,” Antonios Anastasopoulos, a computer scientist at George Mason University, told me. “So even if these manifest themselves in very different ways, you can learn something from all of the other languages.” Birch likened this to how a child who grows up speaking English and German can move seamlessly between the two, even if they haven’t studied direct translations between the languages—not moving from word to word, but grasping something more fundamental about communication.

Read the rest of this article at: The Atlantic

News 22.04.24: Five Essential Articles from Around the Web

IN THE WAKE of Labour’s crushing defeat in the UK’s 2019 general election, I walked home weeping from a friend’s flat at 6 a.m., with already peeling “Vote Labour” stickers covering my coat. A sodden, rose-festooned flyer floated in the gutter. When I finally woke up after that dismal night, I found myself reaching, bleary-eyed, for texts written in the wake of earlier election defeats. Jeremy Corbyn first became an MP in 1983, the year I was born, in an election in which Margaret Thatcher, who had swept to power in 1979, increased her parliamentary majority to 144 against the left-wing Labour leader Michael Foot.

When I read the closing words of the dedication to Stuart Hall’s The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left, a collection of essays written between 1978 and 1988 that take stock of Thatcher’s appeal and the left’s failures to offer an alternative, I started to cry again. The book is dedicated to Hall’s children, “who spent their adolescence under the shadow of ‘Iron Times’—in the hope of better things to come.” As part of a younger generation who had grown up under Thatcher and John Major and protested against the war in Iraq under New Labour, and then against Tory austerity, it seemed as if the Iron Times had never really ended. After a surreal interlude of strained hopefulness, in which many people I had first encountered as masked-up anarchists at student movement protests in 2010 had abruptly swerved into parliamentary politics, it once again seemed that things would never get better.

Read the rest of this article at: The Baffler

News 22.04.24: Five Essential Articles from Around the Web

I came across a TikTok recently that articulated something about my face I’d been struggling with. It was one of those videos where the speaker sits in the front seat of her car as if she’s been so overcome by an epiphany that she had to pull over and share. In this one, the thirty-seven-year-old user, @lesswastedliving, expresses bewilderment at her struggle to recognize her changing face in the images she produces nearly every day. “It’s just odd to seek yourself in the mirror or on camera and not being able to find it and having to become okay with this new person,” she says.

I understand how she feels. Since my fortieth birthday, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to take good selfies. It’s not so much an issue of wrinkles or grey hairs—although I have both. It’s that the muscles of my face are weakening. To keep my eyes from drooping before I hit the button, I pop them open wide and come out looking surprised, even a bit manic. Though I’ve recognized small changes in my face before, this is the first time they’ve challenged my photography skills. With each new shot, I wonder: Who is this woman that I’m trying to capture?

Endless pages have been written about the cultural meaning of the selfie—whether it represents the essential vanity of millennials and Gen Zers or, as many feminists have argued, it offers a vital source of self-definition that short-circuits the male gaze. A large chunk of research done on selfies focuses on the effects they have on the self-esteem of teens and young adults, periods of life that were already marked by self-consciousness long before filters came along to confuse things.

There is far less research on the long-term effect of this behaviour: how taking and sharing selfies over a period of decades affects a person’s perception of aging or time itself. Women around my age—those of us who live on the line between baby Gen X and elder millennial—are watching our identities shift in real time in a way no previous generation has experienced en masse.

Read the rest of this article at: The Walrus

News 22.04.24: Five Essential Articles from Around the Web

It’s 2016. I’m a contemporary artist and have been living off of Medicaid, food stamps, and $20k annually since graduating from art school five years ago. I see the return policies offered by Bezos and the Waltons as loan agreements; I lend them $1,500, and the interest they pay is my use of a new hard drive. While TurboTaxing I hallucinate a DJ software skin and use the expense estimate sliders as fraud modulators. I accept unpaid exhibition offers from salaried curators and gallerists in far-flung cities and tack on lecture stops at $150 a pop, spending as much time as possible as a guest in circulation so as to avoid paying rent anywhere.

This hustle will continue for five more years, but right now I feel like I’m going blue-chip because I’m about to show new videos in four different biennials. One of these new videos—Ode to Seekers 2012—is a loose adaptation of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and depicts 3D animated mosquitos, syringes, and oil pumps sucking and fucking a surface that looks, alternately, like human skin under a microscope, desert salt flats, or potato casserole. Set to a remix I had made of Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” the video is celebratory in tone, freeing me from what I’ve begun to call the “cottage industry of critical art,” [1] an echo chamber/conference room in which overeducated tryhards attempt to outperform each other with the most perfect politics possible. The video doesn’t have a point; it’s more like a knot.

These biennials will ultimately amount to a deficit due to their meager production budgets, but FedEx loses my Robin Williams Window Shade sculpture, and I collect $9,000 in insurance value. New York increasingly feels like a sexy jail or a 9/11-themed Sbarro, so I use the money to buy a 2000 Volvo S70 with 250,000 miles on it for $500 from my dad, who likes to fix up totaled jalopies with his friend. The AC’s cooked, but the summer is my window of opportunity, so I head west in late June to become an “LA Artist,” which to me is an indicator that one has achieved adequate exposure and now needs time and space to focus on commissions to come.

In LA I realize it’s impossible to get a lease when your income is an insurance money bonanza and three €150 checks from European art schools. But I also realize that if I answer, “How are you?” with “Fine . . . I’m looking for a place to stay,” everyone knows someone who needs a plant sitter. Rather than seeing the crust punk through the Lacoste or realizing that my storage unit is my car trunk, people seem to think I’m a rich kid with a Volvo quirk. Looking like gay Abe Lincoln probably helps.

In September I go to South Korea to show Ode to Seekers 2012 at the Gwangju Biennial. The beast mode I typically find myself in during the install-to-opening phase intensifies into a full-blown mania. At the press preview, I take too much Adderall and start crying when asked what art is, tears that imply the inability of language to account for the sublime. I watch my piece over and over and decide my next project will be a 3D animated Humpty Dumpty video drawing from Lewis Carroll and James Joyce.


Read the rest of this article at: The Baffler