Engines of enshittification

Via Ars Technica, I’ve learned that shady Amazon sellers have been using chatbots to automatically write item descriptions. The result is hot offers on items like “I cannot fulfill that request” and “I apologize but I cannot complete this task.” This is a natural progression from Amazon product listings which were simply misdescribed by humans.

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Who I am these days

Recent updates to the department website have added a direct link to my CV and a list of representative publications, so it made sense to rewrite my bio as well. Here’s what it says now:

His areas of research include philosophy of science, the philosophy of art and music, the epistemology of technology (Wikipedia and AI), and pragmatism. His work in the philosophy of science, motivated by a falliblist but non-sceptical conception of scientific knowledge, has addressed topics like the underdetermination of theory by data, natural kinds, and values in science. He regularly teaches courses in philosophy of science, logic, epistemology, pragmatism, and philosophy of art.

Hot takes on new things

Like pretty much everybody else, I’ve been thinking about chatbots and generative AI. Unlike other things I write about, like scurvy, this is a hot topic. It’s hard to keep up using my usual strategy of rambling here on the blog, ruminating, and letting ideas simmer. Nevertheless, there are these two papers:

Three egocentric top-five lists

It is never clear to me which things I’ve written have had the most impact. Two easy answers: First, there is forall x. It exists in myriad versions now, customized and translated by people around the world. But that’s a textbook, so it isn’t readily comparable to all the other things. Second, nothing I have written has had too much impact. Still, one can make distinctions even in the low end.

So here are some metrics.

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A fair showing

At Daily Nous, there’s discussion of how much philosophy sites figure in Google’s C4 data set— and so in the training set of Large Language Models. The Washington Post has a widget to search for the rank of specific domains.

This very site— this blog plus my other foofaraw— ranks 612,096th with about 38 thousand tokens.

My old blog ranks close behind at 625,716th with about 37k tokens.

Although the tool isn’t designed to give this kind of result, the two together would rank somewhere around 300,000th.

Network theology

There’s a rush now at Google and Microsoft to incorporate chatbots into their search engines, which seems apt to undercut the usefulness of search engines.

Suppose you want a list of Ruben Bolling’s God-Man comics. The words that a large-language model will string together about God-Man, based on having taking the whole internet as its corpus, will be nonspecific, incomplete, and probably error-ridden. The best source on this topic would be an official webpage or a fan page. There is no official God-Man episode guide, but I happen to maintain what is probably the only God-Man fan page. The best answer to the query is not to digest my page along with ten thousand others, but just to link to my page.

For lots of perfectly ordinary queries, one wants a dedicated webpage or site rather than the word-salad gestalt of a general purpose tool. So a traditional search engine can provide answers that a chatbot will only obscure.

This post was prompted by OmnipotentFriends, the latest adventure of God-Man and the cause of an update to the fan page.

A column, an address, a garden

  • A public-facing article that I wrote about cover songs appeared today at Psyche under the title They’re playing our song! The philosophical puzzle of cover songs. I was prompted to focus on just a single example, so most of my discussion revolves around “‘Crazy’ – not the Gnarls Barkley song, but the Patsy Cline song.” There’s some new stuff in it, although nothing that wasn’t at least anticipated in my earlier work.
  • Given the much-discussed mishegas, I’ve stopped using Twitter. My idle moments scrolling and posting have moved to Mastodon, where I’m @news4wombats@mastodon.social
  • My Philosophy of Art class is winding down, so I’m getting some summary student feedback. I asked students which of the artworks that we discussed was their favourite. The winner, by a large margin, was Martha Schwartz’s Bagel Garden.
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