Did He Say ‘Bird?’
As President Biden was reciting a list of bipartisan accomplishments during his State of the Union address this week, he seemed to use a phrase that I had never heard before: toxic bird pits.
Was it some major news story that I had missed while on leave over the past few months? Or was it the latest Biden malapropism, destined to dominate post-speech commentary? I tried to figure out the answer by typing the words into Google and Twitter, but they offered no clarity. Google had nothing for me. A Twitter search yielded dozens of people tweeting a version of “toxic bird pits???” and not much else.
You may have experienced your own version of this frustration at some point. Maybe you were watching the Oscars or a basketball game on TV, and you saw something that you wanted to understand in the moment. Maybe you had a question that was too complex for Google but was nonetheless answerable (like “How many of the same songs did Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday each record?”). As powerful as search engines and social media are, they still do a poor job with many forms of synthesis.
Enter artificial intelligence.
A.I. holds the promise of solving these problems, and there is now a race among the world’s technology companies to do so. Microsoft has taken an early lead, thanks to its investment in the company OpenAI, and it announced this week that it was incorporating A.I. technology into Bing, Microsoft’s long-mocked and suddenly relevant search engine. Google has responded by announcing its own plan to add A.I. to search.
Rizz and bussin
If you want to learn more about this subject, I recommend a new Times podcast conversation with Sam Altman, the C.E.O. of OpenAI, and Kevin Scott, Microsoft’s chief technology officer.
During the conversation, Scott offered his own example of my toxic-bird-pit confusion when he mentioned that his 14-year-old daughter sometimes used terms that meant nothing to him, like “rizz” and “bussin.” A.I. allows him to learn them, without enduring the small humiliation of admitting he didn’t know what she was talking about. As my colleague Kevin Roose, one of the podcast interviewers, said, “You automated the cool dad.”
A.I. technology isn’t yet good enough to answer such questions reliably, as highlighted by Google’s embarrassing recent gaffe involving the Webb Space Telescope, but the technology is improving rapidly. It has the potential to combine information across multiple websites and integrate it into a plain-spoken explanation, much as an in-the-know teenager might.
There are obviously more profound uses of A.I. than looking up slang, some of them promising and others alarming. A.I. might open computer programming to people who don’t know a programming language. (“The hottest new programming language is English,” Andrej Karpathy, a computer scientist, has said.) A.I. also has the potential to help immigrants who don’t know English communicate with their children’s teachers. On the other hand, A.I. can spread conspiracy theories and disinformation even more quickly than the internet already does.
One striking part of the podcast conversation is Altman’s acknowledgment of A.I.’s downsides and his belief that no company, including his, should be trusted to solve these problems. “Where we are right now is not where we want to be,” Altman said. “The way this should work is that there are extremely wide bounds of what these systems can do that are decided by not Microsoft or OpenAI, but society, governments, something like that.”
That’s a different case than the one traditionally made by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder, and other technology executives who have claimed that they can simultaneously look out for their company’s interests and for society’s. But their “trust us” argument doesn’t look so good today. Digital technology has exacerbated the spread of disinformation, political polarization and children’s mental illness. Our society has chosen to enjoy the benefits of technology without trying to mitigate its substantial downsides. As Altman points out, there are other options.
You can listen to the interview, part of The Times’s Hard Fork podcast, here.
Postscript: Biden was actually referring to — or meant to refer to — toxic burn pits, the name for bonfires in which the U.S. military incinerated trash while fighting overseas. These fires caused health problems for many troops, and Biden believes they contributed to the cancer that killed his son Beau.
THE LATEST NEWS
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Representative George Santos was charged with theft in 2017 over nine bad checks, including at least one to a dog breeder.
Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast spreads more misinformation than other political shows, the Brookings Institution found.
The Turkish city of Antakya, built on top of centuries of civilization, is in ruins again. Residents are living in cars and tents.
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More than 20,000 people have died; with so many victims, families are forced to rush traditional funerals.
Hundreds of bodies lined the pavement of a parking lot in southern Turkey, waiting for families to identify them.
Russia attacked cities across Ukraine with drones and rockets as President Volodymyr Zelensky wrapped up a two-day visit to European allies.
“They’re hunting me”: The mayor of Kherson, Ukraine, has been almost killed six times.
People in South Africa are enduring daily power outages of up to 10 hours as the country’s aging coal plants fall into disrepair.
Nicaragua released hundreds of political prisoners to try to restart relations with the U.S.
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American schools secretly and sometimes illegally remove students with disabilities from classes.
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Chinese censorship has stunted a generation’s ability to speak, write and even think about freedom, Mengyin Lin writes.
Liberals dismiss Ron DeSantis’s appeal at their peril, Pamela Paul says.
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The definitive Vermeer
An exhibition of the 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer opens today in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, a show that is probably “never to be replicated,” the Times critic Jason Farago writes.
It is the most comprehensive Vermeer collection assembled, bringing together more than three-quarters of his surviving works. It took years of diplomacy to organize because no museum wants to send away its Vermeers, even for a short while. The museum has already sold more than 200,000 tickets.
Vermeer’s popularity faded for centuries after his death, but the modern world has embraced him. Perhaps that’s because, in this frantic era, his hushed scenes of writers and maids remind us “that we are still human, and if only we find the right master, we can slow down time,” Jason writes.
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
What to Cook
THE LATEST NEWS
- The Chinese spy balloon had the ability to collect electronic communications and was part of a fleet that surveilled more than 40 countries, the State Department said.
- The special counsel investigating Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election subpoenaed Mike Pence.
- Senator John Fetterman, a Pennsylvania Democrat, is in the hospital after feeling lightheaded. His doctors have ruled out another stroke.
- Representative George Santos was charged with theft in 2017 over nine bad checks, including at least one to a dog breeder.
- Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast spreads more misinformation than other political shows, the Brookings Institution found.