It’s been a long, weird summer.
We dropped off our oldest at college in Milan a few weeks ago. He’ll be studying economics and political science. Aside from missing him, I’ve been thinking about the world he’s about to inherit.
Although no sane commentator will admit it, the world is holding its breath. We have just hit one of those hills in history and we’re about to see what lies on the other side. AI is the first part of the climb. AI, at this point, is akin to an Atari 800XL in the hands of a smart kid circa 1980: it was a tool that let you do some amazing things, things that were unavailable to 99% of the human population for most of the century, and it was only the beginning.
I remember reading this bit about the original Atari from a review written by Ted Nelson:
Up got Ludwig Braun with his fierce mustache and apologetic manner, Lud Braun who .has tried indefatigably for so long to arouse the educational establishment to the educational potential of simulation and Iittle computers; up got he, at an Advent screen, and said he had a new machine to show us.
He turned on the Atari.
Here is what we experienced.
We are on a spaceship, cruising
at near-light speeds. Stars are on the screen, but they part before us, moving smoothly out from a common center as we cleave the void. A low rumble - ship's noise or remanant Big Bang - accompanies our movement.
The pilot turns. The stars still move apart for us, but now the center of diverging motion has moved to another part of the screen. Stars pass each other- they must be the near ones - and we see that the display really shows us moving through stars in three dimensions.
PLANETS shoot by.
Enough of the slow stuff. Let's take this baby out for a spin.
Acceleration! The rumble rises in pitch and volume. The stars really start to fly apart. HYPERWARP ENGAGED, flashes a warning on the screen. Faster and faster shoot the stars, as from a Fourth-of-July sparkler, AND NOW THE SCREEN IS RED IN SUDDEN SILENCE, AND IT FLASHES "HYPERWARP"!
And out again! There is roaring anew, and new stars split to let us pass, but we are slowing down now.
The rumble lowers. We have gone halfway across the universe.
Stuart and I were shouting and cheering and clapping. I think I may have been on my feet with excitement. The Educators turned to stare at us. "What does this have to do with Education?" asked their faces. Guys, if you don't know, we can't tell you.
I've been in computer graphics for twenty years, and I lay awake night after night trying to understand how that Atari machine did what it did.
This is what he was talking about:
Impressive, huh? But to a generation who saw computing as a scare resource rather than a right, emanating from a box about as big as a loaf of bread, those graphics were incredible.
At this point in AI’s evolution, we can use it to write blog posts, have Marlon Brando try out for a 1960s Batman movie in an alternate reality, and put MDouble-click into a Catwoman suit. All of these examples are as complex as the video game above. They are the first examples of commercial products designed for mass adoption. That mass adoption is coming. What does it mean for us humans?
In one of the books I’m recommending this week, the builders of the Duomo in Florence were, for decades, required to promise that they wouldn’t alter the plans of the church from the original model built centuries before. For centuries they labored on a model that would, in the end, fail and which was, in the end, impossible to build.
A single man - Filippo Brunelleschi - redesigned the dome so that it could be built and even created amazing cranes and lifts to make it work. The result was a masterpiece that heralded the beginning of the Renaissance.
We are at a similar point in history. We’re climbing. We’re about to crest. And the vertigo of the fall will change everything, everywhere. We just have to hold on.
I reread this book every few years just to see if it still holds up. The whole thing, taken as a picture of post-War America, is interesting and the story itself - a trek across the U.S. - resonates with every generation. During this reading, I noticed the flatness of the prose and Kerouac’s inability to instill humanity in his friends - Ginsberg, Cassady, Hunke, and all the Beat characters are the same. Even William Burroughs, a cadaver with a gun, is flat. Kerouac defined postmodern travel literature and as long as you don’t mind reading about dudes who get drunk and have sex then you can probably give this another go.
Who cares about a dome? It turns out, you should. This book is about the Duomo of Florence. I saw this beast two weeks ago and was entranced. The dome, built by a little-known goldsmith, redefined architecture for centuries and essentially brought about the Renaissance. Brunelleschi's plans and methods were secret during his lifetime and helped usher in a new era of constriction. Interestingly, Brunelleschi also created many construction inventions including a massive crane to bring bricks and tile up to the top of the dome. The book isn’t great but the story is marvelous.
I’d love whatever Silence of the Lambs novelist Thomas Harris was smoking when he wrote this because his confidence is off the charts and the writing is horrible. I hadn’t heard of this book when it came out, for good reason: it’s poorly paced and lacks any of the traditional sadistic charm of his Hannibal books. He was trying to pull off an Elmore Leonard and forgot that Leonard writes about humans, not caricatures.