This article was published on September 15, 2020

This COVID-19 newsletter was written by a human

This COVID-19 newsletter was written by a human
Tristan Greene
Story by

Tristan Greene

Editor, Neural by TNW

Tristan is a futurist covering human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: Tristan is a futurist covering human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: He/him

Coronavirus in Context is a weekly newsletter where we bring you facts that matter about the COVID-19 pandemic and the technology trying to stop its spread. You can subscribe here.

Hola pandemic pals,

Summer ends in a week. I just Googled it to be sure and it still doesn’t make sense. None of 2020 makes sense. The US elections are six weeks away. It’s already pumpkin spice season. I am not ready for any of this.

I think everyone’s feeling the pain that comes from seeing life pass us by as 2020 drags on with crappy bandwidth. 

The good news should be that vaccines are imminent. We should begin to see several viable vaccine candidates emerge from phase three trials for final approval between now and early 2021. And that’s good, but it has to be taken with a bitter grain of salt. 

Vaccines aren’t off switches for diseases. We’ll actually need several vaccines to fight the coronavirus and even then, we’ll need a way to distribute them to everybody. 

The vaccine is just a small part of the solution, which is something people don’t want to hear. We’ve still got to do all the other stuff too. 

One of the biggest contributing factors to the propagation of COVID-19 has been misinformed people’s willingness to participate in the spread of partisan conspiracy theories and opine on matters they have absolutely no expertise in. 

It’s almost like millions of people are actually AIs constrained to the rules of their programmers. They have no choice, when given a specific prompt, but to generate a response based on how they’ve been trained. 

You have to admit, their behavior is more robot-like than human.

Take GPT-3 for example. It’s an AI system that was basically fed the internet as a database for generating novel text. That means it can speak on any subject… but never has a clue what it’s talking about.

Okay, now that I’m reading that paragraph again.. maybe GPT-3 is more human-like than I’ve been giving it credit for. 

By the numbers
Last week we revisited the COVID-19 infection numbers.

This week, let’s break down the vaccine outlook. (New York Times)

  • Total human trials underway: 40
  • Total phase one trials: 27
  • Total phase two trials: 14
  • Total phase three trials: 9
Tweet of the week
What to read
We’re gonna poverty like it’s 1870, chiggity check your privilege, and more Bill Gates… 
? Remember how “right now” is the best time to be alive? Not anymore. Welcome to pre-1870 life. (Business Insider)
? Trump’s “America First” policy means it won’t join 170 other countries in developing a vaccine. Pandemic to own the libs? Yikes. (Yahoo News)
World’s largest vaccine-maker says unlikely everyone will receive COVID-19 vaccine by 2024. (CNN)
? All your data is worthless in the post-COVID world. What are you going to do about it? (Neural)
? Predatory medical labs are charging over $800 for COVID testing as the pandemic bankrupts everyone else. (USA TODAY)
? Pittsburgh researchers may have discovered a molecule that fights COVID-19. (Pittsburgh’s Action News 4)
? Bill Gates warns that poverty, inequity, and disease (OTHER diseases) are going to rise to levels we haven’t seen in decades thanks to poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Business Insider)
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In this little section, we’d like to talk about the tech that’s getting us through the pandemic. This week, let’s talk about MC Hammer.

No, the man who cannot be touched isn’t getting us through the pandemic (though If anyone could…). But he is one of the few people on the planet with academic access to GPT-3.

In case you’ve missed it GPT-3 is an AI system developed by Open AI, the startup Elon Musk-founded to figure out general artificial intelligence.

We’re not all that impressed with the hype surrounding GPT-3 here at TNW (I edit Neural too, where we talk about AI all day every day) but the system itself is pretty interesting.

And for me, just knowing that MC Hammer is out there testing the system and putting it through its paces brings me deep comfort.

GPT-3 isn’t “smart” at all. It’s a dumb bunch of ones and zeros that spits out the text equivalent of a hazy silhouette. For this reason, its capabilities can be instantly dismissed by any science-minded individual on the hunt for signs of sentience.

Let me be blunt: GPT-3 is no closer to human-level intelligence than a dictionary that someone’s placed a USB cord inside as a bookmark. That’s not to say it isn’t an important step on the way there. It probably is. It’s just not the “intelligent” machine the media’s hyped it to be.

But it’s incredibly interesting. We’ve never seen that much raw power put behind a text generator. The permutations that can be effectively extrapolated with billions of parameters in play result in the machine spitting out some fascinating linguistic displays.

And Hammer knows what a “fascinating linguistic display” looks like when he sees one. Who better than a lifelong wordsmith with a masterful grasp on the uniquely human penchant for turning language into art to judge the capabilities of such a machine?

This is the crossover we need.

Well, bye

I have this magic crystal ball that doesn’t exist.

This week I asked it for an advanced copy of every COVID-19 research paper from the future. Instead, it just said “Vaccine? No Vaccine? 10 Vaccines? Doesn’t matter. Here’s a list of things you all need to do right now”.

Then it handed me a note that read:

1. Wear a mask.
2. Stay 2-3 meters away from others in public spaces.
3. Support government officials who take the pandemic seriously. 

Adios amigos,

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