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The real trick is when companies use it to get you to buy things like my new book Bea Wolf, which will change your life.
The real trick is when companies use it to get you to buy things like my new book Bea Wolf, which will change your life.
For a few weeks now I've been promoting spell-casting as a metaphor for prompt design against generative AI systems such as GPT-3 and Stable Diffusion.
Here's an example, in this snippet from my recent Changelog podcast episode.
Relevant section towards the end (transcription assisted by Whisper):
When you're working with these, you're not a programmer anymore. You're a wizard, right? I always wanted to be a wizard. We get to be wizards now. And we're learning these spells. We don't know why they work. Why does Neuromancer work? Who knows? Nobody knows. But you add it to your spell book and then you combine it with other spells. And if you're unlucky and combine them in the wrong way, you might get demons coming out at you.
I had an interesting debate on Twitter this morning about whether or not this metaphor is harmful or helpful. There are some very interesting points to discuss!
The short version: I'm now convinced that the value of this metaphor changes based on the audience.
The key challenge here is to avoid implying that these systems are "magical" in that they are incomprehensible and mysterious. As such, I believe the metaphor is only appropriate when you're talking to people who are working with these systems from a firm technical perspective.
When I compare prompts to spells and I'm talking to another software engineer, here's the message I am trying to convey:
Writing prompts is not like writing regular code. There is no API reference or programming language specification that will let you predict exactly what will happen.
Instead, you have to experiment: try different fragments of prompts and see what works. As you get a feel for these fragments you can then start exploring what happens when you combine them together.
Over time you will start to develop an intuition for what works. You'll build your own collection of fragments and patterns, and exchange those with other people.
The weird thing about this process is that no-one can truly understand exactly how each fragment works - not even the creators of the models. We've learned that "Trending on artstation" produces better images with Stable Diffusion - but we can only ever develop a vague intuition for why.
It honestly feels more like fictional spell-casting than programming. Each fragment is a new spell that you have learned and can add to your spell book.
It's confusing, and surprising, and a great deal of fun.
For me, this captures my experience working with prompts pretty accurately. My hope is that this is a useful way to tempt other programmers into exploring this fascinating new area.
The other thing I like about this metaphor is that, to my mind, it touches on some of the risks of generative AI as well.
Fiction is full of tales of magic gone wrong: of wizards who lost control of forces that they did not fully understand.
When I think about prompt injection attacks I imagine good wizards and evil wizards casting spells and counter-spells at each other! Software vulnerabilities in plain English totally fit my mental model of casting spells.
But in debating this on Twitter I realized that whether this metaphor makes sense to you relies pretty heavily on which specific magic system comes to mind for you.
I was raised on Terry Pratchett's Discworld, which has a fantastically rich and deeply satirical magic system. Incorrect incantations frequently produce demons! Discworld wizards are mostly academics who spend more time thinking about lunch than practicing magic. The most interesting practitioners are the witches, for who the most useful magic is more like applied psychology ("headalogy" in the books.)
If your mental model of "magic" is unexplained supernatural phenomenon and fairies granting wishes then my analogy doesn't really fit.
The argument for this metaphor causing harm is tied to the larger challenge of helping members of the public understand what is happening in this field.
Look behind the curtain: Don’t be dazzled by claims of ‘artificial intelligence’ by Emily M. Bender is a useful summary of some of these challenges.
In Technology Is Magic, Just Ask The Washington Post from 2015 Jon Evans makes the case that treating technology as "magic" runs a risk of people demanding solutions to societal problems that cannot be delivered.
Understanding exactly what these systems are capable of and how they work is a hard enough for people with twenty years of software engineering experience, let alone everyone else.
The last thing people need is to be told that these systems are "magic" - something that is permanently beyond their understanding and control.
These systems are not magic. They're mathematics. It turns out that if you throw enough matrix multiplication and example data (literally terabytes of it) at a problem, you can get a system that can appear to do impossible things.
But implying that they are magic - or even that they are "intelligent" - does not give people a useful mental model. GPT-3 is not a wizard, and it's not intelligent: it's a stochastic parrot, capable of nothing more than predicting which word should come next to form a sentence that best matches the corpus it has been trained on.
This matters to me a great deal. In conversations I have had around AI ethics the only universal answer I've found is that it is ethical to help people understand what these systems can do and how they work.
So I plan to be more intentional with my metaphors. I'll continue to enthuse about spell-casting with fellow nerds who aren't at risk of assuming these systems are incomprehensible magic, but I'll keep searching for better ways to help explain these systems to everyone else.
Feeding AI systems on the world’s beauty, ugliness, and cruelty, but expecting it to reflect only the beauty is a fantasy
I'm ready to start this cult if anyone wants to join me.
Hello, everyone, and welcome to what will be (spoiler) my last post for a while.
There have been several times I have wanted to talk about my time at Miami University on here, but I have such complicated feelings towards the whole thing that I always shy away from it. I don’t just avoid talking about it on here, though, I avoid conversating about it in person, too.
I dread when people inevitably ask me about it. I abhor any mention of my path to higher education. I detest any conversation about college. But as I said, it’s inevitable, right? I’m a college-aged kid, of course people are going to ask me if I’m in school. And if they know I’m in school, then of course they’re going to ask how it’s going. People ask because they’re curious, or because they care. No one ever asks with ill intent or malice, so why is it so upsetting when people bring it up to me? I can’t be mad at someone for mentioning a topic just because I happen to have a lot of negative emotions surrounding that topic, right? Right.
Long story short: I totally failed out of Miami.
Long story long: My freshman year at Miami, I started out with six classes. And for the first couple weeks, I went to every class, and did all the assignments. And then after those first few weeks, I thought to myself, what if I just didn’t? And so began my long, long period of never going to class and never doing any schoolwork. Semester after semester.
Why go to my 8am class when I could just sleep instead? Why go to my noon class when I could grab lunch with a friend instead? Why do an assignment on a Friday night when I could be having a movie night with my dorm pals instead? Why do any of it when I could just do something else, something infinitely more fun, instead?
Obviously, this mentality led to some problems. Put that on top of the mentality of “well if I just don’t look at my grades, they don’t exist”, and soon enough you’ll have an entire semester of straight Fs. It happens very quickly, and once it does, it is quite literally impossible to fix.
So, every semester, once I hit that point of no return, where I knew no amount of trying hard the remainder of the semester could fix what I’d done up to that point, I considered it a loss and told myself I’d try again next semester, but since this one was a total loss, I didn’t have to do anything for the rest of it since it would all be for nothing anyway.
After the first semester of straight Fs, Miami gave me an “academic warning”, which basically meant if my next semester was below a 2.0 GPA, I’d get put on “academic probation”. I also had to take an online course about why failing is bad, and how to avoid failing. It was honestly kind of humiliating.
Funny enough, I actually passed one class that semester with a B, but the rest were Fs, and Miami put me on “academic probation”, which is like “academic warning” but more serious. Basically, if I got less than a 2.0 the following semester, I’d get “academic suspension” and be kicked out for two semesters.
At this point, I had almost no credits to show for my freshman year. So I decided to take two summer classes. They were online, and I took one in June and one in July. I passed both, one with a 92% and one with a 102%. Things were looking up! So I started sophomore year off optimistic. I was in a new dorm that was directly in the center of campus, so all my classes were a one minute walk away, unlike my previous dorm which was on the outskirts of campus and gave me all the more reason not to go to class.
That semester, instead of an online course about not failing, I had to take an in-person class about not failing! That was just great. So nice to be surrounded by fellow failures. I don’t think it really did much for me because I ended up failing that semester too! And Miami was ready to kick me to the curb.
Obviously, not a great situation, so I had the genius idea to blame everything on my disability. Poor narcoleptic girl, falling asleep in every class, falling asleep every time she cracked open a textbook to do any studying, falling asleep every time she opened her laptop to write a paper. Truly tragic.
I have struggled with my narcolepsy for years, in many ways, but college made me realize how debilitating it truly is. I am still trying to figure out “did my disability actually disable me, or am I being overdramatic? Am I falsely blaming my disability when the true problem is me, and my disability is just an easy cover-up?” You know, I don’t really know. It’s a mix of a lot of things.
I genuinely did fall asleep in every class, which in turn made me not want to go because that shit is fucking embarrassing. But I also didn’t go because I didn’t feel like it. And I really couldn’t make it through a paragraph in a textbook without nodding off. But I also didn’t really open my textbooks very often to begin with. It was truly a co-morbidity.
So, yeah, I told Miami, “wait, don’t be mad at lil’ ol’ me, my brain is broken!” It took several doctors notes, and several forms, but I got Miami to erase my entire freshman year. All those Fs, just wiped away, and I was back on academic warning for the semester I had just goofed. However, I didn’t have to retake the courses about not failing, so that was cool.
Moving forward to spring semester of sophomore year, I was now registered with the disability services, so I could request accommodations from my professors. But what was there to request? There’s not really anything to be done about my problem. Like, yeah, if a professor happened to see me sleeping in class, they could wake me up or something, but what else is there to do? And how can I expect my professor to even notice me sleeping when there’s dozens of other kids in class?
In the end, nothing changed, and I failed again. This time around, there was much less “I would rather hang out with my friends than do homework!” and much more “I can’t bring myself to get out of bed until the sun has gone down, and I haven’t showered in three days”. So that was a lot of fun.
Once again, I got put on academic probation. I decided my best course of action was to take online courses over the summer again, since it went so well last time. I took three, all at the same time, and it did not go well. But I couldn’t risk failing them all, so I dropped all three of them. Total loss, yet again.
Finally, my junior year (though I wasn’t technically a junior in credits since I have like none)! I was still on academic warning, but I was determined that this year would be different. I was in therapy, I was in a nice dorm, I was feeling good! The first two or three weeks were great, and I was doing everything I was supposed to be doing. But then assignments got harder, and I had to do more reading, more work, and my god I just simply did not feel like it. So I didn’t! Needless to say, I got straight Fs yet again.
Time for academic suspension, wheeee! Academic suspension, by the way, is where they don’t let you come back for two semesters. If you were to come back after that and fail again, you would get academic dismissal, which means you come back never. (However, you are allowed to petition for readmission after two full years has passed.)
I went with the classic, “you can’t fire me! I quit!” And I dropped the fuck out. I’m not good enough for Miami, ey? Well, maybe they’re not good enough for me! Yeah, take that!
So, I did not return to Miami for Spring Semester 2020. Fuck school, I thought, I’ll get a job! So I became a hostess at Applebee’s. Wheeee. After three weeks, I called it quits because that fucking sucked. I decided to try out a local restaurant/bakery instead! Also sucked. So I quit.
And then COVID happened! Boy oh boy did I pick a good time NOT to go to school. All my friends, along with literally every other student in the world, had to pack up and head home not even two months into the semester. And they spent the rest of their semester online. So, I didn’t miss out on much.
But I figured I’d return in the fall of 2020, once this whole pandemic thing had ended. Obviously, the pandemic thing was very much not over by that point, so I held off on going back, and started writing for the blog instead, because I was literally doing nothing else with my time.
Fast forward a year, and now I’m going to my first day of college in over a year and half. That’s right y’all, I’m enrolled at the local community college, and I’m working towards getting my General Associates In Arts. Assuming I don’t fucking fail again, I should have a degree after two semesters. So by Spring 2022 I should have my little piece of paper.
Why am I getting a general degree instead of focusing on a field? Well, it’s basically because all the classes I did pass over the years don’t really lean in any direction, they’re all pretty scattered, so I can’t really get a degree towards anything in particular.
When I was in high school, I took College Credit Plus courses, which meant that classes I was taking in high school counted as college courses, and gave me credits through Urbana University. Through this program, I got credits for things like anatomy, math, and English.
Then, I went to Edison (the community college I’m going to now) for my senior year of high school so I could graduate a semester early. While I was there, I passed Intro to Psychology, American Sign Language, Human Sexuality, and Composition II.
Going into Miami, I had 36 credit hours from high school alone. At Miami, I passed Children’s Literature (but it got erased), Classical Mythology, Creative Writing, German, Writing For Media, the Academic Probation Class, Ballroom Dancing, and Introduction to Poetry. That gave me 20 credit hours from Miami.
This semester at Edison, I’ll be taking Cell Biology, Race & Ethnicity, Intro to Communications, and Intro to Humanities.
With all that technical info out of the way, let’s talk about my feelings, because that’s always a blast.
I feel kind of excited, I think. The usual “back to school” rush of adrenaline. Got a new backpack so you know I’ll be looking spiffy. But mostly I’m anxious. My fear of failure is as prominent as ever, and I don’t know what I’ll do if I do fail, so I just have to continue on under the assumption that I won’t. Because I’m out of options if I do.
I’m not necessarily looking forward to any of my classes, especially cell biology. I mean, it’s certainly no Ballroom Dancing, but I genuinely feel like I’ll make it through this time. I know I’m capable of passing, I have 56 credit hours to prove it! I just have to pass consistently, and that’s honestly hard for me.
I know that I have to give it my all this semester, and that is why I’ve decided to take a break from writing on here. I have to put all my focus towards my classes. At least in the beginning, anyways. Once I’ve taken a month or two to settle into things, I’ll decide if I feel like I have enough time and/or brain capacity to come back to Whatever. (Though, I’m sure I can manage a monthly snack box review post every now and again!)
With all that being said, it’s been a great year writing on Whatever, and I hope to write for you all again very soon. For now, though, I’m going to go to class.