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Wednesday 4 October 2023 Dublin: 12°C
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# 7 great reads
Sitdown Sunday: Could AI really escape our control, and what can be done to prevent it?
Settle down in a comfy chair and sit back with some of the week’s best longreads.

IT’S A DAY of rest, and you may be in the mood for a quiet corner and a comfy chair.

We’ve hand-picked the week’s best reads for you to savour.

1. AI

The conversation around whether AI will eventually grow beyond our control is continuing as the technology evolves. Here, Matthew Hutson looks at what can be done to prevent that from happening.

(The New Yorker, approx 17 mins reading time) 

Alignment research has shown that even relatively simple A.I. systems can break bad in bizarre ways. In a 2020 paper titled “The Surprising Creativity of Digital Evolution,” Clune and his co-authors collected dozens of real-life anecdotes about unintended and unforeseen A.I. behavior. One researcher aimed to design virtual creatures that moved horizontally, presumably by crawling or slithering; instead, the creatures grew tall and fell over, covering ground through collapse. An A.I. playing a version of tic-tac-toe learned to “win” by deliberately requesting bizarre moves, crashing its opponent’s program and forcing it to forfeit. Other examples of surprising misalignment abound. An A.I. tasked with playing a boat-racing game discovered that it could earn more points by motoring in tight circles and picking up bonuses instead of completing the course; researchers watched the A.I. boat “catching on fire, crashing into other boats, and going the wrong way” while pumping up its score. As our A.I. systems grow more sophisticated and powerful, these sorts of perverse outcomes could become more consequential.

2. Killers of the Flower Moon

Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro speak about their new film, based on the book by David Grann about the murder of the Osage Native American tribe after oil was found on their land.

(Deadline, approx 33 mins reading time)

Killers of the Flower Moon had all the makings of a classic Western. DiCaprio would play Tom White, an incorruptible Texas Ranger-turned FBI agent sent to Oklahoma in the early 1920s by J. Edgar Hoover to answer a desperate call from the Osage Indian Nation. The Osage had recently become the wealthiest people per capita in the world due to the vast supply of oil being harvested from their lands. At the same time, many of them were beginning to die in alarming numbers — and under highly suspicious circumstances. It was the perfect set-up for a murder mystery, but something didn’t feel right. Scorsese, DiCaprio and De Niro began to realize that the situation was more complex than that. More explicitly, it would be inappropriate to serve up a white-savior Western since white people were also the bad guys: the outsiders who insinuated their way into the Osage and took advantage of their naivety, empowered by apathy from corrupt local law enforcement and townsfolk eager to shake money out of the pockets of their trusting Osage friends. 

3. America’s Frontline Doctors

A right-wing anti-vaccine group peddled disinformation and dubious Covid-19 treatments to people during the pandemic. Now their families want them to be held accountable.

(Time, approx 11 mins reading time)

When Moore’s father contracted COVID in Dec. 2021, he didn’t initially go to the hospital as his symptoms worsened. He believed so strongly that ivermectin would cure the virus that he refused to seek medical help until it was too late. In his final days, Moore could only watch through the glass as her dad battled delirium, trying to tear off his oxygen mask in a panic. “The worst patients we’ve seen are the ones that delayed treatment because they were self-medicating through ivermectin,” Moore says a nurse told her. “You wouldn’t believe how many people we’ve treated who have done this.” When Moore asked if any of those patients left the hospital, the nurses shook their heads no. The extent of what Moore calls her dad’s “death by deception” only became clear after he died. In his office, she found emails and documents from AFLD outlining their “COVID protocol,” printed out and annotated with characteristic meticulousness. “My dad was a highly intelligent man. He was a fantastic pharmacist,” Moore says. “But he was also 82. They were very convincing, and they were lying.”

4. South Africa’s copper crisis

Monica Mark writes about the gangs in South Africa who are risking their lives to supply cartels with copper, and the devastation it is causing for those involved.

(Financial Times, approx 24 mins reading time)

In January, the consequences of industrial-scale theft in South Africa included: three security guards killed during heists; three hospitals scaling back operations because stolen copper plumbing hampers their ability to pipe oxygen to intensive care units; trains cancelled due to stolen signalling cable or track sleepers; parts of the city going without electricity for days after thieves toppled pylons. Mining, South Africa’s largest industry, has been severely disrupted. Pits across the country churn up gold, gemstones, rare earth metals and coal, and the country is home to about 90 per cent of known deposits of platinum, vital for electronics and electric vehicles. One morning in March, a platinum operator discovered 300 metres of copper cabling had been stolen from a production site. Workers at Royal Bafokeng Platinum laid new cables the following day, but the thieves were back by nightfall. “To be investable as a country, you should be able as a country to protect investments,” the company’s chief executive Steve Phiri said during a mining conference in Johannesburg that month. “Things are beginning to fall apart.”

5. Baby Milo

A Florida couple discovered that their baby had a fatal fetal abnormality, but they were denied an abortion. Their baby lived for 99 minutes. A heartbreaking account of a family’s loss and the laws that have impacted it.

(Washington Post, approx 9 mins reading time)

Deborah and her husband, Lee, learned in late November that their baby had Potter syndrome, a rare and lethal condition that plunged them into an unsettled legal landscape. The state’s ban on abortion after 15 weeks of gestation has an exception for fatal fetal abnormalities. But as long as their baby’s heart kept beating, the Dorberts say, doctors would not honor their request to terminate the pregnancy. The doctors would not say how they reached their decision, but the new law carries severe penalties, including prison time, for medical practitioners who run afoul of it. The hospital system declined to discuss the case. Instead, the Dorberts would have to wait for labor to be induced at 37 weeks.

6. Corleone

A look at the mafia’s association with the town immortalised in cinema and literature by The Godfather, and what it is doing to try and escape its past.  

(The Guardian, approx 7 mins reading time)

When the American writer Mario Puzo decided that the fictional protagonist of his 1969 novel would be called Vito Corleone, and that the town of the same name would be his home town, Corleone’s ambitious young gangsters had already put it on the map. In the 1970s, when the first two films of the Godfather trilogy were released, Totò Riina began his rise to power. His leadership marked a new level of violence: not only did he assassinate his criminal rivals on an unprecedented scale, he also targeted anyone who sought to stand in his way. He is believed responsible for hundreds of deaths.


A 2019 article about how our dependence on palm oil began, and its consequences for the planet. 

(The Guardian, approx 23 mins reading time)

Determining which products contain palm oil, let alone how sustainably it has been sourced, requires an almost supernatural level of consumer consciousness. In any case, greater consumer awareness in the west will not have much impact, given that Europe and the US account for less than 14% of global demand. More than half of global demand comes from Asia. It was a good 20 years after the first alarms about deforestation in Brazil that consumer action slowed – not stopped – the destruction. With palm oil, “the reality is that the western part of world is [a small share] of palm oil consumption, and the rest of the world doesn’t give a shit”, said Neil Blomquist, managing director of Colorado-based Natural Habitats, which produces palm oil in Ecuador and Sierra Leone to the highest level of sustainability certification. “So there’s not much incentive to change.”

Note: The Journal generally selects stories that are not paywalled, but some might not be accessible if you have exceeded your free article limit on the site in question.

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