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ChatGPT: the promises, pitfalls and panic

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The excitement around ChatGPT - an easy to use AI chatbot that can deliver an essay or computer code upon request and within seconds - has sent schools into panic and turned Big Tech green with envy
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The excitement around ChatGPT – an easy to use AI chatbot that can deliver an essay or computer code upon request and within seconds – has sent schools into panic and turned Big Tech green with envy.

But behind the headlines, the potential impact of ChatGPT on society remains more complicated and unclear. Here is a closer look at what ChatGPT is (and is not):

– Is this a turning point? – 

It is entirely possible that November’s release of ChatGPT by California company OpenAI will be remembered as a turning point in introducing a new wave of artificial intelligence to the wider public. 

What is less clear is whether ChatGPT is actually a breakthrough with some critics calling it a brilliant PR move that helped OpenAI score billions of dollars in investments from Microsoft.

Yann LeCun, Chief AI Scientist at Meta and professor at New York University, believes “ChatGPT is not a particularly interesting scientific advance,” calling the app a “flashy demo” built by talented engineers.

LeCun, speaking to the Big Technology Podcast,  said ChatGPT is void of “any internal model of the world” and is merely churning “one word after another” based on inputs and patterns found on the internet.

“When working with these AI models, you have to remember that they’re slot machines, not calculators,” warned Haomiao Huang of Kleiner Perkins, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm.

“Every time you ask a question and pull the arm, you get an answer that could be marvelous…or not…The failures can be extremely unpredictable,” Huang wrote in Ars Technica, the tech news website.

– Just like Google –

ChatGPT is powered by an AI language model that is nearly three years old – OpenAI’s GPT-3 – and the chatbot only uses a part of its capability. 

The true revolution is the humanlike chat, said Jason Davis, research professor at Syracuse University.

“It’s familiar, it’s conversational and guess what? It’s kind of like putting in a Google search request,” he said.

ChatGPT’s rockstar-like success even shocked its creators at OpenAI, which received billions in new financing from Microsoft in January.

“Given the magnitude of the economic impact we expect here, more gradual is better,” OpenAI CEO Sam Altman said in an interview to StrictlyVC, a newsletter

“We put GPT-3 out almost three years ago… so the incremental update from that to ChatGPT, I felt like should have been predictable and I want to do more introspection on why I was sort of miscalibrated on that,” he said.

The risk, Altman added, was startling the public and policymakers and on Tuesday his company unveiled a tool for detecting text generated by AI amid concerns from teachers that students may rely on artificial intelligence to do their homework.

– What now? –

From lawyers to speechwriters, from coders to journalists, everyone is waiting breathlessly where the disruption from ChatGPT will be felt first, with a pay version of the chatbot expected soon.

For now, officially, the first significant application of OpenAI’s tech will be for Microsoft software products. 

Though details are scarce, most assume that ChatGPT-like capabilities will turn up on the Bing search engine and in the Office suite.

“Think about Microsoft Word. I don’t have to write an essay or an article, I just have to tell Microsoft Word what I wanted to write with a prompt,” said Davis.

He believes influencers on TikTok and Twitter will be the earliest adopters of this so-called generative AI since going viral requires huge amounts of content and ChatGPT can make the chore almost instantaneous.

This of course raises the specter of disinformation and spamming carried out at an industrial scale. 

For now, Davis said the reach of ChatGPT is very limited by computing power, but once this is ramped up, the opportunities and potential dangers will grow exponentially.

And much like the ever imminent arrival of self-driving cars that never quite happens, experts disagree on whether that is a question of months or years.

– Ridicule –

LeCun said Meta and Google have refrained from releasing AI as potent as ChatGPT out of fear of “ridicule” and backlash.

Quieter releases of language-based bots – like Meta’s Blenderbot or Microsoft’s Tay for example – were quickly shown capable of generating racist or inappropriate content.

Tech giants have to think hard before releasing something “that is going to spew nonsense” and disappoint, he said.

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Man Utd’s Ratcliffe unveils electric Ineos car

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A model of the Ineos Fusilier 4x4 electric vehicle
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Manchester United’s new co-owner Jim Ratcliffe unveiled Friday his Ineos group’s latest 4×4 vehicle, which will come in two electric versions as the British billionaire criticised range limits on ‘green’ cars.

The Ineos Fusilier, whose production should start at a facility in Austria in 2027, rather than 2026 as earlier planned, will be a slightly smaller version of the Ineos Grenadier.

It comes as the group works on a second model also with a military name — the Grenadier Quartermaster pickup truck.

Ratcliffe, 71, earlier this week completed a deal to become co-owner of Manchester United, with a pledge to drive the English football giants to renewed success.

Asked by AFP at Friday’s launch about his off-pitch plans at United, including a stadium rebuild, Ratcliffe replied: “The focus with Manchester United is really simple, that’s performance on the field.”

One of Britain’s richest men thanks to Ineos’ core chemicals business, Ratcliffe has in recent years turned the group into a conglomerate, with ownership of football and cycling teams — and production of vehicles.

On Friday, he noted that a desire by subsidiary Ineos Automotive to produce zero-carbon cars was hampered by how far they could travel without a recharge.

– ‘Huge electric car failings’ –

The Fusilier would come in two versions, Ratcliffe announced — an all-electric model and the other a range-extender type which would carry a generator-powered battery and fuel tank.

Ratcliffe told a press conference gathered at a central London pub that his personal preference was the latter version.

“The big problem I have with the (all-) electric vehicle… it has two huge failings,” he said shortly after the blue car’s unveiling outside The Grenadier pub renamed The Fusilier for the event.

“It doesn’t get you from A to B if you want to go on a decent journey. It does the urban stuff very well… (but) you can’t fill it up. Those are two major drawbacks of an electric car.”

Ratcliffe added: “My personal strong preference is the same electric vehicle but with a range extender.”

– ‘Industry in flux’ –

Ineos said the new model would be developed with automotive supplier, Magna, which will manufacture the vehicle at its Graz facility in Austria.

It was originally thought that the car would be produced in France.

Car enthusiast Ratcliffe, who was a leading business voice in favour of Britain’s Brexit divorce from the European Union, began producing cars after he identified a gap in the market for a rugged new 4×4.

This after the final Land Rover Defender was produced in 2016.

Ratcliffe on Friday said the world’s auto industry was “in flux”.

“People know what the objectives are, which is to reduce the carbon footprint of the world’s automotive fleet,” he told reporters.

“If you’re a car producer in Europe, you have to have a ‘green’ offering, you can’t survive as a large car company without that because the regulations won’t allow you to.

“We have to have this offering if we like it or not. We do like it because it’s a good thing for the world,” Ratcliffe said of his new car, adding that he thought the United States was more flexible than Europe on switching to electric vehicles.

Friday’s unveiling came at the end of a week in which the tycoon finalised a minority stake in United — the team he supports — giving him almost 28 percent of the club which has struggled for on-field success in recent seasons.

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What to know about the NASA-funded commercial Moon fleet

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NASA's thinking behind CLPS is to delegate the delivery of its lunar science hardware to the private sector, reducing costs to taxpayers as it prepares to return astronauts to the Moon under the flagship Artemis program later this decade
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The year 2024 promises to be a busy one for American Moon landings, all under a new partnership between NASA and the space industry.

A first attempt under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative ended in disappointing failure last month, but a second, led by Houston-based Intuitive Machines, will attempt on Thursday to return the United States to Moon for the first time in five decades.

NASA’s thinking behind CLPS is to delegate the delivery of its science hardware to the private sector, reducing costs to taxpayers as it prepares to return astronauts to the surface under the flagship Artemis program later this decade.

– Purchasing services –

Established in 2018, CLPS operates on the principle of purchasing services from commercial partners, rather than buying their hardware.

Joel Kearns, a senior NASA official involved with CLPS, said it would allow the agency to be more cost effective and do more frequent trips, even if “we don’t know how many of the early attempts will be successful.”

But the space agency is offsetting that risk by contracting with multiple companies offering different technical solutions.

It also hopes those companies will in turn build up their own clientele, for example research institutions and others wanting to ship gear to the Moon, creating a wider lunar economy in which NASA is just one of many customers.

The approach is completely different from that used during the Apollo era, when NASA dictated its industrial contracts down to the last bolt.

“When you have unlimited funds, like in the Apollo days, yes, you can do incredible things,” said Trent Martin of Intuitive Machines. “Now, can we find a way to do it for a lower cost? Can we find a way to do it, where there’s a marketplace that is not driven solely by government funds?”

– Fledgling companies –

Fourteen companies have been pre-selected to be in the running for contracts, with eight firm missions so far planned.

Many of the companies involved are considered fledging, rather than legacy aerospace giants, reflecting the initiative’s experimental nature.

The first attempt, led by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, failed to reach the Moon in January after developing an in-flight fuel leak shortly after separating from its rocket.

It could get another shot later this year, to carry an important water-seeking NASA rover to the south pole, but the green light will depend on the outcome of a detailed review of its first mission.

Intuitive Machines, founded in 2013, is also targeting a region near the south pole. It has two more missions set for this year.

Another Texas company, Firefly Aerospace, has two missions, including one in 2024, with its Blue Ghost lander.

Finally, Massachusetts-based Draper, which built the computer that ran the Apollo spaceships, will attempt to land on the far side of the Moon in 2025.

NASA paid both Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines around $100 million each for their respective first missions.

– Lasting presence –

CLPS deliveries serve the bigger goal of better understanding the environmental risks — from radiation to lunar dust — that face American astronauts when they touch down on the surface no sooner than 2026.

Unlike during Apollo, when the United States was driven by the Cold War to act fast and chose near the equator for five short  trips, NASA is now taking its time to build a “sustained presence,” involving habitats, on the south pole.

Here, it hopes to harvest ice for drinking water and rocket fuel, with an eye on using our cosmic neighbor as a waypoint for crewed missions to Mars.

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In a doughnut in Japan, unlocking the power of the Sun

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To the untrained eye, the JT-60SA looks like a contraption from 1970s sci-fi
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With its tangle of pipes and pumps leading to a metal pot the size of a five-storey building, Japan’s JT-60SA machine looks to the untrained eye like a contraption from 1970s sci-fi.

But inside it is a doughnut-shaped vessel where experiments done at millions of degrees could help unlock a carbon-free, inexhaustible and safe power source for the future: nuclear fusion.

“Fusion energy, the power behind the Sun and the stars, has been a great prize for energy research for decades, ever since it was first attempted in the 1950s and 60s to find some way to reproduce this power of the Sun here on Earth,” project leader Sam Davis told AFP on a recent tour.

“Not only is (fusion) free from greenhouse gases and free from long-lived nuclear waste, but it’s compact, doesn’t cover the whole landscape, and can generate industrially useful quantities of power,” the British-German engineer said.

Unlike fission, the technique currently used in nuclear power plants, fusion involves combining two atomic nuclei instead of splitting one, generating vast amounts of energy.

The process is safe and there are no nasty by-products like fissile material for a nuclear weapon or hazardous radioactive waste that takes thousands of years to degrade, its proponents say.

– Swirling plasma –

Taking 15 years to build in Naka, northeast of Tokyo, the JT-60SA is 15.5 metres (51 feet) tall and 13.7 metres (45 feet) wide, comprising a so-called tokamak vessel able to contain swirling plasma heated to millions of degrees.

Inside the facility, which was inaugurated in December, the aim is to get nuclei of hydrogen isotopes to fuse into an atom of helium, releasing energy, and mimicking the process that takes place inside the Sun and stars.

“With only one gram (0.04 ounces) of a mixed fuel… we can obtain an energy equivalent to eight tonnes of oil,” said Takahiro Suzuki, deputy project manager for the Japan side of the joint project with the European Union.

But despite decades of efforts, the technology remains in its infancy and is very expensive.

Currently the largest such facility in operation, the JT-60SA is the little brother and guinea pig of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) being built in France.

According to media reports, ITER — a project run by six countries and the European Union — is years behind schedule and could end up costing as much as 40 billion euros ($42.3 billion), far more than first projected.

The holy grail of both projects, as well as others around the world, is to develop technology that releases more energy than is needed to fuel it — and at a large scale and for a sustained period.

The feat of “net energy gain” was managed in December 2022 at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the United States, home to the world’s largest laser.

– ‘Flash in a can’ –

But the US facility uses a different method from ITER and the JT-60SA known as inertial confinement fusion, in which high-energy lasers are directed simultaneously into a thimble-sized cylinder containing hydrogen.

“Magnetic confinement, and in particular, tokamaks, of the kind that JT-60SA is, are much more applicable to running a steady state power plant, to steady energy production as we would need,” Davis said.

“This is not just a flash in a can.”

But with the world record set by China for heating plasma to the required temperature — 120 million degrees Celsius (216 million degrees Fahrenheit) — currently just 101 seconds, there is still a long path ahead.

“Nuclear fusion can certainly contribute to a future energy mix. Exactly on what timescale is very hard to say. It will come down ultimately to how much is invested in the field (and) how much society wants to pursue this as a solution,” Davis said.

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