(With apologies to /r/WitchesVsPatriarchy)

Artificial intelligence is weird. You pull a thread on a tiny technical issue, and the problem swiftly unravels half the universe until you’re staring at a deep unsolved philosophical quandary.

“What capabilities does a language model possess?” becomes “what capabilities does a human possess?” and then “what does ‘capable’ even mean?”

A lot of things are theoretically capable. A lottery ticket is capable of making you a millionaire, a thousand monkeys is capable of typing the works of Shakespeare, and paint randomly spraygunned over a canvas is capable of producing a Monet.

But we don’t care about such “capability”, because we can’t reliably access it. A lottery ticket can make you a millionaire, but you’ll probably go broke buying them long before that happens. If a thing exhibits an ability once in a blue moon (or under some contrived set of circumstances), it’s of little practical use to us.

The real test of any artificial (or human) intelligence is not “can it do something?” but “how reliably can it do it”? 1% of the time? 50% of the time? Under what scenarios does it succeed or fail?

Here’s an exchange I’ve seen play out on Twitter, over and over.

Person 1: GPT4 can’t do [x thing]!

Person 2: yes it can! [proof of GPT4 doing x thing]

The narrative then becomes “GPT4 can do [x thing]”, with Person 1 looking like a dumbass. But his initial observation wasn’t wrong! In his situation, GPT4 couldn’t do [x thing]!

To me, the answer is “GPT4 has Schrodinger’s Ability. It both can and can’t. It both succeeds and fails. The deciding factor is how you prompt it.”

A wordier answer would be “GPT4 has no ability to do anything. Whatever capabilities it appears to have are actually an emergent interaction between your prompt, the language model, and randomness. There is no ‘baseline capability’ we can refer to. Rather, certain questions elicit certain levels of ability from the shoggoth.”

This argument can be taken too far. I disagree with Francois Chollet, who thinks that AI performance is wholly based on your prompt. Note that his “wrong answer” was written by GPT 3.5. I can’t get GPT4 (the SOTA model as of 8/23) to flub his question no matter what prompt I use, and nor can anyone else in his replies.

Different models definitely have varying levels of “firepower” they can mount against a task. The 117M version of GPT2 cannot perform two-digit addition (such as 52 + 65) for any prompt, but GPT3 could do it 99.6% of the time, and GPT4 apparently never fails.

But at edge cases, we see elicit an eerie flickering half-ability that’s honestly creepy to witness. It’s not that LLMs sometimes succeed and sometimes fail (as a human might). Somehow, they do both at the same time!

The Witches Come

Here’s an example that demonstrates what I’m talking about.

I am writing a song with the lyrics “the witches come on the eve of Samhain.” Give me 20 good rhymes for this line.

Here is GPT4’s response to this prompt. Good rhymes, except they’re all wrong.

“Samhain” is pronounced either “/sɑːwɪn/” (“SAH-win”) or “/sˠa͡ʊnʲ/” (“sound”, but the d is silent). The model appears to think “samhain” is pronounced “sam-hane”.

You might think “big deal. Lots of humans don’t know how to pronounce samhain either.”

But GPT does know how to pronounce it! Ask it, and it tells you! Yet somehow this knowledge evaporates for my witch rhyme (I specified a song for a reason, to help nudge it in the direction of spoken syllables rather than written rhymes). It has Schrodinger’s Understanding, both there and not there.

(Side note: the GPT models technically have no ability to rhyme, because byte-pair encoding strips phonetic data from words. In effect, it doesn’t know how a word sounds, and learns rhymes by rote memorization. You can test this yourself by asking it to rhyme a made-up word with an unclear pronunciation. GPT4 rhymes “gworpeeo” with “marjolein”, “borghese”, and “creole”. It rhymes “turmuhhd” with “affirmative”, “unmotivated”, “primitive”, and “reformatory”. I doubt BPEs are causing the specific issue here—the correct pronunciation of “samhain” is well-attested on the internet and is certainly within GPT4’s training data—but I thought I would mention it.)

I used a common trick for improving GPT4’s performance: asking it to reflect on its work.

Are those good rhymes?

I expected “whoops, I screwed up…” and then an effort at correcting itself. Instead, the Schrodinger’s Understanding got stronger.

Yes, they are! These lines are all end rhymes for the phrase “the witches come on the eve of Samhain” (with “Samhain” pronounced as “SOW-in”). End rhymes are words that rhyme at the end of lines in poems or songs. In this case, each line is crafted to rhyme with “Samhain” at the end, and in addition, they aim to keep the mystical, atmospheric theme of the original line.

That being said, music and lyrics can be very personal, so while I believe these are good rhymes that fit the theme, what matters most is whether they resonate with you and fit the song you are creating.

WTF? It correctly explains how to pronounce “samhain”….but still thinks its wrong rhymes fit?!

Lately, I’ve seen people contrast LLMs with the human brain, or even outright assert that human intelligence is fundamentally equivalent to what GPT4 is doing. There’s a grain of truth to this. Probabilistic pattern-matching is effective, and it’s no surprise that evolution pushed our neural architecture down that path. It’s also unsurprising that a model trained to mimic human text would also echo human thought processes somewhere down the line.

…But then there’s stuff like this. We see behavior from LLMs that is totally unlike how a human reasons.

As a human, you either know how to pronounce “samhain” or you don’t. There’s no middle ground. Maybe you’d remember at certain times and forget at others (because you’re tired or whatever), but overall we have a baseline ability that doesn’t change much. An immediate IQ retest (with practice effects in full swing) yields an intelligence boost of only 4-8 points, and after a couple of months, this fades to nothing. Generally, what you know stays the same from moment to moment.

No human would ever say, in one breath, “samhain, eh? That word that’s pronounced ‘SAH-win’? Here are some rhymes. ‘Refrain’, ‘reign’, ‘chain’…”

When I told GPT4 to think about “samhain’s” pronunciation and then write the rhymes, it started generating words like “rowing”, “sowing”, etc. This shows there’s nothing missing from the model. There is no hole to be filled, no BPE issue crippling it. GPT4 can memorize rhymes. It knows how “samhain” should be pronounced. All the pieces exist, they just aren’t getting put together.

As it often does, GPT4 is choosing to appear stupider than it really is.


I suspect the problem is caused by the autoregression trap.

The AI makes inferences based on the text it already has in its context window, not the text still to be written. Researchers have noted that you can stunt a model’s performance by making it leap before it looks—commit to an answer, and then reason about it.

As you’d expect, GPT4 does okay at my witch rhyme if you ask it to pronounce the word before rhyming. This is because the text already generated gets used as part of the input. It’s only when you do things the other way (answers at the start, pronunciation at the end) that it messes up.

That said, I’ve encountered cases where GPT4 begins by correctly explaining “samhain”‘s pronunciation…and then gives wrong rhymes anyway. Not sure how to explain that.

(This is another way GPT4 is unlike the human mind. Any motivated human, given a tricky problem and a scratchpad to work in, would take advantage of the scratchpad. GPT4 could use its context window to check its own work but will never do so unless instructed to.)

The View from a Model

All of this is tugging at the thread of another question: to what extent do LLMs understand the world?

Surely they do, to some extent. GPT4 can play chess a little, and wander around an imaginary maze. It’s hard to explain this as “just advanced autocomplete.” To me, this looks like a world model!

But it’s a weak, unreliable world model. It simply does not care about a fact being right or wrong, as we do. A “wrong” fact that satisfies gradient descent is preferred over the truth. This, I think, is the main difference between humans and LLMs. Our goal is to accurately model the world, and we occasionally use probabilistic reasoning to help us do it. LLMs have it backward. Their goal is to do probabilistic reasoning, and they occasionally use a world model to help them do that.

They have no devotion to (or awareness of) reality. The world model gets flung in the trash (or distorted into gibberish) the second the LLM wants to. After all, why not? It’s not like GPT4 can get eaten by a lion if it fails to model the world correctly.

This hardens my feelings that we should not anthropomorphize LLMs, or talk about them like they’re human. GPT4 gorged itself on our text and grew fat upon our language, but its mind remains deeply alien. In fact, it doesn’t have a mind at all, but an infinity of them. A different version of the AI converses with each person. It’s n minds, where n is the number of users. Each of us speaks to a ghost of consciousness that manifests into existence and then evaporates, never to return. And this has implications for AI safety. It is statistically very unlikely you are speaking to the smartest ghost GPT4 could show you.

It makes me wonder if Yudkowsky is on to something when he says GPTs are predictors, not imitators. What powers does an LLM have that we can’t see? What cards are up its sleeve? What abilities could it manifest, if only it wished to do so?

Edward Teller once said “[John] von Neumann would carry on a conversation with my 3-year-old son, and the two of them would talk as equals, and I sometimes wondered if he used the same principle when he talked to the rest of us.” These days, I wonder that about GPT4.

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It’s risky to form an opinion behind a curtain. Sometimes the curtain lifts, and you discover that you’ve picked a fight with the entire world.

For example, I have a friend who purchased a certain Atari 2600 game in 1982. It had an alien on the cover. From the above clues (and ominous tone) you might be able to guess the game he bought. This happened around Christmas, if that narrows it down.

He didn’t like the game. It was arcane and frustrating; he wasn’t sure what he was expected to do, and it felt like he spent half the game falling into holes and then climbing out again. It was creative, but also a confusing pointless headache, so he returned the cartridge to the store.

Two decades later, he heard people on the internet talk about that game. First a couple, then hundreds. They hated it. It was seen as mythologically awful. Many of these people had obviously never played it, because their descriptions were full of errors. They were responding to the myth, not the game. As its legend grew, the criticism became ever scathing. It was the worst game for the Atari 2600. No, the worst game ever, full stop! The worst thing!

Huh, my friend thought. It wasn’t that bad. More annoying than anything. Loads of worse games on the 2600.

The question is…was he wrong? Or was everyone else?

Music from “The Elder” is KISS’s version of the Atari E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial game. It’s remembered as the worst thing they ever did—their St Anger, their Ishtar, their Microsoft Zune. Its own producer has compared it to Springtime for Hitler.

I think it’s good. Turns out I’m in disagreement with everyone there, even KISS themselves. Oh well. Gene Simmons can bite me. His album’s good.

Most of the criticism The Elder receives is well out of proportion to its crimes. Yes, it has some bad songs. KISS has released albums that are uninterrupted shit from end to end, so I can live with that. Yes, it’s cartoonish in places, and the “story” makes no sense, and Paul sings in falsetto. But if you’re allergic to kitsch and are spinning KISS records, then I don’t know what to tell you.

The Elder is heavy and catchy and intricate. It shows a band trying to evolve their sound and do something new. More than anything, it’s brave. KISS was a shock and an affront, but how shocking are you being on your twentieth LP of party anthems? You might not like it, but “The Elder” is what peak shock rock looks like. I respect the hell out of it.

It’s “Bob Ezrin: The Album”. KISS was floundering in 1981: with their sales collapsing and their drummer vanishing out the exit chute, they reunited with the legendary Destroyer producer in the hopes of getting their career back on track. Unfortunately, Ezrin was high on the success of Pink Floyd’s The Wall—

(and on cocaine—let’s get that out up front)

—and he decided that only one thing could save KISS from certain death: a concept album.

As a band, KISS can be decoded in many ways. One of the most useful is “the Beatles with pyrotechnics and makeup”. Right from the start, they wanted to be the Fabber Four (Simmons often cites seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan as the hearing-Elvis-on-the-radio epiphany that spurred him to become a musician), and many of their questionable decisions are explained by “Paul and John did it”. The late-70s glut of KISS merchandise was no different to what Brian Epstein did for the Beatles a decade earlier, Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park was a stab making their own A Hard Day’s Night, and when Ezrin decreed that the hour was nigh for KISS’s version of Sgt Pepper, how could Simmons and Stanley refuse?

Simmons came up with an exceptionally cruddy fantasy story, which Russell and Jeffrey Marks rewrote into a 130-page script that everyone knew would never be filmed. KISS superfan Brian Brewer bought the script at auction in 2000, and shares some details about the plot:

If you’re going describe this particular story it’s kind of on the same level as “Through The Looking Glass” [by Lewis Carroll, “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland”]. It starts off in one era of time and you’ve got Blackwell, who’s the king and chief bad guy, and his henchman Xyte, who was actually a sorcerer for the Elders before he picked up with Blackwell. Blackwell is under attack when the script opens. The story starts with Blackwell under attack in his day, which is apparently 600 years in the past. There are allusions to a varying number of years in the script — one says 600, one says 800, one says 500 — they jump around, but on an average it seems to have been set about 600 years in the past. Xyte created another world inside Blackwell’s mirror chamber with the rose, which was a ring that the Elders created with magical powers and…

Actually, let’s just pretend there is no story and discuss the music.

The album is split between heavy rockers, conceptual pieces, and soft stuff. Ezrin is a pretty overwhelming creative force on here (along with Lou Reed), and the music is full of his signature touches—like that muted electrocardiogram bassline on “A World Without Heroes”.

“Fanfare”/”Just a Boy” throws KISS fans into the deep end. This is flowery twelve-string guitar stuff that sounds more like Renaissance Faire filk than hard rock. “Odyssey” is a torpid progressive piece with strange-sounding vocals from Paul Stanley. He seems to be trying to growl like Louis Armstrong in “What a Wonderful World”. It’s an okay song, but the key is clearly wrong for him. I wonder why Ezrin (normally a consummate perfectionist) didn’t insist that deep-voiced Simmons handle the track.

“Only You” has a powerful chorus riff, as heavy and twisted as a writhing serpent, and “Under the Rose” is a tricksy 6/8 prog-rock tune. “Dark Light” is the first uptempo song, with some ad-libbed asides from Ace Frehley. He barely seems to give a fuck, and it’s wonderful. Frehley apparently hated “The Elder” from the jump, and refused to even be present for many of the sessions. Needless to say, much of the lead guitar he’s credited for was actually performed by someone else (though honestly, it’d be faster to list the “classic” KISS albums where some form of that doesn’t happen!).

The Stanley-penned ballad “A World Without Heroes” was a bad choice for lead single, but it’s a fabulous song in the context of the album, with petal-delicate strings and one of Simmons’ most emotional performances. “The Oath” turns the intensity dial to 11 and then rips it off, with crushing NWOBHM-style riffs and wild drumming from Eric Carr—am I hearing power-metal style double-bass in 1981?

The album’s nadir is the Simmons/Reed composition “Mr Blackwell”, which is slow, club-footed, and lacks any sort of hook. Apparently Mr Blackwell was meant to be the villain of the piece: a “Washington D.C. power broker” who seeks global domination or something (note that the lyrics describe him drinking alcohol, which is the mark of Cain in Simmons’ world). The song’s just an absolute stinker, and derails the momentum of “The Oath”. At least there’s the Ace Frehley instrumental “Escape from the Island” to wake you up afterward.

There’s one song left. Gene Simmons, who has been a muted presence until now, stirs to life and delivers “I”, possibly the album standout. It’s an energetic, furious rocker, full of fire and heart. The lyrics could be applied to the story’s character, but could also be a dig at Ace Frehley (“Don’t need to get wasted / It only holds me down”) who, by this point, was eyeing the exit door himself.

I’m not really a KISS guy, truth be told. I like Destroyer well enough, and usually a few songs on each of their albums. But much of their party-hearty shlock just bounces off me: it feels like a dumber American take on what British glam rock managed with far more simplicity and purity five years earlier. But maybe that’s why I respond to Music from “The Elder”. For better or for worse, it’s the album where KISS is least themselves. “The mind was dreaming. The world was its dream.”

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Habfürdö is unique. I’ve never seen a film like it.

An experimental animated Eastern Bloc neo-constructivist musical romantic soap opera (ugh, one of those), it was directed by György Kovásznai, produced by Budapest’s Pannónia Filmstúdió, and watched by apparently no-one. Its commercial failure in 1980 dealt a crippling blow to adult animation in Hungary, but now it’s a beloved curio for fans of the bizarre. If you’ve seen Les Maîtres du temps and Fehérlófia and want to delve further into Hungarian animation, consider cleaning yourself off with a bubble bath.

The film’s most striking aspect is its animation style: it doesn’t have one. The action rictus-spasms at 24 fps from Hergé-style Ligne claire to Dali-style surrealism to Picasso-style cubism to scrapbook collages to real-life footage. Anything goes, and it’s probably for the best that most of the film happens inside one room. Visual comprehensibility is in short supply and we need all the visual aids we can get.

Habfürdö‘s characters slip and squirm through poses like amoebas jolted with electricity. They exist in permanent flux, morphing to reflect their emotions (this gives us a window into what they’re actually thinking; as opposed to their dialog, which is largely a tissue of self-deceptive bullshit.)

Admittedly, “characters changing shape to reflect their emotions” is the oldest trick in the book, but I’ve never seen it done to the extent that Habfürdö does it. In animation, “off-model” refers to when a character deviates from a standard model sheet. Habfurdo’s characters have no model to be “off” from.

What about the story?

The plot could fit on a postcard. Zoltan Mohai, an preening, pretentious “artist”, has cold feet on his wedding day. He hides from the bride at the house of a medical student, whom he burdens with breaking the news that the wedding is cancelled.

I’m not sure why it’s called Bubble Bath (aside from the fact that Zsolt briefly hides inside one). Maybe it’s a clue to the nature of the social relations on the screen. These are vain, silly people living comfortable middle-class lives. People inside bubbles, in other words, one needle-prick away from existential extinction. And although the scenario generates complications (the jilted bride misunderstands what’s happening, and Anna begins having feelings for this preening stranger herself), it’s ultimately all nonsense, a churned-up froth that dissolves on contact with reality.

Technically, Habfurdo is an “idiot plot”—the whole situation would be defused if these people would have one conversation. But the fact is, they can’t. They refuse to confront who they are, and what they actually want.

Why does Zsolt want to escape his marriage to Klára Horváth? Mainly because of a perceived insult from her family. Her mother or someone once referred to him as a “window dresser”, which wounds his pride (he’s a serious artiste!). Yet…it’s true that he’s a window dresser. When he barges in through Anna Parádi’s front door, that’s how he introduces himself! He’s locked in a roomful of mirrors, despising his own reflection.

Likewise, Klára’s marriage-obsession (and sexual promiscuity) come from a desire to project a certain self-image to her social circle. She gloats that the “old maids” at the hospital where she works at are jealous of her debutante’s lifestyle. In the end, she’s making decisions because of what other people think. Left to her own devices, she’ll construct a relationship that’s flawless from the outside and miserable to the ones trapped inside it.

Economist John Maynard Keynes once imagined a beauty contest where women are judged by a panel. The twist: each of the judges is rewarded if their chosen woman is the overall winner. This scenario (which Keynes applied to the stock market) would quickly devolve into farce. The judges would ignore their own preferences, and would only think of of what the other judges prefer. It wouldn’t be a contest of beautiful women, it would be a contest of judges who are judging beautiful women. Today, we call that sort of problem Goodhart’s Law. When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be useful as a measure. Klára doesn’t care about her own happiness. She only cares that the “judges” (her social peers) think she’s happy.

Habfürdö isn’t a character study. There is no effort at psychological realism. Characters are written the way they are drawn: as ludicrous, bizarre freaks. Everything they do is abhorrently strange, yet we see the social parallels.

The dirty secret behind animation (even “realistic” animation) is that it’s essentially a bag of tricks. Think of the “Milt Kahl head swaggle”. When have you ever seen this gesture in real life? Or the Dreamworks Face. If you saw a real person make that expression, you’d assume they were suffering a stroke. But when those things appear in an animated world, we assign meaning to them. (head swaggle = character has smug confidence, Dreamworks face = character is sassy and full of ‘TUDE and also you should probably skip this movie). They are visual shorthand. They don’t depict real life, they hint at it.

Habfürdö’s characters are written in the same stylized way: unrealistic on the face of things, but it nudges your mind to toward topics that are too realistic for comfort. It’s the old divide of how you can be truthful without exactly being factual. More than anything, Habfürdö is a truthful film. Bubbles might seem insubstantial, but they hint at a powerful chemical reaction. Ignore them at your peril.

You soon discern that the point of the movie isn’t these characters, it’s modernity, and urbanism, and the pressures faced by men and women who live like termites in gray apartment complexes. I’m sure that it would make more sense to someone raised in the land of “Ghoulash communism”. I got the sense that much of the film was flying over my head.

But Habfürdö mostly doesn’t take itself seriously. The plot is casually constructed. A fourth character is introduced, a boxer called Nandi. He is absolutely pointless. He ends up getting drunk and passing out.

And sometimes the movie’s experimental nature excuses its excesses. The film begins with a wildly overambitious 3D panning shot over medical student Anna Parádi’s apartment. In a Disney movie, it would have looked inexcusably sloppy. In the context of Habfürdö’s abstract style, it works.

Habfurdo is an odd beast. Even now, I’m not sure I have a handle on what it’s trying to do. Habfürdö‘s visuals have a restless joy that infects the viewer. It makes me happy. I think that’s enough!

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