Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, which created ChatGPT, says that AI is a powerful tool that will streamline human work and quicken the pace of scientific advancement But ChatGPT has both enthralled and terrified us, and even some of AI’s pioneers are freaked out by it – by how quickly the technology has advanced. David Remnick talks with Altman, and with computer scientist Yoshua Bengio, who won the prestigious Turing Award for his work in 2018, but recently signed an open letter calling for a moratorium on some AI research until regulation can be implemented. The stakes, Bengio says, are high. “I believe there is a non-negligible risk that this kind of technology, in the short term, could disrupt democracies.”
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Naomi Klein Speaks with Jia Tolentino about “Doppelganger”
20:49For twenty-some years, Naomi Klein has been a leading thinker on the left. She’s especially known for the idea of disaster capitalism: an analysis that the forces of big business will exploit any severe disruption to take over more space in our lives. She was often confused with another prominent political writer, Naomi Wolf—once a feminist on the left who has, in recent years, embraced conspiracy theories on the right and is now on good terms with Steve Bannon. Klein’s new book, “Doppelganger,” starts with this simple case of mistaken identity and broadens into an analysis of our political moment, which she describes as “uncanny” in the psychological sense. “Freud described the uncanny as that species of frightening that changes what was once familiar to something unfamiliar,” she tells the staff writer Jia Tolentino. “It’s that weirdness of ‘I think I know what this is, but it’s not what I think.’ ” Klein argues that the left and the right have become doppelgangers of one another—and that denialism regarding climate change has widened to any number of topics, including the claim that Joe Biden is dead and is being played by an actor. “Whenever you don’t like reality, you can just say that it’s not real,” she says.
A Solution For the Chronically Homeless, and Listening to Taylor Swift in Prison
29:37About 1.2 million people in the United States experience homelessness in a given year—you could nearly fill the city of Dallas with the unhoused. But there are proven solutions. For the chronically homeless, a key strategy is supportive housing—providing not only a stable apartment, but also services like psychiatric and medical care on-site. The New Yorker contributor Jennifer Egan spent the past year following several individuals as they transitioned into a new supportive-housing building in Brooklyn. She found that this housing model works and argues that it could be scaled up nationally for less than the cost of emergency services for the homeless. But “no one,” Egan notes ruefully, “wants to see that line item in their budget.” Plus, Joe Garcia, an inmate serving a life sentence for murder in California’s High Desert State Prison, reads from his essay “Listening to Taylor Swift in Prison,” recently published by The New Yorker.
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Richard Brody Makes the Case for Keeping Your DVDs
13:21At the end of this month, after more than two decades, Netflix is phasing out its DVD-rental business. While that may not come as a surprise given the predominance of streaming platforms, it’s a great loss to cinephiles, according to the New Yorker’s Richard Brody. Streaming services routinely drop titles from circulation, and amazing films may be lost to moviegoers. “Physical media is what protects us from being at the mercy of streaming services for our movies and our music,” Brody says. “It’s like a library at home.” Brody gives the producer Adam Howard a peek into his own personal stash of films, and picks a few DVDs of films he would take with him in a fire: Godard’s “King Lear” (“the greatest film ever made – literally”); “Chameleon Street,” by Wendell B. Harris, Jr.; “Stranded” and “The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean,” by Juleen Compton; and a box set of five films by John Cassavetes.
A Master Class with David Grann
34:00David Grann is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of two nonfiction books that topped the best-seller list this summer: “The Wager” and “Killers of the Flower Moon,” from 2017, which Martin Scorsese has adapted into a film opening in October. Grann is among the most lauded nonfiction writers at The New Yorker; David Remnick says that “his urge to find unique stories and tell them with rigor and style is rare to the vanishing point.” Grann talks with Remnick about his beginnings as a writer, and about his almost obsessive research and writing process. “The trick is how can you tell a true story using these literary techniques and remain completely factually based,” Grann says. “What I realized as I did this more is that you are an excavator. You aren’t imagining the story—you are excavating the story.” Grann recounts travelling in rough seas to the desolate site of the eighteenth-century shipwreck at the heart of “The Wager,” his most recent book, so that he could convey the sailors’ despair more accurately. That book is also being made into a film by Scorcese. “It’s a learning curve because I’ve never been in the world of Hollywood,” Grann says. “You’re a historical resource. … Once they asked me, ‘What was the lighting in the room?’ I thought about it for a long time. That’s something I would not need to know, writing a book.” But Grann is glad to be in the hands of an expert, and keep his distance from the process. “I’m not actually interested in making a film,” he admits. “I’m really interested in these stories, and so I love that somebody else with their own vision and intellect is going to draw on these stories and add to our understanding of whatever this work is.”
Alone and on Foot in Antarctica
25:00Henry Worsley was a husband, father, and an officer of an élite British commando unit; also a tapestry weaver, amateur boxer, photographer, and collector of rare books, maps, and fossils. But his true obsession was exploration. Worsley revered the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton and he had led a 2009 expedition to the South Pole. But Worsley planned an even greater challenge. At fifty-five, he set out to trek alone to ski from one side of the Antarctic continent to the other, hauling more than three hundred pounds of gear and posting an audio diary by satellite phone. The New Yorker staff writer David Grann wrote about Worsley’s quest, and spoke with his widow, Joanna Worsley, about the painful choice she made to support her husband in a mortally dangerous endeavor. This segment originally aired March 2, 2018.
No More Souters
49:42David Souter is one of the most private, low-profile Justices ever to have served on the Supreme Court. He rarely gave interviews or speeches. Yet his tenure was anything but low profile. Deemed a “home run” nominee by the George H. W. Bush Administration, Souter refused to answer questions during his confirmation hearing about pressing issues—most critically, about abortion rights and Roe v. Wade, which Republicans were seeking to overturn. He was confirmed overwhelmingly. Then, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey and other decisions, he defied the expectations of the Party that had nominated him. Why? This episode, produced by WNYC Studios’ “More Perfect” and hosted by Julia Longoria, explains how “No More Souters” became a rallying cry for Republicans and how Souter’s tenure on the bench inspired a backlash that would change the Court forever. You can listen to more episodes of “More Perfect” here.
How Does Extreme Heat Affect the Body?
16:56The Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut was named after an N.F.L. player who died of exertional heatstroke. The lab’s main research subjects have been athletes, members of the military, and laborers. But, with climate change, even mild exertion under extreme heat will affect more and more of us; in many parts of the United States, a heat wave and power outage could cause a substantial number of fatalities. Dhruv Khullar, a New Yorker contributor and practicing physician, visited the Stringer Institute to undergo a heat test—walking uphill for ninety minutes in a hundred-and-four-degree temperature—to better understand what’s happening. “I just feel puffy everywhere,” Khullar sighed. “You’d have to cut my finger off just to get my wedding ring off.” By the end of the test, Khullar spoke of cramps, dizziness, and a headache. He discussed the dangers of heatstroke with Douglas Casa, the lab’s head (who himself nearly died of it as a young athlete). “Climate change has taken this into the everyday world for the everyday American citizen. You don’t have to be a laborer working for twelve hours, you don’t have to be a soldier in training,” Casa tells him. “This is making it affect so many people even just during daily living.” Although the treatment for heat-related illness is straightforward, Casa says that implementation of simple measures remains challenging—and there is much we need to do to better prepare for the global rise in temperature.
The Origins of “Braiding Sweetgrass”
27:14Robin Wall Kimmerer is an unlikely literary star. A botanist by training—a specialist in moss—she spent much of her career at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry. But, when she was well established in her academic work, having “done the things you need to do to get tenure,” she launched into a different kind of writing; her new style sought to bridge the divide between Western science and Indigenous teachings she had learned, as a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, about the connections between people, the land, plants, and animals. The result was “Braiding Sweetgrass,” a series of essays about the natural world and our relationship to it. The book was published by Milkweed Editions, a small literary press, and it grew only by word of mouth. Several years later, it landed on the Times best-seller list, and has remained there for more than three years; fans have described reading the essays as a spiritual experience. Kimmerer herself was recently recognized with a MacArthur Fellowship. Parul Sehgal, who writes about literature for The New Yorker, went to visit Kimmerer on the land she writes about so movingly, to talk about the book’s origin and its impact on its tenth anniversary. “I wanted to see what would happen if you imbue science with values,” Kimmerer told her. She is an environmentalist, but not an activist per se; her ambition for her work is actually larger. “So much of the environmental movement to me is grounded in fear,” she explains. “And we have a lot to be afraid about—let’s not ignore that—but what I really wanted to do was to help people really love the land again. Because I think that’s why we are where we are: that we haven’t loved the land enough.”
Tessa Hadley on What Decades of Failure Taught Her About Writing
19:09The New Yorker first published a short story by Tessa Hadley in 2002. Titled “Lost and Found,” it described a friendship between two women who had been close since childhood. Hadley’s fiction is often consumed with relationships at this scale: tight dramas close to home. She captures, within these relationships, an extraordinary depth and complexity of emotion. The New Yorker recently published its thirtieth story from Hadley—a higher count than any other fiction writer in recent times. That figure is particularly remarkable because Hadley had such a late start to her career, publishing her first work of fiction in her forties. She talks with the New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman about her long struggle to stop imitating the writing of others, instead telling stories authentic to her own experience and voice. “I was just a late developer, and I was trying to write other people’s novels for all that time,” she says. Treisman also asks Hadley about why her work has been labelled “domestic fiction” by many critics. The term is disproportionately applied to female writers, and “tends to have a bit of condescension to it,” Hadley says. But she is willing to at least consider whether her work is too focussed on certain kinds of bourgeois-family relationships. “I almost completely accept the challenge,” she tells Treisman. “I think one should feel perpetually slightly on edge as to whether your subject matter justifies the art.”
Talking to Conservatives about Climate Change
31:13Even in a summer of record-breaking heat and disasters, Republican Presidential candidates have ignored or mocked climate change. But some conservative legislators in Congress recognize that action is necessary. David Remnick talks with a leader of the Conservative Climate Caucus about her party’s stance on climate change, her belief that fossil fuels cannot be rapidly phased out, and the problems she sees with the Inflation Reduction Act. Then, the authoritative climate reporter Elizabeth Kolbert talks with Ben Jealous, who was recently named executive director of the Sierra Club, about his strategy for building support in Republican-led states.