Sunday, June 25, 2023

Russian To Judgment: Well That Was Fast

Friday night's coup in Russia was over by Saturday night, as Putin supposedly has cut a deal with Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group mercs, but at this point both Putin and Prigozhin, and the war on Ukraine, are both on borrowed time and everyone knows it.
A short recap of the past 24 hours in Russia reads like the backstory for a fanciful episode of Madam Secretary or The West Wing. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the brutal convicted criminal who leads the Wagner mercenary group, declared war on the Russian Ministry of Defense and marched into the city of Rostov-on-Don. He then headed north for Moscow, carrying his demand for the ousting of Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. The city went on alert.

Prigozhin and his men came within 125 miles of the capital—that is, closer to Moscow than Philadelphia is to Washington, D.C. He then said that a deal had been struck and that Wagner’s forces were turning around to avoid bloodshed. Apparently, however, the blood Prigozhin saved from being shed was his own. If the “deal” announced by the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov accurately reflects an actual settlement, Prigozhin has in the space of a day gone from being a powerful warlord to a man living on borrowed time in a foreign country, waiting for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inevitable retribution.

According to Peskov, Russia is dropping all charges against Prigozhin, who must now go into exile in Belarus. Wagner fighters who did not take part in the rebellion will be given amnesty, and then they will sign contracts that will bring them under the control of Shoigu’s Ministry of Defense. I suggested yesterday that Shoigu’s attempt to seize Wagner’s men and dissolve the force might be one of the reasons Prigozhin went on the march. This outcome is a defeat of the first order for Prigozhin, who has now lost everything except his life.

We can at this point only speculate about why Prigozhin undertook this putsch, and why it all failed so quickly. One possibility is that Prigozhin had allies in Moscow who promised to support him, and somehow that support fell through: Perhaps his friends in the Kremlin got cold feet, or were less numerous than Prigozhin realized, or never existed at all. Prigozhin, after all, is not exactly a military genius or a diplomat; he’s a violent, arrogant, emotional man who may well have embarked on this scheme huffing from a vat of his own overconfidence.

Nonetheless, this bizarre episode is not a win for Putin. The Russian dictator has been visibly wounded, and he will now bear the permanent scar of political vulnerability. Instead of looking like a decisive autocrat (or even just a mob boss in command of his crew), Putin left Moscow after issuing a short video in which he was visibly angry and off his usual self-assured game. Putin reportedly worries a great deal about being assassinated, and so perhaps he wanted to hunker down until he had more clarity about who might be in league with Prigozhin. But whatever the reason, he vowed to deal with Prigozhin decisively and then blew town, probably to his retreat at Valdai, in a move that looked weak and disorganized.

Bringing in President Aleksandr Lukashenko as a broker at first seemed an odd choice on Putin’s part, but it makes a bit more sense in light of the supposed deal. The Belarusian autocrat could personally vouch for Prigozhin’s safe passage; Lukashenko has no connections in Moscow that are more important than Putin; he does not live or work in the Kremlin and so he was a secure choice to carry out Putin’s terms; he owes Putin his continued rule and has no reason to betray him. Also, sending in Lukashenko was something of a power move: Putin is a former intelligence officer, and in that world, Prigozhin is merely a scummy convict. The two men were friendly before this, but they were not equals. It would have been a huge loss of face for the president of a great power to negotiate with his former chef in person.

Prigozhin gets to stay alive, at least for the moment, but his life as he knew it (and maybe in any sense) is over. Putin, however, is now politically weaker than ever. The once unchallengeable czar is no longer invincible. The master of the Kremlin had to make a deal with a convict—again, in Putin’s culture, among the lowest of the low—just to avert the shock and embarrassment of an armed march into the Russian capital while other Russians are fighting on the front lines in Ukraine.

Prigozhin drew blood and then walked away from a man who never, ever lets such a personal offense go unavenged. Putin, however, may have had no choice, which is yet another sign of his precarious situation. All of the options were terrifying: Ordering the Russian military to attack armed Russian men would have been a huge risk, especially because those men (and their hatred of the bureaucrats at the Defense Ministry) have at least some support among Russia’s officers and political elites. Killing Prigozhin outright was also a high-risk proposition; with their leader dead and the Russian military closing in, the Wagnerites might have decided to fight to the death.

This wound to Putin’s power goes deep, but how deep is difficult to gauge for now, especially because we do not know whether Shoigu or Gerasimov still have their jobs. And although the rebellion has taken Wagner off the field in Ukraine, Putin may still seek to cover this ignominious moment by escalating Russia’s brutality there. But two things appear certain. First, Putin has suffered a huge political blow, and he has survived by making deals both with Prigozhin and with his own colleagues in the Kremlin that are, by any definition, a humiliation. And second, Yevgeny Prigozhin has changed the Russian political environment surrounding Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Prigozhin’s rebellion and its effects will last beyond today, but how long he will live in Belarus—or stay alive in Belarus—to see how the rest of it plays out is unclear.
At this point nobody knows how this will end, and anyone who says they do is lying. But the current situation in both Ukraine and Russia is untenable. We've already seen one massive crack in the dam. More are coming. And Ukraine now has even more of a reason to fight back.

Sunday Long Read: Behind The Silicon Curtain

"Artificial Intelligence will come for your job" is the prevailing conventional wisdom, but like most wild and disruptive predictions of the future, the reality is a lot more boring.
A few months after graduating from college in Nairobi, a 30-year-old I’ll call Joe got a job as an annotator — the tedious work of processing the raw information used to train artificial intelligence. AI learns by finding patterns in enormous quantities of data, but first that data has to be sorted and tagged by people, a vast workforce mostly hidden behind the machines. In Joe’s case, he was labeling footage for self-driving cars — identifying every vehicle, pedestrian, cyclist, anything a driver needs to be aware of — frame by frame and from every possible camera angle. It’s difficult and repetitive work. A several-second blip of footage took eight hours to annotate, for which Joe was paid about $10.

Then, in 2019, an opportunity arose: Joe could make four times as much running an annotation boot camp for a new company that was hungry for labelers. Every two weeks, 50 new recruits would file into an office building in Nairobi to begin their apprenticeships. There seemed to be limitless demand for the work. They would be asked to categorize clothing seen in mirror selfies, look through the eyes of robot vacuum cleaners to determine which rooms they were in, and draw squares around lidar scans of motorcycles. Over half of Joe’s students usually dropped out before the boot camp was finished. “Some people don’t know how to stay in one place for long,” he explained with gracious understatement. Also, he acknowledged, “it is very boring.”

But it was a job in a place where jobs were scarce, and Joe turned out hundreds of graduates. After boot camp, they went home to work alone in their bedrooms and kitchens, forbidden from telling anyone what they were working on, which wasn’t really a problem because they rarely knew themselves. Labeling objects for self-driving cars was obvious, but what about categorizing whether snippets of distorted dialogue were spoken by a robot or a human? Uploading photos of yourself staring into a webcam with a blank expression, then with a grin, then wearing a motorcycle helmet? Each project was such a small component of some larger process that it was difficult to say what they were actually training AI to do. Nor did the names of the projects offer any clues: Crab Generation, Whale Segment, Woodland Gyro, and Pillbox Bratwurst. They were non sequitur code names for non sequitur work.

As for the company employing them, most knew it only as Remotasks, a website offering work to anyone fluent in English. Like most of the annotators I spoke with, Joe was unaware until I told him that Remotasks is the worker-facing subsidiary of a company called Scale AI, a multibillion-dollar Silicon Valley data vendor that counts OpenAI and the U.S. military among its customers. Neither Remotasks’ or Scale’s website mentions the other.

Much of the public response to language models like OpenAI’s ChatGPT has focused on all the jobs they appear poised to automate. But behind even the most impressive AI system are people — huge numbers of people labeling data to train it and clarifying data when it gets confused. Only the companies that can afford to buy this data can compete, and those that get it are highly motivated to keep it secret. The result is that, with few exceptions, little is known about the information shaping these systems’ behavior, and even less is known about the people doing the shaping.

For Joe’s students, it was work stripped of all its normal trappings: a schedule, colleagues, knowledge of what they were working on or whom they were working for. In fact, they rarely called it work at all — just “tasking.” They were taskers.

The anthropologist David Graeber defines “bullshit jobs” as employment without meaning or purpose, work that should be automated but for reasons of bureaucracy or status or inertia is not. These AI jobs are their bizarro twin: work that people want to automate, and often think is already automated, yet still requires a human stand-in. The jobs have a purpose; it’s just that workers often have no idea what it is.
Nobody seems to actually know what this is going to be, and it all reminds me of the dot-com boom and bust 25 years ago.  A lot of people think there will be a huge revolution, but that revolution has been predicted for decades now.

We'll see.
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