Hubris and AI

Tim Bray just posted a delightful piece on the state of LLM (large language model AI), and it got me thinking.

I think that one reason why people have been dismissive of AI (both the current efforts and the possibility) is that we humans tend to be convinced that our consciousness and capacity for reasoning is SPECIAL. Some of it’s religious (things like “souls”, “in g*d’s image”, etc.) and some is based on the fact that we tend to be awfully impressed by complex things we can’t understand. (I studied the philosophy of mind for a few years, and became increasingly frustrated by the way people would talk about “The Hard Problem” of consciousness.) But of course a lot of what we do and think is really mundane, and wouldn’t be much of a challenge to an orang-utan or a dolphin.

Funnily enough, I think that systems like GPT could well be useful deflators of our collective self-importance. People like Tim and I who have worked with Really Large Scale Systems are probably slightly ahead of the curve on this….

Doing my taxes….

I think there’s a lesson in here somewhere…

This week, I did our taxes. In the past, I’d handed that off to accountants, but we’ve simplified things and I was fairly confident that I could do it myself. The only complication was that we’d be filing jointly for Federal, but separately for State. No biggy, right?

I banged all the data into the basic TurboTax DIY web system, pulled stuff directly from banks and so forth, with no problems. But when it came to the State return, the system directed me to a dense page in the online help, which told me that I’d have to prepare two complete sets of returns – one joint, one separate – and file the Federal from the first and the States from the second. And because #reasons, I’d only be able to file by mail.

This sounded tedious, and error-prone. The obvious answer: upgrade to the premium TurboTax service, and let them do it for me. So I clicked Upgrade, and started a web chat with a Product Expert. (Not the Preparer, just a gatekeeper.) She told me I’d have to begin by uploading all my documents into the Checklist. “But I’ve already entered all the data, it’s in the system.” “Oh, no, we can only see the stuff that was imported electronically. None of the data that you typed yourself will transfer to the new return.” When I pointed out that this was crazy, she offered the following: “OK, I can drop you out of Full Service to let you get at the return you’d been working on. Then I suggest you screenshot each page. You can then return to Full Service and upload the screenshots, so that your Tax Preparer can enter the data.”

At first, I resisted. I tried to enter some of my data using the Full Service checklist, but it was completely useless. For example, there was a checklist item for Social Security income… but it only allowed you to enter one SSA-1099. If you have several, you’re SOL.

Reluctantly, I did what the Product Expert had suggested. I retraced my steps through the DIY web interface, and built up a folder containing 45 screenshots and 6 other documents, like photo IDs. I switched back to Full Service, and started to upload the files, to prepare for the call with my Tax Preparer.

After I’d uploaded 22 files, the system refused to upload any more.

First, I had a stiff drink. (I’ve moved from single malt Scotch to Bourbon recently.) Then I cancelled Full Service, and bought a copy of the Download/CD TurboTax Windows application. To my surprise, it successfully imported all the data I’d entered into the online service. I finished the whole Joint/Separate stuff in about an hour, with no significant issues. In part, this was because the UI of the Windows application was vastly superior to TurboTax’s web based services, and I had full control over the various versions of the return. The validation and issue resolution UX was crystal clear, highlighting each problem by showing the exact tax form fields involved. (In the online version, you have no visibility whatsoever into the relationship between the on-screen dialog and the resulting tax form entries.)

So what are the lessons here? It’s instructive that the only smooth data interchange occurred when I imported web data into the desktop app. I can imagine the desktop app team thinking, “These online services are likely to be problematic: let’s make sure we can always give the user a way of recovering by moving to the more reliable, old-school desktop environment.” Yes, there’s always a risk that the old desktop app will become an orphan in the world of web and mobile solutions, but I think TurboTax has managed to avoid that…. probably because accountants tend to be conservative. (And a good thing too!)

Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends….

I’ve been blogging since the last century, but I really got going in 2003. (You can read the first few posts here.) I’ve moved from Moveable Type to WordPress, shifted my hosting to various sites (including grommit, our Solaris x86 box), and most recently to a virtual machine in the AWS cloud. I’ve spun up various parallel blogs – things like and – but over the last few years my blogging has fallen away to almost nothing, leaving an insecure, poorly administered WordPress site that was probably a magnet for botnets.

So things are changing. I’ve killed several sites, including Speaking of Clouds, and I’m moving all of the blogs which I run (for myself and others) to the managed WordPress service of A2. I’ve used them for various work projects, the Cumnor Hill Books site is here, and the price is right.

Does this mean that I’m going to resume blogging? Perhaps. The decline in self-hosted blogging has been widespread, as people have moved to FaceBook or Medium to share short and long form updates, but I have a hunch that widespread skepticism about big social media platforms may translate into increased autonomy for writers. In addition, much of my blogging was always related to my work, along with the technology and travel that were inextricably involved with it. Over the last few years, my professional responsibilities have been less… bloggable. I anticipate some changes over the next few months, and it would be good to get back into the habit of writing.

So welcome back….