Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #12

Are we making China into a comic book villain?

Bearish takes on democracy, and bullish ones on China, are popular topics in this newsletter. There's another very well written one this week, on China's challenge to democracy, by David Runciman in the WSJ. Runciman is persuasive that political systems have to deliver "results and respect" - which means something like economic growth and national dignity - in order to thrive. He draws a contrast between China's success in these areas with anaemic growth and national division in the West.

But I wonder if this narrative has become overblown. Several recent mainstream pieces have taken on a "Red Scare"-ish tone - like this Wired article that describes China's children as its "secret weapon" in the AI race or this one in Foreign Policy on Chinese Communist "cells" infiltrating American universities. 

There is no natural balance in the fortunes of Western democracy and the Chinese system. Even if it feels as though democracy is in a moment of crisis (and there is evidence to the contrary), it doesn't mean that an era of Chinese supremacy is inevitable - there are plenty of pessimistic views. Invincible comic book villains make for good stories, but China's changing role in the world is too important to caricature.

Semiconductors are the new oil

All that said... it is fascinating the watch the growing geopolitical importance of the AI supply chain, a topic we've discussed before. Nikkei has a deeply researched piece on China's efforts to challenge US dominance in the semiconductor market.

The article notes that semiconductors have passed oil as China's biggest import. This made me think about "semiconductor independence" as a (future?) national security goal analogous to "energy independence". The US's stated policy is to avoid reliance of imports of foreign oil - is it viable to also avoid reliance on imports of foreign chips? As Jeffrey Ding notes, the US is making aggressive moves in this space. If few countries can afford semiconductor independence, is the future of AI a world carved up into different "silicon blocs"?

Related: The excellent Jack Clark has an interesting tweet and thread on AI "soft power".

AI, creativity and superpowers

Michael Nielson, perhaps the most interesting account on Twitter, and Shan Carter have a wonderful long (and interactive) essay on how AI can augment human creativity. If you want to build an intuition about how AI might change the ways we think, I highly recommend bookmarking it and taking time to work through it.

Their key insight is that AI can be far more than an "oracle" to which we can outsource thought. Instead, if we create the right interfaces, AI can "expand the range of thoughts we can think". It's hard to excerpt the essay in a way that brings this idea to life (but if you're really short of time, try this), but the authors note that there is a long history of intellectual tools that have given us superpowers like this - from algebra to Photoshop.

This piece left me thinking that AI interface design is going to be a very exciting area for new startups in the next few years. And, more broadly, it strikes me as the foundation for an optimistic vision for AI that is lacking in most treatments: “It would not be a Singularity in machines. Rather, it would be a Singularity in humanity’s range of thought”.

Quick links

  1. What to study to get rich: Fascinating US dataset on lifetime earnings for different degree subjects (there is one subject with lower expected earnings than not going to college at all...)
  2. Unconstrained ideation, nuclear war edition: The US Air Force had some unusual ideas in 1960 for stopping a Soviet nuclear attack
  3. Predicting chaos: Extraordinary machine learning breakthrough that allows a model to predict the outcome of a chaotic system
  4. The Lord is my shepherd: An (almost) tweet-length summary of how the English language has changed in the last 1000 years
  5. What's actually happening in North Korea? Interesting thread on why Kim might have taken the extraordinary steps he did this week

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Until next week,