Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #20

The unsexy face of power: international standards

We've discussed China's AI aspirations before. One of the most important, but least discussed, elements of its strategy is to play a key role in setting global AI standards. There are few topics less sexy than international standards, but fortunately Jeff Ding, Paul Triolo, and Samm Sacks have an excellent (and very readable) essay this week on the topic.

The basic idea is that China believes that standards matter a lot and is willing to expend considerable resources to exert influence on them. Its goal is to maximise the economic value of AI and the international competitiveness of Chinese AI companies - that is, to ensure that "AI with Chinese characteristics" shapes the global AI landscape. (The authors note the contrast with the early days of the internet, where the major standards were shaped by US-dominated groups). There's more here on the details.

It's interesting to see this in the context of a much broader standards push by the Chinese government. A month ago Bloomberg had an interesting piece on how China was using its Belt and Road initiative to influence standards in emerging economies across finance, construction, data management and more. If standard setting is the latest manifestation of soft power, it's a field in which China has stolen a march.

The new lion of liberalism: corporate activism

Amazon is the latest company to face an employee revolt over the applications of its technology (We discussed the conflict between Google's employees and its management over its AI work with the US military a couple of weeks ago). This time the issue is facial recognition work for law enforcement - particularly salient this week given the images coming from the US's border detention centres. Microsoft faced similar internal backlash over its work with ICE.

These efforts may have limited immediate impact, but corporate activism on issues outside the traditional business sphere is becoming an increasingly important part of the political process. In Silicon Valley this will be driven by the fact that talent is both scarce and extremely liberal. But it's much broader than big tech. The Parkland school shooting in February led to an extraordinary wave of (largely token) anti-NRA gestures from a swathe of large companies, from airlines to insurers. And Blackrock suggested in January that the firm would use its enormous assets to push corporates towards greater social purpose (Barrons has a good long read on the topic).

The long-term implications are unclear, but as it becomes increasingly easy for Twitter outrage to drive corporate decision making, there's the possibility of important and unexpected outcomes. And, of course, this is likely to be a Western phenomenon. Right now, the ability of Google employees to get a government contract cancelled may not seem like a big deal, but the equivalent in China is inconceivable - and that may have important consequences as AI ethics become increasingly contested.

Technology, leverage and productivity

"Coding bootcamps" - where people with little or no technical background can learn to code in a few months - have proliferated across the world over the last five years. There have been some well documented challenges with the business model, but the strongest organisations seem to be producing very good results. Lambda School is the most interesting model to me: they charge nothing up front, but take a percentage of a student's income for two years once they're earning over $50,000.

It's fascinating in its own right, but as a data point in a broader trend: the extraordinary leverage that technology is providing to ambitious individuals globally. Lambda School's CEO Austen Allred (who is a great Twitter follow) summarises nicely:

Yet again: Never programmed before to six figure job offer in six months. When has that kind of swing been possible in human history? It’s insane.

If something like Lambda scales successfully, there could be profound implications for questions from global income distribution to productivity. It's worth reading Noah Smith's Bloomberg column on meritocracy and rent seeking in this context: what does the world look like if the world's most ambitious people start to see technology and not finance as the path to maximum impact? I think it's a very different world, one I've written about in an Entrepreneur First context previously.

Quick links

  1. Lost in space: What crew would be needed for multi-generational space travel?
  2. What trade deficit? Asia's extraordinary export success
  3. Are smart contracts dumb? The bear case on smart contract platforms (and more on crypto valuations)
  4. Dropouts: What this year's Thiel Fellows are doing (Spoiler: lots of crypto)
  5. America is a low immigration country: OECD just published lots of interesting immigration data - great commentary here

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Until next week,