Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #22

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How do we know if we're making AI progress?

The brilliant David Chapman has a brilliant essay about what progress in AI means. Chapman is a former AI researcher and technology entrepreneur and now philosopher and writer. The essay probably demands an uninterrupted hour to read, but it is deeply rewarding.

Chapman looks at the various fields that AI draws on - science, engineering, mathematics, philosophy, design - and considers whether their criteria for "progress" match that of AI. His conclusions are likely to be controversial for some: he argues that it's hard to demonstrate that we're making progress in AI using any scientific criteria, as AI research usually fails to make testable predictions or run replicable experiments. He worries a lot about the illusion of progress created by AI "spectacles" such as AlphaGo (discussed in TiB before) - and points to this amazing video demo of the SHRDLU "AI" system in 1970 (!) as an example of "spectacles" as the high watermark of approaches that are about to run out of steam...

Chapman ultimately concludes that we should think of AI implementations as akin to "design solutions" - trial solutions to fairly nebulous problems that rely a lot on intuition and creativity (He also makes some interesting points about the apprenticeship model in fields with these characteristics, among which I would include venture capital). Why does this matter? Chapman argues the metaphors we use influence the paths we choose - and if we kid ourselves that AI is science, we may walk down roads that led to the AI winters of the past. 

The political economy of Saudi Aramco

The WSJ published an interesting piece on the apparent collapse of what would have been the world's largest IPO, Saudi Aramco. The idea was to raise $100bn (at a $2.5 trillion valuation, which would make it easily the world's most valuable company) to fuel the country's development. Now it looks as though the IPO will be delayed indefinitely.

It's a fascinating story in its own right, but particularly interesting ias a window on many of the world's biggest geopolitical set pieces. You have the idea that Aramco might skip the IPO and just sell a very large stake privately to China (almost like the mother of all pre-IPO growth rounds in startup land...) - though this possibility is fading as China increasingly sees Iranian oil, depressed by US sanctions, as a better deal. And equally the Saudis themselves are enjoying a rare opportunity to increase production without lowering prices, because of shortages in Iran, Venezuela and Libya. (For a longer term perspective on these questions, Daniel Yergin's The Prize and The Quest are excellent introductions)

It's also a great case study of the evolving relationship between nation states and their corporate proxies. While both the UK and the US have fallen over themselves to try to win the listing, one reason for the IPO's suspension is apparently risk the Kingdom being on the receiving end of shareholder lawsuits if Aramco listed in London or New York. Even absolute monarchies need fear the markets, apparently.

Billionaires and their motivations

Medium published this story about the apocalyptic fears of the super rich. It's a good read, but some of the views it ascribes to tech billionaires seem rather caricatured. I'm sure there are many very shallow, very rich people, but it seems sensible to engage with the deepest ideas of one's political opponents, not the most vapid. 

One of the article's targets is the ever-controversial Peter Thiel (disclosure: Thiel's Founders Fund is an investor in Entrepreneur First). Recently there have been a rich seam of attempts by people inside and outside tech to describe the Thiel worldview. Thiel is nothing if not complex: a gay, libertarian, Christian, Trump-supporting tech billionaire. This thread looks at his religious views; this one his ideas about economic growth [related - is technological progress accelerating or decelerating? Thiel thinks the latter]; and this one on his obsession with the idea of mimesis and the work of Rene Girard.

Of course, some people see a much darker side to Thiel's worldview [Related: a very long and philosophically complex essay on Thiel and neo-reactionary politics]. Whatever your politics (and I'm far from sympathetic, as regular readers will guess!), the Thiel worldview represents a complex and important challenge to many liberal assumptions - and one worth engaging with.

Quick links

  1. Your brain is extraordinary. Almost unbelievable thread on how your brain makes your eyes "see" what they do.
  2. Dunbar strikes again. You can have five friends. (Also your brain's fault, apparently)
  3. People's Republic of California. Amusing comparison of life in Silicon Valley and life in the Soviet Union.
  4. Elon Musk is not Boring. The Tesla and SpaceX founder tries to live problem-solve the Thai cave rescue operation on Twitter.
  5. More AI nationalism. Overview of 15 national AI strategies.

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Until next week,