Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 224: Some big news! ARIA, TiB and me. And more...

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ARIA and me

If you've been reading TiB for any length of time, you'll know that I believe that accelerating scientific progress is one of the most important challenges we face today. As Tyler Cowen put it this week, "Better science is one of the biggest “free lunches” standing before us". You'll also know that I see the core problem as one of incentives (see, e.g., TiB 103): how do we create the funding mechanisms and career structures to ensure that our best scientific minds work on the most important, highest impact problems? How do we make it easier for ambitious researchers to take real risk, especially early in their careers?

We've talked a lot about the emergence of new research funding institutions that will experiment with new answers to these questions. I've written most frequently about the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) - a new institution for funding breakthrough research that is the UK's take on (D)ARPA.

I believe that - if executed well - ARIA has the potential both to catalyse important breakthroughs and present a new model for how to do high-risk, high-reward science funding. Of course, it's all too easy to sit on the sidelines and casually throw in the "if executed well" caveat as a weekend newsletter writer, so… given how important I think this mission is, I've decided to contribute to making that a reality.

I'm excited and honoured to be appointed today as the founding Chair of ARIA - and I'm delighted that we have in Ilan Gur a truly exceptional founding CEO. (As it happens, Ilan was a guest on the TiB podcast, long before we had any idea we might end up working together)

What's next for TiB and ARIA?

The Chair role is a part-time, non-executive position; I remain completely dedicated to our mission at Entrepreneur First (see TiB 221) and will continue to be full-time CEO at EF. I am, though, going to wind down a number of other non-exec and "extra-curricular" activities to make time for ARIA. One of these, alas, is Thoughts in Between.

This is a difficult decision. I've got an enormous amount of value from writing TiB over the last four and a half years. I don't think I expected to keep it up for over 200 editions - and that's largely because I didn't expect to attract such a fantastic group of readers. Your encouragement, feedback and suggestions have made all the time I've invested worthwhile. Please don't unsubscribe! TiB isn't over, but I won't be keeping a strict weekly schedule from now on. I hope to send issues on a more relaxed timetable, especially when the core TiB themes are particularly prominent in the news. I also hope to share ARIA updates here, especially when I think readers might be able to help...

Speaking of which... we're hiring! We're now recruiting for three additional non-executive directors to serve alongside me and Sir Patrick Vallance, and for a CFO. All four are critical roles with potential for extraordinary impact. ARIA is a brand new organisation, with a committed £800m budget and unusual freedom to innovate and operate. We need exceptional people in all four roles, so please let me know if you have ideas. We're not hiring for Programme Managers yet, but will be soon (see here for a flavour of what that might mean). I believe being an ARIA PM will be one of the most exciting roles in science and technology anywhere in the world, so if you have ideas for candidates (including self-nominations...), I'd love to hear from you. Just hit reply.

AI alignment, philosophy and democracy

I'll also be updating the podcast far less frequently, but I'm delighted to have recorded this week's episode with Iason Gabriel, who is a staff research scientist at DeepMind and was previously a lecturer in moral and political philosophy at Oxford University. We talked about Iason's work on AI and John Rawls back in TiB 190. Iason is one of the deepest thinkers on the ethical implications of AI and his ideas are particularly interesting given that he works at arguably the most important AI lab in the world.

In this conversation we spend quite a lot of time talking about the idea of "AI alignment" (see also the discussion last week in TiB 223) and particularly what it means to align AI with human values in a diverse and pluralistic society. Iason draws on Rawls' A Theory of Justice (see also TiB 216218) to think through some of the principles we might want to employ when evaluating whether AI is being used in a just and fair way. Iason does an excellent job of bringing this to life for non-specialists, so I highly recommend a listen if you're interested in the topic.

We also discuss:


Quick links

  1. The returns to serendipity. Very cool paper on the value of face-to-face interactions in Silicon Valley - from this also very cool conference on the economics of innovation
  2. Macro-talent allocation, China edition. What happens when PRC leadership switches from mainly engineers to mainly lawyers? Speculative but interesting thread.
  3. Dragging them down with their bootstraps? Who is more sympathetic to poorer people - the self-made or the inherited rich?
  4. "Superhistory, not superintelligence". Fascinating thread summarising this piece by Venkatesh Rao. AIs are / will be old in human years.
  5. The American Dream is already here - it's just not very evenly distributed. Data on the (large) regional disparity in social mobility.

So long and thanks for all the chips

Thank you for reading, replying and sharing for the last four years. I wouldn't have got this far without you.

As I said above, TiB isn't finished, so don't unsubscribe. In fact, help me kick off this new era instead by replying and telling me who would be the very best NEDs, CFO and Programme Managers for ARIA...

Until... some time!

Matt Clifford

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