Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #43

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When will the last unedited baby be born?

A Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, announced last week that he has created the first CRISPR-edited babies (See here for great primers on CRISPR, one of the most important technologies of our time). In short, He deactivated a single gene that increases the risk of HIV infection in six embryos that were created through IVF. The Atlantic has a good summary.

The work has been widely condemned by scientists and ethicists - as He presumably knew it would be, which is why he kept his work secret. We’re already seeing prominent figures in genetics warn against a backlash that might stymie important work. Others, though, like Feng Zhang, one of CRISPR’s inventors, have been swift to call for a moratorium on work involving human embryos.

This is a cat, however, that is impossible to put back into the bag - and the geopolitical consequences are profound. It’s not obvious to me how we avoid a race to the bottom in areas like gene editing. Suppose designer babies are both ethically worrying and a competitive advantage (a commonly held position). Any jurisdiction that rejects a moratorium now has an advantage - and how long will the others allow that to persist? There is no equivalent of mutually assured destruction in genetics, which makes me skeptical about the possibility of global regulation. Prepare for lots more on this front. 

Individuals as an asset class

Over the last seven years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the idea of “individuals as an asset class”. The ability to provide capital to an individual on the basis of their talents and character seems to me an important way to unlock human capital and create opportunity. When we started doing this at Entrepreneur First in 2011 it was a contrarian idea, but recent years have seen a number of models of this type take off, especially in education (perhaps because of the US student loans crisis; see previous coverage of Lambda School)

My friend Stefan shared this podcast by Village Global with me on the World’s First Publicly Traded Person - and it turns out it’s part of a mini-series: see also these two excellent discussions of income sharing agreements (ISAs) in education. All three are worth a listen.

As the podcasts discuss, adverse selection is a big challenge for ISAs. The answer, I think, is that ISAs don’t make sense without a complementary investment in human capital, such as the computer science programme at Lambda or the company building programme at EF (I see an analogy to this legendary paper on investing in “the unknown and unknowable") that (a) increases the probability of success and (b) has a clearly defined next step (e.g. a job with a salary increase or a round of venture funding). I’m excited to see lots more models like this emerge in other fields in the coming years. 

How the internet changed Left and Right

It’s been a commonplace since 2016 to talk about how the internet has changed “IRL” political culture - and to blame it for the more extreme political movements that have gained momentum since then. Peter Limberg and Conor Barnes have a superb (long but worth it) post on “memetic tribes and the culture wars”. The premise is that the internet has allowed much more diverse political and social viewpoints (“memetic tribes”) to gain critical mass and influence the traditional political system. Ideas that are niche one month appear in a President's platform the next.

I think Limberg and Barnes’ diagnosis of the current cultural/political situation is particularly good. They talk about a nexus of six distinct crises: of meaning; of reality; of belonging; of proximity; of sobriety; and of warfare.  The essay is interesting on the shift in focus in much of the Western Left from economics to identity over the last ten years, which we’ve discussed previously in TiB. This is a pithy summary:

This was a recuperative process for capitalism; identity politics can be negotiated within the mainstream, relieving institutions of some radical pressure. Put another way: Corporations can be woke, they cannot be anti-capitalist

It will be interesting to see if this dynamic persists in the coming years, particularly in the 2020 US election and (potentially imminent) next British general election. A world of fragmented memetic tribes is, after all, a less stable one.  

Quick Links

  1. AugustDHD. The unlikely story of birth month and ADHD diagnosis.
  2. The End of History. Which university majors are gaining and losing popularity? (see also this thread on millennial disappointment)
  3. That's when good neighbours become good friends? Trump apparently planned to give Putin an apartment.
  4. 'Til death do us part. An interesting idea for reducing inequality.
  5. Attack of the clones. I feel like if you have to make this claim, you've already lost.

Your feedback

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Until next week,