Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #55

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Big tech - 2020's favourite punching bag

This week Elizabeth Warren, Democratic senator and 2020 presidential candidate came out in favour of breaking up Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple in the name of competition (more here). As previously discussed, this is going to be a big theme in US politics over the next 20 months (and perhaps beyond) and it feels like a big deal for a candidate with a ~5% chance of winning to propose something so radical.

Some of Silicon Valley's smartest observers have questions about how practical this is (but do see this thread for a nuanced argument). And certainly this will continue the debate (discussed before) about just how politically liberal - and in what ways - Silicon Valley is.

It does increasingly seem, however, as though there is a case to answer and Amazon et al are, at best, losing the PR war. This fascinating piece on the University of Chicago's "Pro Market" blog - hardly a socialist haven - on the failure of today's "superstar" firms to make any major contribution to productivity highlights big tech's problem: they face significant enemies on both left and right and they won't go quietly.

China, sci-fi and "definite pessimism"

The New Statesmen has an excellent piece this week on Chinese science fiction and its impact. It focuses on the superb Three Body Problem trilogy, which I strongly recommend; they're some of the most thought provoking books I've read over the last three years. They've racked up massive sales and spawned the world's most expensive TV show.

The cultural influence of sci-fi, however, goes far beyond first order sales, however. Arguably sci-fi has a disproportionate influence on shaping the imaginations of entrepreneurs and inventors. Consider, for example, Peter Thiel's lament that "we wanted flying cars; instead we got 140 characters" versus his idea of "definite optimism".

It's interesting to consider what impact Chinese sci-fi might have on that country's most ambitious readers. The New Statesmen talks about the idea of sci-fi as a vehicle for political dissent. But there's also the interesting prospect that sci-fi in China (which Thiel sees as the embodiment of "definite pessimism") could be much darker:

“The stories being written in China feel significant because they are emerging from a real dystopia that becomes stranger and more futuristic by the day”  

It feels like something worth paying attention to.

OpenAI and the power of new corporate forms

I've written about OpenAI's work several times before, including a couple of weeks ago, when they announced a new AI language model. This week they announced a number of developments, including co-founder Sam Altman stepping down as Y Combinator's President to become OpenAI's CEO.

Most interestingly, though, was a new organisational form - a "capped profit" company - that OpenAI has developed to let it maintain not-for-profit status while raising massive amounts of funding. Private, profit seeking investors can invest in a limited partnership where the general partner (GP) is OpenAI's not-for-profit entity. Crucially, the GP's primary fiduciary duty will be to advance OpenAI's mission, as embodied in its charter, rather than to return cash to investors. Any financial return will be capped at 100x the amount invested (which is hardly modest...)

This is interesting in its own right, in that it opens up the capital to put OpenAI on a much more even playing field with Google's DeepMind (I'm intrigued by the line at the end of OpenAI's announcement that says "we are willing to merge with a value-aligned organization... to avoid a competitive race which would make it hard to prioritize safety"). But it's also interesting to think about where else a "capped profit" company might be a useful mechanism. Battling climate change? Fighting certain diseases? I'd be excited to see more of them.

Quick Links

  1. More than 140 characters: The surprisingly interesting story of what actually happens when you send a text.
  2. Times they are a changin'? The conservative and hyper-Establishment David Brooks makes the case for reparations.
  3. Learning from play. Interesting new AI results on teaching agents through play (including great animations)
  4. Friends of friends of friends... A better way to measure Twitter influence?
  5. When stereotypes work. An almost too-perfect story about how all hipsters look alike.

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Until next week,