Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #61

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Silicon Valley, "messiness" and social policy

I recently read Kai Fu Lee’s book AI Superpowers for the Peter Thiel course on nationalism and technology that I’ve discussed before. It’s a quick and engaging read and an opportunity to hear a perspective from someone fully immersed in the Chinese AI ecosystem.

One of Lee’s most interesting arguments is a sociological one about the differences between Silicon Valley and Chinese startups: in Silicon Valley the highest ideal is to be a software-only platform, to write code that abstracts away the messiness of the real world; in China, the winners are those who vertically integrate and embrace the messiness and logistical complexity of “offline”. This, Lee argues, will allow China to “win" the next wave of AI, which will be much more integrated in the physical world.

Interestingly, Lee believes this has policy consequences. Why has Silicon Valley so embraced universal basic income (see previous coverage), a fringe policy until fairly recently? It’s not the only possible policy response to automation, but says Lee:

 UBI is the epitome of the [Silicon Valley] light approach to problem solving… Best of all it doesn’t place any further burden to think critically about the societal impacts of the technologies they build.

I’m not convinced that China is a paragon of virtue when it comes to tech policy, but it’s an interesting and important critique.

In praise of weirdness

I’m tempted to think that another powerful consequence of dominant engineering cultures is the desire to see the universe as well ordered and explicable. This has important implications for the practice of science, as this fascinating piece - Make Physics Real Again - makes clear. 

It discusses the history and sociology of quantum physics. The author shows that its fundamental weirdness (for non-scientists like me, here's a famous example) has so troubled many of science’s most eminent minds that they've been willing to gloss over its uncomfortable difficulties in favour of more legible models. It’s striking how often in the last century even this apparently most objective of sciences has resolved controversies by appeals to authority

Embracing weirdness risks a deluge of crackpots and cranks - but perhaps provides the only path to extraordinary insight (Venture capitalists face a similar dilemma). For example, this interview with quantitative psychologist Donald Hoffman is the most thought provoking thing I’ve listened to recently. Hoffman suggests that consciousness is the fundamental building block of the universe. I’m totally unqualified to judge its validity, but I’m fascinated by the idea that the universe is so weird that any true model will upend some of our most fundamental intuitions. So, more weirdness, please.

Institutional decline and institutional design

Nicolas Colin, fellow tech investor and newsletter writer, has an excellent piece in the FT on the decline of France's École Nationale D’Administration (ENA). For 75 years ENA has been the premier institution for training the French power elite. Nicolas has many important points, but I am particularly struck by this idea:

Obsessed by their final class rankings, which will determine future career paths, most students are not all that concerned with the syllabus

ENA is far from the only institution facing this crisis. As innovation - and therefore impact - becomes increasingly permissionless, institutions that merely signal existing ability and do little transform the actual capabilities of their members will decline in relevance. The map is not the territory and you are not your ENA class ranking; in fact, it is now faster and cheaper in many fields to demonstrate value rather than signal it.

I believe this change will unleash a wave of new institution building. We’ve talked about Lambda School before, but now we have Lambda School for anything (nearly). And how about the Monasteries of the Future (a topic I may return to)? This, of course, is also the premise of Entrepreneur First. I suspect deliberate institution design for the careers of the future is likely to be one of the most valuable skillsets over the next two decades. 

Quick Links

  1. "Ghosts in someone else's universe". As mentioned above, physics is very, very weird.
  2. It's all relative. What happens to the human body in spaceflight? An extraordinary twin study.
  3. India vs. China. It's not even close (yet) - fascinating chart
  4. The lessons of history. How to win at dating, Viking-style
  5. Music of the spheres. The beautiful story of how the Interstellar theme music was written

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Until next week,