Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #82

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The first AI regulatory battle

The regulation of facial recognition is likely to become one of the first major public policy debates that’s prompted by AI. Leading US scholars are calling for a moratorium on its use until there’s a proper regulatory framework in place, while courts in the UK are already making rulings that may entrench its use by police.

There’s a geopolitical dimension to the question, as China is moving quickly to roll out the technology in a number of areas of international interest - most obviously in Xinjiang to profile the Uighur population and (indirectly) in Hong Kong. One of the key Chinese AI startups developing the technology, Megvii, has filed to go public in Hong Kong. The excellent Jeff Ding has a superb thread on Megvii and its defensiveness on ethics questions.

As is often the case, Benedict Evans has, for now, the definitive take, which provides both historical (how is facial recognition like databases?) and international (it’s more complicated than “China vs the world”) comparative perspective. He suggests a helpful set of questions for thinking through which use cases we might find acceptable. This won’t be the last AI regulation debate, so it’s one worth getting to grips with.

Machine learning and European tech startups

I was at a finance-heavy dinner last week where someone asked what reasons there are to be bullish on European tech startups. I have two answers. First, I’m not sure there's such a thing as a European tech startup, as opposed to a European-founded tech startup. All important (non-Chinese) tech companies have to be global - and increasingly it doesn’t matter where you begin (Sequoia Capital, the world’s most celebrated VC firm were in London last week pushing a similar message, following their investments in Graphcore, Tessian and others).

Second, though, I think it’s likely that the next wave of $100bn+ companies are likely to be founded in areas where Europe has a competitive advantage. In particular, I’m bullish on the idea that machine learning will “eat” some of the world’s biggest industries - e.g. manufacturing, energy, life sciences - in the same way that software has been eating the world the last 10 years.

My friend Nathan Benaich just published a excellent article on the case for “full stack” machine learning startups - that is, startups that use machine learning to serve an end user, rather than existing industry players (Nathan’s the co-author of the State of AI, which I discussed before). Europe’s startups have historically had to move to California to access executive talent with experience of scaling software companies - but the equivalent talent in the industries they’re eating is right on their doorstep...

Why is "woke capital" on the rise?

I’ve written a couple of times recently about the phenomenon of “woke capital” - corporations taking (sometimes surprising) actions to signal socially liberal political positions. I’ve mainly talked about this in the context of tech giants choosing not to collaborate with the US military - but there are other examples from Gilette’s toxic masculinity advert and Nike’s pro-Colin Kaepernick campaign.

I stumbled upon this interesting Twitter debate this week on what’s driving this. Is it demographic change among consumers? Or, more like the Google/Pentagon case, are brands following the lead of their (largely) progressive marketing teams? As Gabriel Rossman points out, if it’s the former, we should expect to see much more woke behaviour among “identity” brands targeting highly educated urbanites - and this does seem to have played out (negatively) for Soul Cycle, whose owner hosted a Trump fundraiser.

Interestingly the Economist last week created a “woke index” for companies and found the more socially liberal an organisation is, the more it donates to Democratic candidates. Perhaps that’s not surprising - but the study also points to the limits of this trend: even the “wokest” quartile of companies give more to Republicans. To use a line I’ve quoted before (from here):

Corporations can be woke, but they can’t be anti-capitalist.

Quick Links

  1. More adventures in AI text generation. Remarkable progress in generating abstracts automatically (including a "plot twist"...)
  2. The end of the idle rich. For the first time in history, the wealthy are working for it (thread).
  3. Magnus Carlsen, elite athlete. Amazing story on the physical exertion of playing top level chess.
  4. Highly charged. Exciting breakthrough in battery tech.
  5. The candidates came in two by two. Interesting categorisation of the 2020 Democratic primary.

BONUS: Not a quick link - in fact, a long one - but 18 years on, still the best and one of the most moving stories 9/11, which I reread often. It's like a 30 minute novel.

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Until next week,