Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #83

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Is there a science of predicting the future?

A theme I’ve discussed a lot in TiB is how optimistic to be about the future (see here, here and here for some examples). This week I came across this essay by Peter Turchin, who argues that something very bad happened starting around 1970 that is leading to the “immiseration" of the US. Turchin acknowledges that the global picture is rosier, as Pinker et al argue, but thinks the situation in the US will lead to political violence in the next decade.

Turchin is a fascinating academic - a social scientist who uses ideas from complexity theory to study macrohistory (or what he calls “cliodynamics”). Wired published a good profile a few years ago and he explains his ideas well on this podcast. Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex published two useful (and broadly positive) reviews of Turchin’s work recently here and here.

I am generally a (global) optimist, but Turchin’s ideas (and similar ones we’ve discussed) give me pause about the US/UK situation. There’s persuasive evidence that, historically, rising inequality has rarely been mitigated without war or violence. I don’t believe Turchin can predict the future, Hari Seldon-style, but it’s not hard to imagine that our situation is much more brittle and precarious than we like to think. 

The end of the Bohemian-Proletarian coalition

I’ve written several times about the shift from left/right (economic) to open/closed (cultural) as the primary axis of political competition. Yascha Mounk has a new essay on the topic, which looks at how the left can survive (and even win) in a new political landscape. It’s nuanced in argument and global in perspective, and well worth a read.

Mounk argues that the “bohemian-proletarian” coalition that sustained social democrats for most of the 20th century is falling apart. But why have affluent "bohemians" been willing to vote against their apparent economic interests for so long (certainly UK Labour did a lot better in 2017 talking about economics than it’s done since [not] talking about Brexit)? Or, to in Mounk's words, why is “a worker in a car factory... far less likely to believe in socialism than an undergraduate at Oxford”?

I suspect the answer has to do with relative economic status. Over last three decades the the truly rich have pulled ever further away from the merely affluent, despite similar levels of education. I wonder if those at the 90th percentile (~£50,000 income in the UK) are willing to pay more absolute tax to reduce the relative disparity between them and their university peers who chose the finance/law/tech route? It fits what we know about the psychology of inequality - and also explains UK Labour’s surprisingly regressive 2017 manifesto (and, I’m willing to guess, the 2020 US Democratic platform). 

Have we reached a new era in computing?

Earlier this week the FT reported that Google had achieved a breakthrough in quantum computing called “quantum supremacy” - that is, a quantum computer able to perform operations that a classical computer cannot (in a reasonable amount of time). According to the FT, Google’s quantum computer performed in just over three minutes a calculation that would have taken a classical computer over 10,000 years.

Quantum supremacy is a big deal, because “proper” quantum computing would open up the possibility of extraordinary progress in almost every field, from creating new drugs and materials to enabling breakthroughs in machine learning. This is the best explainer I know and is worth your time (though the best introduction to quantum computing as a whole is undoubtedly Michael Nielsen and Andy Matuschak’s learning experiment, Quantum Country)

That said, it’s hard to know exactly what Google has achieved, not least because of the unusual way the news leaked: a paper was posted to a NASA site and then removed, but not before a number of people read it (you can see it here). There’s been some intelligent skepticism about just how much of a breakthrough it is - see here, here and here (predates this week, but relevant) for examples. But even if Google's achievement is merely another milestone, as Scott Aaronson says, it should increase our confidence that “proper” quantum supremacy is coming - and that will be a game changer. 

Quick Links

  1. Not dark yet, but it's getting there (Part 1). Extraordinary thread of "open source intelligence" to identify a video that appears to show abuse of Uighurs in Xinjiang.
  2. Not dark yet, but it's getting there (Part 2). Which is the most pessimistic country about the future?
  3. As easy as I, II, III? The always interesting Michael Nielsen imagines how the Romans could have discovered Arabic numerals (but didn't).
  4. Divided we stand? Striking historical chart contrasting the fragmentation of sovereignty in Europe vs China.
  5. Crossing the aisle. A new, rare bipartisan issue in America: breaking up Facebook!

BONUS: It was a big day in the day job yesterday - 27 startups from London, Paris and Berlin unveiled at our European demo day (you can watch here) and we announced our seventh office, the first in North America.

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Until next week,