Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 115: "Too many entrepreneurs"; the geopolitics of the tech supply chain; "surprise" in science; and more...

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The accelerating geopolitics of the tech supply chain

We talked last month about the "great reordering” accelerated by coronavirus: the changing value of what’s physical and what’s digital. Nowhere is this more visible than in the tech supply chain, which is increasingly of geopolitical as well as economic importance. Against this backdrop, two past TiB themes - the idea of "semiconductor independence” and the US’s battles against Huawei - are back in the news.

The US Government is apparently pushing Intel and TSMC, the Taiwan-based semiconductor manufacturer, to build foundries in the US, which would reduce its dependence on physical access to Asia. At the same time, the US is using its influence in the global supply chain - including TSMC - to attack Huawei, which it sees as an intelligence tool of the Chinese state. China is making its own moves, with an increasingly impressive domestic chip manufacturing operation (excellent summary here), while the US’s strategy may conflict with those of its own tech giants, above all Apple’s.

What’s the impact of these trends accelerating? This excellent short report from CSET argues that it’s in the US’s interests for China "to remain reliant on democracies for state-of-the-art chips”, which these recent moves arguably make harder. There’s a worrying second order effect, too, that Ben Thompson points out ($): China’s reliance on TSMC is a significant deterrent to any disruption of Taiwan. Removing that incentive might have unexpected - and dangerous - consequences. 

How can we stimulate more "surprise" in science?

One of the papers I stumbled upon when reading about machine learning in science last week was this fascinating piece that looks at the role of surprise in scientific advances. The authors’ hypothesis is that much scientific progress comes from surprising combinations of ideas - or combining ideas from surprising places. They formalise and test this using a huge corpus of journal articles in medicine and physics, as well as recent patents.

The results are striking. Most “ordinary” scientific work combines ideas that are “nearby” in terms of time and intellectual distance; that is, they are combinations of ideas from within a discipline and in recent years. But this is not true of the most highly cited - and presumably most important - work: these have much more surprising (i.e. statistically unexpected) combinations of both content and contexts.

One way this happens is when authors stray from their immediate field and apply ideas across disciplines. The papers with the most “surprising” authors - i.e. those whose academic backgrounds are furthest from the journal in which they’re publishing - are most likely to be hits. This could be a statistical artefact (to get published in a journal outside your field, your work has to be outstanding, presumably), but nevertheless seems important. How can we encourage scientists to wander from well-trodden paths? And how can we help them find new areas where their expertise might shine a line? 

Are there too many entrepreneurs?

TiB reader Andres Monteoliva asked what I thought of this interesting paper on “the untrepreneurial economy”. The authors argue that too many people are becoming entrepreneurs, which results in more new businesses failing, and that the primary driver is an “Entrepreneurship Industry” that has turned founding a company into "Veblenian Entrepreneurship" - i.e. a strange mode of conspicuous consumption where the purpose is to have the identity of an entrepreneur rather than to build a viable business.

Given that I’ve dedicated my career to helping people become founders, I guess I’m part of the problem… but actually I sympathise with the argument. I’m strongly against performative entrepreneurship. Many problems in building startup ecosystems come from failing to treat entrepreneurship as a high skill profession, like medicine. To extend this analogy: society needs doctors, but it’s ludicrous to suggest that “everyone can be a doctor”.

But, equally, the fact that it's harmful to encourage poorly qualified people to become doctors isn’t an argument against medical schools. The authors ignore that any increase in the supply of entrepreneurs may be a rational response to changing prices: the cost of starting a (software) company has fallen dramatically, thanks to cloud computing and open source software, while the addressable market size has skyrocketed. What we need is for the most talented and ambitious people in society to consider entrepreneurship. Outside Silicon Valley, alas, that’s still a long way from the norm.  

Quick links

  1. Believe your eyes. Impressive tech demos from this year's SIGGRAPH.
  2. All work and no play. What the post-coronavirus recovery looks like through the lens of Chinese subway traffic
  3. Waiting for the drop? A great Twitter thread of "goosebumps moments" in classical music.
  4. We're all computer scientists now? Interesting post on trends in what people study at top US universities.
  5. More on the politics of central banking. Not a quick read, but I said last week that the German constitutional court's anti-ECB ruling was the most important story no one was talking about... and now Adam Tooze, of course, has the definitive write up.

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Until next week,

Matt Clifford