Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 136: Taiwan and tail risk; Tiktok and algorithm design; the future of board games; and more...

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Why Taiwan is the next big thing to worry about

A few weeks ago I linked to a remarkable image that suggested China has built a scale replica of the India-China border for military training purposes. This week turned up an even more disturbing one: a full replica of Taiwan’s presidential office in Inner Mongolia. If the lesson of 2020 is to think more about tail risk, it’s time to worry more about a Chinese invasion of Taiwan - which could spark all-out conflict between the US and China. (We’ve briefly discussed the threat to Taiwan before in TiB 115 and TiB 134 when looking at the geopolitics of semiconductors).  

This excellent short discussion from the US Army’s Military Review in June lays out the case well. There’s no doubt that the Chinese leadership is committed to reunification and there may never be a better moment: the world is distracted by coronavirus; the recent experience of Hong Kong shows the limits of peaceful assimilation; the US lacks the appetite for international military action; and Putin’s annexation of Crimea demonstrated that the practical downsides of norm breaking are limited.

If that sounds crazy, do read the responses below the article from defence and security luminaries. One former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO dismisses it as “less than a one in four chance”, which seems terrifyingly high for an event with such potentially devastating consequences (as this tweet shows). Equally pessimistic are commentary from Tanner Greer on Taiwan’s defeatism and Elbridge Colby and Jim Mitre on how much there is to do to ready the US military for such an eventuality. Fun times. 

TikTok and "algorithm-friendly design"

We talked about the geopolitics of TikTok in TiB 124 and TiB 126. Whether you’re a TikTok hawk or a TikTok dove, the key to understanding the app is the algorithm it uses to decide what to show you. Eugene Wei has a new-ish, brilliant post, "Seeing Like an Algorithm" that walks through the design choices that make the algorithm work. It’s quite long, but worth it.

The core idea is what Wei calls “algorithm-friendly design”: the whole app experience is designed to give the model as much information as possible on what content you might like (and what you won’t). By contrast, existing social media giants like Facebook and Twitter don’t do this. Their “infinite scroll” interfaces optimise for lower scanning friction and positive-only interaction, which are key if you’re building a network of friends, rather than of interests.

This helps explain, among other things, why so many internet services offer such poor recommendations despite apparently knowing so much about us. As Wei says, it’s interesting to think about what a Twitter-like product built on “algorithm-friendly design” might look like and deliver. Most of the things I write about in Thoughts in Between I find on Twitter, but it’s extraordinary how much work building a finely tuned following graph requires. I expect there are lots of opportunities still to be uncovered in this space. 

Board games, AI and the future of humanity

Venture firm Andreessen Horowitz has a fun and fascinating post on how technology is changing table top and board gaming (It’s about a month old, but I just came across it). The basic - and perhaps surprising - premise is that the internet has reinvigorated table top games and big businesses are being built. Dungeons and Dragons, for example, apparently now has over 40m players, with that number growing by more than 10 percent each year.

It seems particularly interesting that chess, one of the games discussed in the piece, has surged so much in popularity in an era in which humans became strictly inferior to machines in playing it. A few years ago, there was a feel-good idea doing the rounds that the future of work would be about human/AI collaboration - with chess held up as an example of a field where human plus machine was better than either one on its own. Sadly, AlphaZero put paid to this: humans now add nothing to the partnership.

There are, of course, large domains where humans remain dominant, for now. If you’re interested in mitigating the sort of international security tail risks discussed above, for example, you could do worse than play the Pentagon’s strategic planning board game, newly available to the public. And there is even an optimistic take here for our AI future, one we discussed way back in TiB 5: humans seem to be able to find purpose and meaning in games, even when we’re not very good at them.  

Quick links

  1. The language of pandemics. Striking graphic on how coronavirus incidence follows linguistic boundaries.
  2. "Great moments in the history of footnoting". More fun than it sounds (no, really).
  3. Chaotic beauty. Beautiful thread on the almost natural beauty of computer-optimised designs.
  4. All about the options. Fascinating note from 1999 on valuing Amazon.
  5. The stock market is not the economy, part a million. Useful graphic that compares the weighting of technology in the S&P 500 vs the economy.

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Until next week,

Matt Clifford