Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 141: Whose jobs are at risk from robots; Friedrich Engels, venture capitalist; coronavirus fantasies; and more...

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Who's afraid of the big bad robots?

Who has the most to fear from greater adoption of robots in the workplace? Historically the emergence of new general purpose technologies has been associated with an increase in employment, but many people worry that AI and robotics might have the opposite effect. The most comprehensive review I’ve seen, this long but excellent piece by Scott Alexander, suggests that, at minimum, technological unemployment isn’t happening yet (though Alexander's overall conclusions are quite pessimistic).

We’re a long way off human redundancy (I hope), but it’s interesting to look at the employment impact of the growing number of industrial robotics installations. A new(ish) study by Jay Dixon, Bryan Hong and Lynn Wu has an interesting finding: robotics investments are associated, at the company level, with increased employment overall, but decreased employment among middle managers. Why? Because robot-led processes have much less variance than human-led ones and so require less management.

This is the opposite of many people’s intuition that low-skilled work is the first to be automated away (though there is a big literature on the displacement of middle-skilled work - see, e.g., here). That said, I’m skeptical of general optimism about the sustainability of automation-complementary labour. As I noted in TiB 136, in chess there was a brief period of excitement about human-machine collaboration before machines’ dominance became total. It’s early days for robotics. 

The comforts of fantasy - coronavirus edition

Back in TiB 135, we talked - via Julian Lehr’s excellent essay - about the power of the internet to create alternative narratives that become reality to their participants. Bruno Maçães has an interesting column in the NYT looking at the Trump presidency through a similar lens: his administration, Maçães argues, has been an exercise in storytelling, often unmoored from reality.

As Maçães says, the most important example is the pandemic, where Trump simply wished the virus away, repeatedly insisting America had “turned a corner”. If the appeal of what Maçães calls “hyper-freedom” is the promise that you can live the life you want unrestrained by reality, coronavirus is the inconvenient reassertion of the material universe (But despite that, Biden didn’t actually outperform in COVID hotspots - fantasy is very appealing, even when it kills you!)

But there’s a deeper discomfort here. It’s tempting for liberals (like me) to feel smug about our resistance to fantasy. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we have unmediated access to reality. Our understanding of reality is necessarily filtered through institutions and the media. These, it’s true, are generally not trying to sell us fantasy. Nevertheless they've done so at some of the most important moments of the pandemic, as this excellent piece shows. Few of us are really immune to the comforts of fantasy - which, as Maçães notes in this follow-up piece, means it’s not going away. 

Friedrich Engels, venture capitalist

Here’s one description of a career in venture capital: your role is to be the support act to a genius whose big idea has the potential to touch the lives of billions of people. You provide some intellectual input and advice, of course, but your primary contribution is really money. It requires (or should) some humility: you’re never going to be the star of the show, but in exchange you attach yourself to something bigger and more impactful than you could achieve yourself.

It’s also, as it happens, a pretty good description of the role of Friedrich Engels in the life of Karl Marx, as Tanner Greer points out in this interesting thread. As Greer says, we remember Engels today only because he had the humility to realise that “he had a much better chance of making a mark on the intellectual (and actual) world if he attached his entire project to Marx”. (For avoidance of doubt, I’m not a fan of that particular mark, nor is Greer).

I suspect there are many intellectuals who would have more impact as talent scouts and support acts than as would-be stars. But if Engels-types are rare, it’s less a question of humility and more one of business model: VCs get to share in the upside, and are very well remunerated for being backstage players; thinkers less so (Engels, conveniently, was independently wealthy). I said back in TiB 130 that we needed more experiments in “talent investing” outside startups. Finding ways to incentivise and support the support acts feels like an important part of the puzzle. 

Quick links

  1. Try, try again. 14 rejected designs for the Eiffel Tower. Paris might have looked quite different.
  2. Everything bad is good for you. Interesting summary of a big study on computer games and well being (The second and third tweet have great charts)
  3. Partisanship is a hell of a (perceptual) drug. Another fascinating exhibit of how your party allegiance shapes your perception of reality.
  4. For sale. Baby shoes. Never bought. Striking animation on the fall and fall of fertility over the last century.
  5. Red state, Blue state. The richest counties vote Democrat, but richer people vote Republican (It's striking how little this fact is reported or understood)

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Until next week,

Matt Clifford

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