Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 145: 2020 in review - the best of Thoughts in Between

Forwarded this email? Subscribe here. Enjoy this email? Forward it to a friend.

2020 through the lens of Thoughts in Between

As is now traditional, Thoughts in Between takes a two-week break after today and will return in the New Year. For the last edition of 2020, I've trawled through each issue to pick out the most clicked-on articles, most-clicked on Tweets and my personal favourite pieces of the year. Enjoy!

My favourite pieces of 2020

TiB is always made up of three short segments followed by five "quick links". Here, in chronological order, are my favourite segments from TiB in 2020:

1: GPT-2, chess and the limits of explainable AI (TiB 97, section 2): Before there was GPT-3, there was GPT-2 and it was already raising questions about how we think about human intelligence

2: How to save science (TiB 103, section 3): We look at two takes on a frequent TiB topic - scientific stagnation - including one of my favourite papers of the year

3: The troubling epistemology of coronavirus (TiB 108, section 2): Why did the establishment get coronavirus wrong for so long?

4: How do we "disrupt government"? (TiB 111, section 1): Discussion of Marc Andreessen's "It's Time to Build" and ways to improve the quality of public administration

5: Lessons from coronavirus: is Singapore *too* efficient? (TiB 112, section 1) Looking at the efficiency vs resilience trade off through the lens of coronavirus (including one of my all-time favourite anecdotes)

6: TikTok, China and ideological conflict (TiB 124, section 2) The geopolitics of technology was frequently in the news this year - and TikTok became one of the most prominent flashpoints

7: The tragedy of lost genius (TiB 125, section 1) What's the cost of failing to identify and nurture extreme talent? We discussed a fascinating paper that suggests it's huge

8: Can venture capital work outside startups? (TiB 127, section 2) VC has lots of benefits in "extreme risk, extreme reward" domains; we discuss why it's been hard to make work in philanthropy and science

9: Why the best ideas don't always win: AI edition (TiB 133, section 1) A discussion of Sara Hooker's fascinating paper on "the hardware lottery" and why science and technology can get stuck in dead ends

10: The rise and rise of technological sovereignty (TiB 134, section 1) We review one of the big themes of the next decades - why nations increasingly want independent capabilities in emerging technologies

Top articles of 2020

These were the articles that you, discerning TiB readers, clicked on most in 2020, in order of popularity:

1 - "On Cultures that Build" (TiB 120) - TiB favourite Tanner Greer on what it takes to create a society where people believe that new things can and should be built

2 - The Unified Theory of the 2020 Election (TiB 140) - An interview with data scientist David Shor - and, in my view, the best and most prescient analysis of American politics this year

3 - State of AI (TiB 135) - Ian Hogarth and Nathan Benaich on the most important developments in artificial intelligence of the last 12 months

4 - ”Quick thoughts on GPT-3” (TiB 124) - Founders Fund's Delian Asparouhov offers the best short summary of OpenAI's GPT-3 and why it's an exciting moment for machine learning

5 - Keynes on Newton (TiB 122) - An extraordinary speech that Keynes wrote on Newton's place in history in 1942

6 - "Deep Learning for Scientific Discovery" (TiB 114) - Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and machine learning researcher Maithra Raghu on the uses of AI in science

7 - "Winning or losing against COVID-19?" (TiB 116) - Interview with epidemiologist Mark Lipsitch from back in May on the always interesting 80,000 Hours podcast

8 - On Progress and Historical Change (TiB 117) - Superb essay by historian Ada Palmer on how progress happens (from 2016 and worth a re-read at least one a year)

9 - Slate Star Codex and Silicon Valley's War Against the Media (TiB 123) - The most balanced, thoughtful discussion of the simmering conflict between tech and the media

10 - Seeing Like an Algorithm (TiB 136) - Brilliant essay by Eugene Wei on the design decisions that have made TikTok so successful

Top tweets of 2020

I link to a lot of tweets in TiB. Here are the ten you clicked on most:

1 - Which assets are expensive and which are cheap? (TiB 128)

2 - The extraordinary societal impact of (TiB 142)

3 - Rejected designs for the Eiffel tower (TiB 141)

4 - Who would fight for their country? (TiB 138)

5 - What would be the cost if everyone worked from home? (TiB 131)

6 - Is Josh Waitzkin the most interesting person alive? (TiB 127)

7 - Which countries nailed vaccine procurement? (TiB 140)

8 - What is going on with the stock market? (TiB 112)

9 - On Newton and how research transforms humanity (TiB 122)

10 - Why are tech salaries in London so low? (TiB 128)

My personal favourite thread of 2020 just missed the cut.

And this one by Jennifer Shelton surely turned out to be the most important tweet of 2019...

Thank you...

Thoughts in Between is a weekend project that I started mainly for the discipline of writing weekly, so it's very gratifying that so many of you read it and enjoy it. We more than doubled the readership in 2020, which was unexpected and nice.

So thank you for reading, sharing, forwarding, tweeting and replying - I hugely appreciate it.

Until 2021!

Matt Clifford