Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 174: The future is weird; more silicon geopolitics; how to get better science; and more...

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The Netherlands, chips and geopolitical leverage

We’ve talked before about the (geo)politicisation of the semiconductor supply chain (see, e.g., TiB 134, 158, 161). The Wall Street Journal has a good piece this week that looks at how this works in practice. China wants to manufacture cutting edge chips domestically, to insulate its tech companies from the sort of economic coercion that have damaged Huawei and ZTE in recent years. But to do this requires access to “extreme ultraviolet lithography” machines - and only one company makes these, Dutch giant ASML.

Though few people, even in tech, have heard of it, ASML’s monopoly position in one of the world’s most strategically important industries has made it Europe’s most valuable technology company, with a market cap of almost €250bn. As the WSJ reports, ASML and the Dutch government are under intense pressure from the US to refuse to export their most advanced machines to China (Unsurprisingly, ASML are not thrilled, and nor is TSMC, the market leading chip manufacturer). As long as this continues, it effectively cuts China off from domestic production of state of the art chips.

As we’ve said before, hawkishness on China is one of the few remaining bipartisan positions in the US (see also: restrictions on China hiring American talent) and Biden’s policy is a continuation of Trump’s. When I spoke to Shashank Joshi on the TiB podcast, he noted that a key signal of Biden’s stance would be who was appointed to the normally obscure position of Under Secretary of Commerce for Industry and Security - the official in charge of technology export control. Biden announced Alan Estevez as the appointee this week, which pleased China hawks. It looks as though "silicon geopolitics" are here to stay.

The future is weird and we have to get used to it

Holden Karnofsky, the CEO of Open Philanthropy and one of the leading lights of the Effective Altruism movement, has a fascinating new post, “All possible views about humanity’s future are wild”. It opens:

I'm going to argue that the 21st century could see our civilization develop technologies allowing rapid expansion throughout our currently-empty galaxy. And thus, that this century could determine the entire future of the galaxy for tens of billions of years, or more.

If you think you might like it based on that, you almost certainly will (much more discussion here). The core argument of the post is that you might read that sentence and instinctively find it implausible, but it’s hard to posit a future for humanity that isn’t equally “wild” in one dimension or another. Karnofsky says he for a long time resisted the arguments he makes precisely because they seemed too “wild” - but now he doesn’t really see a plausible, more “normal” outcome.

This touches on an important point that I’ve raised before in the context of COVID: our collective resistance to the idea that the world can be very weird can cause us to make major analytical mistakes. It’s the reason that apparent crackpots were ahead of the public health establishment for much of the pandemic (see TiB 108) and helps explain our consistent underreaction to the crisis (see TiB 172). I see this as a big problem for humanity. As I said last year:

Developing an epistemology that takes unusual ideas seriously without falling for them all will be one of the important challenges of the coming decade

How to turbocharge science and technology

The Tony Blair Institute and The Entrepreneurs Network published a collection of essays on how to supercharge the science and technology in the UK, to which I contributed a short piece on building talent density. My obvious bias notwithstanding, I think it’s a great set of papers and touches on lots of themes we’ve discussed in TiB before, including:

I especially recommend the piece “Operation Paperclip 2.0” which discusses the idea of building a national talent agency for exceptional scientists - an idea we discussed in TiB 170 and which cites research on predicting future scientific talent that we looked at in TiB 125.

You might not agree with all of these ideas, but - as Patrick Collison says in his foreword - it’s encouraging to see how much potential there is for innovation and improvement in relatively neglected areas. I hope these ideas secure a wide audience.

Quick links

  1. Polarisation, social media edition. Every social media platform has a partisan divide in usage (though I wonder how much of this reflects correlates with other demographic characteristics)
  2. Status games. What are the most prestigious works in each genre? (the "medium" column actually seems consistently the worst)
  3. Reach for the Star(link)s. Who owns the world's satellites? Interesting thread.
  4. Thank you for not smoking. Surprise! When smoking declines, lung cancer deaths fall. Striking chart
  5. Lost canine Einsteins? Interesting results on variance in dog intelligence(!)

The bit at the end

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Until next week,

Matt Clifford

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