Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #1

How hard is automation?

Tyler Cowen has an excellent post on what kinds of automation are easy and what kinds are hard, focused on trucking. The key (Hayekian) idea is that humans possess an awful lot of tacit knowledge that's hard to capture and automate. I wonder if this suggests that there are interesting new types of startups and business models that aim to co-opt and empower, rather than simply replace, workers. 

Lots of incentive problems will need to be solved to make this possible, but it's an intriguing possibility - and one we might see in the UK, given this surprisingly (to me) positive paper from the Labour Party on automation and new models of ownership.

Getting Alexa to ignore the TV

I loved Bloomberg's short piece on how Amazon made sure its Super Bowl TV ad wouldn't set off millions of Alexas by saying you-know-what. It's a fascinating window into the efforts that go into solving one relatively minor engineering challenge at scale. (I also love how futuristic this would have sounded even 10 years ago)

Technology and demystification

My favourite startups begin by looking like "mere" technical innovation, but ultimately have far reaching social and institutional consequences. The spreadsheet is a potent example, as this tweet, which highlights a passage from William Cohan's The Last Tycoons, shows. The de-mystification ("democratisation" seems a little strong to me) of numbers and calculations permanently changed how the corporate world worked.

I was interested to stumble across the same theme in Pascal Bouvier's essay on Bitcoin and central banking - the idea that central banking is one of the last "sacred" or mysterious activities in the modern economy, but one that will be gradually be demystified (or "made profane" in Bouvier's framework) by cryptocurrencies. 

Catholicism and technology

One of Bouvier's metaphors is that central bankers are the new Catholic Church... while the the theme of one of the most interesting essays of the week is that maybe the Catholic Church needs to be the new Silicon Valley. I'm not a Catholic, but I'm very intrigued by an explosion in the number of people in tech and beyond grappling with big questions about how technology interacts with ethics, meaning and religion.

I'm currently reading a lot about the Reformation and I'm struck by the parallels with today's tech-driven disruptions. There's a great essay to be written on the parallels between the vernacular Bible and the Bitcoin white paper, forking and Lutheranism, and generally the clash between fervent beliefs and existing social structures... I might have a go at writing this, as I think it generates some interesting hypotheses on where some crypto-communities might be headed.

Quick links

Superb podcast with the endlessly fascinating Eliezer Yudkowsky on AI safety

I didn't know Nassim Taleb was a prolific Amazon reviewer with a treasure trove of recommendations, fiction and non-fiction

Fascinating slide on how batteries are changing who plays and wins in automobile economics

Extraordinary (but true, I think) story on Reddit of someone who accidentally sold $23m of S&P 500 puts on ~500x leverage (best bit: he paid >$10,000 in interest for accidentally borrowing $23m, but still came out ahead)

Video of Alice Bentinck and my interview with LinkedIn co-founder and EF board member Reid Hoffman

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Until next week,