Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 197: Predictions for 2050; Best books of 2021; the AI umbrella; and more...

Welcome new readers and Happy New Year! Thoughts in Between is a newsletter (mainly) about how technology is changing politics, culture and society and how we might do it better.

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What will 2050 look like?

Several smart people - Rohit Krishnan, Adam Mastroianni, Slime Mold Time (the people behind a fascinating thread on obesity we discussed year) - kicked off 2022 with predictions for the year 2050. Each is fun and provocative. Each, too, is responding to Erik Hoel's post on what people getting wrong when predicting the future: futurists tend to try to imagine discontinuous change (such as non-existent technologies) rather than projecting out incremental change that's already visible. In this spirit, I thought I'd contribute two short prediction-projections of my own, based on themes we've discussed many times in TiB. Check back in 30 years (TiB 1,650-ish) to see if I was right.

The first trend that will continue and accelerate is increasing returns to extreme talent. It's getting easier for the most talented workers to measure and capture their marginal product. What predictions does this produce? First, more entrepreneurs. A greater proportion of the most highly skilled individuals will structure their careers so that they're paid as equity holders, not salary recipients. Second, more inequality (alas). Third, more institutional innovation. Why is there a flowering of new institutional experiments in, e.g., science today? Partly because there are obvious problems to fix (see e.g. TiB 103), but partly because it's a talent imperative: science may rarely be lucrative, but the best scientists will gravitate to institutions that can offer freedom and flexibility.

The second prediction is that the tradition left/right axis of political conflict will become a divide between groups that want to amplify volatility and those that want to dampen it. I wrote about the role of variance amplification in modernity at greater length last year in "How did the world get so weird?" (see also my podcast with Jim O'Shaughnessy) There's been a lot of commentary on the changing composition of political coalitions, with education becoming the key cleavage (see Piketty et al's "Brahmin Left Vs Merchant Right"). I see this deepening and mutating. Volatility will be popular at both the top and the bottom of the income distribution and we'll see not just political parties but whole countries and jurisdictions compete on this dimension.

I'm sure we'll have much more to say on both these themes throughout 2022...

Minimum viable states and "AI umbrellas"

While we're on the subject of predictions... I've said before, back in TiB 92, that I believe the 21st century will be a century of secessions. Firsr, technological, economic and military change is making the "minimum viable state" smaller (see, e.g., this Branko Milanovich piece from 2019). Second, the long/short volatility divide discussed above is eroding the political-economic compact between big cities and their hinterlands that has (partly) held nation states together for the last couple of centuries. Some even argue - see the Parag Khanna and Balaji Srinivasan essay we discussed in TiB 195 or Mario Gabriele's recent piece "The Decentralized Country" - that blockchain technologies will create new forms of political communities.

There is a potentially countervailing force, however, in the growing geopolitical importance of AI. Peter Thiel once said, "Crypto is libertarian, AI is communist". I'm not sure that's quite right, but I do think crypto reduces the size of the minimum viable state and AI increases it. As we've discussed before, scale matters in AI. The equilibrium may be small states aligned to AI superpowers; I've linked several times before to Ian Hogarth's essay "AI Nationalism" and I think it remains essential reading on this. If the key security question of the second half of the twentieth century was "Whose nuclear umbrella are you under?", its equivalent three decades from now may well be "Whose AI does your country run on?". Small states will be viable, but they'll have to pick a side.

What might it look like to live under the Chinese "AI umbrella"? Matt Sheehan at the Carnegie Endowment has a good piece this week on China's little discussed AI governance initiatives. He looks at recent publications from three different regulators, which lay out a vision for robust, reliable and explainable AI. Jack Clark at Import AI points out that they add up to something more ambitious than anything yet implemented in the West. In Sheehan's words:

The potential impact of these regulatory currents extends far beyond China. If the CAC follows through on certain requirements for algorithmic transparency and explainability, China will be running some of the world’s largest regulatory experiments on topics that European regulators have long debated

The pronouncements of Chinese tech regulators might be esoteric today, but in a world of sub-scale states - physical or virtual - they may come to take on profound importance.

The best books of 2021

I usually publish an end of year review of books (see 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 2019, 2020, and my best books of the decade), but 2021 was my slowest reading year for many years, partly because of work, partly because of kids and partly because I wrote a book, with my Entrepreneur First co-founder Alice Bentinck (more on this soon...). So rather than a full write up, I thought I'd give my highlights here:

The best three fiction novels I read in 2021 were:

Honorable mention for Ted Chiang's Exhalation, a collection of short stories. I found it a little uneven, but "The Lifecycle of Software Objects" may be the best AI fiction yet written.

The best three non-fiction books I read in 2021 were:

Lots of people read more and better than I did in 2021. I always love the end of year reading lists from Tanner Greer ("Perhaps this is arrogance. But if so, arrogance makes for better books"), Tyler Cowen and Chris Schroeder, all of whom read in a bad year more than I manage in a great one. As always, recommendations sought!

Quick links

  1. The pandemic was bad. Cognitive impact edition (yikes, if true!)
  2. Pollution is bad. It makes politicians more stupid. And traders more stupid. (Also yikes, if true)
  3. What are the best short stories? Many excellent suggestions in the replies and QTs.
  4. The best of 2021. Good thread of the best academic papers on entrepreneurship. And the best machine learning papers.
  5. "Web3 is civil disobedience". One of the best (short) framings of what's interesting about crypto; useful whether you're a true believer or a skeptic.

Happy New Year!

Thank you for reading. As always, shares, referrals and shouting from the rooftops are all appreciated.

Do feel free to reply if you have comments, questions or recommendations.

Until next week,

Matt Clifford

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