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TiB 163: Prophets, Wizards and Climate Change; Consciousness; Semiconductor talent; and more...

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May 4 · Issue #163 · View online
Matt's Thoughts In Between
This week: How much faith should we put in technology to solve the world’s great challenges; how talent has become a geopolitical resource; my TiB podcast conversation with Erik Hoel on consciousness; and more…

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Climate change: Prophets vs Wizards
Astral Codex Ten (formerly Slate Star Codex) is running a book review contest. All the (anonymous) entries have been worth reading, but I particularly liked this review of The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann. The book is a duelling biography of William Vogt and Norman Borlaug (who has a plausible claim to be the greatest hero of the 20th century), but also an exploration of two archetypes for thinking through humanity’s greatest challenges. As the reviewer puts it:
Wizards want continual growth in human numbers and quality of life, and to use science and technology to get there… “Prophets” believe that we can’t keep growing our population or impact on the world without eventually destroying it, and ourselves along with it
I was thinking of this framework when listening to Rob Wiblin’s excellent recent interview with Kelly Wanser, a climate change activist who advocates radical climate interventions, such as seeding or brightening clouds, to reduce warming.
The segment on objections to her work (around 28 mins in) is fascinating - particularly the concern that it might make people more complacent about reducing emissions. As Rob says, this seems like worrying that seat belts make people drive less carefully: even if true (and it could be the opposite), a worthy trade off! As the ACT reviewer says, there is a place for Prophets - and Wizards don’t have a spotless track record. But climate change seems such a wicked problem that we surely need all the wizards we can get.
Talent as a geopolitical resource, TSMC edition
One hypothesis that follows from the “stubborn persistent of the physical world” (see TiB 161 and 162) is that nation states will increasingly seek to exercise more control over non-fungible, strategic resources in their physical possession, from rare earths to pandemic PPE (we discussed the coronavirus-specific case in TiB 109).
Another of those resources is talent, especially talent needed for strategically important industries. As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, arguably the world’s most strategically important industry today, semiconductors, is particularly dependent on a small number of specialist individuals. You can’t simply take advanced foundries and make them run. The talent required to run them is scarce, non-fungible and far from evenly distributed geographically. 
Taiwan’s moves this week to ban local job advertisements for roles in China should be seen in this context. The directive even specifies, “If the recruitment involves semiconductors and integrated circuits, the penalty will be even higher”. This follows extensive efforts by Chinese semiconductor firms to poach TSMC talent (see also this piece from March on Taiwan’s prosecution of Bitmain, a Chinese chipmaker, for illegal talent poaching). I suspect we will see a lot more of this. Semiconductors today; machine learning tomorrow. Watch this space.
TiB podcast: Erik Hoel on consciousness and fiction
Consciousness is what I like to call a Lucas topic - one that once you start thinking about it, it’s hard to think about anything else. My guest on this week’s Thoughts in Between podcast is Erik Hoel, who studies consciousness in his day job as an academic neuroscientist and has also just published a remarkable novel, The Revelations, that explores the same subject. 
I highly recommend The Revelations; it’s one of the best novels I’ve read this year. It follows a group of young, ambitious scientists who are recruited to a fellowship dedicated to the study of consciousness. Before long, they have to contend with a mysterious death within their cohort. It’s a murder mystery meets novel of ideas (The Name of the Rose set in modern New York, if you like) and my conversation with Erik is a spoiler-free exploration of some of its big themes: the nature of ambition, the sociology of science and, of course, consciousness itself.
We also discuss one of Erik’s academic papers, The Overfitted Brain, which we covered last year in TiB 134. This presents a novel hypothesis about why we dream. Erik posits that dreams provide “out of sample” data to prevent our brains “overfitting” to the relatively narrow slice of experience that is real life - and so allow our brains to deal with new situations. Erik is a fascinating thinker; I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.
Quick links
  1. Game theory, set and match. Great thread on what economics and decision science can tell us about tennis.
  2. Stranger than fiction. Someone is mysteriously attacking US personnel around the world with an unknown weapon, possibly microwave-based. More here.
  3. Head for the cellar door. What are the most beautiful words in English and why?
  4. It’s all academic. XKCD started a meme about academic papers. Twitter responded with versions for economic history, economics, political theory, behavioural genetics, and presumably many more…
  5. One night in Abbottabad. Not a quick read, but superb and truly gripping oral history of the hunt for Bin Laden by the people at the heart of it. Highly recommended.
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Until next week,
Matt Clifford
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