The cartoon below is my favorite version of the sentiment that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is defined as anything computers can’t do….at least yet.
Soylent started in 2013 as a Rob Rhinehart crowdfunded experiment in food replacement. The name and food replacement angle attracted lots of enthusiasm, for example see what happened when I ate only Soylent for 30 days. Answer: farts. Evil ones. With the 2.0 version coming out in Sep 2015 as a prepackaged drink, I bought some to try it out. On my Friday commute I often listen to Ben Thompson and James Allworth’s Exponent podcast, and their latest episode covered disruption in the internet age. Drinking Soylent while listening, the two seemed (somewhat) related. Let me explain, finishing with my Soylent review.
On January 2, technology investor Paul Graham published two posts. One on Refragmentation, about 20th century mass organizations breaking into pieces. Another on inequality, about why it’d be best to directly fix problems like poverty rather than fix inequality per se. What puzzled me was the visceral hate the inequality post produced, even by a number of tech insiders. Graham went so far as to write a second version using very simple words on Jan 4 (the implication of writing a dumbed down version wasn’t lost on anyone). Then on Jan 8 he wrote a response to Ezra Klein’s take. Now that this has mostly blown over, I remain puzzled. Why did this blow up? What does it mean about writing on the internet, if anything?
I’ve always been a fan of year-in-review lists. So here are some of my favorites from this year. Then at bottom I grade my tech predictions for 2015, and provide new ones for 2016.
My most viewed blog posts this year:
- Understanding AI risk. How Star Trek got talking computers right in 1966, while Her got it wrong in 2013.
- 2015 is a transition year to the (somewhat creepy) machine learning era. Apple, Google, privacy and ads.
- The algorithmic hand is replacing the invisible hand. But Hayek still applies.
- Homo naledi and the braided stream of humanity. It’s miscegenation all the way down.
(note: no spoilers below! I haven’t even seen the new Star Wars movie yet.)
As mentioned in an earlier post, a few years ago my son came home from school saying Darth Vader was Luke’s father. The problem? He hadn’t seen Star Wars. Grade school playgrounds being the source of many hard truths. As good parents we soon watched all six movies. The kids loved it. Then this year my daughter came home from school asking about Spock. Who is Spock? Why are people talking about Spock? So we watched Star Trek II The Wrath of Kahn, the best movie with the original cast. And this time my kids were, well, rather bored. Which was painful since I had always liked Star Trek better than Star Wars. Yes, the Star Wars movies are better made, with more kid appeal. But it’s more than that. With a new Star Trek TV series due in 2017 and the new Star Wars movie just out, time to take a stand. No more Star Trek. Continuing Star Trek betrays what it represents. Even though more Star Wars is fine.
My favorite analogy for understanding technological unemployment is “peak horse.” Below is the version told in Greg Clark’s book A Farewell to Alms:
there was a type of employee at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution whose job and livelihood largely vanished in the early twentieth century. This was the horse. The population of working horses actually peaked in England long after the Industrial Revolution, in 1901, when 3.25 million were at work. Though they had been replaced by rail for long-distance haulage and by steam engines for driving machinery, they still plowed fields, hauled wagons and carriages short distances, pulled boats on the canals, toiled in the pits, and carried armies into battle. But the arrival of the internal combustion engine in the late nineteenth century rapidly displaced these workers, so that by 1924 there were fewer than two million. There was always a wage at which all these horses could have remained employed. But that wage was so low that it did not pay for their feed.
The primary focus of my blog is understanding how trends in technology, society and economics will unfold over the next 5-10 years. So on twitter I follow people like Nick Szabo, arguably the world’s most famous cryptocurrency expert. Last week, in regards to Syrian refugee policy, Szabo retweeted this:
I just finished Carlota Perez’s Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages. First thought: not for everyone. It’s big picture tech cycle theorizing about economic history. Yet I found it first rate, and can see why it’s popular with some Silicon Valley investors. In particular Marc Andreessen cites Perez so often, I finally bought the book. It got me thinking. Our current tech cycle is well captured by Andreessen as software is eating the world. And software is highly prone to monopoly. Reading Perez, I found it hard to avoid the conclusion monopoly is eating the world. Attention must be paid.
In September Apple announced the iPad Pro, which supports a keyboard cover and stylus. Then in October Microsoft announced their latest Surface Pro 4 and new Surface Book. Inevitably they were compared, with many claiming Apple copied Microsoft. Business Insider “Apple just admitted Microsoft is right”. And the Verge “Everyone is copying Microsoft’s Surface“. From that piece: “Apple missed that consumers were attaching keyboards to its iPad tablet, but Microsoft took advantage and saw an opportunity. Now everyone else is following in its footsteps, but Microsoft is already way ahead.”
Above are reconstructions of three famous fossil hominins by paleo-artist John Gurche. From left to right: Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy), Homo erectus (Turkana boy) and recently discovered Homo naledi (paper). The Homo naledi announcement last month of fossils discovered in a cave in South Africa was a blockbuster for human origins. Even better, two more big origins papers were published in the past two weeks. The first on the oldest modern human teeth found in China, pushing the date of modern humans in Asia from ~45,000 to 80-100,000 years ago (paper). The second on the genome of a 4,500 year old Ethiopian (paper).