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A Few Things: The Mind of Napoleon, Yann LeCun on AI, The Beginning of Infinity, Hurtling Through Space, Jeffries AI Report, MSFT CTO on Work, How Scalable Is Your Job?
May 26, 2023
I am sharing this weekly email with you because I count you in the group of people I learn from and enjoy being around.
You can check out last week’s edition here: Leaked Google Memo on Future of AI, Modi's India, Dan Wang on China, Frankopan's Latest, The Impact of Gen AI, The Future of Software, Your Personal AI, News & Charts You Missed...
Believe it or not, that “♡ Like” button is a big deal – it serves as a proxy to new visitors of this publication’s value. If you enjoy this article, don’t be shy :)
Last week’s email was probably too dense, given my work schedule this week, this week’s will be much more manageable.
Quotes I Am Thinking About:
“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“Outside noisy, inside empty.”
- Chinese Proverb
“And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that counts. It’s the life in your years.”
- Abraham Lincoln
"Just because improvements aren't visible doesn't mean they aren't happening.
You're not going to see the number change each time you step on the scale. You're not going to finish a chapter each time you sit down to write.
Early wins come easy. Lasting wins require a lifestyle."
- James Clear
“You always own the option of having no opinion. There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can't control. These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.”
- Marcus Aurelius
A. A Few Things Worth Checking Out:
1. David Senra at the Founder’s podcast shared what he learned from reading The Mind of Napoleon.
Three key Napoleon quotes:
Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily…..A wasted life should be your greatest fear.
All great events hang by a single thread. The clever man takes advantage of everything, neglects nothing that may give him some added opportunity; the less clever man, by neglecting one thing, sometimes misses everything.
One must change one's tactics every ten years if one wishes to maintain one's superiority.
2. Harry at 20VC spoke to Yann LeCun Chief AI Scientist at Meta. They discussed some key questions, my favourite were around: the next five years in AI, why digital assistants will rule the world, what jobs Yann thinks will be created in an AI economy and those most at risk, and why the transition will be slower than people anticipate.
A super deep dive into all things AI with one of the top 10 people in the space.
3. I shared this last week, but it’s important enough to share again…If you are curious about China, you have most likely heard of read Dan Wang’s annual letters, he covers technology for Gavekal Dragonomics.
He spoke with Noah Smith about China's economy, decoupling, export controls, industrial policy, state control, and lots more.
Here are key bits:
N.S.: That's a shame. But in exchange, I'm hoping you'll give us some more detailed analysis of Chinese industrial policy and technological competitiveness, of the type you used to only provide in your private research!
So my first question is: What are two or three things that Americans need to know about Chinese industrial policy and technological competitiveness in 2023?
D.W.: The first is that there have been a lot of failures. China is achingly aware of its deficiencies in two strategic sectors in particular: semiconductors and aviation. So it has showered these sectors with bountiful money and stern policy attention. Where has that gotten them? Not far. On chips, China has built the basics of the industry, but is at best 10 years behind the leading edge of manufacturing logic chips, and even more on the tools needed to produce chips: lithography equipment and EDA software. On aviation, China’s answer to Airbus and Boeing has been years behind schedule, and is anyway substantially dependent on western engines and avionics systems.
The second is that there have been a lot of successes. I would say that China has caught up with the west on nearly all manufactured products outside of chips and aviation. It is making sophisticated electronics components. It is making boring industrial equipment that rarely grace headlines. And it is making most of the technologies we need for decarbonization. The folks at Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimate that China owns 90% of the solar supply chain: everything from polysilicon production to the tools needed to make photovoltaics to the panels themselves. It’s also doing very well in batteries and has a shot at dominating the hydrogen supply chain as well.
A central question I’m working on now is to figure out whether China’s technological capabilities in the future will more closely resemble its failures or successes. There are enormous macro headwinds for China’s economy: lousy demographics, a domineering central government, and greater political emphasis on state-led growth. But I tend to think that China will be able to solve its technological deficiencies. Its main task is to reinvent existing technologies: arguably firms like TSMC and ASML have the harder task, that is to push forward the technological frontier. On chips in particular, there’s a broad sense that it costs too much to keep pushing forward Moore’s Law. So if the leaders hit a wall, it’s only a matter of time for Chinese firms to catch up. These products are technology, not magic. And Chinese firms have already mastered a lot.
N.S.: What's different about semiconductors and advanced aviation? Why has China not been as successful in catching up in those sectors?
D.W.: I think there has been a consistent pattern of Chinese successes and failures. Any technology that demands the complex integration of different scientific areas is challenging for Chinese firms. Semiconductors bring together electrical engineering, chemistry, computer science, and more; aviation is the integration of aerodynamics, materials science, mechanical engineering, etc. China's scientific capabilities have steadily risen, but I would say it's still fairly weak. No surprise, perhaps, that Chinese firms weren't able to produce mRNA vaccines, since its scientific establishment is unused to puttering around the fringes of new fields.
On the other hand, for any technology where the science is mature, and the complexity lies more with the manufacturing process, China tends to be strong. Take renewable technologies like solar photovoltaics or EV batteries. The science of turning light into electricity and power storage are pretty well understood. But Chinese firms have been able to outbuild their foreign competition (with plenty help from government support) in creating high-performing products. Putting together a battery, for example, involves around ten steps—from cell filling to final sealing—that demand perfect handoff at each stage. Chinese firms are really good at this, which they learned from the highly-demanding electronics supply chain.
And here the US tends to be weak. American manufacturers aren't good at making products of high intricacy at high volume. And it sometimes trips over simple products too. It’s puzzling to me that American factories weren't able to quickly retool to turn out masks and other personal protective equipment in the early days of 2020. There's something quite strange about the US where it is able to make super-advanced products like AI, jet engines, semiconductor production equipment, but can't build basic infrastructure or simple products.
N.S.: One interesting thing that China's leaders have tried to do is to actively discourage industries they want to see shrink. A lot of people were astonished at the government's crackdown on the IT industry in 2021. Now a lot of people are saying it's been substantively reversed. Would you agree with that assessment? And if so, will there be lasting scars from that incident? Can we expect other crackdowns on specific industries in the years to come?
D.W.: The state has relented. But it hasn't reversed. As my colleagues at Dragonomics have written, Beijing's regulations on platform companies are now entrenched at a permanently burdensome level. The good news for these companies is that future regulations are more likely to be marginal. The bad news is that the golden age of internet platforms is over: they won't again have such an easy time making enormous profits in a lightly-regulated market.
These regulations have indeed left scars. Entrepreneurs in sectors that include ride-hailing, video games, and especially online tutoring were left shell-shocked. But pain set in for sectors that went beyond those directly targeted by the state. A common sentiment from an entrepreneur goes along the lines of: "I would like to focus on building a business and working on my product; instead I'm being forced to become a political scientist to understand the direction of policy."
The major question today is whether these scars will persist or fade over the next few years. It's undeniable that a lot of entrepreneurs were angry about the crackdown; and there are many anecdotal reports of wealthy Chinese who have decided to move to Singapore. Beijing has shifted its tone since the end of 2022, saying the most soothing words about how much it loves private businesses. But who can blame entrepreneurs for feeling skeptical, after many of their creations were strangled by the state? On the other hand, if China's growth is impressive this year and next, I expect that many of them will return. It's not obvious that they can establish themselves overseas, after all: the US has not gone out of its way to rhetorically welcome Chinese entrepreneurs. If growth can pick up, and Beijing can pause its political tightening, then scars will fade more quickly. But these are uncertain ifs.
If you are curious about what’s really happening in China, two books that give you a differentiated perspective are: Invisible China by Rozelle and Hell (just started it) and Young China by Dychtwald. Both books cover a perspective that you don’t hear in the press or covered in most books.
A request: I am looking to connect with Pankaj Mishra, author of Age of Anger, From the Ruins of Empire….If you know him, could you please connect us. Thank you
B. The Beginning of Infinity
The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch is a popular book that explores the nature and progress of knowledge and how it transforms the world. I have been slowly working through this book over the last few months.
The book argues that all human achievements result from one activity: the quest for explanations.
It proposes that knowledge is the beginning of infinity, meaning that there are no inherent boundaries to what we can discover or create, and that human potential is unlimited.
The three main arguments of the book are:
People create knowledge, rather than acquiring it through experience or observation. Knowledge is not a passive reflection of reality, but an active construction of explanations that make sense of reality.
There is no limit to how much knowledge people can create. The only constraints are the laws of nature and our current state of ignorance.
Creativity is the source of intelligence and knowledge. Creativity is not a matter of brute computational power or random trial and error, but of outside-the-box thinking and imagination.
But what does this mean for the rest of us in practice?
I was thinking about this book over the weekend, as I read my elder daughter’s New Scientist magazine (they are perfect for a teenager, which is squarely where my brain capacity sits).
It’s probably the most hopeful and optimistic thing you can read every week because it’s filled with discoveries being made, our improved understanding of this world and even better questions to ask.
These recent issue really had me buzzing about the discoveries we are making. It’s really a perfect anti-dote to all the negativity out there for young people to see how much we can achieve.
For example, I hadn’t realised that the Solar system is hurtling through space. The interstellar space we will be encountering on this amazing ride is completely new.
Which made me think of the first time I saw the opening sequence of Star Trek New Generation.
But at a deeper level this idea of the beginning of infinity is amazing, and David Wolpert at the Santa Fe Institute has been thinking further about it.
Wolpert asks what aspects of the universe would be beyond our human ability to comprehend through language, mathematics, and science— “our greatest cognitive prostheses.”
He ends with a suggestion for how we might possibly escape these limits through contact with alien intelligence, or the construction of a hyper-computer to investigate what lies beyond its creators’ abilities to comprehend.
Which all made me think about Isaac Asimov’s essay: The Last Question. Thank you Adam Robinson for this reminder.
C. The Technology Section:
1. Jeffries published an AI Deep Dive. It explains the ins & outs of AI and breaks out who is best and worst positioned from this platform shift. They see hyperscalers, other enablers & data clouds and large differentiated platforms as best positioned.
Three of the key slides:
How will you start using these tools?
2. Kevin Scott, Microsoft Chief Technology Officer, who spearheaded the company’s $1 billion investment in OpenAI in 2019, says the way users interact with their computer is about to drastically change. MSFT unveiled new tools that will allow software developers to quickly and easily build custom “copilots,” or artificial intelligence assistants, for virtually any task.
In the background, these copilots will be joined together by a latticework of plugins that give them the ability to do things like book airline tickets, order meals, and schedule meetings.
3. The ruling coalition parties in Germany proposed raising the annual tax-free allowance for employee stock ownership in startups from €1,440 ($1,556) to €5k ($5,408). Additionally, the coalition has also proposed creating shares with multiple voting rights.
The moves aim to create a conducive environment for startups in the nation. The multiple voting rights amendment is aimed at retaining the influence of startup founders over their company once it has gone public. With the increase in tax-free allowance, the nation hopes to provide startups with more leverage to entice and reward employees. Other proposed changes include simplifying access to capital markets, strengthening Germany's role as a financial center, and removing barriers to technology.
4. My super smart friend Dror Poleg had a great article titled How scalable is your job? with a great framework for whatever job you're in, technology can multiply your productivity, reach, and rewards.
How will you use it?
Watched and would recommend this show on Apple TV this week:
Believe it or not, that “♡ Like” button is a big deal – it serves as a proxy to new visitors of this publication’s value. If you enjoyed this, don’t be shy.