Author: Continuations by Albert Wenger

What’s Our Problem by Tim Urban (Book Review)

Politics in the US has become ever more tribal on both the left and the right. Either you agree with 100 percent of group doctrine or you are considered an enemy. Tim Urban, the author of the wonderful Wait but Why blog has written a book digging into how we have gotten here. Titled “What’s Our Problem” the book is a full throated defense of liberalism in general and free speech in particular.

As with his blog, Urban does two valuable things rather well: He goes as much as possible to source material and he provides excellent (illustrated) frameworks for analysis. The combination is exactly what is needed to make progress on difficult issues and I got a lot out of reading the book as a result. I highly recommend reading it and am excited that it is the current selection for the USV book club.

The most important contribution of What’s Our Problem is drawing a clear distinction between horizontal politics (left versus right) and vertical politics (low-rung versus high-rung). Low-rung politics is tribal, emotional, religious, whereas high-rung politics attempts to be open, intellectual, secular/scientific. Low-rung politics brings out the worst in people and brings with it the potential of violent conflict. High-rung politics holds the promise of progress without bloodshed. Much of what is happening in the US today can be understood as low-rung politics having become dominant.

The book on a relative basis spends a lot more time examining low-rung politics on (Read more...)

Thinking About AI: Part 3 – Existential Risk (Terminator Scenario)

Now we are getting to the biggest and weirdest risk of AI: a super intelligence emerging and wiping out humanity in pursuit of its own goals. To a lot of people this seems like a totally absurd idea, held only by a tiny fringe of people who appear weird and borderline culty. It seems so far out there and also so huge that most people wind up dismissing it and/or forgetting about shortly after hearing it. There is a big similarity here to the climate crisis, where the more extreme views are widely dismissed.

In case you have not encountered the argument yet, let me give a very brief summary (Nick Bostrom has an entire book on the topic and Eliezer Yudkowsky has been blogging about it for two decades, so this will be super compressed by comparison): A superintelligence when it emerges will be pursuing its own set of goals. In many imaginable scenarios, humans will be a hindrance rather than a help in accomplishing these goals. And once the superintelligence comes to that conclusion it will set about removing humans as an obstacle. Since it is a superintelligence we won’t be able to stop it and there goes humanity.

Now you might have all sorts of objections here. Such as can’t we just unplug it? Suffice it to say that the people thinking about this for some time have considered these objections already. They are pretty systematic in their thinking (so systematic that the Bostrom book is (Read more...)

Thinking About AI: Part 3 – Existential Risk (Loss of Reality)

In my prior post I wrote about structural risk from AI. Today I want to start delving into existential risk. This broadly comes in two not entirely distinct subtypes: first, that we lose any grip on reality which could result in a Matrix style scenario or global war of all against all and second, a superintelligence getting rid of humans directly in the pursuit of its own goals.

The loss of reality scenario was the subject of an op-ed in the New York Time the other day. And right around the same time there was an amazing viral picture of the pope that had been AI generated.

I have long said that the key mistake of the Matrix movies was to posit a war between humans and machines. That instead we will be giving ourselves willingly to the machines, more akin to the “Free wifi” scenario of Mitchells vs. the Machines.

The loss of reality is a very real threat. It builds on a long tradition, such as Stalin having people edited out of historic photographs or Potemkin building fake villages to fool the invading Germans (why did I think of two Russian examples here?). And now that kind of capability is available to anyone at the push of a button. Anyone see those pictures of Trump getting arrested?

Still I am not particularly concerned about this type of existential threat from AI (outside of the superintelligence scenario). That’s for a number of different reasons. First, distribution (Read more...)

Thinking About AI: Part 2 – Structural Risks

Yesterday I wrote a post on where we are with artificial intelligence by providing some history and foundational ideas around neural network size. Today I want to start in on risks from artificial intelligence. These fall broadly into two categories: existential and structural. Existential risk is about AI wiping out most or all of humanity. Structural risk is about AI aggravating existing problems, such as wealth and power inequality in the world. Today’s post is about structural risks.

Structural risks of AI have been with us for quite some time. A great example of these is the Youtube recommendation algorithm. The algorithm, as far as we know, optimizes for engagement because Youtube’s primary monetization are ads. This means the algorithm is more likely to surface videos that have an emotional hook than ones that require the viewer to think. It will also pick content that emphasizes the same point of view, instead of surfacing opposing views. And finally it will tend to recommend videos that have already demonstrated engagement over those that have not, giving rise to a “rich getting richer” effect in influence.

With the current progress it may look at first like these structural risks will just explode. Start using models everywhere and wind up having bias risk, “rich get richer” risk, wrong objective function risk, etc. everywhere. This is a completely legitimate concern and I don’t want to dismiss it.

On the other hand there are also new opportunities that come from potentially giving broad access to (Read more...)

Thinking About AI

I am writing this post to organize and share my thoughts about the extraordinary progress in artificial intelligence over the last years and especially the last few months (link to a lot of my prior writing). First, I want to come right out and say that anyone still dismissing what we are now seeing as a “parlor trick” or a “statistical parrot” is engaging in the most epic goal post moving ever. We are not talking a few extra yards here, the goal posts are not in the stadium anymore, they are in a far away city.

Growing up I was extremely fortunate that my parents supported my interest in computers by buying an Apple II for me and that a local computer science student took me under his wings. Through him I found two early AI books: one in German by Stoyan and Goerz (I don’t recall the title) and Winston and Horn’s “Artifical Intelligence.” I still have both of these although locating them among the thousand or more books in our home will require a lot of time or hopefully soon a highly intelligent robot (ideally running the VIAM operating system – shameless plug for a USV portfolio company). I am bringing this up here as a way of saying that I have spent a lot of time not just thinking about AI but also coding on early versions and have been following closely ever since.

I also pretty early on developed a conviction that (Read more...)

The Banking Crisis: More Kicking the Can

There were a ton of hot takes on the banking crisis over the last few days. I didn’t feel like contributing to the cacaphony on Twitter because I was busy working with USV portfolio companies and also in Mexico City with Susan celebrating her birthday.

Before addressing some of the takes, let me succinctly state what happened. SVB had taken a large percentage of their assets and invested them in low-interest-rate long-duration bonds. As interest rates rose, the value of those bonds fell. Already back in November that was enough of a loss to wipe out all of SVB’s equity. But you would only know that if you looked carefully at their SEC filings, because SVB kept reporting those bonds on “hold-to-maturity” basis (meaning at their full face value). That would have been fine if SVB kept having deposit inflows, but already in November they reported $3 billion in cash outflows in the prior quarter. And of course cash was flowing out because companies were able to put it in places where it yielded more (as well as startups just burning cash). Once the cash outflow accelerated, SVB had to start selling the bonds, at which point they had to realize the losses. This forced SVB to have to raise equity which they failed to do. When it became clear that a private raise wasn’t happening their public equity sold off rapidly making a raise impossible and thus causing the bank to fail. This is a classic example of (Read more...)

India Impressions (2023)

I just returned from a week-long trip to India. Most of this trip was meeting entrepreneurs and investors centered around spending time with the team from Bolt in Bangalore (a USV portfolio company). This was my second time in India, following a family vacation in 2015. Here are some observations from my visit:

First, the mood in the country feels optimistic and assertive. People I spoke to, not just from the tech ecosystem, but also drivers, tour guides, waiters, students, and professors, all seemed excited and energized. There was a distinct sense of India emerging as a global powerhouse that has the potential to rival China. As it turns out quite a few government policies are aimed at protecting Indian industrial growth and separating it from China (including the recent ban on TikTok and other Chinese apps). Also, if you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend watching the movie RRR. It is a “muscular” embodiment of the spirit that I encountered that based on my admittedly unscientific polling was much liked by younger people there (and hardly watched by older ones).

Second, air pollution in Delhi was as bad as I remembered it and in Mumbai way worse. Mumbai now appears to be on par with Delhi. For example, here is a picture taken from the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, which is en route from the airport, where you can barely see the high rise buildings of the city across the bay.

Third, there is an insane amount (Read more...)

Termination Shock (Book Review)

Over vacation I read Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson. Unlike many other recent books tackling the climate crisis, it is entirely focused on the controversial issue of geoengineering through solar radiation modification (SMR). The basic idea of SMR is to let slightly less sunlight into the Earth’s lower atmosphere where it can heat things up. Even a tiny decrease in solar radiation will have a big impact on global warming.

To put upfront where I stand on this: I first wrote about the need to research geoengineering in 2009. Since then Susan and I have funded some research in this area, including a study at Columbia University to independently verify some chemistry proposed by the Keith group at Harvard. The results suggest that using calcite aerosols may not be so great for the stratosphere which includes the Ozone layer that protects us from too much UV radiation. That means spreading sulfites is likely better – this is what happens naturally during a big volcano eruption, such as the famous Mount Pinatubo eruption.

Artificially putting sulfur into the stratosphere turns out to be the key plot device in Termination Shock. Delays by governments in addressing the climate crisis have a rich individual start to launch shells containing sulfur into the stratosphere. In a classic life imitating art moment, Luke Iseman, the founder of Make Sunsets, is explicitly referring to reading Termination Shock as an inspiration for starting the company and releasing a first balloon carrying a (Read more...)

A Philosophical Start to 2023

We are once again at a transition moment in history. Where our journey goes from here could be exceptionally good or absurdly bad. This mirrors past moments, such as the transition into the Agrarian Age, which gave us early high cultures but also various dark ages. Or more recently the transition into the Industrial Age, with democracies flourishing, but also fascism and communism killing tens of millions.

In the past few years we have had incredible unlocks across many fields. To name just a few, in computation we are making real progress on artificial intelligence; in biology, we can now read and write genetic code; in energy, we are closing in on nuclear fusion.

At the same time we are facing unprecedented threats. The climate crisis is accelerating at a pace faster than most of the dire predictions. Our democracies are moribund with bloated and risk-averse bureaucracies. With social media and easy image/video manipulation and creation we live in post-truth world. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has edged us closer to the possibility of nuclear war.

The threats are truly scary and I completely understand why some people find it hard to get out of bed. The opportunities can be anxiety inducing in their own ways, even if you don’t think a superintelligence will wipe out humanity any day now. At all times there are people seeing that opportunity is elsewhere, finding themselves trapped in stagnant fields. Personally I am excited by the opportunities. But even excitement carries potential failure modes (Read more...)

The Eutopian Network State

If you are not familiar with it, I encourage you to check out the Network State Project. The basic idea is to form new states online first, with an eventual goal of controlling land in the real world. While I disagree with parts of the historic analysis and also some of the suggestions for forming a network state, I fundamentally believe this is an important project.

In my book The World After Capital, I trace how scarcity for humanity has shifted from food to land (agrarian revolution), from land to capital (industrial revolution), and now from capital to attention (digital revolution). The states that we have today were first formed during the Agrarian Age and were solidified during the Industrial Age. As a result they carry the baggage of both of these periods. When it comes to states we have serious issues of “technical debt” and “cruft.” One way to tackle these is through gradual rewrites of existing laws and constitutions. That’s a slow process under the best of circumstances and in an age of increasing polarization likely an impossibility. Another mode of change is to create a new system elsewhere, with the goal that it might eventually replace the existing one. Given that pretty much all the habitable space on Earth is taken up by existing nation states, the best place to get started is virtual.

Now what would a Eutopian network state look like? I am still trying to figure a lot (Read more...)