09_04_2021

I was reading an interview on Noah Smith’s Substack with Patrick Collison, who is the co-founder and CEO of Stripe. Link to original article here, it’s a super interesting interview. In one section, Patrick reels off a list of desirable future technologies. He begins:

“In terms of what the world needs, improvements in medical technology are probably still #1. Climate change mitigation technology (cleaner energy generation and CO2 sequestration and so on) is also quite high up. More broadly, we need to make all of the things that you and I enjoy every day cheap and efficient enough for billions more people to afford (with safety/security high on that list)”.

But then the list continues:

A peculiar feature of human psychology is that we seem to be very good at getting used to the current state of the world, to the extent that it feels very hard sometimes to broader our imaginations and imagine a different one. A common mindset of silicon valley CEO types is one of recognizing these limitations and thinking menaingfully about how to consciously correct them. Sam Altman wrote recently:

The technological progress we make in the next 100 years will be far larger than all we’ve made since we first controlled fire and invented the wheel. We have already built AI systems that can learn and do useful things. They are still primitive, but the trendlines are clear.

Forcing oneself to think on un-naturally long timescales seems like a super-power, if done right. Of course, he may well be wrong in this particular case - there are plenty of examples of trend lines that don’t extrapolate.

But reading this list really made me aware of how many things that I don’t know that I don’t think about day-to-day (contrast this to things that I do know that I don’t think about, the “known unknowns”. I like to think that if I were bor in the 50s, I might have been able to imagine the iPhone, or the internet. But is this just wishful thinking? Ideas like these seem self-evident in retrospect but take huge leaps of imagination to get to. This is partly why scientific research takes so long. Did you ever consider how strange it is that a huge chunk of mathematics, which took humanity tens of thousands of years to develop , is today taught to most early high school kids?

I think that before anyone embarks on a research career, they should ask themselves if they’d be happy to spend years of their life researching something that they could explain (the gist of) to an interested layman in an elevator. For me at least, the pleasure is in the finding out.