Category: Web/Tech

The second cohort of Emergent Ventures winners

Here is the list of the second set of winners, in the order the grants were made, noting that the descriptions are mine not theirs:

Kelly Smith has a for-profit project to further extend a parent-run charter school system in Arizona, using Uber-like coordinating apps and “minimalist” OER methods.

Andrew L. Roberts, Northwestern University, a small grant to further his work on how sports relates to politics.

Stefan de Villiers, high school student, to create podcasts on the decisions of other high school students and how/why they become successful.

Brian Burns is working (with Samo Burja) on the history of mathematics and career networks, with special attention to the blossoming of innovation in 18th century Göttingen: “The secret to producing flourishing mathematical and scientific traditions may lie in a careful study of institutions. I will undertake this investigation and in the process uncover lost mathematical knowledge.”  Gauss, Riemann, and Hilbert!

Can Olcer is one of the two entrepreneurs behind Kosmos School, a K-12 school that exists only in virtual reality, a for-profit enterprise with an emphasis on science education.

Anonymous, working on a board game for ten years, aimed at teaching basic economics, including supply and demand and the core ideas of Ronald Coase.  The grant is for marketing the game.

Sophie Sandor is a 23-year-old Scottish film-maker making films with “noticeable themes [of] rational optimism, ambition and a rejection of the victimhood notion that millennials are prone to.”  She is also interested in making documentaries in the education space.

Nicholas Dunk has a for-profit to bring voice recognition/machine transcription to the daily tasks of doctors.  The goal is to solve paperwork problems, free up doctor time, encourage better record-keeping, and improve accuracy, all toward the end of higher quality and less expensive health care.

Lama Al Rajih, a young Saudi CS student, building Therma, among other projects, she received a travel grant to visit potential mentors.

I am very excited by this new cohort.  Here is a list of the first round of winners, and here is the underlying rationale for Emergent Ventures.  You can apply here.

Why I disagree with Scott Sumner on China

U.S. government investigators increasingly believe that Chinese state hackers were most likely responsible for the massive intrusion reported last month into Marriott’s Starwood chain hotel reservation system, a breach that exposed the private information and travel details of as many as 500 million people

Story here.  And:

Armed with a rich array of personal data, an intelligence agency can also tailor an approach to a person to see whether the individual can be recruited as a spy or blackmailed for information. The passport data, which is not often collected in data breaches, probably was a particularly valuable find for the hackers.

You will note that no one is trying to sell the data.  And this:

The report, citing two people briefed on the investigation, reported China had launched an intelligence-gathering campaign which included hacking into health insurance companies and hacking security clearance files of millions of people living in the U.S. The New York Times reported the hackers are believed to be employed by the Ministry of State Security, which is China’s spy agency. The paper noted that the revelation that China was behind the Marriott hack comes as the U.S. government is gearing up to launch actions against China’s trade that include indicting Chinese hackers that work for the government. The New York Times noted the Marriott hacking isn’t expected to be part of the indictments but does add a sense of urgency to the moves the White House was mulling.

The Trump administration is also planning on declassifying intelligence reports that show China had been trying to create a database of American executives and government officials that have security clearances, reported The New York Times.

I could go on.  I am genuinely unsure what are the economic costs of these mischievous activities, but would note simply that it is sometimes necessary to punch back.  The choice is not free trade vs. protectionism (I strongly suspect Scott and I agree on the economics of trade), but rather a partial return punch now vs. a worse situation much later on.

The jobs of the future, circa 1988

A syndicated article published in the September 5, 1988, edition of the Press and Sun-Bulletin newspaper in New York talked with a number of experts about what the jobs of tomorrow would look like. The article first quotes S. Norman Feingold, a clinical psychologist and career counselor who died in 2005.

From the 1988 article:

Feingold envisions a range of exotic careers: Ocean hotel manager, wellness consultant, sports law specialist, lunar astronomer and even robot trainer.

The piece also quotes the George Tech engineering professor Alan Porter who gave his opinion on the future of fast food.

He predicts such innovations as “the Autoburger,” a fast-food dispensary something like McDonald’s, but without human workers.

And the article ends with a mixed bag of good and bad predictions:

Marvin Cetron, a technological forecaster, looks at the year 2000 and predicts a 32-hour work week. “The only job a woman won’t be holding is Catholic priest,” he said.

Cetron said college students of the future will study enzyme research and genetic and robot engineering.

Here is the piece, via Tim Harford.  The broad lesson I think is that bets on computers were basically right, and will be for some time to come, and other bets are either obvious or stupid, in retrospect.

Is the age of man-machine cooperation over in chess?

Given further data on the stunning performances of AlphaZero, Charles Murray asked me that on Twitter.  And for now the answer surely seems to be yes: just let AlphaZero rip, and keep the human at bay.  It’s a bit like the joke about the factory: “The dog is there to keep the man away from the machines, and the man is there to guard the dog.”  (Or is it the other way around?)

But here’s the thing: right now there is only one AlphaZero, and AlphaZero does not play like God (I think).  At some point there will be more projects of this kind, and they will not always agree as to what is the best chess move.  Re-enter the human!  Imagine a human turning on AlphaZero and five other such programs, seeing where they disagree, and then querying the programs further to find a better answer.  It is at least possible (though not necessary) that a human will be better at doing this than will a machine.

Keep in mind, the original role in the human in Advanced [man-machine] Chess was not to substitute human chess judgment for machine chess judgment in any kind of discretionary fashion.  It was to adjudicate disagreements across programs: “Rybka has a slightly better opening book.  Fritz is better in closed endgames.  Houdini is tops at defense.”  And so on.  The human then sided with one engine over the others, or simply spent more engine time investigating some options rather than others.

It could possibly run the same way for neural net methods, once we have a general sense of the strengths and weaknesses of different projects.  So yes, man-machine cooperation in chess is a loser right now, but it may well come back.  And there is a broader economic lesson in that, namely that automation may eliminate jobs, but it does not necessarily eliminate them permanently.

My Conversation with Paul Romer

Here is the audio and transcript, Paul was in top form and open throughout.  Yes economic growth, blah blah blah, but we covered many related topics too:

COWEN: And you also think we should simplify the English language. Right?

ROMER: [laughs] Well, there’s two parts to that. One is, in writing and communication, there should be a very high priority on clarity. It’s hard to know what’s the mechanism that enforces that. There are variants on English, like the English used to write the manuals people use to service airplanes, where there’s a very restricted vocabulary. The words are chosen so that you can’t have any ambiguity because you don’t want somebody servicing a plane to get confused. So there are some things you could do on writing, word choice, vocabulary, exposition.

There’s a separate issue, which is that amongst the modern languages, English has the worst orthography, the worst mapping between spelling and sounds of any of the existing languages. And it’s a tragedy because English is becoming the universal second language.

The incidence of people who don’t learn to read is substantially higher in English than in other languages. People have known for a long time, it takes longer to learn to read in English because of the bad orthography. But what hasn’t gotten enough attention is that there’s an effect on the variance as well. There are more people who never get over this hurdle to actually learning to read.

If there were a way to do in English what they’ve done in other languages, which is to clean up the orthography, that could make a huge difference in the variation associated with whether or not people can learn to read English.


COWEN: Can a charter city work if we import good laws from the outside world but not the appropriate matching culture?

ROMER: You’ve zeroed right in on the connection. The real motivation that I had for charter cities was exactly this one that you can see in the US versus New Zealand. You can think of a charter city exercise . . .

This is actually the story of Maryland: We’re going to create laws, and we’re going to guarantee freedom of religion in Maryland, and it’s in the laws; it’s in the institution somehow. That didn’t turn out very well. Maryland had a Catholic elite but then large numbers of Protestant indentured servants or workers. And this kind of commitment to freedom of religion was not stable in Maryland at all.

The case that’s worth trying to copy is Pennsylvania, where William Penn recruited large numbers of people who actually believed in freedom of religion. The word charter comes from the charter that Penn wrote for Pennsylvania, but it wasn’t the document that mattered. What mattered was that there were a bunch of people in the founding population who were committed to this idea of a separation of church and state and religious freedom. And that’s what made it durable in Pennsylvania in a way it wasn’t in Maryland.

And this:

ROMER: …Moses was of this generation that was too enamored of the car, and this is where I think Jacobs had a better intuition. But the challenge, the dichotomy I would pose would be Jane Jacobs versus Gouverneur Morris.

Morris was the guy who drew the grid that laid out the rectangular street map for Manhattan.

We also discussed music, including Hot Tuna, Clarence White, and Paul’s favorite novel, dyslexia, what Paul has learned about management, and much more.  Self-recommending, if there ever was such a thing.

Price discrimination markets in everything

Parents who give up their phones during dinner will be rewarded with free meals for their kids at one U.K.-based restaurant chain. For the first week of December, Frankie & Benny’s is running its “no-phone zone” campaign in an attempt to improve family interactions at the dinner table.

The promotion was announced following a study that the Italian restaurant chain ran earlier this year, where they studied the dinner table behavior of over 1,500 people. And the results were staggering—almost a quarter of the parents admitted to not only using their phones during mealtime but that they did so while their kids were talking about their day.

Here is the full story, via Tadd Wilson.

52 things Tom Whitwell learned in 2018

Here is one of them:

35% of Rwanda’s national blood supply outside the capital city is now delivered by drone. [Techmoran]

Here is another:

Advertisers place a single brown pixel on a bright background in a mobile ad. It looks like dust, so users try to wipe it off. That registers as a click, and the user is taken to the homepage. [Lauren Johnson]


Those weirdly expensive books on Amazon could be part of a money laundering scheme. [Brian Krebs]


Expensive placebos work better than cheap placebos. [Derek Lowe]

And if you ever doubted it:

There is a small but thriving startup scene in Mogadishu, Somalia. [Abdi Latif Dahir]

Here is the whole list, definitely recommended.  Via Anecdotal.

Meet the Pioneers

Here are the winners from the first Pioneers tournament, summarized here:

In the short 3 months since its launch, Pioneer has garnered a global reach. Our first tournament featured applicants from 100 countries, ranging from 12 to 87 years old. Almost half of our players hailed from countries like India, UK, Canada, Nigeria, Germany, South Africa, Singapore, France, Turkey, and Kenya. Projects were spread across almost every industry — AI research, physics, chemistry, cryptocurrency and more.

They are a remarkably impressive group, here is one example:

Clark Urzo (23, Philippines)

Clark is making a programming language for physics. The idea is to enable anyone who can code to contribute to serious physics research (for example, simulations of gravitating systems). This opens up the field to the wondrous forces of open source and promotes open and accountable science along the way.

Noteworthy: Clark has an insanely impressive trajectory. He learned to code when he was 12. By 16, he was doing Laplace transforms, tinkering with Arduinos, reading Marx and Nietzsche, and taught himself conversational German. He co-founded a VR company by 19.


Harshu Musunuri (18, USA)

Harshu is creating synthetic materials to improve the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of sepsis, a leading cause of death in hospitals around the world. Unlike other approaches, these materials don’t require refrigeration and enable low-cost toxin capture in resource-poor settings.

Noteworthy: Harshu comes from a humble background: she was born to an electrical engineer and an elementary school math teacher in a small village in South India. But her work is anything but humble. In her short career, she’s done research with NASA’s JPL, built a seizure detection app for epileptic patients and is now working on a project with the potential to save thousands of lives. She’s also a hacker at heart: when she lacked the formal lab tools to braze at high temperature, she used the exhaust vent of a ceramic kiln.

The overall lesson is that there is a great deal of undiscovered talent out there, and also that some people are out there discovering it!  And if you wish to apply to round two, just follow the instructions at the top link.

Is the internet good for African politics?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

A second dynamic is harder to measure or prove, but is also likely positive: greater national unity…

One source of gain is simply that the colonial era is receding ever further into the past. In the meantime, a wide array of media outlets have helped to further African notions of national unity and cultural coherence. Soccer and other athletic teams compete on the world stage, and African players competing in Europe are portrayed as representatives of their nations, not particular ethnic groups. Commercial brands and celebrities help define national identities. Exposure to international media, most of all through smart phones and the internet, cements the notion that these regions are indeed perceived as nations by the outside world and that such designations are likely to stick. Mobile phones have knit together different African regions, and ethnic groups, in closer economic ties.

The notion of a nation as an “imagined community,” to use a term from political scientist Benedict Anderson, is under accelerating construction in many parts of Africa. Cultures and cultural expectations are adapting to current borders, even given earlier injustices, thereby contributing to falling rates of violence and conflict.

Unfortunately, Africa is exposed to a lot of “fake news,” perhaps more than Americans are. The good news, if you would call it that, is that Africans seem to be relatively skeptical of social media as a news source, and they put a relatively high degree of trust in international media.

Better yet is that most Africans say that the internet has improved their politics and economics. For instance, 64 percent of Nigerians reported in 2017 that the increasing reach of the internet was good for Nigerian politics. That number compares to just 43 percent in 2014, and positive impressions of a similar nature are common throughout Africa. For all the talk about social media creating divisions (such as in Myanmar), the net effect of modern technology seems to be greater unity, including with respect to national borders.

Do read the whole thing.

Microsoft is now the world’s most valuable company

Microsoft’s current market cap has overtaken Apple’s, after living for nearly a decade in the shadow of the Cupertino company.

At the time of writing Microsoft’s intra-day Market Cap is now 751.88B, higher than competing company Apple Inc. which is now 749.75B, by more than 2 billion dollars.

Amazon (currently 741.90B) and Apple were dubbed the world’s most valuable tech companies by Market Cap earlier this year as they crossed the $1 trillion mark. With Microsoft now overshadowing all three, including Alphabet Inc, the firm now looks to be the most valuable tech company…

Investors are concerned about slowing revenue growth at the so-called FANG companies (Facebook, Apple, Netflix and Google), a club of high flyers Microsoft has traditionally been excluded from.

Now they are betting company spending on cloud services and software will remain strong as companies strive to increase efficiency and productivity, while Facebook and Google are increasingly coming under scrutiny for their consumer data practices.

Microsoft’s cloud segment, in particular, is expected to do well, with Office 365 the lead programs in the market for cloud-based productivity tools, while Azure services for storing data and running apps in the cloud is in a solid second position to Amazon’s AWS. Microsoft is also increasingly relying on a steady subscription business which is less subject to volatility.

Here is the full story.

Those new service sector jobs

The DAWN Café is an upcoming trial project that will test an inclusive working environment. The café will seemingly be staffed with robots that will wait on you by bringing you your coffee and asking if you need anything. But if you think this is another example of robots coming for our jobs, you would be mistaken. Embedded within the robots are real intelligence: they’re operated remotely by people with severe disabilities who often can’t leave their bed.

Here is the story, via Dustin Palmer.

Hedge fund and tech questions that are rarely asked

COWEN: Given all the data that search companies and some of the other major tech companies have, why aren’t they bundled with hedge funds?

SCHMIDT: What do you mean by bundled?

COWEN: Well, literally in the same company. You’d have a tech company and a hedge fund, and there would be a synergy because the hedge fund would use the data generated by the tech company for investment. So the hedge fund would have that data first. We don’t see that in the market.


COWEN: The major tech companies have done very well, of course, but if we imagine some world in the future where some tech companies are at or near insolvency, and if we think maybe they have a fiduciary responsibility to sell off the information they hold on people, is that a regulatory problem we will need to address?

Obviously, a successful tech company is not going to do that. They would wreck their franchise.

SCHMIDT: Yeah, so the problem that you’re posing is, we have a company that has a great deal of useful information that’s also bankrupt.

COWEN: Right.

Those were my questions to Eric Schmidt.

Coasean Skies

Air taxis and delivery drones may soon make the airspace between 200 and 5000 feet above ground level much more valuable. How is this airspace to be regulated? In a very good new paper Brent Skorup draws on Coase, Demsetz, and Ostrom and the law, economics and history of regulated commons to suggest new approaches.

[T]he technological shock—the commercialization of air taxis—will create novel urban airspace scarcity and collective action conflicts. When intended uses conflict, how should airspace be allocated? This is an old problem: the transformation of a common-pool resource in the face of intensive new uses for that resource.

…For traditional aviation, air traffic management is centralized and relies on complex collaboration between airlines, the general aviation industry, air traffic controllers, and regulators. Aircraft routes, payload, slot fees, airport locations, billing, and safe separation between aircraft are all highly regulated components of this interconnected system. Massive economic distortions result from the regulated rationing of airspace and terminal access. Low-altitude airspace (i.e.,200 feet to 5000 feet above ground level) offers a relatively blank slate to explore new models for air transport and to avoid command-and-control mistakes made in the past in aviation.

…Section IV introduces a different idea: that the FAA instead delimit geographic tracts of low-altitude airspace and assign exclusive use licenses to those tracts via auction for a term of years. Flight path, speed, terminal locations, aircraft size, UTM technologies, and pricing choices would largely be delegated to the tract licensees. Finally, Section V explains why this approach, which draws on real-world examples from spectrum auctions and other federal asset markets, may offer more competitive UTMs and dynamic efficiencies for low-altitude air transit. This auction approach also allows aviation regulators to focus less on scientific management of airspace and UTM interoperability and more on aircraft safety, dangerous weather, and inspections.