Results for “rapid test”
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The Indian School of Public Policy

India is changing very rapidly and launching new programs and policies at breakneck pace–some reasonably well thought out, others not so well thought out. Historically, India has relied on a small cadre of IAS super-professionals–the basic structure goes back to Colonial times when a handful of Englishmen ruled the country–who are promoted internally and are expected to be generalists capable of handling any and all tasks. The quality of the IAS is unparalleled, of the 1 million people who typically write the Civil Services Exam the IAS accepts only about 180 candidates annually and there are less than 5000 IAS officers in total. But 5,000 generalists are not capable of running a country of over 1 billion people and and India’s bureaucracy as a whole is widely regarded as being slow and of low quality. The quality of the bureaucracy must increase, deep experts in policy must be encouraged and brought in on a lateral basis and there needs to be greater circulation with and understanding of the private sector.

The Indian government has started to show significant interest in hiring people from outside the bureaucratic ranks. NITI Aayog, the in-house government think tank, which replaced the Planning Commission, has hired young graduates from the world’s top universities as policy consultants. The Prime Minister Fellowship Scheme is an interesting initiative to attract young people to policymaking. A range of government departments and ministries do hire young, bright graduates in various disciplines to engage in research and advisory services. In fact, in a marked departure from tradition, the Indian government recently recruited 9 people working in the private sector into their joint secretary level (senior bureaucrats). Nine people doesn’t sound like a lot but these are hires at the top of the pyramid and

[T]his is perhaps the first time that a large of group of experts with domain knowledge will enter the government through the lateral-entry process.

The demand for policy professionals is there. What about the supply? I am enthusiastic about The Indian School of Public Policy, India’s newest policy school and the first to offer a post-graduate program in policy design and management. The ISPP has brought academics, policymakers and business professionals and philanthropists together to build a world-class policy school. I am an academic adviser to the school along with Arvind Panagariya, Shamika Ravi, Ajay Shah and others. The faculty includes Amitabh Mattoo, Dipankar Gupta, Parth J. Shah and Seema Chowdhry among others. Nandan Nilekani, Vallabh Bhansali and Jerry Rao are among the school’s supporters.

The ISPP opens this year with a one-year postgraduate program in Policy, Design & Management. More information here.

The case for regional-based, heartland visas

• U.S. population growth has fallen to 80-year lows. The country now adds approximately 900,000 fewer people each year than it did in the early 2000s.

• The last decade marks the first time in the past century that the United States has experienced low population growth and low prime working age growth on a sustained basis at the same time.

• Uneven population growth is leaving more places behind. 86% of counties now grow more slowly than the nation as a whole, up from 64% in the 1990s.

• In total, 61 million Americans live in counties with stagnant or shrinking populations and 38 million live in the 41% of U.S. counties experiencing rates of demographic decline similar to Japan’s.

• 80% of U.S. counties, home to 149 million Americans, lost prime working age adults from 2007 to 2017, and 65% will again over the next decade.

• By 2037, two-thirds of U.S. counties will contain fewer prime working age adults than they did in 1997, even though the country will add 24.1 million prime working age adults and 98.8 million people in total over that same period.

• Population decline affects communities in every state. Half of U.S. states lost prime working age adults from 2007-2017. 43% of counties in the average state lost population in that same time period, and 76% lost prime working age adults.

• Shrinking places are also aging the most rapidly. By 2027, 26% of the population in the fastest shrinking counties will be 65 and older compared to 20% nationwide.

• Population loss is hitting many places with already weak socioeconomic foundations. The share of the adult population with at least a bachelor’s degree in the bottom decile of population loss is half that in the top decile of population growth. Educational attainment in the fastest shrinking counties is on average equivalent to that of Mexico today or the United States in 1978.

• Population loss itself perpetuates economic decline. Its deleterious effects on housing markets, local government finances, productivity, and dynamism make it harder for communities to bounce back. For example, this analysis found that a 1 percentage point decline in a county’s population growth rate is associated with a 2-3 percentage point decline in its startup rate over the past decade.

That is the opening of a new study by Adam Ozimek of Moody’s Analytics with Kenan Fikri and John Lettieri of Economic Innovation Group.

The internet, vs. “culture”

The internet gives us the technological capability to transmit digital information seamlessly over any distance.  The concept of culture is more complicated, but I mean the influences and inspirations we grow up with, such as the family norms and practices of a place, the street scenes, the local architecture and cuisine, and the slang.  Culture comes from both nearby and more distant sources, but the emotional vividness of face-to-face interactions means that a big part of culture is intrinsically local.

Rapid Amazon delivery, or coffee shops that look alike all around the world, stem in part from the internet.  The recommendations from the smart person who works in the local bookstore, or the local Sicilian recipe that cannot be reproduced elsewhere, are examples of culture.

Since the late 1990s, the internet has become far more potent.  Yet the core techniques of culture have hardly become more productive at all, unless we are talking about through the internet.  The particular aspects of culture which have done well are those easily translated to the digital world, such as songs on YouTube and streaming.  When people are staring at their mobile devices for so many minutes or hours a day, that has to displace something.  Those who rely on face-to-face relationships to transmit their influence and authority don’t have nearly the clout they once did.

The internet gaining on culture has made the last twenty years some of the most revolutionary in history, at least in terms of the ongoing fight for mindshare, even though the physical productivity of our economy has been mediocre.  People are upset by the onset of populism in world politics, but the miracle is that so much stability has reigned, relative to the scope of the underlying intellectual and what you might call “methodological” disruptions.

The traditional French intellectual class, while retrograde in siding largely with culture, understands the ongoing clash fairly well.  Consistently with their core loyalties, they do not mind if the influence of the internet is stifled or even destroyed, or if the large American tech companies are collateral damage.

Many Silicon Valley CEOs are in the opposite boat.  Most of their formative experiences are with the internet and typically from young ages.  The cultural perspective of the French intellectuals is alien to them, and so they repeatedly do not understand why their products are not more politically popular.  They find it easier to see that the actual users love both their products and their companies.  Of course, for the intellectuals and culture mandarins that popularity makes the entire revolution even harder to stomach.

Donald Trump ascended to the presidency because he mastered both worlds, namely he commands idiomatic American cultural expressions and attitudes, and also he has been brilliant in his political uses of Twitter.  AOC has mastered social media only, and it remains to be seen whether Kamala Harris and Joe Biden have mastered either, but probably not.

Elizabeth Warren is now leading a campaign to split up the major tech companies, but unlike the Europeans she is not putting forward culture as an intellectual alternative.  Her anti-tech campaign is better understood as an offset of some of the more hostility-producing properties of the internet itself.  It is no accident that the big tech companies take such a regular pounding on social media, which is well-designed to communicate negative sentiment.  In this regard, the American and European anti-tech movements are not nearly as close as they might at first seem.

In the internet vs. culture debate, the internet is at some decided disadvantages.  For instance, despite its losses of mindshare, culture still holds many of the traditional measures of status.  Many intellectuals thus are afraid to voice the view that a lot of culture is a waste of time and we might be better off with more time spent on the internet.  Furthermore, many of the responses to the tech critics focus on narrower questions of economics or the law, without realizing that what is at stake are two different visions of how human beings should think and indeed live.  When that is the case, policymakers will tend to resort to their own value judgments, rather than listening to experts.  For better or worse, the internet-loving generations do not yet hold most positions of political power (recall Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress).

The internet also is good at spreading glorified but inaccurate pictures of the virtues of local culture, such as when Trump tweets about making America great again, or when nationalist populism becomes an internet-based, globalized phenomenon.

The paradox is that only those with a deep background in culture have the true capacity to defend the internet and also to understand its critics, but they are exactly the people least likely to take up that battle.

My Conversation with Sam Altman

Yes, the Sam Altman of Y Combinator and Open AI.  We even got around to Harry Potter, James Bond (and Q), Spiderman, Antarctica, and Napoleon, what is wrong with San Francisco, in addition to venture capital and the hunt for talent.  Here is the transcript and audio.  Here is one excerpt:

ALTMAN: I think our greatest differentiator is not how we identify talent, although I will answer that question, but the fact that we treat our own business — we run Y Combinator in the way that we tell our startups to run as a successful startup, which almost no venture capital firm does.

Almost every venture capital firm gives advice they never follow themselves. They don’t build differentiated products. They are not network-affected businesses. They don’t try to build a brand and a community. And they don’t try to make something that gets better the bigger it gets and have the scale effects that anyone would tell you they want in a business.

We at Y Combinator always say we want to get a lot bigger because this is a network effect, this is a network that matters. Most venture capital firms will say out of one side of their mouth, “Oh no, smaller is better,” because they don’t want to work more. Then they’ll tell all their businesses, “The network effect is the only thing that matters.”

Many people are as smart as we are, think about the world in similar ways. But I think we have internalized that we run our firm the same way we tell our startups to operate, and we view the most important thing that we do is to build a network and a network effect.

And:

COWEN: Let me play venture capital skeptic, and you can talk me back into optimism.

ALTMAN: I might not.

COWEN: Let’s say I say, tech has had a stream of big hits: personal computer, internet, cell phone, mobile. You’ve had a lot of rapidly scalable innovations become possible in a short period of time. We’re now in a slight lull. We’re not sure what the next big thing is or when it will come. Without that next big thing, won’t the current equilibrium require a higher rate of picking the right talent than venture capitalists are, in fact, able to do?

ALTMAN: I will talk you out of that one, happily. The most expensive investing mistake in the world to make is to be a pessimist, and it’s a common one. I think that’s actually the most common mistake to make in life. It is true that we are in a lull right now, but it is absolutely, categorically false that — unless the world gets destroyed in a very short term — that we will not have a bigger technological wave then we’ve ever had before.

COWEN: Why can’t I be an optimist but not an optimist about VC? I think new ideas will come through established companies. They’ll be funded by private equity. They’ll happen in China. But the exact formula where you can afford to make so many mistakes because the hits are so big — to what extent does VC rely on that kind of rapid scalability that may not come back?

And:

COWEN: Young Napoleon shows up. What do you think after 5 minutes?

ALTMAN: How young? Like 18-year-old Napoleon or 5-year-old?

COWEN: Before he’s famous, 21-year-old Napoleon.

ALTMAN: From everything I’ve read that would be a definite yes. In fact, the best book I read last year is called The Mind of Napoleon, which is a book of quotes about his views on everything. Just that thick on Napoleon quotes. Obviously deeply flawed human, but man, impressive.

Definitely recommended.

The new U.S.-China Cold War

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  It’s not my most fun piece, but in terms of content arguably the most important.  Here is one short bit:

The new dynamic affects people as well as products. China is asking state firms to avoid travel to the U.S. and its allies. And if you were an American or Canadian tech company executive, would you travel to China right now, given that Canada has detained a leading Huawei executive (and daughter of the company’s CEO) for extradition to the U.S.? Meanwhile, many American universities are kicking their local Confucius Institute off campus, most notably the University of Michigan, amid complaints that those institutes are spying on Chinese nationals who attend those schools. Whether or not that is true, this is another sign of the collapse of trust.

This is the deeper issue with the U.S.-China relationship: the continuing erosion, in an era of rapid deglobalization, of previous ties built at least partly on a common sense of purpose. Looking back at 2018, it now seems obvious that this was the most important story of the year.

Do read the whole thing.  It is much easier to break trust than to rebuild it.

How to save the future of chess

Matt asks:

I saw your post about whether the 12th game draw was wise or not, but I haven’t seen this bit so far – I’m curious what you think the 12 draws mean for the future of classical chess? Have we hit the point where the very best in classical will just resign themselves to draws? Should we look to blitz or Chess960 to determine the very best?

It is now 24 world championship games in a row, spread out over two contests, with only two decisive results.  Games between top grandmasters don’t end in draws nearly so often, so something is wrong with the incentives!  The most common claim you hear is that in a 12-game match it is “too hard to come back from a loss,” so the players don’t take enough chances.  That to me seems under-argued from a “maximize expected value backwards induction” point of view (a given move either boosts your expected value from the game or it doesn’t), but in any case there does seem to be a problem.  (Too much advance preparation of openings?)  On top of that, people are upset that two “classical time control” world championships in a row have been decided by the Rapid tiebreaker.

My first suggestion is to extend the matches to 24 games, but in the event of a tie at the end leave the reigning world champion with the title.  That avoids the arbitrariness of any tie-breaking method, places what is to me a justified burden on the challenger, and seems to be enough games to prevent the reigning champion from simply stonewalling with a long series of draws.  And there is plenty of precedent in chess history for matches that long, was it not nice when the Soviets paid for everything?

That said, I fear that venue costs are too high, the length of the match too variable (try booking a top hall under such conditions), and the drawing out of play would make the match harder to market to corporate and other sponsors, who are more interested in concentrated media attention (“In the future, every contender will be famous for fifteen chess games.”)

Chess960 games I find ugly, counterintuitive, and hard to follow.

So how about this?  Have the openings in each game — say the first eight to ten moves — be chosen randomly, but out of a set of high quality but somewhat riskier than average alternatives (no Petroff!).  This would limit the ability of players to choose intrinsically drawish lines with Black.  It also would steer the games away from paths where both players know the main lines thirty moves deep or more, which of course is boring and also conducive to lots of draws.

I would note that many computer vs. computer matches already are played with such a method, and it does seem to make those games more dynamic.

I don’t doubt this method might cause top players to invest all the more time in preparing openings, to avoid being caught entirely off guard (everyone would end up knowing at least something about the Poisoned Pawn Sicilian).  Still, there are limits to total prep, and the games would end up as more exciting, and probably more decisive, whether the players like it or not.

Let’s do it, and limit the impact of this insane arms race in opening preparation.

Why chess has remained popular, and why the internet is hard to predict

Those are the topics of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

It turns out that chess is oddly well-suited for a high-tech world. Chess does not make for gripping television, but the option of live viewing online, supplemented by computer analysis or personal commentary, has driven a renaissance of the game.

For one thing, computer evaluations have made watching more intelligible. Even if you barely understand chess, you can quickly get a sense of the state of play with the frequently changing numerical evaluations (“+ 2.00,” for instance, means white has a decisive advantage, whereas “0.00” signals an even position). You also can see, with each move, whether the player will choose what the computer finds best.

In essence, some of the suspenseful stupidities of low-level video games have been infused into eggheady chess. You can indulge your inner Pac Man without feeling guilty about it.

At first it was thought that online viewers would favor rapid and blitz chess, which are (as you might expect) more fast-paced. In fact, the slower games, including contests of five hours or more, have not put viewers off. If you are sitting at your office desk, you might wish to glance at the position every few minutes or so. A slower game means you can do that without missing much of the action, and yet still most of your work will get done. If the game is heading to a climax, you can pay full attention for that short period.

Fortunately, the software programs that evaluate the games and players are not yet infallible. So if Stockfish (one such program) indicates that your favorite player is far behind, you can hold out a slim hope that the software is wrong. “Creating artificial suspense” is one of the killer apps of the internet.

There is much more, including a discussion of basketball and trash talking, do read the whole thing.

My Conversation with Michael Pollan

I was very happy with how this turned out, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is how the CWTeam summarized it:

Michael Pollan has long been fascinated by nature and the ways we connect and clash with it, with decades of writing covering food, farming, cooking, and architecture. Pollan’s latest fascination? Our widespread and ancient desire to use nature to change our consciousness.

He joins Tyler to discuss his research and experience with psychedelics, including what kinds of people most benefit from them, what it can teach us about profundity, how it can change your personality and political views, the importance of culture in shaping the experience, the proper way to integrate it into mainstream practice, and — most importantly of all — whether it’s any fun.

He argues that LSD is underrated, I think it may be good for depression but for casual use it is rapidly becoming overrated.  Here is one exchange of relevance:

COWEN: Let me try a very philosophical question. Let’s say I could take a pill or a substance, and it would make everything seem profound. My receptivity to finding things profound would go up greatly. I could do very small events, and it would seem profound to me.

Is that, in fact, real profundity that I’m experiencing? Doesn’t real profundity somehow require excavating or experiencing things from actual society? Are psychedelics like taking this pill? They don’t give you real profundity. You just feel that many things are profound, but at the end of the experience, you don’t really have . . .

POLLAN: It depends. If you define profundity or the profound as exceptional, you have a point.

One of the things that’s very interesting about psychedelics is that our brains are tuned for novelty, and for good reason. It’s very adaptive to respond to new things in the environment, changes in your environment, threats in your environment. We’re tuned to disregard the familiar or take it for granted, which is indeed what most of us do.

One of the things that happens on psychedelics, and on cannabis interestingly enough — and there’s some science on it in the case of cannabis; I don’t think we’ve done the science yet with psychedelics — is that the familiar suddenly takes on greater weight, and there’s an appreciation of the familiar. I think a lot of familiar things are profound if looked at in the proper way.

The feelings of love I have for people in my family are profound, but I don’t always feel that profundity. Psychedelics change that balance. I talk in the book about having emotions that could be on Hallmark cards. We don’t think of Hallmark cards as being profound, but in fact, a lot of those sentiments are, properly regarded.

Yes, there are those moments you’ve smoked cannabis, and you’re looking at your hand, and you go, “Man, hands, they’re f — ing incredible.” You’re just taken with this. Is that profound or not? It sounds really goofy, but I think the line between profundity and banality is a lot finer than we think.

And:

COWEN: I’ve never myself tried psychedelics. But I’ve asked the question, if I were to try, how would I think about what is the stopping point?

For my own life, I like, actually, to do the same things over and over again. Read books. Eat food. Spend time with friends. You can just keep on doing them, basically, till you die. I feel I’m in a very good groove on all of those.

If you take it once, and say you find it entrancing or interesting or attractive, what’s the thought process? How do you model what happens next?

POLLAN: That’s one of the really interesting things about them. You have this big experience, often positive, not always though. I had, on balance . . . all the experiences I described in the book, with one notable exception, were very positive experiences.

But I did not have a powerful desire to do it again. It doesn’t have that self-reinforcing quality, the dopamine release, I don’t know what it is, that comes with things that we like doing: eating and sex and sleep, all this kind of stuff. Your first thought after a big psychedelic experience is not “When can I do it again?” It’s like, “Do I ever have to do it again?”

COWEN: It doesn’t sound fun, though. What am I missing?

POLLAN: It’s not fun. For me, it’s not fun. I think there are doses where that might apply — low dose, so-called recreational dose, when people take some mushrooms and go to a concert, and they’re high essentially.

But the kind of experience I’m describing is a lot more — I won’t use the word profound because we’ve charged that one — that is a very internal and difficult journey that has moments of incredible beauty and lucidity, but also has dark moments, moments of contemplating death. Nothing you would describe as recreational except in the actual meaning of the word, which is never used. It’s not addictive, and I think that’s one of the reasons.

I did just talk to someone, though, who came up to me at a book signing, a guy probably in his 70s. He said, “I’ve got to tell you about the time I took LSD 16 days in a row.” That was striking. You can meet plenty of people who have marijuana or a drink 16 days in a row. But that was extraordinary. I don’t know why he did it. I’m curious to find out exactly what he got out of it.

In general, there’s a lot of space that passes. For the Grateful Dead, I don’t know. Maybe it was a nightly thing for them. But for most people, it doesn’t seem to be.

COWEN: Say I tried it, and I found it fascinating but not fun. Shouldn’t I then think there’s something wrong with me that the fascinating is not fun? Shouldn’t I downgrade my curiosity?

POLLAN: [laughs] Aren’t there many fascinating things that aren’t fun?

COWEN: All the ones I know, I find fun. This is what’s striking to me about your answer. It’s very surprising.

W even talk about LSD and sex, and why a writer’s second book is the key book for understanding that writer.  Toward the end we cover the economics of food, and, of course, the Michael Pollan production function:

COWEN: What skill do you tell them to invest in?

POLLAN: I tell them to read a lot. I’m amazed how many writing students don’t read. It’s criminal. Also, read better writers than you are. In other words, read great fiction. Cultivate your ear. Writing is a form of music, and we don’t pay enough attention to that.

When I’m drafting, there’s a period where I’m reading lots of research, and scientific articles, and history, and undistinguished prose, but as soon as I’m done with that and I’ve started drafting a chapter or an article, I stop reading that kind of stuff.

Before I go to bed, I read a novel every night. I read several pages of really good fiction. That’s because you do a lot of work in your sleep, and I want my brain to be in a rhythm of good prose.

Defininitely recommended, as is Michael’s latest book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.

Is Portugal an anti-austerity story?

A recent NYT story by Liz Alderman says yes, but I find the argument hard to swallow.  Here’s from the OECD:

The cyclically adjusted deficit has decreased considerably, moving from 8.7% of potential GDP to 1.9% in 2013 and to 0.9% in 2014. This is better (lower) than the OECD average in 2014 (3.1%), reflecting some improvement in the underlying fiscal position of Portugal.

Or see p.20 here (pdf), which shows a rapidly diminishing Portuguese cyclically adjusted deficit since 2010.  Now I am myself skeptical of cyclically adjusted deficit measures, because they beg the question as to which changes are cyclical vs. structural.  You might instead try the EC:

…the lower-than-expected headline deficit in 2016 was mainly due to containment of current expenditure (0.8 % of GDP), particularly for intermediate consumption, and underexecution of capital expenditure (0.4% of GDP) which more than compensated a revenue shortfall of 1.0% of GDP (0.3% of GDP in tax revenue and 0.7% of GDP in non-tax revenue)

Does that sound like spending your way out of a recession?  Too right wing a source for you?  Catarina Principle in Jacobin wrote:

…while Portugal is known for having a left-wing government, it is not meaningfully an “anti-austerity” administration. A rhetoric of limiting poverty has come to replace any call to resist the austerity policies being imposed at the European level. Portugal is thus less a test case for a new left politics than a demonstration of the limits of government action in breaking through the austerity consensus.

Or consider the NYT article itself:

The government raised public sector salaries, the minimum wage and pensions and even restored the amount of vacation days to prebailout levels over objections from creditors like Germany and the International Monetary Fund. Incentives to stimulate business included development subsidies, tax credits and funding for small and midsize companies. Mr. Costa made up for the givebacks with cuts in infrastructure and other spending, whittling the annual budget deficit to less than 1 percent of its gross domestic product, compared with 4.4 percent when he took office. The government is on track to achieve a surplus by 2020, a year ahead of schedule, ending a quarter-century of deficits.

This passage also did not completely sway me:

“The actual stimulus spending was very small,” said João Borges de Assunção, a professor at the Católica Lisbon School of Business and Economics. “But the country’s mind-set became completely different, and from an economic perspective, that’s more impactful than the actual change in policy.”

Does that merit the headline “Portugal Dared to Cast Aside Austerity”?  Or the tweets I have been seeing in my feed, none of which by the way are calling for better numbers in this article?

I would say that further argumentation needs to be made.  Do note that much of the article is very good, claiming that positive real shocks help bring recessions to an end.  For instance, Portuguese exports and tourism have boomed, as noted, and they use drones to spray their crops, boosting yields.  That said, it is not just the headline that is at fault, as the article a few times picks up on the anti-austerity framing.

I’m going to call “mood affiliation” on this one, at least as much from the headline and commentary surrounding the article as the author herself.

Not the United States

The father was detained in February; three months later the mother was also taken away by authorities. They had allegedly shared extremist Islamist content on their mobile phones, family friends said. Despite protests from relatives, two of their children, aged 18 and 15, were then detained and their younger two, aged seven and nine, were sent to a state welfare centre. “The grandfather even wept, but the authorities would not let him keep his grandchildren,” recalled an acquaintance.

So what’s up?:

As the Trump administration struggles to reunite migrants and their children forcibly separated at the US border, China has been separating families on a far larger scale as part of a rapidly intensifying security campaign.

That is from Emily Feng at the FT, via Comrade Balding.

Will AI blur the difference between private and public sectors?

…there are incredibly powerful non-state actors who are also competing furiously to develop this technology. All of the 7 most important technology companies in the world–Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu–are making huge investments in AI, from low level frameworks and silicon to consumer products.  It goes without saying that their expertise in machine learning leads any state actor at the moment.

As the applications of machine learning grow, the interactions between these companies and different nation states will grow in complexity. Consider for example road transportation, where we are gradually moving towards on demand, autonomous cars. This will increasingly blur the line between publicly funded mass transportation (e.g. a bus) and private transport (a shared Uber). If this leads to a new natural monopoly in road transportation should it be managed by the state (e.g. the call in London for “Khan’s Cars”) or by a British company, or by a multinational company like Uber?

As Mariana Mazzucato outlined in her fantastic book The Entrepreneurial State, states have historically played a crucial role in underwriting long term, high risk research in science and technology by funding either academic research or the military. These technologies are often then commercialised by private companies. With the rise of visionary and wealthy technology companies like Google we are seeing more high risk long term research being funded by the private sector. DeepMind is a prime example of this. This creates tension when the interests of a private company like Google and a state are not aligned. An example of this is the recent interactions between Google and the Pentagon where over 4000 Google employees protested against Google’s participation in “warfare technologies” and as a result Google decided to not renew its contract with the Pentagon. This is a rapidly evolving topic. Only a week earlier Sergey Brin had said that “he understood the controversy and had discussed the matter extensively with Mr. Page and Mr. Pichai. However, he said he thought that it was better for peace if the world’s militaries were intertwined with international organizations like Google rather than working solely with nationalistic defense contractors”.

Here is more of interest from Ian Hogarth, via…whoever it was that sent it to me!

Ethiopia is still up and at it

Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populated country, is forecast to be the fastest growing economy in Sub-Saharan Africa this year, according to new data from the IMF.

Ethiopia’s economy is predicted to grow by 8.5 percent this year. The figures signal continued economic expansion following a long period of impressive growth. In the last decade, Ethiopia has averaged around 10 percent economic growth, according to the IMF.

To boost the economy, the country is pursuing a number of large-scale infrastructure projects, including the Grand Renaissance Dam and a railway network.

Here is the full story.  Ivory Coast, Rwanda, Senegal, and Ghana are also growing at rapid clips.

Equality is a mediocre goal, aim for progress

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

Take this all a step further and imagine that the next 30 years brings an enormous blossoming of medical innovation, outpacing the general rate of economic growth. Government revenue then might not grow rapidly enough to cover all or even most of these new medical miracles, some of which will be quite expensive, especially in their early stages. Governments will decline to cover more and more care.

This fiscal crunch is all the more likely if people live much longer but cannot work enough longer to fund their newly extended retirement spans.

To date, so much of the health care debate has been about whom to cover. Over time, it may be more and more about what to cover. It could be that all the citizens will have nominally the same insurance coverage, whether subsidized or guaranteed, but many medical and mental-health conditions will fall outside this coverage —  leading to rampant inequalities in access.

It’s the best problem to have. It means that medical innovation has arrived at a very high rate. If we enter the future being able to cover most medical treatments with reasonable equality, that would be a sign we failed at the task of progress. In other words, successful futures are likely to be highly unequal futures, again because medical innovation will have outpaced government revenue. (Innovations that extend working years would ameliorate this effect by adding to government revenue.)

Do read the whole thing.

The reasonable yet revolutionary case for blockchain

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

Other than using blockchains to organize cryptocurrencies, imagine using them to record and decide who can store information about you. The blockchain is thus a potential substitute for some functions of Facebook, a corporation. Or imagine using the blockchain to allocate rights to your attention in cyberspace, who can send you ads, and who can send you an actionable email or induce you to complete a task, the latter an idea from Balaji Srinivasan of Coinbase.

No, you don’t have to sit down and personally bid on all of these decisions, but your AI bots can use micropayments and trade with other AI bots, based on your initial instructions. This new method of governance holds out the promise of using market mechanisms to order your life online, rather than relying on monopolies to do it for you.

Or, say, virtual reality worlds come to pass, where people plug in to relax, to take an exciting one-hour trip to Paris from their sofa, or to have cybersex. The property rights in those worlds might be allocated by blockchains and cryptocurrencies, again assisted by AI.  That would create a parallel economy and indeed parallel legal systems, and those might spring up more rapidly than current administrative law will handle those new situations. In these new economies and legal systems that spring from blockchains, competition and rapid experimentation would be the norm.

I don’t think that all will happen, but in expected value terms it remains important.

Superstars in the NBA playoffs, and the heightening of income inequality

Perhaps you have noticed that the sixth-seeded New Orleans Pelicans swept the third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers in four games straight.  A month or two ago, it was not entirely obvious that the Pelicans would make the playoffs at all.  And all 22 ESPN analysts picked the Pelicans to lose the series.

The simplest theory about the Pelicans performance is that they have two superstars, Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday.  But while Portland was thought of as the superior team, they don’t have any player with the power and dynamism of Anthony Davis, whom I and many others consider to be a transcendent superstar.

One possible theory is this: an NBA series today is very well scouted and analyzed, and the players watch lots of tape.  Adjustments are made each game or even each quarter, based on a quantitative analysis of what is working and what is not.  This neutralizes many of the strategies of the lesser players, and furthermore having a good bench is worth less when it is easier to concentrate more of the minutes in the very best players.  It is not however possible to neutralize the impact of a transcendental superstar, even with lots of advance planning.  Those truly top players can improvise around any defenses thrown at them, or on the defensive end they can rapidly adjust to counter a new offensive attack.

Furthermore, in the playoffs effort is more or less equalized, as suddenly everyone is trying, even the bench players on the road.  That too raises the relative return to top talent.

In the playoffs, it is thus plausible that the quality and value of the transcendent superstars goes up.

As more and more of contemporary business becomes regularized and measured and motivated and based on well-ordered cooperating teams, might the same be true for the transcendent superstars of that world as well?  In essence, we’re always in the business “playoffs” these days, at least in Manhattan and Silicon Valley, and their transcendent superstars also become the difference-makers.

I do not seek to argue that is the main cause behind rising income inequaliity, but might it be one factor?

Of course my dream series for the finals is New Orleans vs. Philadelphia (Ben Simmons, Joel “built for…playoff basketball” Embiid.  That is hardly the most likely outcome, but it is now looking a lot more possible than one might have thought.  Philly, by the way, is the “all time hottest team entering the NBA playoffs,” at least by one measure.