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I was recently at a conference run by a progressive political think tank. I was surprised and confused by the way some of the speakers discussed AI, "innovation", entrepreneurship, and technology.

They basically all repeated a number of the same points.

1. AI will be amazing, and will utterly decimate jobs in the future, though it was never clear whether they understood AI technologies or even the economics of automation.

2. Everyone should be trying to become an entrepreneur. Disruption is a panacea.

3. Technology is the future. But, they use about 1,000,000 different definitions of technology and give little heed to social ramifcations of some of the technologies.

4. Everyone in the future will work on a contract basis and this is amazing. They gave little thought to many of the long term benefits usually associated with careers.

5. "Nudging" will be THE tool of governments in the future, with little thought to the ramifications to democracy and liberal values.

There was such a small bandwidth of opinion and argument it was hilarious. They were basically all repeating boiler plate stuff you read in a lot of these "thought leader" books.

You're misunderstanding what a think tank is. It's a place that gets money from places and is a parking lot for displaced political people. They aren't there to have original thoughts -- they are there to support the perspective of whomever is signing the checks. What they say isn't very important, but what they don't say is critical.

Ditto for political people like cabinet members and CEO types. In public, their outward messaging needs to be tightly controlled. Behind the scenes for smart ones, their personal thoughts or agendas are often very different.

The RAND Corporation is a "think tank" but it's definitely not what you describe. They are quite valued for their objective and bi-partisan analysis domestically and even internationally. They actually shut down one of their international offices because the government in power basically asked them to spread propaganda on their behalf. RAND puts out great reports on all sorts of topics around policy and decision making. Education, marijuana reform, cybercrime, you name it. I bother saying this because I used to work there and think folks really misunderstand that there are some think tanks doing very valuable work. I'm a little salty even because when I moved to my current job at well known tech company, once there, I found my past experience gets massively discounted, even controlling for the differences between R&D/think tank vs tech company. It's annoying and it mostly seems to stem from ignorance and stereotypes based on a few of the bad apples that call themselves think tank but are actually partisan propaganda mills.

RAND is a pretty interesting place -- and as far as I know totally not connected to a certain author popular among libertarians. Research ANd Development, right?

A couple years ago I was considering a move to Santa Monica and while my obvious employment would have been some form of software development further from the beach, I thought it might be cool to find my way into RAND in some capacity.

Do they have part-time researchers there, or maybe researchers-in-residence for sabbatical-length periods?

They have part-timers who were once full timers but typically you can't start off part time. Closest thing is the summer associates program for visiting PhD students.

Ps. I had an office overlooking the Santa Monica mountains and got to spend time deeply immersing into interesting problems. Now at current tech co I'm packed into an open office plan elbows to elbows and don't immerse much past any problem that can't be solved in a week or too. I sometimes hear Gob saying in my head, "I've made a huge mistake..."

I believe it was "Research And No Development", intended as a pure think tank for concepts without worrying about implementation details.

I think places like RAND are exceptions that prove the rule, and there are others -- the political mills put up the trappings of intellectualism to pretend to look like a place like RAND!

As someone once said to me, "Think tanks don't think; they justify."

Well that's the article's point, a think tank serves one of the factions of the plutocracy and on the global and national stage public intellectuals have also been replaced by puppets of the plutocracy. They all serve money and people who hold it, just different factions. While at the same time the intellectuals in universities have become more and more divorced from reality, embracing ideologies that are excessively liberal and left leaning rather than centrist.

I think it is still summed up with the statement "Cash is King"

We used to decapitate the king anually and call that taxes.

The King realizing this created a fake person called a corporation that gives the people jobs. Good luck killing any of those.

> Good luck killing any of those.

I don't think we've really tried hard enough.

I work for a public policy think tank, and this absolutely DOES NOT describe us. No one here is just parking themselves while waiting for a gig with one administration or another.

That said, there certainly are such places. I believe a large number of people at the Center for American Progress had very different career plans for 2017 than what has actually played out for them.

There is a very wide variety to think tanks. Some do a lot of serious work. Some are zombies that do nothing but cash donor checks and write letters to the editor. I'm grateful to be at one of the better ones.

For some of them, what they say can be important (though this doesn't invalidate the rest of what you're saying). The Heritage Foundation is basically writing our executive policy in the US these days, for instance.

Very true. Even as someone who isn't a policy wonk, I could probably guess Heritage Foundation positions with 80% accuracy or better.

The "missing" info is where the conflict lay!

I was doing some research into the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (would ban underground nuclear tests, US has been voluntarily complying since the 90s but Republican Senators have refused to ratify) the other day. As I was researching, I stumbled upon an old Heritage Foundation position on the treaty. I knew of their reputation so I began reading with skepticism.

The author of the position piece made a number of very reasonable criticisms. He said that, for instance, while the treaty text bans "explosive" tests, and this is understood in some quarters to mean zero yield, it doesn't say that explicitly. He made two other sensible points that were at about the same order of magnitude maybe one more and one or two very hawkish points.

While I am not a diplomat or other professional in the field, I thought, hey some of these make a lot of sense, maybe they should workshop the treaty and fix these few points. I'm sure most countries would go along with a few amendments even if they've already signed it if they can get the US to say yes.

Instead he wholesale rejected the treaty and recommended that we signal total withdrawal and declare that we will no longer voluntarily comply with its terms. So essentially, he took a few reasonable points and then used them to support an extreme position.

I laughed and said aloud, "That's the Heritage Foundation that I know!"


Its part of the game:

Stand up and shout loudly. You'll be taken seriously by some, given money or resources by others, talked about, and blogged about. Now, use that energy flowing your direction to create books, talks, and materials.

Why can't you just enjoy the disruptive potential of complex algo-intelligence deployed for the incremental betterment of a functioning economy?

(Looking for an agent)

Can I preorder your book?

I'll give you a discount if you can nominate me for TED.

Why are you looking for a person when the future is intelligent agents acting as agents using a deep learning AI approach to disrupt the cosy middle-man economy to enhance our societal well-being on a functional level? Maybe you don't really believe?

I live in Washington, DC. The tiny bandwidth of acceptable opinion here would be hilarious if these people weren't running the country. When I go to parties and meet people with powerful jobs, it's appalling how poorly thought out their analyses of many situations are. Being here for the last 2 years has given me a lot of insight into how and why America is being run into the ground.

Example, please? Without naming names.

I'm a bit skeptical that you're so much smarter and more insightful than all of these successful people you're meeting at parties in DC.

Well you know about computers presumably if you're here, so think about how computers, hacking, mainframes etc are portrayed on TV and in movies. Ludicrous, right?

Now consider that a doctor thinks the same about medical dramas, cops and lawyers think that way about crime shows, even pastry chefs probably think that about pastry chefs on TV.

Yet the people who star in and who produce these shows are wildly successful and rich. Politics is the same.

I'll just rattle off some sweeping observations that I think have to do with the narrow set of viewpoints and shallow analysis that often results:

- Incentives in government (and most of the professionals here work for the government in some way, shape, or form) are extraordinarily misaligned. Public servant pay is often crap, so people are easy to buy with stuff like expensive dinners. Public servants thus get obsessed with amassing more power - self-promotion becomes the driving force behind their decisions with little regard as to how their power actually plays out.

- Relatedly, public servants become slaves to the existing power structures, both in practice and in their thoughts. It is very, very difficult for them to think outside of the box... even when they have leadership positions that you would typically look to for this.

- Everyone here majored in political science or economics in college.

- Everyone here worships the New York Times and Washington Post.

It's like being surrounded by zombies sometimes.

Professionally, you can be a big value-add by being willing to be the person who shakes people up with new ideas and having the drive to sustain it.

The implication that intelligence and insight are necessarily other than orthogonal to success seems to me optimistic.

Politicians need to be excellent at getting elected. That requires skills in persuasion, manipulation, forming alliances etc, but not neccssarily deep thought. Being a politician is at its core a sales job, and how much insight do you typically expect from salesmen?

But I bet they're all very eloquent.

Initially. They tend to get pretty flustered if you simultaneously remain calm and knowledgeably begin discussing how you disagree with a premise (when people get heated, they're much easier to dismiss).

Especially in the current climate. Donald has really rattled their worldviews by seizing control of the throne.

There's a reason people call that town "Versailles on the Potomac".

These are thought followers, and by definition there are more of them than leaders.

That is true.

One caveat, though: these people were all CEOs or senior consultants or occupying high level cabinet positions in federal and provincial governments (some were actually premiers). These people, if not "thought leaders" are certainly modelling themselves in that image and, perhaps worse, unlike "thought leaders" they are the people at the steering wheel of many important things -- they are leaders. One would hope they would be less suceptible to fads, but alas.

Think how difficult it would be for a young Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page to advance within that group of people. It would be impossible.

That's because these "elite" circles favor political skills, extroverted people with low conviction.

Peter Thiel points out that most original thinkers are introverted with high conviction, like Mark or Larry. That seems to be the formula for success in technology.

Yes, that is interesting thought; in fact, he even goes further and consider Aspergers as an advantage in this context.

This is more or less validated by the OCEAN/5 factor model -- low agreeableness and low extroversion might be proxy for not being influenced by the convention.

Social intelligence seems to be what's typically need to rise to the top of the management or political hierarchy, unlike intelligence as it would be defined here.I can't think of too many politicians I consider even remotely smart these days.

Perhaps "thought leader" is simply a misnomer.

>2. Everyone should be trying to become an entrepreneur. Disruption is a panacea.

This one particularly annoys me. Anytime you hear it you can be almost certain the person saying it has no actual experience in innovation/wealth/job creation. I prefer Andy Grove's take on it:

"Without scaling, we don't just lose jobs—we lose our hold on new technologies. Losing the ability to scale will ultimately damage our capacity to innovate."


Great list. I've seen lots of these ideas float around certain circles.

As an example of the kind of person who spreads such ideas: a few years ago I knew a recent university graduate who was very friendly, enthusiastic and reasonably intelligent. He was interested in entrepreneurship, but non-technical, and focused mainly on networking and building connections.

One conversation I had with him concerned online advertising. He was convinved Facebook would never make money and that no-one clicked on ads online. I know a lot of people believe this, but I pointed out Google makes $20 billion revenue/year or whatever, and there's whole industries devoted to optimising PPC ads. "Nah that is just people who click by accident. Believe me it's completely nonsensical." Thinking him to be an non-serious person I didn't stay in touch but kept him on Facebook.

Next I see he's doing a masters degree in internet innovation in Oxford. Then he's at Harvard for a while. Now I see he's back in Oxford starting an academic career. A while ago I saw him post an article on the awesome power of "nudges" to his FB feed. I know not everyone in academia is like this, but academia doesn't awe me any more now that I know the bar is not that high.

This sounds exactly like every person I've ever met who is in to "business". They don't specialize in any particular industry, and aren't actually doing business related things, but participate in some farcical, nebulous buzzword-centric concept of it. I would liken it to business-theater. There's a reason people like this stay in academia.

To be fair, that's my impression of a number of people who introduce themselves as 'entrepreneurs'.

The people who run a business, or are building something or are otherwise working, will say that. People who say they're in 'business' or are an 'entrepreneur' are the ones who haven't figured out exactly what they're up to.

"Typically, the IYI [Intellectual Yet Idiot] get the first order logic right, but not second-order (or higher) effects making him totally incompetent in complex domains."


This sounds like a large percentage of tech conferences today which have become thinly veiled political organizations.

What conference?

> They basically all repeated a number of the same points.

Well, now you know what a think tank is for! :)

Sounds like most of them are really more thought followers, then.

Who were the speakers?

To borrow from the article, it sounds like you experienced another "TED talk on a recursive loop."

The words "think tank" bring to mind a gigantic behemoth with treads, rolling forward inexorably to trample and destroy thought.

The real world has yet to offer up a counterexample to my childish whimsy.

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