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The End of the Computer Age (manhattan-institute.org)
92 points by aazaa 64 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 85 comments

"...the iPhones that distract us from our environment also distract us from how strangely old and unchanging our environment is, how you're riding a subway that's 100 years old. And I think sort of a healthier sort of progress would happen on many different fronts."

This quote stood out to me. It seems like we silently concluded that the physical world has evolved enough, developed enough, even though there's a ton of inefficiencies to fix.

I often lament that the built environment of the average American city looks stuck in the 80s, and this quote made me think of that.

I think the market is what silently concluded that the physical world has evolved enough; software isn't more important, just more profitable. And because the United States is allergic to public spending, that's all that matters.

NYC seems to be just fine at redeveloping. So the problem is regional (though very widespread).

That's hardly the case. The entirety of NYC (including the 5 bouroughs) is falling apart, and quality/cost of new projects leaves much to be desired.

It could really be so much better. There are a lot of other cities which are developing faster (mainly outside the US).

> And because the United States is allergic to public spending, that's all that matters.

I don't think it's the spending that the US is allergic to, it's the collecting the money to spend.

For the last ten years everybody has been printing money like crazy, the banks literally don't know what to do with all the cash, you're being paid for borrowing some of it.

Ever been to Connecticut? I-84 is still constantly in rough condition, even as property and income taxes climb.

As a Korean who visited LA this summer, I was shocked to see how unmaintained the roads were, especially the highways. (There were cracks and debris all over the place)

I remember thinking the same back in 2005, which was the first time I'd driven in the US. Cracks and potholes all over the place. At the time I'd assumed it was because California was basically bankrupt (maybe it still is), but slightly shocking that it's still the case.

I suddenly felt like I understood why American cars have such soft suspension. The roads were notably worse than in the UK, and by a wide margin: no way I'd want to drive a car with a sportier setup there.

What's depressing is that since 2010 there's been a progressive degradation in the state of our roads. In Cambridgeshire the roads are now in a terrible state: cracks, fissures, potholes, road markings barely visible.

You can blame public spending cuts for this, and no doubt there's truth in that statement, but there are plenty of road infrastructure projects happening. For example: the (admittedly decades overdue) A14 upgrade, recently completed Ely southern bypass, various smart motorway projects (M1 and M4 spring immediately to mind, as well as recently completed work on M3).

This is all well and good, but I would far rather see some of this money diverted to the basics of a safe road network: i.e., ensuring the roads we already have are in good condition. I would particularly like to see funds being used for smart motorways, for which serious safety concerns have emerged, diverted in this way.

'Smart motorway' is an umbrella term for various traffic control schemes used on motorways since the 90s. The version deemed unsuitable is dynamic hard shoulder running (called 'managed motorway' at inception), first used on the M42 from 2006 on.

All new projects in England since 2013 have used All Lane Running (an alternative to widening, where the HS is permanently converted into a traffic lane). This format is not being killed off.

The A14 Huntingdon Bypass was supposed to open as a smart motorway (A14(M)) but the legislation hasn't passed soon enough, so it will open as an all-purpose road with motorway-style restrictions and smart tech.

My home town agreed a very long - multiple decades - private contract for road maintenance... at least ten year ago? Unsurprisingly, the private company puts in the minimum to service the contract and the roads have gone to pot.

Interestingly it might just have to do with the age of the roads. When I was living in Baltimore in the late 80s my fellow Californians complained how bad the roads were in Maryland compared to LA. Now 30 years later the roads in California are bad too. IIUC much of Korea's roads are new-ish so it's possible in 30 years they'll be in the same state. .... or not of course. Maybe Korea is just better at maintaining roads.

It is worth noting that the US has several orders of magnitude more roads than Korea does to maintain.

... but that doesn't excuse the under-spending on them, because we're also under-spending.

Most people in the U.S. have never been to a country with an actual transportation system. They can't imagine that it could be any different and will get angry if you point out to them.

Part of the issue is that wealthier people are self segregating themselves into their own separate towns, do that their property tax dollars don’t have to go to maintain the roads that everyone else drives on.

Not at all! Every year the US and it’s various state and local governments collect trillions... and then proceed to spend it on some other crap.

Are you sure it isn't endless spending on new roads and destruction of tax base by expanding the suburbs?

"And because the United States is allergic to public spending, that's all that matters."

The United States wouldn't be so allergic to public spending if we weren't so complacent about foreign spending, namely the military and foreign aid/manipulation.

> silently concluded that the physical world has evolved enough

the main culprit is regulation. There are other markets which build modern cities at breakneck pace

the same thing is going to happen to tech now that regulation is kicking in

As someone who saw Grenfell go up from his bedroom window, I'll take the regulation thanks.

Agreed. You can take software as an example; it's far less regulated than most infrastructure sectors, but how many outages per year does Facebook have? How many times per year are our PII gutted out of an under-secured dataset?

Now, that level of sloppiness, but applied to bridges and skyscrapers? No thanks.

How do you regulate public housing?

I don't even understand the question in this context.

But on not turning buildings into death traps, I'd start by asking the ICWCI.

> you're riding a subway that's 100 years old ... a healthier sort of progress would happen on many different fronts

Is he saying there is something wrong with electric subways? It seems an excellent solution to transport in a dense urban area. And metros have kept up with technology fairly well. What is the better solution to the subway for the problem it solves in the places it solves them?

Yes, we've had subways for over 100 years. And trains in general. Freight trains are very efficient ways of moving things. How old is the hammer or the shovel? Pretty old. And both work well.

He mentions also that some extension of a NYC subway cost $3.8 billion a mile. Yeah that's expensive. No doubt they ran into horrific problems drilling the tunnel. B-1 bomber program spent $40 billion and delivered 20 aircraft at a program cost of $2 billion each (much more than the claimed cost, but this is the actual cost). Likewise the B-2 ran $1 billion each. Was this mile of subway worth more than two B-1 bombers? I'd say yes but others may say no.

I think he's referring to the horrifically unmaintained and archaic state of the world's older subways, like NYC and the London Underground. Besides the expense, NYC is absurdly behind on modern train timing systems, which causes very loose scheduling and frequent delays. There's also the general squalor and lack of maintenance of the platforms. London's tunnels are so full of iron dust and other particulates that a half hour in them literally turns your mucus black, and the lack of a cooling system has caused the ambient temperature to rise ~30 degrees since their construction with no sign of stopping. They also screech loudly enough to cause permanent hearing damage.

These systems could be modern and effective, but instead they're disintegrating in place. That's the problem.

the i486 was an excellent processor, too

sx or dx?

dx and remember to press the turbo button

> inefficiencies

Think that while this person is looking at the iPhone on the subway, it's also probably unaware that there is (in this very moment, in the world) people starving to dead or dying from deceases that already have a cure, or that there is people beheading others with machetes in tribal-like wars.

The paradigm of progress is relative.

> there is people beheading others with machetes in tribal-like wars

I prefer the society that does not end up with machetes, but there are maniacs out there that would argue that even expressing such a preference is 'problematic'

In California (can’t speak for other states), much of that “stuck in <x time period>” is largely driven by NIMBYs and at what point the place became more or less affluent.

SV seems to have figured out that some land can be redeveloped into apartments relatively recently, but otherwise it looks like 60s was a pretty active development era and most of that stuff is still here. By contrast, in LA much of 50s - 60s sprawl has been replaced by 70-80, or even 90s sprawl.

California is basically screwed as long as prop 13 applies to businesses and apartment buildings - what incentive do you have as the owner to raise your tax base, especially with rent control where you can’t charge more.

I don't know why you're getting downvoted, because it's absolutely true that much of CA is stuck in the mid 20th century in terms of real estate development. The zoning laws and NIMBY-ism are very important to call out for restricting progress. Somebody above tried to blame the market. It isn't the market when you own a piece of property but you are restricted to building a single-family home that meets 200 different regulations and restrictions so tight that you only end up with cookie cutter homes in a neighborhood of cul-de-sacs. It's not just CA that suffers from this but it's certainly the most extreme case. Zoning laws are among the key reasons why city design has stagnated. There's little wiggle room for innovation. And if you look at attempts to build high speed rail, for example, and the debacle that is with the amount of money spent and the never-ending construction and you compare that to the achievements of the early 20th century and it looks like a sad situation.

Bear in mind that 1) only a few areas of California are increasing in population, and 2) the SF bay area has had two huge empty-house plenty-of-downtown-parking foreclosure-signs-everywhere recessions in the last 20 years. Next one is probably coming up soon.

> "...the iPhones that distract us from our environment also distract us from how strangely old and unchanging our environment is, how you're riding a subway that's 100 years old."

We need a smartphone-age/post-TV update to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panem_et_circenses and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amusing_Ourselves_to_Death

As long as prices keep going up there s no motive. And if people want to see modern tower architecture they catch a flight to asia

This talk mostly reiterates his basic talking points so it feels a lot like rambling. And the title is not justified by the argument.

There is, however, a case to be made that the computer tech age has reached an end. Tech companies turning to investing in banking and real estate is not a good sign.

Tech companies are still doing tech. It's more that the "tech" label is being applied to other companies incorrectly.

Train companies are still doing trains, but the era of railway mania (and its associated venture capital bubble) have long since evaporated.

We'll see the same with tech, maybe in a few years maybe in a few decades.

apple is investing in payments, credit cards and real estate. so does facebook (and google)

But they haven't stopped doing technology. If anything, they are bringing technology to banking.

I am not saying I am feeling great about those particular companies entering the finance industry, but it's not like it's a signal that technology is becoming unimportant. If anything it's just the continued expansion of technology.

time will tell. i think it 's worrying that they are entering these zero-sum markets

btw this technology already exists in bitcoin and other coins

Thiel's talk starts around 10m40s, after the throat-clearing intro.

This is not his most articulate talk, fwiw. Thiel's smart and sometimes very clear, but not here. This feels off the cuff, where he's falling back on pot shots and sound bites.

Its very long, but I enjoyed Thiel on The Portal (Eric Weinstein's podcast) a few months back:


I don't know how this compares to talks he's given, but there were a lot of small ideas in there which I thought were really interesting - like the idea that we're in a period of relative technological stagnation compared to a couple decades ago. And how obvious this observation seems to both Thiel and Weinstein.

We're in a period of relative technological stagnation compared to a couple decades ago.

Kind of. There's no new "must have" consumer electronics product. 3D TV was a flop, robot vacuums were a dud, VR goggles make 5% to 15% of the population nauseous, and everybody has a smartphone. The "lose money on every sale and make it up on volume" model (Uber, etc.) is coming apart. Self-driving cars don't work yet. Moore's Law has hit a wall. Wafer fab cost is so high that the next node may be unaffordable.

There's lots of stuff to do, though. Solar panels and batteries work pretty well, and there's a few trillion dollars of those to be deployed. But it's not a Make Money Fast business. Electric cars and charging stations work, and those need to be deployed. The battery manufacturers need to get their automation act together and start pumping those things out at high speed at very low cost.

There's also lots of room for progress in bioengineering. Editing DNA is just beginning.

It's weird that everything is compared to one of the most successful products ever created. Something that went from an incredibly niche product to nearly every adult, and a lot children owning, in a very short timeline.

Every Apple product launch has commentary of "This isn't as successful as the iPhone", like yeah, no shit, the iPhone isn't going to be replicated every 10 years. We aren't always on the cusp of being able to combine components generated from advances in multiple industries to propel one industry to market dominance.

I like to imagine a future where we are able to continue the advances of Moore's law by getting more efficient with our software and the ever increasing abilities multi core processing. I have no idea if that's how it's going to continue, but in the absence of continued progress in one area, progress will probably be demanded in another.

The sense I get from all of it is that there's a phase shift in technological progress occurring, not dissimilar to the 1970's one where we ceased seeing the bulk of disruptive developments occurring in vehicles and energy, and started seeing them in IT fields. That initial boom produced a lot of new product categories, and then successive decades saw a lot of consolidation and transformation away from nuts and bolts and simple efficiencies towards services and IP holdings and consumer marketing. And we know the nature of that market very well today since everyone present has breathed in it for most or all of our lives at this point.

But the nature of the next market is, of course, much harder to glimpse. Like looking into pier glass, it takes effort to get a fragmented view of things. It's not as easy as Thiel's view: AI and surveillance, for example is more broadly authoritarian than it is any specific ideology. And infrastructure often leapfrogs stages in the developing world, and that can be true of a developed country like the U.S. too.

There's plenty of good work being done quietly in the current market. The word I'd pay the most attention to is sustainability, though. It's been more-or-less entirely a marketing term for decades, never delivering on the promise, but then, often it takes a while for the products to catch up to the marketing.

This mostly just reads like stream of consciousness gibberish to me. Is there an actual coherent argument in here somewhere?

This is the top 1% celebrating themselves. If they had any coherent arguments, we would have been convinced long since. As it is, they're just laughing their asses off while taking candy from a baby (i.e. getting even more rich and powerful).

Is it me or has his thinking got more sloppy?

A couple examples, his indictment of the Obamas is that they sent their kids to Harvard but his indictment of America is that we don't focus on the things we do well... such as universities?

The assault on science now without any prescriptive solutions. Is he arguing for more populous interpretation of science? Has he had any first hand experience and investigation into the mechanisms of double blind peer review? (In my experience, still prone to gaming but often rigorous and the best method we've got).

Re: The indictment of the SV elite. I don't move in the same circles as he does but it's obvious that he's still smarting from the SV elite's rejection of him.

His hypocrisy from being owner of Palantir and yet seeming indictment of AI software for governments? Another layer of hypocrisy of espousing libertarian values when he's come to embody the system as much as anyone (in the administration, numerous govt military contracts with Palantir). And yet he's even more shifty than that, embracing NZ citizenship for possible tax evasion avenues.

His indictment of Twitter yet entrepreneurs have made material progress in traditional sectors (his old buddy Elon making headway with Tesla).

Our indictment of him should be that he's turned his back on values he's formerly espoused, content to rankle in a 'get off my front lawn style' on his large pile of capital while often committing the same hypocrisies of which he feigns disgust.

"And so, if we were to rightsize the scaling for our intellectual life, you should describe Harvard, not as one of the thousands of great universities, you should describe it as a Studio 54 nightclub" is really all you need to take away from this. Not for what it says, but for the desperate attempt of those words to make any real sense.

Although don't miss out on gems like: "But in practice, the main AI applications that people seem to talk about are using large data to sort of monitor people, know more about people than they know about themselves. And in the limit case, maybe it can solve a lot of the sort of Austrian Economics type problems where you can know enough about people that you know more about them than they know about themselves, and you can sort of enable communism to work, maybe not so much as an economic theory, but at least as a political theory. So it is definitely a Leninist thing. And then, it is literally communist because China loves AI; it hates crypto. And so that, I think, tells you something."

AI is literally communist. Thanks Peter.

I'm not sure what's unclear about what he's saying.

a) Harvard is a pure signaling mechanism that doesn't provide education as much as exclusionary credentials.

b) AI/Big data is a way to solve the economic calculation problem that was once seen as one of the main theoretical hurdles against communism. That a country like China favors AI and punishes crypto tells you something (that it's a communist dictatorship).

It's pretty straightforward.

I also liked the fact that he points out he'd like to see innovation not just "in some iPhone app" but more broadly in different fields.

I think this is a good point, there isn't enough going on in other areas, like he said people ride the 100 year old subway distracted by their iPhones not realizing the world around them is unchanging mostly.

It's true in some ways, who will build or even demand the better faster subways of the future if 99% of the people don't even realize they're on the subway.

Yup. To be fair, that's a point he's been making for ~10 years about the world of atoms and world of bits dichotomy.

I think it's also, in part, subtly caused by our narrow understanding of the word "technology" to be "software made in Silicon Valley" as opposed to a broader "tool that serves a human purpose."

If we broadened that understanding, we could see engineers applying their skills to problems that would be just as lucrative, but could be more legitimately called "innovative" than working on the umpteenth marginal "tech" app.

Well, but China doesn't use AI to centrally plan the details of its economy. Corporations, prices, and competition are undisputed features of the economy there. Whether you want to call it communist or not, the computational problem is still as intractable as ever. There's a difference between monitoring and regulating society with computers and solving the classical economic calculation problem.

And Harvard is a way for elites to network, but that's not merely arbitrary signalling - it depends on how those elites are selected.

Sure. Thiel is proposing a model. All models are wrong, some are useful, and so on. His models happen to be interesting to people who like to think in more contrarian ways. That doesn't make them right, and we can debate their merit, of course. But it hardly makes them impossible to understand.

That China hasn't solved the economic calculation problem yet is plain to see, and I don't think that's quite what Thiel is saying. He's talking about the principles and the mindset behind the support for AI, as well as its ramifications in terms of the type of society it can produce asymptotically.

No one said Harvard's signalling was arbitrary. It's a very clear signal. Thiel's point is that that signal has nothing to do with "higher education".

"well as its ramifications in terms of the type of society it can produce asymptotically."

My assertion is that it can't though. That's because the complexity of even a fairly small entity makes the number of the particles in the universe look infinitesimal.


"In 2016, Adam Yedidia and Scott Aaronson obtained the first (explicit) upper bound on the minimum n for which Σ(n) is unprovable in ZFC. To do so they constructed a 7910-state[2] Turing machine whose behavior cannot be proven based on the usual axioms of set theory (Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory with the axiom of choice), under reasonable consistency hypotheses (stationary Ramsey property).[3][4] This was later reduced to 1919 states, with the dependency on the stationary Ramsey property eliminated."

To me, granted I have only a vague idea of the meaning of the above, that's saying that "solving the economic calculation problem" (society having more than 1919 moving parts) is not just beyond physical limits of the amount of matter in the universe that could be used for computation. It's not just beyond the physical laws that we think we know, like a FTL spaceship would be. It's beyond the most fundamental math we have. To me, that's like a third order of infinite impossibility.

And as far as Harvard goes, how can the interaction between students and faculty have nothing to do with higher education? What else is higher education? In every school, people learn from each other, and they interact more than with people at other schools.

Rightly or not, Thiel is conflating communism and totalitarianism- China is indisputably a leader in using AI to perpetuate the latter.

I thought I was making it clear I don't care whether China is labeled communist or totalitarian or whatever, nor whether the author labels it so.

My point was that they are not using AI to do the sort of central planning that earlier communists failed at and that economists eventually decided was infeasible. And I don't think there's any prospect of that happening in the forseeable future either.

Maybe not so elegantly put, but there's no question that China has embraced AI as a tool for spying on its own people. For whatever reason, spying seems to be a consistent Orwellian feature of communism. It was a central feature of the Soviet Union and China just seems to be taking the franchise to new heights with its approach to AI.

I don't know what to say about the Harvard quote, but with the recent admissions scandal implicating that rich people are buying their way into premium universities and into higher SAT scores, there's some nugget of truth to criticizing the current situation.

I wonder if universities aren't suffering Goodheart's Law: "Once a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a useful measure." That is to say, once we measured that a university degree lead to higher incomes, better life outcomes, etc. and then we started pressuring everyone to get a four year degree...did it cease to be a good measure for quality employees, creative thinking, problem solving skills, etc?

I think there's something to that. When everyone is obsessed with getting the degree, and they're not worried about the practical application of their knowledge, they are doing the world a disservice. And we're all suffering for it, through higher debt and inflated expectations.

I'm not sure America is as different from China as you seem to imply here. You don't manage to incarcerate more individuals than "an authoritarian communist dictatorship" four times your size without massively scaling the state's ability to monitor citizens.

20% of the world's prisoners are in America. Is spying a consistent Orwellian feature of American capitalism?

Isn't this the guy who founded Palantir?

Quoting him and restating the point isn't an argument. AI fits very neatly into China's policy goals in a way that it doesn't for liberal politics.

We don't know how the improvements in AI are going to play out - it is very easy to see how it could turn out that these are the missing technologies to make a totalitarian state the most productive equilibrium, or communism, or anything else.

> And then, it is literally communist because China loves AI; it hates crypto. And so that, I think, tells you something.

China also loves cheap r/c cars, does that make them communist?

"Crypto"? The biggest Bitcoin miners are in China. That's because mining Bitcoin is "exporting", and a legit way to get yuan into dollars or euros. Buy mining hardware with yuan, mine, sell Bitcoin outside China. Not only is it legal, because it's exporting, it's encouraged and some breaks for creating an export business are available.

Exactly. Obvious factual errors on Thiel's part tells he's lost the plot

"Crypto" in context clearly means cryptography, not cryptocurrency.

Thanks, I was wondering if I should read it or not and this gives me some good tidbits to help decide.

It’s amazing how much the output of Serious People pontificating about AI is coming to resemble that of the AIs themselves.

Perhaps it will be revealed that he had an AI write this talk.

Other than old arguments about innovation deficiencies (wanting flying cars but getting 140 characters), there was little/nothing about "The End of the Computer Age."

The talk was more about scaling (Finance, Tech, Cargo, and People) with some insights regarding which the US has a chance to compete effectively against China (only Finance and Tech) and some (related?) advice to the left and the right in the US:

Left: Move beyond identity politics.

Right: Rethink the doctrine of American exceptionalism.

Thought provoking commentary, but mistitled as "The End of the Computer Age".

That introduction is a guillotinable offense.

And this time the Scarlet Pimpernel wouldn't lift a finger to save them.

It reads like a long rant on Reddit. I'm a lot less impressed with Thiel now.

His fascination with "scale" is interesting. Some of the problems we have today come from the conquest of scale. It used to be that big companies couldn't get out of their own way. This limited how big a company could get before smaller competitors were more efficient. With computers and networks, businesses can now be scaled to national, if not planetary, scale. And we get a very small, and shrinking, number of big players. One Google. One Amazon. One Facebook. One Alibaba. One Tencent. Three big US telcos. Three big US banks.

Scale in tech has been solved, because it's trivial to reproduce a software program. It's not like manufacturing. We've got a dozen or so large automobile manufacturers that are all thriving. There's five big tech companies: Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook. And three big telcos is an improvement over the early 20th century that Thiel is idealizing when AT&T was the only game in town. But Thiel himself is a supporter of monopolies and wrote a whole book on the virtues of them in "Zero To One".

One thing I feel as though we lack is more visionary entrepreneurs in some of these other fields (or if we don't, they're not very visible). In the early 20th century, you had breakthrough after breakthrough. You had Edison, Tesla, Einstein, Ford, Disney, Eastman (Kodak), Sarnoff (radio), Fisher (washing machine), the Wright Bros, and on and on...so many breakthrough entrepreneurs, scientists and technologists in such a small window of time.

If we tried to point to people alive today who have the same impact as the ones mentioned above, we'd probably name Musk. In the early 20th century, we had hundreds of Elon Musks.

I don't agree with your summary of the greats, you're lumping in scientists with entrepreneurs.

If you want revolutionary entrepreneurs in our era, this list is a fairly good summary: http://startupsusa.org/fortune500/ 2017 Fortune 500 "Companies Founded by Immigrants or the Children of Immigrants, by Company, Founder" . Jobs, Brin, Yang, Huang, Bezos and more

I think most industries have become continuously more specialized. We've likely had fantastic innovations year over year, but they are in parts of the greater product, and by someone who was hired to do exactly that so they were really just doing their job. That doesn't make for a very good story, so we don't hear about the many innovations that continue to improve all of our lives.

I am not 100% sure but I think this fits here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SDpZ7w9uNuc (Newsroom opening scene). I am not American but I believe this can apply so much in a lot of places.

I thought this was going to be about Stadia.

Centuries old subways? I'm typing this on a QWERTY keyboard layout. Innovate people!

Hold tight because soon there will be Brain Computer connections with enough bandwidth to allow us type, read, write at the same time.

Wait.. I thought I read a "how to recognize snake oil in AI/ML" posting just yesterday...

Wait - he helped elect a cryptofascist that plunders the public coffers for personal gain, and then he's got the chutzpah to complain about the state of public infrastructure?

At the Manhattan Institute? The place that loudly complains that tax payer financed efforts are really just exploitation?

> ...tax payer financed efforts are really just exploitation

Right, and the super rich cannot wait to relieve us tax payers from our plight and pay all those bills for us. Otherwise, what would be the point in never paying any taxes?

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