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Kasparov and Thiel: Our dangerous illusion of tech progress (ft.com)
40 points by salar on Nov 8, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 45 comments


Not working for me :/

damn, you beat me to it.

I think this article must come from a point of incredible ignorance about most of what science has been up to. Across the board there have been incredible advances in chemistry, physics, quantum physics (which allows us our tiny powerful processors in things like cellphones and laptops and tablets), commercial aerospace, normal aerospace (jet-set lifestyle was a term for rich in the 60s because you could afford to fly, now EVERYONE flies, we just haven't increased the speed for a bunch of well laid out elsewhere reasons[1]). Also, we're on the verge of self driving cars. Further it misunderstands progress in general. It seems to think progress in all fields must be linear so big advancements in new fields of days of yore should still be advancing at such rates today ignoring rapidly growing complexity as the field matures. Computers, the newest field, has advanced the most recently because it is still relatively new.

This kind of thinking is just wrong and somewhat old fashioned. Just because we didn't get the future that star trek and pulp 60's sci-fi promised us doesn't mean we collectively screwed up somehow. The refrain "where's my flying car" or "where's my jetpack" is just misguided. We are living in the future, just not one predicted. Transportation speeds stopped increasing rapidly and went from exponential back to linear to nearly stalled, but as mentioned they scaled from a few rich to all. And there are good reasons for this, not cowardice etc. Meanwhile unexpectedly computation and communication technology exploded. I can video chat with everyone I know anywhere in the world for effectively free. I carry around a better than star trek communicator.

This is old man thinking, stuck in one view of how the world was going to be and ignoring how the world is. It's ignorant and offensive and misguided. There is very little merit in this and it's ironic he's accusing the candidates of ignoring reality.

Further reference:




I think this 'critique' is actually not well stated. confusing for example innovation (0,1) with scaled deployment (1 to N). Also, self driving cars are not impressive: go to LA. LA has been a disaster since the 1930s. Part of the problem is that what has been done to LA cannot ever be reversed, from the perspective of environmental damage, sociology, or sheer economics. The world has made choices with a certain element of path-dependency: yesterdays technology holding back future progress. Its not about the Jestson's per-se; its about being stuck with boat-anchor technology from the point of the development of actual human interaction. Do you really want to be stuck in a self-driving car in the 405 at rush hour? Or would you rather be walking to work, or taking a skateboard across a perfectly smooth elevated sidewalk on a clear night in Santa Monica (made up example, but feasible and likely more pleasant). Making faster, more powerful cars and bigger freeways did not eliminate traffic. Just the opposite. Self driving cars will have to overcome the social problem, but for this you likely need actual or orthogonal innovation. Not just more of the same, easier, less work, etc.

Ok but that's not really what he's talking about.

I totally agree that being able to have everyone walk to work may be a better goal than self driving cars and sadly because of past choices our best option is probably demolishing cities (not terribly feasible). However the status quo doesn't have to be maintained, rezoning and incremental new development can fix much of this (look outside American city development) but now we are also dangerously off topic.

Thiel says "the world has willingly retreated from a culture of risk and exploration towards one of safety and regulation. We have discarded a century of can-do ambition built on rapid advances in technology and replaced it with a cautiousness far too satisfied with incremental improvements."

This is his standard libertarian line. More risk, less big government and safety nets. Putting a gun to more peoples heads (metaphorically) will somehow instantly make the world better, create more innovation, and etc etc etc. (There's actually some pretty good data backed evidence instead of gut feeling backed evidence that good social safety nets promote a healthier society that’s more innovative that came up in coursera's Michigan University Model Thinking class [https://www.coursera.org/course/modelthinking])

And he also buys into that false thinking of "yesterday was better" when he talks about "However, we bounded forward in the 1950s and 1960s thanks to a generation of scientists who did not just believe in a better future but invented it" and "The genuine progress in IT from the 1970s up to the 2000s masked the relative stagnation of energy, transportation, space, materials, agriculture and medicine."

I don't buy this narrative at all for the reasons stated above. As I pointed out above, I don't buy his perceived stagnation and lack of innovation and I strongly don't buy into his current fears and solutions. Also, this is pretty much general libertarian/Peter Theil philosophy very loosely redressed to try and seem new and relevant in light of the recent election, but it's the same old view.

In that light, some people agree with it, and some don't but there's nothing new here in this article either.

It's indeed an ideological reply, because for someone with a libertarian approach (like - me), the slowdown seems to match quite well the rise of the welfare state.

"the world has willingly retreated from a culture of risk and exploration towards one of safety and regulation" - that says it all.

The competing ideology (let's say "progressive") cares about stuff like equality (ex: affirmative action) or safety (look at what you did as a kid, and what is allowed today) while most libertarians and conservative care about efficiency and freedom.

Some equality and safety might be a god thing - but I worry much more about efficiency and freedom - a part of which is scientific progress.

There's some basic differences here and there, but that is IMHO the core difference.

Part of me wants to debate this, point our correlation does not equal causation and ask for better evidence. (yeah, I know, cheap attempt at last word)

But ultimately we probably won't be persuading each other and at this point the debate is useless. I've pointed out my problems with the article, and together we've at least distilled the problem people like we will have with the article (well stated by guylhem). I don't think much more progress can be made :)

My critical reasoning and logic prof from Uni always said that logic is a fine thing for enhancing discourse but if you start with different world views, different axioms, no amount of logic can bridge that, it's just a tool for fixing smaller disputes.

Thank's at least for more concisely summing up :)

Thanks for your understanding.

I don't want to push any ideology or debate on this - I just see a weird trend that other people seems to notice too, and I'd like to understand what is happening, regardless of whose ideology is used to explain that.

Welfare may discourage ambition among the low- and middle-classes, but I don't believe it affects scientists or inventors.

No one is debating the choice between living off welfare or solving the world's problem, and thinking "if welfare was just a bit cushier I could stop inventing".

Let's talk about scientists and inventors - especially the world changing ones that are so rare.

What if it had some effect? I mean, something small - but non zero?

What if it did reduce their drive just enough that it made their rarity almost identical to an absence?

Answer- we don't know. So far, the welfare state seems to have increased scientific output, but maybe there's a limit and too much welfare will damage it.

(Think about Einstein on welfare with enough money not to care- would he have spent time as a patent office clerk? How important was this stint in becoming himself? What effect does it has on others?)

We just don't know - maybe because the welfare state is too recent. With 50 more years, maybe we will notice differences?

I'm only speculating - I'm not sure there is any answer. It's just something that bothering me a lot.

This is his standard libertarian line.

I don't think you are fairly representing Thiel. I don't think he is making libertarian points at all, since he seems to advocate in favor of big government projects (at least in principle). Indeed, it's tough to argue this is a libertarian point, since he criticizes the private sector for the exact same thing.

I think his view is that this is just a cultural shift.


There used to be all sorts of circulating ideas about large projects ...A 20th century example is Robert Moses, who in the 1920s simultaneously held twelve fairy high-level government posts...bulldoze neighborhoods, build roads and highways, and do a lot of planning and construction...From today’s perspective, this is crazy.

>The refrain "where's my flying car" or "where's my jetpack" is just misguided.

I'll take autonomous private jets, drriverless cars, high-speed trains, and electrics scooters over these archaic ideas any day of the week!

First of all, all respect to Peter Thiel. Everyone I know who has worked with him has had nothing but good things to say about him.

Having said that, it is worth noting that for all his dedication to the idea of inventing disruptive technologies that has not been his own path to success. Paypal is a pretty boring financial transaction processor, he ran a hedge fund for a while (yawn!), his investment in Facebook paid off big. Where is the disruption there? Facebook is great, but it wasn't even the first social network. A quick glance at the companies in which he personally has invested reveals lots of good investments - in fairly typical incrementalist companies!

I know FF has invested in SpaceX which has a legitimate claim to being the kind of company he wants to see more of, but that isn't how he made his money in the first place.

My problem with the substance of the article is that it takes for granted that we can always invent wholly new things in every possible category or industry. Let's take transport as an example. Did people stop innovating in transportation because it wasn't profitable, because they were afraid? Nonsense.

First of all, they didn't stop innovating. There weren't 350 kph trains in 1940 and any car made more than 30 years ago is a comically underpowered death-trap compared to an entry level car today.

Second, there are physical laws that simply constrain the phase space of possible solutions. Every new discovery can change those boundaries somewhat and every now and then someone will bring new ideas together to simply invent a brand new transport modality. However, fundamentally the densities and coefficients of friction of solid surfaces, air, and water drive the kinds of transport we can can come up with.

At the time they started PayPal it was anything but a boring financial transaction processor. It pretty much changed the face of online payments.

Not to mention that Paypal was started with the intent of being a revolutionary currency... one that wasn't bounded by any government. It failed at its revolution but made a lot of money instead.

I don't think he is arguing that the existing pace of scientific advancements are too slow. Rather the adoption of of these advancements need to be accelerated. The article is suggesting that the current investment strategy over-allocate resources to existing technologies, instead of developing new ones that better leverage the advancements in science.

Using the railroad system as an example, yes we have the technology to build trains that can travel 350kph, but how much of our resources are still being allocated to trains that only go up to 60kph compare to the more efficient alternatives

This is unfortunately very true.

We don't have a stagnation of tech progress, we keep going forward- but the grow rate seems to be decreasing.

Some people apparently think existing innovation (ex: mindstab comment) suffice to disprove this.

It's not.

Just look at the 40 or 60 to see some real innovation - like antibiotics, nuclear bombs- i.e. paradigm changing innovation in various domains.

What did we got lately? Computers, internet, cellphone, social networking - ok, but it's a bit short, and it's mostly in one domain only.

IMHO, for any self consistent conservative, it's far more worrisome than theoretical weather change, especially because we got used to this fast pace of innovation and growth, and there have built the core of our societies on such assumptions (interest rate for money, population grow for social security, etc) - like, we are expecting technology will improve so that we get new ways problematic (orbital mirrors, tweaking the albedo, ...) to fight climate change if it is indeed man made and

The idea of a deceleration of progress has some merit - to me it's like multiple warnings indicators lighting up, even if I don't know any theory to explain it, except a reduction of the "will to live" in western societies (Nietzsche style)

Get outside of your niche and look around. Progress is being made in lots of fields. And the rate is not slowing.

For instance 20 years ago mapping a human genome was on the "some day" list and sequencing a single gene was a reasonable PhD thesis. 10 years ago we finished mapping a human genome. Now individuals can get their genome mapped and the price of that is dropping rapidly.

10 years ago, space travel had been stagnant for decades. Now we have SpaceX.

30 years ago scientists rejected the concept of monster waves out of hand, and ships that got destroyed by them were comedy material. (OK, so http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcU4t6zRAKg really is hilarious.) Today we know that we need to build ships to be 5x as strong.

When I was a kid, superconductivity was an interesting phenomena that needed liquid helium to demonstrate. Today advanced countries (ie not the USA) have floating trains going at hundreds of miles an hour on superconductors. Recently we discovered preliminary evidence of superconductivity at room temperature. If that pans out, how much more will change?

Carbon nanotubes are coming in a big way. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potential_applications_of_carbo... for some of what they will change.

3-d printers are real today, and the technology is improving rapidly.

I could go on, but I think that my point is made. We are making progress at a lot of things that you're not aware of because you're only paying attention to one area of tech. When people look back in 50 years, this will NOT be seen as a period where technology stood still.

I never said we are not progressing anymore - just not as fast as before, and we were quite fast (log scale!).

The fact that authors did believe we would have colonies on the Moon or Mars, or flying cars etc should tell you something too - we are not dreaming big anymore, even worse : we discard past dreams.

Look at a GDP per capita curve and see the deep cut. Nothing that big ever before - expect the great depression, where no billion dollar stimulus was applied. Many other factors play of course, but a generally accepted key element for long term grow per capita is technological progress.

Maybe I'm stuck in my niche but I seem to notice something - and share the opinion of other people who seems to spot something too.

Yes, the financial crisis was real. It had a huge impact. Put that many people out of work, and GDP/capita drops.

Doesn't change the fact that there is continuing to be a huge amount of technological progress in a lot of different fields. Not just, as you seem to believe, one narrow area of technology.

I think the biggest improvements to our quality of life will come from 1) energy advancements, 2) transportation (high-speed rail, self-driving cars, electric bikes/skateboards), 3) home advancements (automation, health, adaptive lighting)

Just look at the 40 or 60 to see some real innovation - like antibiotics, nuclear bombs- i.e. paradigm changing innovation in various domains.

Thorium reactors have the potential to be paradigm changing.

Not really. It would just be an incremental improvement in nuclear fission. A traveling wave reactor would probably be better as it would use existing depleted uranium as fuel, and would produce abundant energy while making uranium stockpiles less of a problem.

Not even fusion would be paradigm changing, unless its cold fusion

By that logic, nuclear energy was not paradigm changing. Essentially we're still just heating water and using it to move a generator - just like coal or oil power.

> Not really. It would just be an incremental improvement in nuclear fission.

Typical techy shortsightedness. I'm not talking reactor geekery. It would be paradigm changing for society. There's a lot of Thorium out there in the world, and nuclear power would be disconnected from proliferation risk.

> Not even fusion would be paradigm changing, unless its cold fusion

Again, typical techy shortsightedness.

On the campuses of Google and Apple, high-design bathrooms or espresso bars might look very different from the average non-tech company but their balance sheets show the same vast piles of idle cash you’ll find at Pfizer or Chevron. If we were living in an era of accelerating technological progress, Apple could reinvest its returns in new projects instead of fighting patent battles over old ones while moonlighting as the world’s biggest hedge fund.

-- Insiders with idle cash: The sound of silence speaking a thousand words.

"FT.com articles are only available to registered users and subscribers"

....Thankyou to the google cache for providing the article.


Everyone tends to respect Kasparov because of his amazing chess prowess. He is also a very active and involved person in the world - just look at his activities in Russian politics.

Unfortunately when you get outside his area of expertise, he often combines confidence and ignorance. The best example is http://www.revisedhistory.org/view-garry-kasparov.php where he tries to argue that about a thousand years of history did not happen.

His arguments are, of course, all bunk. As will be obvious to anyone who has passing familiarity with the serious famines due to climate change in the 1300s, the impact of the British agricultural revolution on food production in the 1700s, and the widespread use of abacuses for calculation until the introduction of Arabic notation.

This article is superficially reasonable, but similarly bad. Major tech advances in the recent past - many of which we'll see changing our future - include gigantic magnetoresistance, practical genome mapping, memresisters, continued improvements in battery technology and practical analysis of large data sets. (Enabling technologies like facial recognition, automated translation, and the like.)

The more you look, the more there is to be amazed at. Did you know that there is a serious effort to create a handheld device that can take a small tissue sample and identify any species on Earth? We've done DNA analysis on a t-rex, and there are people trying to get funding to bring mammoths back to life.

Experiencing it day by day we take it for granted. But looking back from the perspective of 50 years from now, the list of changes will be major.

It's weird for a libertarian to be praising the progress made in the 50s and 60s, a lot of which was the result of huge defense-related government investments.

His economic history doesn't make sense either, implying that there were no bubbles and busts before 1970.

And, as others have said, he is minimizing huge gains in a bunch of other fields.

Weird article.

It not weird - I'm a libertarian too and I'm worried about the situation in the west.

It's bad when you notice that even with big government contracts the growth was much better.

Something is happening - we just don't know what.

We each have your pet ideas, based on our ideologies; IMHO the welfare state demotivation is suspect #1, but I'm ready to consider other hypothesis - even those that include government spending.

Was the united states really spending more on defense during the 50's and 60's than it is now?

I think we spent over a trillion dollars this year.

As a fraction of GDP, yes.

This echoes TGS and such. OK. You've convinced me. But the article concludes without giving any constructive suggestion, other than some vague notion that youngsters today should really innovate.

Give me some more concrete advice. What do?

What to do?

IMHO you have to kill all the regulation and the government mafia (yeah, that's what it is) preventing new businesses.

I know of many people that have not started companies in the US because of the limitations for immigration (these people were computer scientists, mathematicians, physicists, some undergrad, some with PhDs).

Examples abound. Beer is one that I like since I tried to start a brewery with a few chemical engineering friends a while back in Georgia. There is a regulation that breweries can only sell to distributors, and distributors can only sell to retail stores, and retail stores, pubs, and restaurants are the only entities allowed to sell alcohol. Heck, if you brew your own beer and it's more than 50 gallons a year (that's 9 batches) you can go to jail for up to 20 years. We stopped our project because of the ridiculous regulations. We had an idea of how bad it was going in, but it was beyond our expectations. I met more than 200 people that brewed on a consistent basis much superior beers than 90% of what you can get in the market (the 10% were imports), who would love to start a brewery but couldn't. They worked in the different layers of the distributors and restaurants, with their ideas crushed.

This was just an example, in nearly every industry, including agriculture and manufacturing, this is the case.

You want innovation, you have to fight against the ever growing crony government you have that plays special favors to each industry in countless ways to go towards a free market and allow competition. There are no incentives to innovate. You may say my beer example is outdated, well look at Dodd Frank with the banking industry, look at the federal reserve system which is destroying the money markets and causing the financial bubbles. Peter Thiel mentions that technological innovation is a way to leave recessions faster. He knows how to avoid them altogether, but suggesting ending the federal reserve is so politically incorrect (ever heard a democrat or republican even talk about this who is not alienated by his own party) that it has become a waste of time.

The free market is the answer. There is more regulation in the US than in Sweden by the way, which is usually quoted as a Socialist state. The US is far more regulated than Sweden, even in healthcare and education!

I think that's the point. Invention and technological innovation doesn't come with concrete advice. It requires risk and individuals pushing their visions forward along their own path.

Which is why it took a government regulated monopoly to come up with Unix and the transistor...

I think that they're making a very valid point. While there is a lot of innovation and really interesting research taking place in labs, I don't know how much of it is being translated into the marketplace. Most of the investments being made in tech these days seem to be in web 2.0 companies claiming to be 'Uber for ballroom dancers' or 'Instagram for nurses' or something of the sort. Not that such investments are a bad thing, they produce a lot of cool products.

But barring a few companies like General Fusion and SpaceX, I haven't heard much about startups trying to tackle truly crazy and massive problems - most companies you read about in the tech press tend to be much more 'cool idea' than 'grand idea'. If anybody has more examples of startups trying to tackle paradigm-changing problems, can you share them here?

The fundamental point around "incrementalism" makes a lot of sense.

Even government is largely incremental these days... the margin of winning the presidency seemed so small that it probably boiled downed to a series of micro-optimizations. If you buy that... why would a great micro-optimizer run the country any differently?

And even with technological progress poster-child Apple... the big outstanding question is whether Tim Cook will end up turning the company in to a micro-optimization that converges toward it's current local maxima?

But maybe it's all just cyclical... once all the low hanging fruit is picked over 1000 of times, the world at large will naturally be forced to be less incremental.

So, does that mean singularity won't happen anytime soon ? :-(


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It's laughable anyone would consider an organisation willing to produce this abomination of a website an authority on technical progress.

I'm tremendously disappointed this had made the front page.

I can't even see how you're supposed to get to the article after closing one of their popups. It just goes to their front page.

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