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Coordinating to save the world

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So this profile on startup incubator YCombinator’s head, Sam Altman, is interesting:

Like everyone in Silicon Valley, Altman professes to want to save the world; unlike almost everyone there, he has a plan to do it. “YC somewhat gets to direct the course of technology,” he said. “Consumers decide, ultimately, but enough people view YC as important that if we say, ‘We’re super excited about virtual reality,’ college students will start studying it.” Soon after taking over, he wrote a blog post declaring that “science seems broken” and calling for applications from companies in energy, biotech, artificial intelligence, robotics, and eight other fields. As a result, the once nerdy Y Combinator is now aggressively geeky. Across the table from Altman at dinner, the C.E.O. of a nuclear-fission startup was urging the founder of a quantum-computing startup to get his artificial-atom-based machine to market: “These computers would shorten our product-development cycle 10 to 20x!”

It sounds like Altman may be an ends-backwards thinker:

  • Imagine wildly ambitious, crazy goal (“Save the world”)
  • Work backwards to what you’d need to do to pull it off (“Build a network of smart, talented entrepreneurs tackling hard science questions”)
  • Execute, repeat

This thinking pattern is the secret sauce to auteur-style world-changing entrepreneurship. For instance, see WaitButWhy’s profile on Elon Musk. Or this Steve Jobs anecdote. Rather than starting with what’s in front of them, this style of visionary starts with where they want to go, and then figures out what path to take. (Or maybe all visionaries do this… maybe that’s what the word “visionary” means).

Given how simple it is to describe on paper, and how celebrated its outcomes are, it is a much rarer thinking pattern than one might expect. Most people reflexively suppress forming giant ambitions. Or if they do form them, they don’t follow the ambition to its logical conclusion, to a “okay, do this now” imperative. If I had to guess, it’s not that people aren’t capable of thinking like that. It’s more that committing to a goal in that way is terrifying. If you are means-forward, you’re starting from what you already have and know. You’re in your comfort zone. If you’re ends-backwards, though, what you might realize is that you have to become a different person in order to achieve the goal. It’s a threat to your very sense of identity — and most people will go to inordinate lengths to defend their identities. So, when I hear about someone like Altman, who seems to be actually making forward progress, with the full resources of Silicon Valley’s elite behind him, it’s worth taking note.

The other interesting thing about this is the shift in YCombinator’s focus towards science. A standard critique of Silicon Valley is that it makes toys for the urban privileged instead of tackling hard, meaningful problems. A reversal of that trend might lead to exciting things.

Nevertheless, the profile leaves a weird taste in my mouth. There’s a kind of crazed neuroticism to the goal of “let’s save the world”, an ambition that I feel needs to be filtered through some kind of artistic sensibility to make into something wholesome rather than toxic. Some quotes from the article that left me with this taste:

“My problem is that when my friends get drunk they talk about the ways the world will end. After a Dutch lab modified the H5N1 bird-flu virus, five years ago, making it super contagious, the chance of a lethal synthetic virus being released in the next twenty years became, well, nonzero. The other most popular scenarios would be A.I. that attacks us and nations fighting with nukes over scarce resources.” The Shypmates looked grave. “I try not to think about it too much,” Altman said. “But I have guns, gold, potassium iodide, antibiotics, batteries, water, gas masks from the Israeli Defense Force, and a big patch of land in Big Sur I can fly to.”

Loopt got into Y Combinator’s first batch because Altman in particular passed what would become known at YC as the young founders’ test: Can this stripling manage adults? He was a formidable operator: quick to smile, but also quick to anger. If you cross him, he’ll joke about slipping ice-nine into your food. (Ice-nine, in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle,” annihilates everything it touches that contains water.) Paul Graham, noting Altman’s early aura of consequence, told me, “Sam is extremely good at becoming powerful.”

Altman worked so incessantly that summer that he got scurvy.

I don’t mean this as a critique of Sam Altman’s personality. The article definitely gives the impression that he has a conscience, and I see those strains of neuroticism in my own mind whenever I think ends-backwards. It’s an inherent characteristic of the mindset. I think the word I’m looking for is “totalizing”: encompassing all of reality in a single intellectual system. That clarity of focus and vision is very powerful, but it also does violence to everything that doesn’t fit neatly into frame.

“Save the world” is an interesting phrase. It implies that the world as-is is not okay, and that some benevolent third party is intervening to correct it. I suppose that the phrase compares favorably to “change the world”, which has the same egocentric “me-changer, you-changee” positioning, but doesn’t even question whether the change is for the better.

On the other hand, a lot of things in the world are broken. A lot of people are suffering today, and if things go poorly for human civilization, a lot more people could suffer in the future. There’s something admirable in taking responsibility for the welfare of humankind, even if it’s simultaneously toxic.

The thought that led me to start writing this was, if you’re humble, and don’t have a master plan for world [domination | salvation | optimization], but you do want to do good in the world, maybe what you do is you try to improve people’s ability to solve coordination problems. Coordination problems are things like global warming, where the issue isn’t knowing what to do (emit less carbon), but getting everyone to do it. Coordination — the difficulty of — is the reason the news is depressing. It’s the heart of the really intractable problems. “If everyone just gave X dollars, no one would go hungry…”

Interestingly, solving coordination problems is one of the few areas that pure software is really good at. We’ve already seen a bunch of novel forms of coordination enabled by internet startups. We have Kickstarted art projects, Facebook revolutions, Twitter mobs, a global marketplace for renting your spare bedroom, and civilized markets for illegal drugs. All of those behaviors were impossible (for better or worse as the case may be) before the software industry.

That said, there are still plenty of places where people would like to coordinate, but can’t. Each one of those places is a potential new startup (and what the heck, I’ll shamelessly self-promote: you can build them using my startup Bubble even if you don’t know how to code). So maybe the conventional wisdom of “startups should tackle real problems, and real problems involve physical real-world things” is backwards. Maybe the best thing the software industry can do for the world right now is make better tools to help people coordinate. Or maybe that’s just another totalizing grand vision, and really what’s called for is sitting around and looking at pretty rocks. Who knows!

Written by jphaas

October 4th, 2016 at 2:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized