This week on the podcast, we talk to Anton Troynikov about The Academy, Technology, and Building the Future. Anton blogs at https://troynikov.io/
Don Braben’s Scientific Freedom
Link to the show’s Video here:
Will Jarvis 0:04
Hey folks, I’m William Jarvis, along with my dad, Dr. David Jarvis. I host the podcast narratives. narratives is a project exploring the ways in which the world is better than it has been the ways it is worse in the past or making a better, more definite future. I hope you enjoy it.
Well, hey, Tom, how are you doing today? I’m doing pretty good. Well, how about you? Doing good? Doing good. So Anton, can you go ahead and give us a short bio, just tell us, you know, some things you’re interested in?
anton troynikov 0:43
Yeah, I mean, I right now, I work mainly in 3d computer vision, state estimation, things like that for robotics. But those are my professional and scientific interests. Beyond that, of course, history of science, culture, around technology. All of these things that I think are sort of interesting and important to think about, are things that I tend to spend a lot of time on.
Will Jarvis 1:03
I love that. So Anton, I first find your work, I found this essay called the stakes.And I really feel that sometimes we put too much emphasis on like, think about AI risk, and not about the risk of AI not happening. So none of the focus on like, on on, on the tech stagnation problem. And it seems like the alternative of for a world with the growth like good growth is just mouthless. Right? And it’s we’re all fighting over something you’ve got to use, you know, you got to go out and you got to capture someone else’s stuff, instead of just being able to create it yourself. Can you talk about that a little bit? I think it’s a really important concept that is really not discussed enough. Yeah.
anton troynikov 1:43
So with that, so I wanted to point out that, you know, there’s, there’s this mental Malthusian concept of a world that’s too crowded, and nobody really has enough because any sort of economic surplus quickly gets competed away. And everybody, you know, ends up just living this miserable hotbox for the rest of, essentially for the rest of civilization. That’s kind of a short and not entirely accurate version of mouth, his thesis. And if Tyler Cowen hears this, he’s going to yell at me, but we’ll get to that. But what I wanted to talk about is actually the downstream consequences of having the belief that you have this finite world, which needs to be divided up. And we have historical examples of those sorts of beliefs and ideologies, where the question is, who gets what, who should rule or end up being the most important ones. And so it’s kind of it’s important, not just from the material consequences, but from the ideologies and beliefs that spring out of a system like that a closed world?
And yeah, that’s that’s kind of what I wanted to examine. It’s, it’s in that essay, but also, I think, to your point about, you know, worrying about the consequences of AI or, you know, other kinds of disasters. I think, honestly, a lot of them, you know, and I think I wrote that essay that a lot of them are relatively far fetched. There are like, there are other problems that we don’t really have a great way of facing right now. I mean, the pandemic is a great example, if that were Institute, we were institutionally incapable, especially throughout the West. Now dealing with this, and this, this was a relatively mild form. And hopefully, we learned something from this, if it had been more deadly, we’d be in very, very serious trouble and not that we’re not now.
So there, there are kind of these benign things. And the point that I wanted to make in that essay is we’re at a point in history that’s unprecedented in the sense that we have this enormous economic surplus, which we’re, if we’re smart, we can deploy, to prevent us getting back into this airtight box. Again, if we deploy it, right, and if we actually think about this, and actually consider our unique place in history, no, no, no other human civilization, not even like the heights of ancient Rome, which which relied primarily on on a slave and sort of kleptocracy SF economy from other from other people, other places, ever created the sort of economic surplus that we have. And that’s like, those three points are kind of the things I wanted to raise in that in that essay.
Will Jarvis 4:21
I really liked that. And it feels like, as the political battles become, they feel more what’s the word? Like I was talking to my grandmother, you know, she’s much older. And she’s like, yeah, you know, it’s never felt this vivid before. And like, it feels almost more.
What’s the word? desperate, I guess? And I wonder if it’s more like we’re focusing more on dividing up what we have and less of like, how do we create new stuff? And that seems like a real problem. Like, like you said, we’ve created the surplus and this is like, the industrial revolution is this tiny blip on like economic growth over human history, and we want that to continue because you know, all these great things can happen and we
We pull people out of poverty. But it seems like we’re at kind of this juncture this kind of in creating this big morass where we need to get out of it.
anton troynikov 5:08
Yeah, I think, I think a big part of what’s causing that and why. I mean, honestly, a big part of it is people are bored and alienated. And jumping into the, and jumping into this theater of politics, and being very performative about what you really believe,
is a part of that people, you know, people seek meaning. And, you know, wanting to be on this big political stage is a way to fulfill that fulfill that need. And I think a lot of it is coming from there. And the reason I say that, and the reason that I call it performative is because sometimes you hear about these people who,
you know, describe their beliefs in very hyperbolic ways.
in all corners, or politics, frankly, but then you ask yourself, Well, if you really did believe that, how would you be acting? Right? So if if, if you, you know, if you truly believe, for example, that the government that you live under was an occupying force, for example, how would How would you act, we can look into history, how people have acted in those situations, right. And so we can, you know, you can sort of test people’s beliefs in that. I think there’s a subtler point here, though, which is, people have lost confidence in our ability to really improve things. I think that at best people believe that improvement will come from organizing things differently, as opposed to actual material progress. And what I mean by that is, what I mean by material progress is, you know, things like things like a nuclear reactor, which is a fundamentally new invention has, in principle, enormous impact on society.
And the internal combustion engine, you know, lead acid batteries, all these things, right there, that’s a that’s a material.
That’s a piece of material progress that has enormous social impact. But I think I think people know, or more of the opinion that in order for things to improve, or at least change, that has to be done at some sort of social organizational level, rather than at this material, which I think is where a lot of that might be coming from. Do you think people, they just conceptualize it as being too hard to make, like, hard technical progress? Or, you know, why is it that focus on organization and get or is it just we’ve gotten really bad at the organization side, look at the pandemic, you know, just like inability to organize anything. So that kind of, you know, it comes to the front of mine. But, you know, you sort of have to ask yourself, why.
And the reason that, for example, politics is the way that it is. And we always seem to be in constant gridlock, and never seem to be able to get anything actually done. Whether it’s improvement or disastrous is because this, this is an intentional thing, where many more people have a say, in how things are done, than they did before. And the more people who have a say, the more interests are represented. And the way in which those interests are represented can of course conflict with the way other people’s interests are represented. And so we end up not being like we, it’s both a good and a bad thing, because it means you can’t like bulldoze and evict entire city blocks of people to build your highway anymore. That’s probably a good thing. But the consequence of that the flip side is, we’ve created this new problem where coordination issues become harder. And we don’t yet know how to solve those. And I think like, like, primarily, I think that’s honestly a primary cause. And then, as people see that we can’t solve the sort of material things that require the solution to those coordination problems, they give up on the idea of ever solving the problems at all, or they fail to see that it’s possible to do so.
Unknown Speaker 8:52
Will Jarvis 8:53
You know, in in 35 episodes or so, we’ve had a lot of people that come on and, and we talked about this problem, why are we so much worse at coordination and collective action problems, and a lot of people have have said, it’s something like, we used to have these existential threats we were thinking about that would force people to like, you know, maybe overcome this, like selfish desire. So maybe it’s, you know, the Nazis or the Soviet Union, or there’s some big thing like this top of mind, you know, people are gonna work 80 hours a week, so their kids don’t get blown up in this, you know, nuclear catastrophe. Do you think do you buy that at all? I mean, this is a very common thing. We’ve probably heard this from probably eight people.
anton troynikov 9:31
I think some, I think, for some sector of society, it’s probably very true. That it’s definitely easier to coordinate a lot of things against a very specific identifiable threat. Gotcha. And then you, you know, and for some sector of society, that really helps and you can have all kinds of progress and work and frame it in terms of being Oh, we’re up against this threat and you’re doing this work will help us in that direction. And certainly that influences a great deal of people but It’s not it’s, you know, if we’re looking at the Cold War as the most recent one, it’s not like society was in the West was totally mobilized against against this threat. And this comes back again to what I was saying, if you really believed that this was the existential threat, how would you organize your society? So it works. It works for some sector, but I don’t believe that that’s true. In general, I think that there are many, many other motivations that allow like the create amazing, like drive people to do amazing things. And we’ve preserved those motivations in many parts of society. That’s, that’s a very interesting, that’s another interesting fact here. I mean, if you consider athletics, if you consider the arts, you know, music, whatever. Those are often driven by, by cultural things that we’ve managed to preserve, for whatever reason, which require less institutional coordination for people to be successful, right? Like if you’re, if you’re going to be an NFL running back, there’s a there’s a clear path to that with, you know, very few people need to there’s very few stakeholders on if you become an NFL running back, for example. Right. So I think I think it’s true to some extent, which I know sounds like equivocation on my part, but having read of, you know, having sort of quite deeply gone into both sides of the Cold War, and how those two places forgotten each other. I don’t think I don’t think that that’s a total explanation. I don’t even think it’s probably the majority of explanation. I think that it’s, it’s honestly, a large part of it is probably explicable by the decay of our ability to solve coordination problems, because the end, which we also did intentionally, because the way we would tip the balance is to give many more people equity, and
Will Jarvis 11:41
gotcha. So it’s like on a slide like oligarchy or something like that, where you’ve got more parties, you’ve got to, you know, keep happy at the same time, instead of just like, Yeah, this one person coordinating like, General gross Manhattan Project, all the scientists, you could never get the scientists to go to East Tennessee anymore, like this is not going to happen. Right. Like,
anton troynikov 11:59
you know, I think I think scientists are an interesting example. We’ll probably get to that later in the in the short, but it’s certainly it’s certainly at almost all levels become more difficult, because we’ve transitioned into this more equitable regime. And it gotcha. I don’t, you know, one thing that I don’t like when people seek to explain why we can’t seem to get things done as they never like they, they give these exogenous factors as if our inability or institutional decay is something resembling an oil shock, where there’s been some natural disaster and, and all of a sudden, the oil supply is cut off. And it’s like, No, we chose this there’s reasons, good reasons that people decided we ought to do things this way. And we need to look at those reasons to No, it’s not. Yeah, anyway, I. So I do a lot of Applied Mathematics, it’s it’s a large, it’s a large part of my job. And the thing about mathematics is, if you if you are true, easily adopting certain assumptions that seem obviously or trivially true, you will get punched in the face, you will run yourself into a corner of your problem space, where it’s like, the entire problem was you were running with this assumption that you thought was true. And it just turns out that for this case, that’s actually very important. It’s absolutely not. And so I think of that as sort of like an epistemic paranoia. And I tend to apply it in, especially in matters of sort of history and things like this in a similar way.
Unknown Speaker 13:35
Interesting. And Todd, that’s a really elegant, and to me original idea about why we might have political paralysis, because there’s so many perspectives being voiced at the same time. But do you see some kind of possible resolution for this logjam that we’ve reached?
anton troynikov 13:55
Um, I have I have some ideas regarding especially the areas that interests me and a few of my friends have also been thinking about this problem. And people much more deeply involved in these problems have been thinking about them for for quite a while, I think the first step is to recognize that we have this problem, and that we have this problem because there’s a trade off that we made, and it was a trade off that at the time, we made for good reasons. Right. But after that, I think, you know, we have a few possible approaches, we have something like an increased basically giving giving an increased amount of power to more local entities rather than having to decide everything for everyone at the top, we create better frameworks for smaller groups of people to being able to make decisions locally. And in the past, people have talked about well, there’s a natural limit on how groups can make decisions is governed by Dunbar’s number kind of excludes the fact that we’ve made very large decisions for many more people than Dunbar’s number in the past but, but us kind of you might be able to solve some of these coordination problems by default. More decision making capability real material decision making capability, not not your bike shed stuff, but like how do we want to run our community? How do we want to run our society more locally, that does that does their present. Now a different trade off, which is if you devolve decision making more locally, you only each locality only has the resources to do certain types of things like you can’t build a Manhattan Project out of municipalities in the United States deciding that they want the atomic bomb,
Will Jarvis 15:30
right, you can’t
anton troynikov 15:32
do that. So that’s, that’s kind of the trade off in developing things locally. Another way to do it is to, and honestly, so I wasn’t born in the United States, but I admired the American people. And one of the things that I admire the most about the American people is, especially historically is the willingness as a country and as a culture, to just blindly run enormous experiments and be okay and prepared with the idea that you might fail. And this is, this is this is a, it’s a strength and a weakness in the culture, but it’s mostly a strength. And I think bringing back the idea of experimentation at different institutional levels and saying, okay, you know, we differ on these policies. But what we’re going to do is, we’re going to figure out a version of this where we can run the experiment, where it’s sort of sufficiently firewalled, like, you know, for example, right, let’s, let’s say, for whatever reason, you want to remove fluoride from the drinking supply, right, this this, this might, you know, you probably couldn’t do it nationally, right away, if you want it to, I don’t know why you would, but if you wanted to, but some locality might decide, yeah, you know, we as a locality are okay with removing fluoride from our water supply and seeing what happens, we’re, you know, we’re signed up for the adventure. And then we can, you know, watch it observe and see what happens and be like, Well, that was clearly a terrible decision, let’s not do that. Or actually, we found out you know, these other effects, we should learn from that. And we might be might Institute those policies at high level. So those are the two planks that I kind of foresee more experiments, being more okay with policy failures, and creating a system that’s robust to policy failures and saying, Well, you know, that kind of stuff, but we’re going to make, you know, whoever was affected hold to the best way we can. And we’re going to move on, and we’re going to make sure that we don’t forget the lessons that we learned. Or, if it turns out one of our experiments was really, really well, we ought to have mechanisms that allow us to introduce that in other places, and for other people to have those results communicated to them and see, well, actually, this, this went really well. And here’s the reasons why we think it worked for YouTube. And those, those are like things that I think can break this right now we have this static mentality and kind of Will you were alluding to this earlier, where it kind of seems like everybody’s fighting over the same territory, as if only one group of people could control the whole thing, right. And if we if we eliminate a little bit of that idea, and we kind of reintroduce this idea of actually, you know, what, like, let’s just do things differently here and try it there and such and such and, of course, with with, like, buy in from the people who is going to affect but then of course, that’s actually a really nice bounding on how badly you can mess up. At the same time in the in the early experiments. I think I think those are way forward. They’re difficult problems. Don’t get me wrong. And, again, political science and social theorists who have been thinking about this for years and years could probably give you much more color on that. Got it.
Will Jarvis 18:21
Anton, I wanted to ask you, I kind of read a lot of your work is kind of like a call for responsibility among, like, elites in the West. And maybe that’s, that’s not fair. I’d love to get your feedback on that. But it does seem to be something real that has been lost. I mean, just recently, last night, I was thinking about, you know, man, like, all these McKinsey executives that were helping Purdue pharma, you know, design these comp strategies for this, you know, sales, and so we can get, you know, the opioids out to the masses here. And I was just thinking, I wrote a piece in undergrad, you know, that was like, our elites, like, our smartest students at university should not be going to McKinsey or Bain or wherever they should be going to try and build things. And the school actually censored out McKinsey and all this stuff, because they were afraid that the recruiters would see that and what I mean, it was just, it’s amazing. But do you think that’s a real world phenomenon?
anton troynikov 19:13
So I think that’s interesting. And again, one has to ask the question of why. So let’s, let’s suppose let’s suppose that such a thing as the elite exists, and let’s suppose that the elite is actually represented by, you know, smart kids going off to do management consulting at places like McKinsey, right. So let’s, you know, we need to ask ourselves, why does a student who came into undergrad probably with some beliefs in their mind that they would become a scientist or a physicist, or, or, you know, an economist or anything like that, like, you remember your time in high school? You didn’t very, I believe very few people as children want to become McKinsey consultants. I’m
Will Jarvis 19:51
sure it’s supposed to be a management but yeah, very rare.
anton troynikov 19:54
But I think it’s rare. And most I bet some of those people are just the children of McKinsey consultants. But we have to ask ourselves, what causes that change?
Unknown Speaker 20:03
Why is it
anton troynikov 20:04
that children or young adults are dissuaded from pursuing these things? Which for which, you know, I guess I guess when you say elite responsibility, you’re talking about working in those fields that will provide material progress for society as a whole. Right. Let’s say that, let’s say that’s the responsibility you’re talking about. So the question is, why are people being diverted from that? Well, I think there’s I think there’s a few reasons. And I think the primary reason, and I know that you that you had a podcast about this, I’m going to be heretical here, but I actually think we don’t have a lead overproduction. I think we have a lead under production. I think we’re utilizing the smart people in very poor ways. I think that the issue is not that, oh, you know, these people who go off to be management consultants, they really should become scientists and inventing the next cancer drug, well, why aren’t they doing that? Because we’re not able to utilize them? Well, for that purpose. This is this is this is a I mean, you might say that it’s a market failure. If you’re an economist, we were, if the thing that we desire is not what we’re allocating resources toward, in this case, people are people’s plans, then we’re, there’s a reason we’re failing to allocate that. And we can’t You can’t say that it’s a responsibility, because without examining the reasons why people choose to do management consulting over becoming, say, research scientists, or astronauts or test pilots, or whatever it is, it’s like, well, we How are those people being utilized? What are those? What are those tracks look like? Why would people select against? You have to? I think, I think this is another problem in the discourse that we have collectively decided that people’s attributes are immune, like this surface attributes, and the actions that they take, reflect completely on who they are as a person without ever examining how they got there. Right. And we need to honestly, we need more, we need like, just to think about this more as a process. And so yeah, like on that topic of elite responsibility, I think that well, this comes back to what I was saying earlier, we should be doing way more experiments, we should be figuring out why the kid who wanted to be a physicist goes off and works at a quantum hedge fund, right? I mean, I know the answer to that, and maybe we’ll get into it. But I’m, like, we should we should be like, okay, that’s, we don’t want that we’re going to try this other thing. We should try the experiment. Yes,
Will Jarvis 22:31
I think and I want to hear you know why you think that that kid goes and works as quiet I think, if I had to guess, and tell me if I’m wrong, again, it’s something about what Don actually talks about where it used to be, you could go in and get a little bit of money, and he could work on that, you know, wacky idea you’ve had, and make that happen over 20 years. But now you’ve got to go and you got to sell to the grant making agencies, you’ve got to fight with other faculty. And that really
anton troynikov 22:56
sucks, I don’t know. And I would, I would completely agree with that. And you know, when faced with grinding it out in academia, or grinding it out in finance, while he should get paid in finance. So you know, if that’s the choice that you as a smart kid who wants to do physics is faced with that makes sense. And the other part of that to examine is, there’s a feedback effect. If you’re an undergrad in physics, and you go and learn that your, you know, upper classmates and even PhDs, where do they end up, they don’t end up doing physics, most of the time they go, you know, they go to Boston Consulting Group, or they go to, you know, rentec, or wherever, right? Or they go found startups doing software stuff in Silicon Valley. You are not motivated to continue along the path of becoming a physicist, because you don’t see anybody who actually went and did that. It’s very rare. Right? And that, again, that that speaks to our inability to actually utilize people who want to do physics. So and that ties nicely sorry, as you heard earlier this week, I spoke to Don as well, yeah, we read through his book, as part of an inter intellect book club, I was recently running. And Don, and I, you know, agree on some things disagree on a few others. But jointly, I think we both agree that the academy which is in principle, the producer of these minds, who create these materials, this, you know, artifacts of material progress has evolved into the system that suits only one particular vote of scientific production. And we need radical approaches, and again, radical experimentation, to provide other paths. And I think that will represent a better utilization of a lot of these people and ultimately, will will create new opportunities and will allow us to have more of the kind of elites that we know that hey, I could speak I could speak to the structure of the Academy in quite some depth, so maybe, maybe we’ll get to that. I don’t know. That’s it.
Will Jarvis 25:01
Let’s talk about that a little bit. It does seem, universities have really suffered a lot in this respect. I see, you know, I think a reckoning is coming to everyone, you know, that’s not the top 50. And maybe that helps, right, maybe that there’s just a glut of like PhD students and, and PhD programs. And maybe that will help a little bit. Because I do feel like a lot of the grant making programs that we’ve created, were because politicians, you know, one time Antonio, your researcher, and you blow on the money on something like a fancy car and not your research, and then that’s the front page in New York Times or whatever. And then now we’ve got, there can be no scientific freedom ever, because you might miss spend some public dollars, and then you blow up, you know, that the whole West collapses, you know, it’s like a butterfly flapping his wings. What do you think about that, you know, where did the academy go wrong? And what does that look like?
anton troynikov 25:55
So again, trade offs, right? Right. You can’t say nobody decided one day and said, we’re gonna drive scientific progress off a cliff. Right? Right. They they’re so the academy as it exists today is actually due to a set of deliberate choices made immediately after the Second World War, where basically states around the world realize that fundamental scientific discovery is a important component of national strategy. The atomic the atomic bomb is a very material demonstration of that fact, or subsequently. And the thing is, that idea has proven true, because it’s how we got semiconductors. It’s how we got the internet, it’s how we got all sorts of things, the GPS system, it’s how we got LCD displays, like I could rattle off any number of things. So it the changes that happened in the academy actually fulfilled their purpose, which which we shouldn’t forget. But in doing so, we made this trade off. So specifically, what happened was the Academy was much more opened up and who could be a scientist and how science was done, went from being something that was almost folk knowledge to being something very professionalized. So the system that we have today of, you know, like grant writing, and how money flows through the system, and how you get, like undergrads to participate in research, and then become PhDs, and then a postdoc, and then they maybe get a faculty tenure, or they go work for rentec, or whatever. This was a series of deliberate choices to fulfill those policy objectives. And they succeeded in fulfilling those objectives. The problem is that the objectives that this system was designed to fulfill, had the side effect of creating or, or what I think of as, like harmonizing the system overall, every university pretty much functions the same way every every every research group functions almost exactly the same way. There you know, you know, which conferences to publishing, you know, which funding buddies to go for you kind of know how many seats are at the table in any given year. And all of these things, you know, what fields are hot. And this harmonization turn science into this monolithic, fairly monolithic enterprise, which it wasn’t written before. different communities and science historically have done things in different ways. And there’s been traditions that have have gone across disciplines and across national and other barriers, but generally, it was much more predicated on individual relationships. And even the way that one became a scientist, or even what a scientist was a scientist in previous years was not a profession. Nobody, like you couldn’t you can’t go out and become a scientist. You’re a scientist, because of what you do. There’s not there’s not like a checklist, right. And that had to go away to create the system we have now. And it’s become, you know, somebody told me this word harmonized, I’ve been called, I’ve been calling it homogenized. Where now because there’s this monolithic system, the whole monolith kind of moves together. And it’s kind of everything is done one way. Everything is done for specific purposes. And one of the consequences of that as well as the Academy in general. And when I speak of the Academy, I’m talking not just about like, universities, but you know, Industrial Research Labs, any any sort of place that’s that’s trying to create you knowledge has evolved into this thing where it can absorb arbitrary amounts of capital, any amount of money, any amount, any amount of money, it will absorb it without necessarily producing any improvement in the output. And that’s a concept again, a consequence of deliberate choices because the academy as it’s organized today, was specifically designed to run high capital intensive projects like the Manhattan Project, you need like you they need they understood that they needed a lot of physicists to try to find these new discoveries and then put a lot of capital behind when it’s time to roll them out. But that means you can only do a certain type of thing. And the other effect of this harmonisation is like, you had better tire research onto the hot thing because that’s what’s getting funding today in the, in this monolithic Academy
Will Jarvis 30:13
it’s a, it’s really interesting to me, a lot of people you see this in the, like I said the discourse a lot, when they say trust science, they mean trust the institution, not the process. And these things, these are very discrete things, you know, these are very different.
anton troynikov 30:29
I think. And I think when people say trust science, in the discourse, they often mean trust science as its trust the results of scientists as they’re communicated through this telephone to to the mass public. And this this is honestly another thing, despite the fact that we have more PhDs across all fields. And pretty much I think we’ve ever had before, I think I haven’t kept up with like the year to year, but certainly this decade, fewer and fewer people seem to Well, I don’t know if fewer people but it’s in sort of the like the ordinary or common imagination, what scientists actually do is more and more abstract. And I think and I think that again, that’s that’s to do with the majan icing effect, because you never hear like Albert Einstein discovers theory, you hear researchers at MIT, something something something,
Will Jarvis 31:23
right? That’s a really good point. It is like it’s ultra, it’s, it’s just like copy, paste, copy, paste, copy, paste, across, and that that seems to allow it doesn’t allow for anyone that doesn’t fit in that whatever the mold is to ever escape and create something new.
anton troynikov 31:39
It’s very, very difficult to do. This, this is a point where actually Don and I differ Don’s position is that you should try to preserve your radical pneus. And then you prove to yourself, you know, you prove to yourself and then close collaborators, that you’re actually very strong scientists so that they will back you in his venture research model, when it’s time to pursue your your big, weird, radical ideas, right. And that works. That’s, that’s a model that works. My position on that is a little bit different, my position is that we’re going to lose a lot of people ever getting to that stage. And I think we ought to start people off actually, at a considerably younger age might like my explicit position. And besides this idea of elite underproduction, my explicit position on this is we should be throwing students into real scientific research far earlier in their educational career far earlier, even if it’s just to experience basic lab work, that actually matters to a result somebody is trying to get. This is a valuable experience that most people don’t have until late undergrad at their earliest. And we should just do it like we should, we should be early, take high school kids and put them in research labs.
Will Jarvis 32:52
I think that’s I think it’s a great idea. And it helps prevent, I think the problem with with Don’s thought there is you know, there’s a lot of selection effects. And on top of that, it’s you know, it’s I think people underrate how much of a problem it is to get talked out of your good ideas and social pressure and things like that. And then one day you wake up and you meant to like sell yourself and then prove yourself and then be able to go do your cool thing. And then you’re too old, you know, you know, your fluid intelligence has dropped and you just can’t do it anymore. And it’s too late. It just took up too much capital, you know, personal capital?
anton troynikov 33:26
Well, here’s the thing. I mean, John’s model worked as well. That’s so he’s he’s done isn’t wrong, all I’m suggesting. And again, this again, comes back, this isn’t an either or it doesn’t mean we want to tear down the academy as it exists today, as well, because it’s fulfilling a function, it does pretty well at some things. And we weren’t, we are not, you know, we ought not to be blind to that. But what I’m suggesting is we it’s super cheap, very low risk. Relatively easy, given the right set of circumstances and connections, to just do these experiments and try different ways of doing this. I mean, in comparison to like the average seed or pre seed round in Silicon Valley to like, start up an independent research lab where you just do math all day in some interesting direction. It’s peanuts, nothing. I think that like, um, first or second order connections with with people who would like lose that money in their pants, right. That again, speaks to the enormous economic surplus that I’ve been talking about.
Will Jarvis 34:29
Absolutely. Could you talk about that this is a great transition to your grant program you put together I thought it was really cool.
anton troynikov 34:36
Oh, yeah. Biddle um, but it was kind of funny. So that that that is a joke that got out of control, which is a recurring theme in my life. Um, and yeah, sort of the the joke was that like Twitter discourse is really bad. I see all these like young people’s, I call them Zoomers for Gen Z. Yeah. You know, being out here tweeting and contributing to the discord. When instead they should be out, like making stuff. So I said, Well, I will pay you to not tweet for a week and make me something and show it. And then if you do, I’ll give you 100 bucks, it doesn’t matter what it is, I want you to come with at least a concrete proposal. And it needs to be kind of in the spirit of but also, it should be something that you actually did inside that week. Nice. But like the meta texture or read of that is actually I just want to inspire creativity, the $100 doesn’t really matter, it’s the permission to be like, well go do something interesting. And I’ll rule working for, like 100 bucks isn’t really a big deal to most people, right. And we got amazing stuff out of it, we got really, just incredible, just, I mean, there’s so much drive and creativity. And if we I’ll give you a few things, we we had one person make like this weird custom musical instrument made out of like buttons and frets and things like that. And, and they played it for us. And that was super cool. We had another person who created an incubator like incubator for chicken eggs, because they are replicate, they are working towards being able to replicate this experiment that this Japanese laboratory did, where they will it were able to grow chicken embryos outside the egg. Well, they got it, we got a chick out of it, whose name is Hercules. That’s how we had another person who did created a release system for their balloon launched orbital orbital glider, and that caught fire in the process of making it. So we got that, you know, we got the we got that we got amazing stuff we had. We had another person, you know, designing turbo machinery and doing all the CFD for I mean, just giving people permission, and then showing that hey, like other people are making stuff, that stuff you want to make, you should just go ahead and make it I’m gonna I’m like, I’m gonna allow you, I believe in you that you that you’ll do this, you know, and, and what’s more is like, everybody, pretty much everybody who signed up was 100% successful. Like I didn’t made stuff, and they came back with something really cool that they had made. That’s awesome. And this is I mean, it speaks to how cheap This is. It’s like we I think we did like 25 of these things. Right now were in the process of creating like a new platform for it because I was managing this out of like my Twitter, DMS, like spreadsheets and Google Calendar. And it was like, it was driving me insane. I’m like, I cannot keep doing
Will Jarvis 37:43
too much to manage.
anton troynikov 37:44
It’s too much. It’s like somebody pointed out to me that it’s exactly the same as like trying to manage your venture fund. And I was like, Oh, yeah. So we’re building out a web platform right now. We’re hoping to relaunch, hopefully next month, maybe sooner. But the other thing that we want to be able to do is again, because this was such a cheap experiment. Yeah. And we kind of saw people like, doing a little bit their version of it. They were like, oh, I’ll give you you know, whoever makes this or like, does this thing or 100 bucks, 500. Whatever. Yeah. And we went, Okay, so we’re like, Okay, great. Well, obviously, people want to do this. And like, maybe they want to have a different theme to battle. But, you know, it’s let’s, let’s make it really easy for people to run these really small, cheap micro grant experiments. Yeah, that’s really what we’re working on releasing that. The other thing that was surprising, actually, isn’t just people came out of the woodwork to donate. Like, that’s awesome. I got I got tons of messages on this subject being like, Hey, you know, can I back some of this, like, what’s going on? So you know, that’s the other thing we had to we were working on building in a way to like back this and have people your sponsor sponsor, or like donate for concrete projects, and then they can hang out and like to show and tell, or to, you know, just grants in general or anything like that. Right. Most of that first round came out of my pocket, but like, and I was mostly turning donations down, because I was like, I don’t have the infrastructure to process and
Will Jarvis 39:10
deal with it. Yeah. That’s, that’s great. And well, we’d love to contribute this next time. If that’s helpful at all. We’d love to know. I
anton troynikov 39:19
really appreciate that. I will let you guys know when we’re back
Will Jarvis 39:21
up and running. Very cool. Yeah. And this actually reminds me Have you ever heard or heard of Harry Nyquist? at Bell Labs?
anton troynikov 39:29
I mean, Nyquist. This is a very familiar name from electrical engineering.
Will Jarvis 39:33
Yes. He did some stuff in like communication theories. Well, I’m not
anton troynikov 39:37
Yes. Right. Nyquist, the Nyquist criteria Nyquist sampling all this, right.
Will Jarvis 39:41
So I’m less clear on that stuff. But I do know, there’s a book about Bell Labs, and they talk about how there’s this. They’re trying to figure out who the most successful people were creating patterns. And it turned out the only thing they could find was the most successful people always had lunch with Harry. And like Harry would like just like, talk to them. Like, yeah, you should really like follow through that and ask good questions. And thanks. It sounds kind of sounds like those grants, right? It’s like permission to go out there, like in the world and do things. people miss that. I don’t know, it’s and it’s really important. There’s like some, some, I guess, like, there’s resistance that builds up in people’s minds to go out and do things
anton troynikov 40:16
have this kind of like. So almost, I don’t know, it’s almost a principle at this point where, barring certain material circumstances, you know, obviously, obviously, it’s not true for people in general, but I think, especially in the society that we live in, a lot of people would be happier if they were aware of the full spectrum of choices that were actually available to them, instead of the ones that they just happen to have in their mind at any given time. Interesting. And so, you know, like, the way that I always frame this to myself, and again, this is a gross oversimplification. It’s not applicable to everyone. I was like, well, no matter how wrong this thing goes, I can always move to your rear and and work on a fishing boat. Right? Like, you can just do that. That’s nice. isn’t that hard to learn? Maybe? Okay. That’s right. You know, and, and when you start framing, things like that, like, Well, okay, well, what are my actual, like real choices here? And, and like, below below is kind of a version of that. It’s like, Well, you know, you’ve been trapped in that printer discourse for like, since you got an account. But what if I told you, you could do this other thing? Which is better
Will Jarvis 41:33
and more fun. There more options out there? Like, that’s better? Yeah, yeah. It’s really interesting. So I run a slate star Codex meetup. And one of the things that I really liked to do, because, you know, everybody’s quite smart, but a lot of them don’t, you know, I’ll ask him, like, you know, how would you wake, it’s like, well, you know, work in big tech company. And it’s like, it’s drudgery. And I don’t really like it. I really like to be working on this other thing. But, you know, with this startup, but you know, yeah, I don’t know, maybe in the future. And then I do this thing, I call it hazing. But I make them and I write the email for them, to the founder to or like, whatever organization they actually want to be working for, and make them send it while we’re on the call. And, you know, people have gotten like, responses for different folks. And but, you know, people just get so trapped in that like your day to day, right, just like you said, and they forget that the downside risk is really like there’s no real downside. Like, it’s so small nowadays.
anton troynikov 42:27
It’s it’s difficult to quantify but like, the worst possible outcome is, is mostly not so bad. Like if, you know, if you’re the sort of person who has a big 10 company job and you’re miserable. Well, you can probably just go back to a big company job if you could just go back, like if you come from another big tech company.
Will Jarvis 42:46
That’s right. Exactly. Well, and this is this misallocation of risk, right? between the risk is like, the real risk is wasting your time here. Not you know that you end up on a fishing boat. And and the fishing boat might be nice, actually.
anton troynikov 42:59
Yeah, I mean, so you know that, I don’t know if risk is the right framing, because risk implies that you have some quantity of something that you are, could possibly lose. But when you know, and that’s a very, you know, given that you run a slate star Codex meet up, that’s a very rationalist way of looking at it. Right. Which, you know, it’s it’s almost derivative of utilitarian philosophy. But I think it’s actually a more general principle than just that, I don’t think that you have to regard it as sort of risk reward, I think it’s possible to regard it as just, here’s the branching set of decisions that I have that exists available to me and I can pursue the subset of that, like, there’s basically there’s a much larger subset of that than most people have in their awareness most of the time. And this was a neat little experiment to sort of, impart expand that in both sides, like, you can just give money to young people. Like you can just do that. If you know, if you’re like, Oh, I wish I could foster creativity. I don’t know. It just cost like 2500 bucks, and we got 25 projects out of it. I just don’t do it.
Will Jarvis 44:03
Well, it reminds me of Don’s work, it’s like, you know, it just it’s no money.
Unknown Speaker 44:07
I mean, it’s just not
Unknown Speaker 44:08
it’s not it’s no money.
Will Jarvis 44:10
It’s just mind blowing.
anton troynikov 44:12
I’m actually I mean, another part of it is I’m actually pretty inspired by a friend of mine, Sonia man who is like she she also Hayes’s me in the sense of like, you keep talking about these things, but like, I’m gonna stop doing this seriously unless you actually do it. Which has been really good for me, because now I’ve got like a little Sonya, in the back of my mind.
Will Jarvis 44:32
That’s great. That’s really helpful.
Unknown Speaker 44:34
Will Jarvis 44:35
that, you know, you need that into my brain that she’s secretly
anton troynikov 44:37
terrifying. So like, motivator really works.
Will Jarvis 44:43
Great. I wanted to move on now and ask you just some overrated underrated questions and like maybe a sentence Why?
Unknown Speaker 44:50
Well, before you get overrated, underrated, can I ask Anton question? Sure. Absolutely. And, Tom, are you an optimist or pessimist? And are you optimists. For pessimistic about the future,
anton troynikov 45:03
I am generally optimistic about both for a few different reasons. One is, regardless of the problems that we see in the world today, humans collectively have lived through or overcome problems that in their time where we’d like we didn’t even have ideas about how to begin solving, we simply didn’t have the knowledge to serve with. And if we didn’t have the knowledge, we certainly wouldn’t have had the resources to enact any of those solutions. So in that sense, our problems are not bigger than what’s gone before. And we’re actually doing better because we are living in a time where we’ve preserved and built up enough knowledge that we can start like we can, we can seriously like if we get our act together, we can just we can just do things, we can figure out what needs to be done, and then do the thing. And I know that people like Bostrom are always talking about like, well, as we develop, technically, we put ourselves at greater and greater risk. I’m not sure that I really agree with that, because the worst, the worst risks that we could, in principle face are always going to be external. And so our ability, like our technical capability, as it develops, will make us better able to actually deal with those external risks that we didn’t generate ourselves. We we took from the from those two places, I’m an optimist from, from history and from our current position, and for where we’re at, and just like humanity, collectively and individually has gone through horrible things, just just awful. I mean, I don’t know if you’ve read about, for example, the 30 years war in Europe. But in terms of in terms of, for example, a fraction of populations involved one way or another in that war, they haven’t seen anything like it in hundreds of years. And with any luck, we never will, again, if we talk about sort of, you know, issues with environmental degradation, we’re at a point where a lot of these are their problems of chemistry, we could in principle, solve them if we commit to solve them through technological means. But even beyond that, the fact that we understand that there is a problem. And we have given we’ve given ourselves the time to be able to address it. And we’re in a position where we have the knowledge. I mean, I have to be optimistic, I think, I think to be a pessimist, this is a strange choice in light of historical and material facts. What that future exactly is going to look like and how long things will take to get better at in what sense? Will they be better? I don’t know. But in the sense of, in the sense of will humanity continue to move into the future and improve and just, you know, hopefully making people’s lives better and easier? I think we will. And, of course, one way to think about that is like we’re almost on a on a society wide kenotic treadmill, people, people from the past will kill to have some of our problems. Yeah, some of them literally did. I mean, it’s not and again, but that’s not to minimize, it’s not to minimize the problems that we do have. There are different sets of problems. They’re also horrible. But we’re at least in a place where we actually like seriously consider overcoming them instead of being like, well, this is what life is like I you know, I slave away in my field under the auspices of my local Lord, and then I die right now hopefully sufficient a sufficient number of my 15 children live long enough that like I’ve supported into old age where my body is working. Should I live that long?
Unknown Speaker 48:38
So Anton, you You sound almost as much like a rationalist as you do an optimist.
anton troynikov 48:45
I have to I have to admit, I’ve been reading David Deutsches book beginning of infinity really and I have I have a lot of problems with it, but I like a lot of the way he frames some ideas. I guess I’ve always carried around so I guess I may have related some of that in his words, but generally I agree. Although there’s a lot in that book I disagreed with fundamentally so it’s stuff
Will Jarvis 49:08
All right, so overrated or underrated the Soviet Union
anton troynikov 49:14
difficult. So I would say generally overrated by people in the West and overrated by people in the former Soviet Union. But the it’s important to remember that the Soviets were not a monolith. And there’s different parts of it. I mean, if you say something like Kolmogorov under underrated or overrated well, regardless of how highly you rate him is still underrated. But he was part of the Soviet system. Right. But if you say something like collective farming in the 1920s different thing, pretty bad. I guess it’s it’s difficult to it’s difficult to reply to something like that. I certainly think that as a social structure had pretty bad problems and probably isn’t as rosy as a lot of people who want to resurrect it goes to believe that it was even for ordinary average people.
Will Jarvis 49:59
Gotcha. Good, modern robotics. I know that’s an area you work in.
anton troynikov 50:04
That’s right. I’m internal to the field. I think we have pretty clear eyes externally strongly overrated about what people think robots can do. Gotcha. You see really nice Boston Dynamics for years. And right. The thing about them is, is there that they move really nice, but they can’t they don’t do much, because they don’t understand the world very well. And that’s sort of the hardest problem right now.
Will Jarvis 50:25
Gotcha. And that’s an area we’re working in. Now. Is that correct?
anton troynikov 50:28
Yeah. So I work in robotic perception 3d computer vision systems.
Will Jarvis 50:33
Gotcha. Gotcha. Very interesting. So driverless cars, overrated, underrated?
anton troynikov 50:38
Well, I think we’ve seen the consolidation of that industry over the last while and nobody’s making money on it still. Right. But at the same time, like we already had a meteor downturn about it, I think what’s going to happen is like every, like every piece of technology of that form, like it’s going to bear fruit, but 10 years from now, and maybe not expected. Gotcha.
Will Jarvis 51:00
And on the same token, modern robotics unit, like you see the Boston Dynamics, and like you said, you know, how long until we’ve got, you know, the sci fi, you know, and I know how long is very difficult, but is it far far off? Or is there like a pathway you see to like, you know, household robotics that are kind of, you’re talking about something
anton troynikov 51:20
like Rosie from the Jetsons? Right? Yes,
Unknown Speaker 51:22
anton troynikov 51:23
So you have, you know, you have some general purpose robot that can do all the domestic chores in your home, right. Problem is virtually equivalent to having artificial general intelligence. And
Will Jarvis 51:35
so it’s like, it’s Wait, it’s so far off, can’t even
anton troynikov 51:38
I don’t know. However, however, you estimate that you need to peg your estimate to wherever you think AGI is going to come in. So it’s essentially the same thing. And I’m actually not convinced that like general self driving isn’t the same problem.
Will Jarvis 51:51
Gotcha. So it’s fairly, it’s very, very difficult. That’s
anton troynikov 51:54
really I’ll give you I’ll give you bands of between 30 and 100 years. Got it. I could be way off.
Will Jarvis 51:59
Yeah. It’s really interesting, because you do see you know, it’s very vivid, like, you know, the but like you said, the Boston Dynamics robots running around. Yeah. Interesting. mouthless, overrated. underrated,
anton troynikov 52:10
misunderstood. And I’ll agree with with Tyler Cowen about that. Malthus wasn’t actually wrong, as I said, in the stakes. I think he’s definitely misunderstood and misinterpreted and now time, and he ought to be reexamined.
Will Jarvis 52:24
Gotcha, that’s good. Well, Anton, thank you for coming on. Where can people find your work? And is there any parting shots you’d like to leave people with?
anton troynikov 52:33
Sure. Yeah, I mean, you can find me on Twitter at at ATR y m. You can find my website at trying to copy or ask for a parting shot. I mean, I sort of all the talks I’ve given and everything I’ve done in the inter intellect salons have always had the same thing. People need to remember that they are actors in history, and that they in their time and their place, can have an influence on the world. And I think that the first step to like making things or changing things for the better is, is remembering that history. History isn’t done and history isn’t this fictional account of what like before real people went through this real people made choices at the time and so can you. That’s, that’s, that’s where I’d like to leave.
Will Jarvis 53:19
I love that. I really love that. Thanks, Anton. Thanks.
anton troynikov 53:23
Will Jarvis 53:28
Well, that’s our show for today. I’m Bill Jarvis, and I’m Will’s dad. Join us next week for more narratives.