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Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Tech-Startup Attractor: Musings on the Thiel Fellowships, Singularity University, and the value of good old-fashioned universities


This Business Insider article on the outcome so far of the Thiel Fellowship experiment is interesting, though not surprising..

As you may recall, Peter Thiel launched the Thiel Fellowship program as a "20 under 20" initiative, with a stated aim of showing that - for bright ambitious youth anyway -- college is not necessary and is in many ways not the best way to spend 4 years of one's young adulthood.   The Thiel Fellows were each given $100K over 2 years, with a goal of supporting them in pursuing their own thoughts, dreams and visions....

As the Business Insider article reports, as the Fellowship experiment has continued for a few years, it has evolved a bit ... in the beginning it seemed like it was going to focus broadly on ambitious and brilliant youth with all sorts of creative new ideas and direction, and on giving them space to flesh out their thinking without needing to worry about paying the bills ... but it seems to have gravitated more toward a sort of "social network for young entrepreneurs", focusing mostly on young people with tech business projects reasonably likely to create near-term profit ... including many who are already having significant business success.   And the main value-add of the program is coming out to be, not the cash stipend, but rather the social network to which the Fellowship gives access.

All of which is great, and surely moves technology and business and society forwards a bit.   However, it does not whatsoever show that dropping out of college is a great path forward for youth in general.   What it shows is more like: IF you are young and want to start a tech biz based on an idea that appears to the Silicon Valley tech community to have significant near-term financial potential, THEN dropping out of school and into an extremely influential social network (well-connected with a host of high-net-worth individuals and impactful tech companies and VC funds etc. etc.) is a damn good idea, if you get the opportunity...

Well, yeah....  But this doesn't really say much about the pluses or minuses of going to college or getting a college degree if you DON'T have the opportunity to get rapidly embraced by a world-class social network like this...

I'm not especially an apologist for the contemporary university system, which annoys me in many ways, with  (among other problems) its focus on rote learning, its obsession with dividing knowledge into irrelevant disciplinary bins, and its tendency to squelch individual and group creativity.   

On the other hand, I have to admit that universities are the one area in human society that has consistently, over a long period of time (nearly a millenium!), provided an environment in which learning new things and developing radical new ideas is generally encouraged, apart from the short-term reward that such learning and ideas may bring.   All the egregious flaws of the university system aside, this is not to be scoffed at.

Society gives all of us a lot of pressure to pursue short-term reward in various ways, and on various levels.   Even as universities come to focus more on career-preparation majors, and professors are pushed to pull in grant funding rather than work on obscure  or out-there topics that funding agencies ignore -- still, compared to the other aspects of our society, universities seem by far the MOST supportive of learning and creation and invention not tied to short-term reward.

Of course there are non-university institutions that out-do universities in this regard, but they are small and scattered and end up not being accessible to most people.

Of course, nearly anyone in the developed world can find other ways to spend their time learning and creating, without enrolling in university.   But we are all susceptible to various social pressures, so -- even with all the information and communities available on the Internet -- it is still valuable to have a physical environment where learning and creation are core to the mission and vibe.

One point I often end up making in conversations about AI is that every one of the "deep neural net" algorithms being used by big tech companies these days, was invented by university professors and published in the academic literature.   Then the big tech companies took these (often via hiring said professors or their grad students) and implemented them more scalably and got amazing practical results.   But the core deep learning algorithms were invented in the university setting not the tech company setting, and they were invented alongside thousands of other algorithms, none of which had widely obvious commercial value at the time they were invented.   Many of these other algorithms will never prove practically valuable; some may ultimately prove far more valuable than deep neural networks.

Quantum computing obviously is the same way.  Where was quantum theory developed?  And where were the original ideas underlying quantum computing worked out?  Where are the speculative designs and lab experiments and math papers being done today, that are laying the groundwork for the quantum computers we'll have in our compute clouds 15-25 years from now ... for the Quantum Processing Units (QPUs) we'll have in our smartphones and smartwatches, in our robots' brains, maybe implanted in our own brains.   Hint: mostly not in venture-funded startups, nor in the labs of big tech companies...

The Thiel Fellowships are a cool program, but they don't seem to be fostering the kind of wide-ranging intellectual exploration and concept creation that universities -- in their screwed-up, contorted and semi-archaic way -- have so often fostered.   Rather they seem to be fostering some young people to do what Silicon Valley does best -- take ideas already formed by other folks and commercialize and market them, make them scalable and slick.   I don't want to discount this sort of work; I love my Android phone and Macbook and Google Search and all that too....   But this is a very particular sort of pursuit, and the fact that getting embedded in an awesome social network is more useful than university for this sort of thing, is pretty bloody obvious, right?

I see some parallels with how Singularity University (the non-degree granting educational organization, founded by Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis and others in Silicon Valley) has developed.   While I'm currently an advisor for SU's AI and robotics track, I'm not that intensively involved with the organization these days.    However, I was fairly heavily involved with SU when it was founded, and before it was founded. 

The initial legwork for putting SU together was largely done by Amara Angelica (who runs KurzweilAI.net for Ray) and Bruce Klein, who at the time was working for me as President of Novamente LLC.   I was paying Bruce a modest salary for his Novamente work, which covered his basic bills while he spent 6 months doing social networking trying to put together the founding meeting for Singularity University.   The founding meeting -- which I ended up not attending as I was busy with so much other stuff -- was a big success ... Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis shared their vision wonderfully and recruited the needed founding donations from the various individuals Bruce and Amara and their colleagues had gathered together (with help from Ray and Peter as well) ... and SU was off to the races ...

When Bruce and Amara and I were first talking about SU, however, our discussions had a pretty strongly Singularitarian vibe.   We were talking about how to radically accelerate progress toward AGI, mind uploading, Drexlerian nanotech, radical longevity, and so forth.   And in the first couple years of its existence, SU was fairly much in this vein, though already a bit more "startup bootcamp" oriented than we had been thinking.

Looking at SU now, it's awesome for what it is -- but it's become far more focused on short-term hi-tech business opportunities than it initially seemed would be the case.   SU has done a heap of good for the world, by bringing future-minded entrepreneurs and others from all around the world together, to social network with Silicon Valley tech leaders and brainstorm on how to create new startups using advanced tech to improve the world. 

And much as with the Thiel Fellowship, I believe the  main value-add SU has ended up providing to its students is the social network.   Definitely, for a future-oriented business executive or scientist from Quatar or China or Bolivia or Ethiopia, the chance to get to know dozens to hundreds of Silicon Valley and international tech-biz geeks can be pretty priceless...

Perhaps much of what we see in both the Thiel Fellowship and Singularity University cases is merely the power of the "tech startup attractor" for programs based in Silicon Valley.    Silicon Valley is damn good at tech startups, and is not necessarily equally good at providing alternative means of giving young people broad education or space to wild-mindedly create new ideas ... nor at encouraging people to make huge leaps toward the Singularity in ways that don't promise short-term business success.... 

Of course, Silicon Valley doesn't have to be everything -- it's a big world out there, with lots of wealth and brilliance and capability in so many different places -- and it's incredibly impressive what things like the Thiel Fellowship and Singularity University are contributing to the world.   But the relatively small role these sorts of things play in the bigger picture of what's going on on the planet, should also not be lost sight of...

So far, universities are still pretty damn useful, in terms of providing environments for young people to learn how to learn, and space for young people to create and grow without the world's usual pressures.... 

And so far, the challenge of directing significant resources to really ambitious Singularitarian goals like AGI, mind uploading and Drexlerian nanotech, has yet to be met....   We are moving toward these goals anyway, and progress is excitingly fast by historical standards.   Yet it seems to me that we could be progressing faster and in many ways more beneficially and interestingly, if not for the tendency of more visionary initiatives to get sucked into attractors related to short-term profit-seeking.... 

And it's also clear to me, that, in our current path toward a radically better future, good old traditional universities are continuing to play a very central role, in spite of all their archaic peculiarities.  I would love for far better modes of social organization to emerge, but this process is still underway; and currently the Silicon Valley tech-startup network -- with all its diverse and fascinating manifestations -- is more a complement to traditional universities than an alternative...






7 comments:

Bill Lauritzen said...

Excellent article, Ben.

Anonymous said...

Ah, Bruce Klein -- a great Singularitarian, similar in moral stature and honesty to that other great Singularitarian, Eliezer Yudkowsky.

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ProgrammingGodJordan said...

Intriguing article Ben.

However, we (in the process of building ai) may perhaps rid ourselves of the very concept of belief.

Data shows that our species does better without belief. (nonbeliefism.com)