What’s Up with the World Outside of Covid-19?

Yash Agarwal, ex-student and good friend recently shared this link on Twitter.

The last line of the article shared by Yash goes like this:

What is starting today is a new age of technological wonder, the Great Acceleration.

https://spectator.us/topic/great-acceleration-looking-forward-post-covid-age/

The background to this is that Tyler Cowen had written a book some years ago called The Great Stagnation. The basic thesis in that book is that innovation was slowing down, since the low hanging fruit in terms of technical innovation had already been picked. But the book also spoke about how this was not to say that innovation was forever going to be slow – it’s just that it had slowed down around then.

He wasn’t the only one, by the way. There were quite a few folks who were less than impressed with technological progress aobut a decade ago. Everybody has heard of the comparison between Twitter and flying cars, but there’s much more where that came from:

In the 2010s, we largely decided that we were in the middle of a technological stagnation. Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation came out in 2011, Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth came out in 2016. Peter Thiel declared that “we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters”. David Graeber agreed. Paul Krugman lamented the lack of new kitchen appliances. Some economists asked whether ideas were simply getting harder to find. When the startup Juicero came out with a fancy new kitchen appliance, it was widely mocked as a symbol of what was wrong with the tech industry. “Tech” became largely synonymous with software companies, particularly social media, gig economy companies, and venture capital firms. Many questioned whether those sorts of innovations were making society better at all.
So it’s fair to say that the 2010s were a decade of deep techno-pessimism.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/techno-optimism-for-the-2020s

By the way, on a related note (although this deserves its own post, which will be out tomorrow) you may want to read this post by Morgan Housel in this regard.

In any case, Covid-19 has in some ways accelerated innovation, and that’s the point that Bruno Macaes1 is making in the article above.

Take transportation and energy: the demand for driverless cars and delivery vans boomed last year because people were fearful of getting infected. In response companies quickly scaled up their plans. Last October, for example, Waymo announced the launch of a taxi service that is fully driverless. Walmart announced in December its plans to use fully autonomous box trucks to make deliveries in Arkansas later this year. As retail goes online as a result of the pandemic, massive delivery volumes are now placing greater pressure on others to follow suit.

https://spectator.us/topic/great-acceleration-looking-forward-post-covid-age/

Note that without Covid-19, we would be having debate about automation, jobs and how technology is promoting inequality. That may well be true. But this is precisely why we study opportunity costs in college!


Perhaps the most interesting (to me) advance this past year has been in terms of we humans understanding how protein folding happens. Understanding is perhaps the wrong word to use (and note that I know as much biology as forecasters know about the future), but we have trained machines to understand it.

At CASP14 DeepMind produced an advance so thorough it compelled CASP organizers to declare the protein structure prediction problem for single protein chains to be solved. In my read of most CASP14 attendees (virtual as it was), I sense that this was the conclusion of the majority. It certainly is my conclusion as well.

https://moalquraishi.wordpress.com/2020/12/08/alphafold2-casp14-it-feels-like-ones-child-has-left-home/

As I understand it (and please note once again that I am no expert) this has the potential to change by orders of magnitude how we approach the treatment of a variety of diseases in this century.


But if you are anything like me, you are also curious to know about what else has been going on this past year. Again, before we proceed: this post is about the “what” in terms of scientific advancement. Tomorrow is a rumination about the “why”.

First, I’d referred to this interview in an earlier post, an interview of Patrick Collison by Noah Smith. It refers to some of what we have been speaking about, but much more as well:

I think the 2020s are when we’ll finally start to understand what’s going on with RNA and neurons. Basically, the prevailing idea has been that connections between neurons are how cognition works. (And that’s what neural networks and deep learning are modeled after.) But it looks increasingly likely that stuff that happens inside the neurons — and inside the connections — is an important part of the story. One suggestion is that RNA is actually part of how neurons think and not just an incidental intermediate thing between the genome and proteins. Elsewhere, we’re starting to spend more time investigating how the microbiome and the immune system interact with things like cancer and neurodegenerative conditions, and I’m optimistic about how that might yield significantly improved treatments. With Alzheimer’s, say, we were stuck for a long time on variants of plaque hypotheses (“this bad stuff accumulates and we have to stop it accumulating”)… it’s now getting hard to ignore the fact that the immune system clearly plays a major — and maybe dominant — role. Elsewhere, we’re plausibly on the cusp of effective dengue, AIDS, and malaria vaccines. That’s pretty huge.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-patrick-collison-co-founder

Second, Caleb Whitney has a lovely blogpost on this topic, and shares with us this chart – and if this chart isn’t beautiful, I do not know what is.

The tiny red vertical line tells you when the cause of the disease was identified, and the tiny green vertical line tells you when the cure was licensed in the United States of America. And now think of what happened with Covid-19!2

There’s much more in that post, and there’s more on Patrick Collison’s website, Matt Clancy’s reading list, Matt Clancy’s Substack, and this blogpost by Eli Dourado. I am sure there is more I have missed – much more! – but isn’t that only reinforcing my point?


It is easy to get caught up in the short term pessimistic narrative, and be overwhelmed by it. It happened to me last year, as I am sure it did to many, many other people on this planet. I gave up on what until then had been my proudest achievement in terms of my work: posting here every single day.

But on a personal level, the past year has also taught me this, and I have Morgan Housel to thank for the central insight: the seeds of calm are planted by crazy.3

So when things are really bad and grim (and again, this is not over yet), look to the bright side. And not just because it’s a good thing to do! But also because the bright side is likely to be brighter precisely because of everything else being so goddamn dark.

Tomorrow, I’ll attempt to answer a question I have, and I am sure you do as well: why?

  1. I don’t know how to type out a c with a cedilla in WordPress, my apologies[]
  2. Please note, covid-19 ain’t over yet, especially here in India. That’s not the point though. The point is to ask if the kind of progress we have made this past year would even have been possible in the past.[]
  3. The reverse is also probably true, more’s the pity[]

What does the future look like, and how should you think about the answer to that question?

I came across this tweet a while ago, and found it quite funny:

I have asked this question myself while interviewing candidates, and the reason I ask it is not because I want to get a definitive answer from the student. Prediction is a mostly pointless activity. It is because I want to understand what factors the interviewee includes in her analysis.

And the reason I begin with this in today’s post is because two really and truly excellent pieces worth reading were gifted to us earlier this week.

First, Noah Smith interviewed Patrick Collison.

N.S.: So, what are the three things that excite you most about the 2020s?

It’s hard to restrict to three! But here are the first that jump to mind:

First, the explosive expansion in access to opportunity facilitated by the internet. Sounds prosaic but I think still underestimated. Several billion people recently immigrated to the world’s most vibrant city and the system hasn’t yet equilibrated. When you think about how YouTube is accelerating the dissemination of tacit knowledge, or the number of creative outsiders who can now deploy their talents productively, or the number of brilliant 18 year-olds who can now start companies from their bedrooms, or all the instances of improbable scenius that are springing up… in the landscape of the global commons, the internet is nitrogen fertilizer, and we still have a long way to go — economically, culturally, scientifically, technologically, socially, and everything in between. I challenge anyone to watch this video and not feel optimistic.

Second, progress in biology. I think the 2020s are when we’ll finally start to understand what’s going on with RNA and neurons. Basically, the prevailing idea has been that connections between neurons are how cognition works. (And that’s what neural networks and deep learning are modeled after.) But it looks increasingly likely that stuff that happens inside the neurons — and inside the connections — is an important part of the story. One suggestion is that RNA is actually part of how neurons think and not just an incidental intermediate thing between the genome and proteins. Elsewhere, we’re starting to spend more time investigating how the microbiome and the immune system interact with things like cancer and neurodegenerative conditions, and I’m optimistic about how that might yield significantly improved treatments. With Alzheimer’s, say, we were stuck for a long time on variants of plaque hypotheses (“this bad stuff accumulates and we have to stop it accumulating”)… it’s now getting hard to ignore the fact that the immune system clearly plays a major — and maybe dominant — role. Elsewhere, we’re plausibly on the cusp of effective dengue, AIDS, and malaria vaccines. That’s pretty huge.

Last, energy technology. Batteries (88% cost decline in a decade) and renewables are well-told stories and the second-order effects will be important. (As we banish the internal combustion engine, for example, we’ll reap a significant dividend as a result of the reduction in air pollution.) Electric aircraft will probably happen, at least for shorter distances. Solar electricity is asymptoting to near-free, which in turn unlocks other interesting possibilities. (Could we synthesize hydrocarbons via solar powered atmospheric CO2 concentration — that is, make oil out of air — and thereby render remaining fossil fuel use-cases carbon neutral?) There are a lot of good ideas for making nuclear energy safer and cheaper. France today gets three quarters of its electricity from nuclear power… getting other countries to follow suit would be transformatively helpful in averting climate change.

There’s lots more! New semiconductor technology. Improved ML and everything that that enables. Starlink — cheap and fast internet everywhere! Earth-to-earth travel via space plus flying cars. The idea of urbanism that doesn’t suck seems to be gaining traction. There’s a lot of good stuff on the horizon.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-patrick-collison-co-founder

I know I say this every other day, but please – pretty please with a cherry on top – do read the whole thing. And subscribe to Noah Smith’s Substack, and follow him on Twitter, and follow Patrick Collison on Twitter, and read the page titled Advice on his website.1

There are many, many, many things to appreciate about Patrick Collison, but the thing that has stayed with me the longest is a tweet of his, that helped me understand how to approach Twitter (and therefore life):

Wonderful advice, and I’ve taken it to heart.

But you need the “No, but” approach in life too. Not so much to disagree with other people, but to constantly ask yourself how you might be wrong, and to think about what needs changing for the better.

And a wonderful essay that speaks about precisely this came out this week as well:

The Decadent Society came out in hardcover about three weeks before Italy’s hospitals were overwhelmed by the coronavirus and lockdowns began to descend across the Western world. So it was probably not the ideal time to bring out a book arguing that our era is defined by drift, stalemate, boredom and repetition, that Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” is still with us thirty years after he declared its advent, that our society is more likely to glide slowly toward dystopia than to leap forward toward a renaissance or plunge into catastrophe. Surely here was something new, here was history come again, here was the shock, the crisis, the un-simulated Reality, the hinge from one age into the next. Surely the pandemic meant the end of decadence, whatever else it meant.

In the Zoom interviews with which I finished up my book tour, I usually half-conceded the point. Yes, this was a real crisis, death taking off its masque amid the partygoers, stalemate giving way to disaster, Reality Itself suddenly pushing fantasy and simulation aside. But at the same time, nothing about a temporary crisis necessarily alters long-term patterns. Plagues can open new chapters in history, but it all depends on how people respond to them, what kind of responses are possible, and which pre-existing trends they accelerate or blunt. Would our decadent institutions, when tested, crumble, taking us deeper into crisis, closer to collapse? Would the shock of pandemic spark a new era of technological innovation, or midwife a new age of political reform? Or would stagnation reassert itself, or even deepen, in the aftermath?

https://douthat.substack.com/p/the-pandemic-and-the-decadent-society

I haven’t yet read Ross Douthat’s book, but he refers to the four horsemen of the decadent society in his essay: stagnation, sterility, sclerosis, and repetition.2

And this essay is a larger examination of the same question: where do you see the world in the future, but now viewed not through the prism of sunny optimism that imminent technological advances can bring you, but also through the prisms of institutional, cultural and demographic pessimism.

This point, in particular, stood out for me:

Lyman Stone recently calculated that there would be 5.8 million more babies if the U.S. had just maintained its pre-Great Recession birthrates; the pandemic is likely to subtract at least several hundred thousand more, with similar trends in Europe.

Yes, it’s possible to hope that the optimistic economic scenario described above will speed a fertility rebound. It’s possible to look at developments in U.S. family policy and see our political system slowly, slowly coming round to taking those issues seriously. Maybe there’s a big turnaround waiting to happen here: Maybe in a Biden boom there will be a battery-powered minivan in every driveway, piloted by a remote-working parent, and simply stuffed with kids.

But to the extent that the fertility collapse is connected with the struggle to transition to adulthood, the struggle to form stable romantic partnerships, it’s also easy to see how the coronavirus’s negative effects could linger — how a lost period for courtship and marriages, a retreat from physical reality and real-world intimacy in crucial years for both, could reverberate through the next decade and beyond.

https://douthat.substack.com/p/the-pandemic-and-the-decadent-society

I sincerely hope he is wrong about this, and I genuinely think that he is, but is it a point worth thinking about and a factor worth including in your analysis of the future?

Absolutely.


Reading both essays will absolutely not help you get the answer to the question of what the future will look like. Nothing will, because the future will remain resolutely unknowable. But both essays will help you get started on which factors you might want to use in your analysis of the question. And will be very informative about why the people who helped make both essays happen think the way they do.

And therefore I’d recommend that you read them. Multiple times over, preferably.

  1. I’ve linked to it before, and I’ll gladly link to it again, it’s that good[]
  2. It is fascinating to me how in the excerpt above, he refers to this quartet as drift, stalemate, boredom and repetition. The first three words have changed, and if you ask me, for the better. The fourth is, well, repeated. I would love to ask Ross Douthat if that was deliberate – and if so, well played, sir![]