#29 On the referendum & #4c on Expertise: On the ARPA/PARC ‘Dream Machine’, science funding, high performance, and UK national strategy

Post-Brexit Britain should be considering the intersection of 1) ARPA/PARC-style science research and ‘systems management’ for managing complex projects with 2) the reform of government institutions so that high performance teams — with different education/training (‘Tetlock processes’) and tools (including data science and visualisations of interactive models of complex systems) — can make ‘better decisions in a complex world’.  

This paper examines the ARPA/PARC vision for computing and the nature of the two organisations. In the 1960s visionaries such as Joseph Licklider, Robert Taylor and Doug Engelbart developed a vision of networked interactive computing that provided the foundation not just for new technologies but for whole new industries. Licklider, Sutherland, Taylor et al provided a model (ARPA) for how science funding can work. Taylor provided a model (PARC) of how to manage a team of extremely talented people who turned a profound vision into reality. The original motivation for the vision of networked interactive computing was to help humans make good decisions in a complex world.

This story suggests ideas about how to make big improvements in the world with very few resources if they are structured right. From a British perspective it also suggests ideas about what post-Brexit Britain should do to help itself and the world and how it might be possible to force some sort of ‘phase transition’ on the rotten Westminster/Whitehall system.

For the PDF of the paper click HERE. Please correct errors with page numbers below. I will update it after feedback.

Further Reading

The Dream Machine.

Dealers of Lightning.

‘Sketchpad: A man-machine graphical communication system’, Ivan Sutherland 1963.

Oral history interview with Sutherland, head of ARPA’s IPTO division 1963-5.

This link has these seminal papers:

  • Man-Computer Symbiosis, Licklider (1960)
  • The computer as a communications device, Licklider & Taylor (1968)

Watch Alan Kay explain how to invent the future to YCombinator classes HERE and HERE.  

HERE for Kay quotes from emails with Bret Victor.

HERE for Kay’s paper on PARC, The Power of the Context.

Kay’s Early History of Smalltalk.

HERE for a conversation between Kay and Engelbart.

Alan Kay’s tribute to Ted Nelson at “Intertwingled” Fest (an Alto using Smalltalk).

Personal Distributed Computing: The Alto and Ethernet Software1, Butler Lampson. 

You and Your Research, Richard Hamming.

AI nationalism, essay by Ian Hogarth. This concerns implications of AI for geopolitics.

Drones go to work, Chris Anderson (one of the pioneers of commercial drones). This explains the economics of the drone industry.

Meditations on Moloch, Scott Alexander. This is an extremely good essay in general about deep problems with our institutions.

Intelligence Explosion Microeconomics, Yudkowsky.

Autonomous technology and the greater human good. Omohundro.

Can intelligence explode? Hutter.

For the issue of IQ, genetics and the distribution of talent (and much much more), cf. Steve Hsu’s brilliant blog.

Bret Victor.

Michael Nielsen.

For some pre-history on computers, cf. The birth of computational thinking (some of the history of computing devices before the Turing/von Neumann revolution) and The crisis of mathematical paradoxes, Gödel, Turing and the basis of computing (some of the history of ideas about mathematical foundations and logic such as the famous papers by Gödel and Turing in the 1930s)

Part I of this series of blogs is HERE.

Part II on the emergence of ‘systems management’, how George Mueller used it to put man on the moon, and a checklist of how successful management of complex projects is systematically different to how Whitehall works is HERE.

On the referendum #28: Some interesting stuff on AI/ML with, hopefully, implications for post-May/Hammond decisions

Here are a few interesting recent papers I’ve read over the past few months.

Bear in mind that Shane Legg, co-founder and chief scientist of Deep Mind, said publicly a few years ago that there’s a 50% probability that we will achieve human level AI by 2028 and a 90% probability by 2050. Given all that has happened since, including at Deep Mind, it’s surely unlikely he now thinks this forecast is too optimistic. Also bear in mind that the US-China AI arms race is already underway, the UK lost its main asset before almost any MPs even knew its name, and the EU in general (outside London) is decreasingly relevant as progress at the edge of the field is driven by coastal America and coastal China, spurred by commercial and national security dynamics. This will get worse as the EU Commission and the ECJ use the Charter of Fundamental Rights to grab the power to regulate all high technology fields from AI to genomics — a legal/power dynamic still greatly under-appreciated in London’s technology world. If you think GDPR is a mess, wait for the ECJ to spend three years deciding crucial cases on autonomous drones and genetic engineering before upending research in the field…

Vote Leave argued during the referendum that a Leave victory should deliver the huge changes that the public wanted and the UK should make science and technology the focus of a profound process of national renewal. On this as on everything else, from Article 50 to how to conduct the negotiations to budget priorities to immigration policy, SW1 in general and the Conservative Party in particular did the opposite of what Vote Leave said. They have driven the country into the ditch and the only upside is they have exposed the rottenness of Westminster and Whitehall and forced many who wanted to keep the duvet over their eyes to face reality — the first step in improvement.

After the abysmal May/Hammond interlude is over, hopefully some time between October 2018 — July 2019, its replacement will need to change course on almost every front from the NHS to how SW1 pours billions into the greedy paws of corporate looters via its appallingly managed >£200 BILLION annual contracting/procurement budget — ‘there’s no money’ bleats most of SW1 as it unthinkingly shovels it at the demimonde of Carillion/BaE-like companies that prop up its MPs with donations.

May’s replacement could decide to take seriously the economic and technological forces changing the world. The UK could, with a very different vision of the future to anything now proposed in Whitehall, improve its own security and prosperity and help the world but this will require 1) substantially changing the wiring of power in Whitehall so decisions are better (new people, training, ideas, tools, and institutions), and 2) making scientific research and technology projects important at the apex of power. We could build real assets with much greater real influence than the chimerical ‘influence’ in Brussels meeting rooms that SW1 has used as an excuse to give away power to Brussels where thinking is much closer to the 1970s than to today’s coastal China or Silicon Valley. Brushing aside Corbyn would be child’s play for a government that could focus on important questions and took project management — an undiscussable subject in SW1 — seriously.

The whole country — the whole world — can see our rotten parties have failed us. The parties ally with the civil service to keep new ideas and people excluded. SW1 has tried to resist the revolutionary implications of the referendum but this resistance has to crack: one way or the other the old ways are doomed. The country voted for profound change in 2016. The Tories didn’t understand this hence, partly, the worst campaign in modern history. This dire Cabinet, doomed to merciless judgement in the history books, is visibly falling: let’s ‘push what is falling’…

For specific proposals on improving the appalling science funding system, see below.

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The Sam Altman co-founded non-profit, OpenAI, made major progress with its Dota-playing AI last week: follow @gdb for updates. Deep Mind is similarly working on Starcraft. It is a major advance to shift from perfect information games like GO to imperfect strategic games like Dota and Starcraft. If AIs shortly beat the best humans at full versions of such games, then it means they can outperform at least parts of human reasoning in ways that have been assumed to be many years away. As OpenAI says, it is a major step ‘towards advanced AI systems which can handle the complexity and uncertainty of the real world.’

https://blog.openai.com/openai-five-benchmark-results/

RAND paper on how AI affects the chances of nuclear catastrophe:

https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/perspectives/PE200/PE296/RAND_PE296.pdf

The Malicious Use of Artificial Intelligence:

https://img1.wsimg.com/blobby/go/3d82daa4-97fe-4096-9c6b-376b92c619de/downloads/1c6q2kc4v_50335.pdf

Defense Science Board: ‘Summer Study on Autonomy’ (2016):

http://www.acq.osd.mil/dsb/reports/2010s/DSBSS15.pdf

JASON: ‘Perspectives on Research in Artificial Intelligence and Artificial General Intelligence Relevant to DoD’ (2017)

https://fas.org/irp/agency/dod/jason/ai-dod.pdf

Artificial Intelligence and National Security, Greg Allen Taniel Chan (for IARPA):

Artificial Intelligence and National Security – The Belfer Center for …

Some predictions on driverless cars and other automation milestones: http://rodneybrooks.com/my-dated-predictions/

Project Maven (very relevant to politicians/procurement): https://thebulletin.org/project-maven-brings-ai-fight-against-isis11374

Chris Anderson on drones changing business sectors:

https://hbr.org/cover-story/2017/05/drones-go-to-work

On the trend in AI compute and economic sustainability (NB. I think the author is wrong on the Manhattan Project being a good upper bound for what a country will spend in an arms race, US GDP spent on DoD at the height of the Cold War would be a better metric): https://aiimpacts.org/interpreting-ai-compute-trends/

Read this excellent essay on ‘AI Nationalism’ by Ian Hogarth, directly relevant to arms race arguments and UK policy.

Read ‘Intelligence Explosion Microeconomics’ by Yudkowsky.

Read ‘Autonomous technology and the greater human good’ by Omohundro — one of the best things about the dangers of AGI and ideas about safety I’ve seen by one of the most respected academics working in this field.

Existential Risk: Diplomacy and Governance (Future of Humanity Institute, 2017).

If you haven’t you should also read this 1955 essay by von Neumann ‘Can we survive technology?’. It is relevant beyond any specific technology. VN was regarded by the likes of Einstein and Dirac as the smartest person they’d ever met. He was involved in the Manhattan Project, inventing computer science, game theory and much more. This essay explored the essential problem that the scale and speed of technological change suddenly blew up assumptions about political institutions’ ability to cope. Much reads as if it were written yesterday.  ‘For progress there is no cure…’

I blogged on a paper by Judea Pearl a few months ago HERE. He is the leading scholar of causation. He argues that current ML approaches are inherently limited and advance requires giving machines causal reasoning:

‘If we want machines to reason about interventions (“What if we ban cigarettes?”) and introspection (“What if I had finished high school?”), we must invoke causal models. Associations are not enough — and this is a mathematical fact, not opinion.’

I also wrote this recently on science funding which links to a great piece by two young neuroscientists about how post-Brexit Britain should improve science and is also relevant to how the UK could set up an ARPA-like entity to fund AI/ML and other fields:

https://dominiccummings.com/2018/06/08/on-the-referendum-25-how-to-change-science-funding-post-brexit/

 

On the referendum #25: a letter to Tory MPs & donors on the Brexit shambles

[NB. As has become usual, whenever I write something critical about an aspect of Brexit, Remain-supporting media like the FT/Economist/Guardian etc portray this dishonestly as a general statement about Brexit. So for example, below I say that the Government ‘irretrievably botched’ the process of preparing to be a ‘third country’ under EU law in line with official policy. This has been widely quoted as ‘Brexit is irretrievably botched’. This is not at all my view as I have said many times. The referendum was explicitly presented to the country by Parliament as a ‘choice for a generation’. Whether Brexit is a success will not be determined by the ‘deal’. The deal is now sure to be much worse than it could have been. This means we will start off outside the EU in a state worse than we might have done. But whether we make the most of things over a 10/20/30 year timescale is a completely different question and unknowable to anybody. Ignore the fanatics on both sides who are ‘sure’, from Chris Giles to Bill Cash.]

Dear Tory MPs and donors

I’ve avoided writing about the substance of Brexit and the negotiations since the anniversary last year but a few of you have been in touch recently asking ‘what do you think?’ so…

Vote Leave said during the referendum that:

1) promising to use the Article 50 process would be stupid and the UK should maintain the possibility of making real preparations to leave while NOT triggering Article 50 and

2) triggering Article 50 quickly without discussions with our EU friends and without a plan ‘would be like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger’. 

Following this advice would have maintained the number of positive branching histories of the future, including a friendly departure under Article 50.

The Government immediately accepted bogus legal advice and triggered Article 50 quickly without discussions with our EU friends and without a plan. This immediately closed many positive branching histories and created major problems. The joy in Brussels was palpable. Hammond and DD responded to this joy with empty sabre rattling which Brussels is now enjoying shoving down their throats.  

The government’s nominal policy, which it put in its manifesto and has repeated many times, is to leave the Single Market and Customs Union and the jurisdiction of the ECJ.

This requires preparing to be a ‘third country’ for the purposes of  EU law. It requires building all the infrastructure and facilities that are normal around the world to manage trade.

This process should have started BEFORE triggering A50 but the government has irretrievably botched this.

Having botched it, it could have partially recovered its blunder by starting to do it afterwards.

No such action has been taken.

Downing Street, the Treasury, the Cabinet Office and the Cabinet have made no such preparations and there is no intention of starting.

The Cabinet has never asked for and never been given a briefing from responsible officials on these preparations. Some of them understand this and are happy (e.g Hammond). Most of them don’t understand this and/or prefer not to think about it. It will be trashed in the history books as the pre-1914 Cabinet has been for its failure to discuss what its military alliance with France actually meant until after it was too late.

The few ministers who try to make preparations are often told ‘it’s illegal’ and are blocked by their own Departments, the Cabinet Office and Treasury. The standard officials device of ‘legal advice’ is routinely deployed to whip cowed ministers and spads into line. But given officials now know the May/Hammond plan is surrender, it’s hardly surprising they are not preparing for a Potemkin policy. 

The Treasury argues, with a logic that is both contemptible and reasonable in the comical circumstances, that given the actual outcome of the negotiations will be abject surrender, it is pointless wasting more money to prepare for a policy that has no future and therefore even the Potemkin preparations now underway should be abandoned (NB. the Chancellor has earmarked half of the money for a ‘no deal’ for the fiscal year after we leave the EU).

Instead, Whitehall’s real preparations are for the continuation of EU law and the jurisdiction of the ECJ. The expectation is that MPs will end up accepting the terrible agreement as voting it down would be to invite chaos.

In short, the state has made no preparations to leave and plans to make no preparations to leave even after leaving.

Further, the Government promised in the December agreement to do a number of things that are logically, legally and practically incompatible including leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, avoiding ‘friction’ and changing nothing around the Irish border (as defined by the EU), and having no border in the Irish Sea.

The Government has also aided and abetted bullshit invented by Irish nationalists and Remain campaigners that the Belfast Agreement prevents reasonable customs checks on trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Read the agreement. It does no such thing. This has fatally undermined the UK’s negotiating position and has led to the false choice of not really leaving the EU (‘the Government’s backstop’) or undermining the UK’s constitutional integrity (‘the EU’s backstop’). Barwell promised ministers in December that the text did not mean what it plainly did mean. Now he argues ‘you agreed all this in December’. Whenever you think ‘it can’t be this bad’, the internal processes are always much worse than you think.

Parliament and its Select Committees have contributed to delusions. They have made almost no serious investigation of what preparations to be a third country under EU law should be and what steps are being taken to achieve it.

A small faction of pro-Brexit MPs (which also nearly destroyed Vote Leave so they could babble about ‘Global Britain’ in TV debates) could have done one useful thing — forced the government to prepare for their official policy. Instead this faction has instead spent its time trying to persuade people that all talk of ‘preparations’ is a conspiracy of Brussels and Heywood. They were an asset to Remain in the referendum and they’ve helped sink a viable policy since. A party that treats this faction (or Dominic Grieve) as a serious authority on the law deserves everything it gets. (I don’t mean ‘the ERG’ — I mean a subset of the ERG.)

All this contributes to current delusional arguments over supposed ‘models’ (hybrid/max fac etc) that even on their own terms cannot solve the problem of multiple incompatible promises. ‘Compromise proposals’ such as that from Boles which assume the existence of ‘third country’ planning are just more delusions. It doesn’t matter which version of delusion your gangs finally agree on if none of them has a basis in reality and so long as May/Hammond continue they will have no basis in reality.

You can dance around the fundamental issues all you want but in the end ‘reality cannot be fooled’.

The Government effectively has no credible policy and the whole world knows it. By not taking the basic steps any sane Government should have taken from 24 June 2016, including providing itself with world class legal advice, it’s ‘strategy’ has imploded. It now thinks its survival requires surrender, it thinks that admitting this risks its survival, it thinks that the MPs can be bullshitted by clever drafting from officials, and that once Leave MPs and donors — you guys — are ordering your champagne in the autumn for your parties on 30 March 2019 you will balk at bringing down the Government when you finally have to face that you’ve been conned. Eurosceptics are full of shit and threats they don’t deliver, they say in No10, and on this at least they have a point.

This set of problems cannot be solved by swapping ‘useless X’ for ‘competent Y’ or ‘better spin’.

This set of problems cannot be solved by listening to charlatans such as the overwhelming majority of economists and ‘trade experts’ who brand themselves pro-Brexit, live in parallel universes, and spin fantasies to you.

This set of problems derives partly from the fact that the wiring of power in Downing Street is systemically dysfunctional and, worse, those with real institutional power (Cabinet Office/HMT officials etc) have as their top priority the maintenance of this broken system and keeping Britain as closely tied to the EU as possible. There is effectively zero prospect of May’s team, totally underwater, solving these problems not least because they cannot see them — indeed, their only strategy is to ‘trust officials to be honest’, which is like trusting Bernie Madoff with your finances. Brexit cannot be done with the traditional Westminster/Whitehall system as Vote Leave  warned repeatedly before 23 June 2016.

Further, lots of what Corbyn says is more popular than what Tory think tanks say and you believe (e.g nationalising the trains and water companies that have been run by corporate looters who Hammond says ‘we must defend’). You are only at 40% in the polls because a set of UKIP voters has decided to back you until they see how Brexit turns out. You only survived the most useless campaign in modern history because Vote Leave killed UKIP. You’re now acting like you want someone to create a serious version of it.

Ask yourselves: what happens when the country sees you’ve simultaneously a) ‘handed over tens of billions for fuck all’ as they’ll say in focus groups (which the UK had no liability to pay), b) failed to do anything about unskilled immigration, c) persecuted the high skilled immigrants, such as scientists, who the public wants you to be MORE welcoming to, and d) failed to deliver on the nation’s Number One priority — funding for the NHS which is about to have a very high profile anniversary? And what happens if May staggers to 30 March 2019 and, as Barwell is floating with some of you, they then dig in to fight the 2022 campaign?

If you think that babble about ‘the complexity of the Irish border / the Union / peace’ will get you all off the hook, you must be listening to the same people who ran the 2017 campaign. It won’t. The public, when they tune back in at some point, will consider any argument based on Ireland as such obvious bullshit you must be lying. Given they already think you lie about everything, it won’t be a stretch.

Yes there are things you can do to mitigate the train wreck. For example, it requires using the period summer 2019 to autumn 2021 to change the political landscape, which is incompatible with the continuation of the May/Hammond brand of stagnation punctuated by rubbish crisis management. If you go into the 2022 campaign after five years of this and the contest is Tory promises versus Corbyn promises, you will be maximising the odds of Corbyn as PM. Since 1945, only once has a party trying to win a third term increased its number of seats. Not Thatcher. Not Blair. 1959 — after swapping Eden for Macmillan and with over ~6% growth the year before the vote. You will be starting without a majority (unlike others fighting for a third term). You won’t have half that growth — you will need something else. Shuffling some people is necessary but extremely far from sufficient. 

Of course it could have worked out differently but that is now an argument over branching histories for the history books. Yes it’s true that May, Hammond, Heywood and Robbins are Remain and have screwed it up but you’re deluded if you think you’ll be able to blame the debacle just on them. Whitehall is better at the blame game than you are, officials are completely dominant in this government, ministers have chosen to put Heywood/Robbins in charge, and YOU will get most of the blame from the public.

The sooner you internalise these facts and face reality, the better for the country and you.

Every day that you refuse to face reality increases the probability not only of a terrible deal but also of Seumas Milne shortly casting his curious and sceptical eyes over your assets and tax affairs.

It also increases the probability that others will conclude your party is incapable of coping with this situation and, unless it changes fast, drastic action will be needed including the creation of new forces to reflect public contempt for both the main parties and desire for a political force that reflects public priorities.

If revolution there is to be, better to undertake it than undergo it…

Best wishes

Former campaign director of Vote Leave

Ps. This explains part of what needs to be done and as you will see it will not be done by a normal UK party operating with the existing Whitehall system –‘a change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points’ and ‘how to capture the heavens’.

PPS. I should also add there are many officials who wanted to deliver government policy and MPs have let them down appallingly too. The less I say about that the better for them.

Review of Allison’s book on US/China & nuclear destruction, and some connected thoughts on technology, the EU, and space

‘The combination of physics and politics could render the surface of the earth uninhabitable… [Technological progress] gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we have known them, cannot continue.’ John von Neumann, one of the 20th Century’s most important mathematicians, one of the two most responsible for developing digital computers, central to Manhattan Project etc.

‘Politics is always like visiting a country one does not know with people whom one does not know and whose reactions one cannot predict. When one person puts a hand in his pocket, the other person is already drawing his gun, and when he pulls the trigger the first one fires and it is too late then to ask whether the requirements of common law with regard to self-defence apply, and since common law is not effective in politics people are very, very quick to adopt an aggressive defence.’ Bismarck, 1879.

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Below is a review of Graham Allison’s book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?. Allison’s book is particularly interesting given what is happening with North Korea and Trump. It is partly about the most urgent question: whether and how humanity can survive the collision between science and politics.

Beneath the review are a few other thoughts on the book and its themes. I will also post some notes on stuff connecting ideas about advanced technology and strategy (conventional and nuclear) including notes from the single best book on nuclear strategy, Payne’s The Great American Gamble: deterrence theory and practice from the Cold War to the twenty-first century. If you want to devote your life to a cause with maximum impact, then studying this book is a good start and it also connects to debates on other potential existential threats such as biological engineering and AI.

Payne’s book connects directly to Allison’s. Allison focuses a lot on the circumstances in which crises could spin out of control and end in US-China war. Payne’s book is the definitive account of nuclear strategy and its intellectual and practical problems. Payne’s book in a nutshell: 1) politicians and most senior officials operate with the belief that there is a dependable ‘rational’ basis for successful deterrence in which ‘rational’ US opponents will respond prudently and cautiously to US nuclear deterrence threats; 2) the re-evaluation of nuclear strategy in expert circles since the Cold War exposes the deep flaws of Cold War thinking in general and the concept of ‘rational’ deterrence in particular (partly because strategy was dangerously influenced by ideas about rationality from economics). Expert debate has not permeated to most of those responsible or the media. Trump’s language over North Korea and the media debate about it are stuck in the language of Cold War deterrence.

I would bet that no UK Defence Secretary has read Payne’s book. (Have the MoD PermSecs? The era of Michael Quinlan has long gone as the Iraq inquiries revealed.) What emerges from UK Ministers suggests they are operating with Cold War illusions. If you think I’m probably too pessimistic, then ponder this comment by Professor Allison who has spent half a century in these circles: ‘Over the past decade, I have yet to meet a senior member of the US national security team who had so much as read the official national security strategies’ (emphasis added). NB. he is referring to reading the official strategies, not the explanations of why they are partly flawed!

This of course relates to the theme of much I have written: the dangers created by the collision of science and markets with dysfunctional individuals and political institutions, and the way the political-media system actively suppresses thinking about, and focus on, what’s important.

Priorities are fundamental to politics because of inevitable information bottlenecks: these bottlenecks can be transformed by rare good organisation but they cannot be eradicated. People are always asking ‘how could the politicians let X happen with Y?’ where Y is something important. People find it hard to believe that Y is not the focus of  serious attention and therefore things like X are bound to happen all the time. People like Osborne and Clegg are focused on some magazine profile, not Y. The subject of nuclear command and control ought to make people realise that their mental models for politics are deeply wrong. It is beyond doubt that politicians do not even take the question of accidental nuclear war seriously, so a fortiori there is no reason to have confidence in their general approach to priorities.

If you think of politics as ‘serious people focusing seriously on the most important questions’, which is the default mode of most educated people and the media (but not the less-educated public which has better instincts), then your model of reality is badly wrong. A more accurate model is: politics is a system that 1) selects against skills needed for rigorous thinking and for qualities such as groupthink and confirmation bias, 2) incentivises a badly selected set of people to consider their career not the public interest, 3) drops them into dysfunctional institutions with no relevant training and poor tools, 4) centralises vast amounts of power in the hands of these people and institutions in ways we know are bound to cause huge errors, and 5) provides very weak (and often damaging) feedback so facing reality is rare, learning is practically impossible, and system reform is seen as a hostile act by political parties and civil services worldwide.

I meant to publish this a few days ago on ‘Petrov day’, the anniversary of 26 September 1983 when Petrov saw US nuclear missiles heading for Russia on his screen but in a snap decision without consultation he decided not to inform his superiors, guessing it was some sort of technical error and not wanting to risk catastrophic escalation. (Petrov died a few weeks ago.) I forgot to post but my point is: we will not keep getting lucky like that, and our odds worsen with every week that the political system works as it does. The cumulative probability of disaster grows alarmingly even if you assume a small chance of disaster. For example, a 1% chance of wipeout per year means the probability of wipeout is about 20% within 20 years, about 50% within 70 years, and about two-thirds within a century. Given what we now know it’s reasonable to plan on the basis that the chance of a nuclear accident of some sort leading to mass destruction is at least 1% per year. A 1:30 chance per year means a ~97% chance of wipeout in a century…

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Review of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?, by Graham Allison

Every day on his way to work at Harvard, Professor Allison wondered how the reconstruction of the bridge over Boston’s Charles River could take years while in China bigger bridges are replaced in days. His book tells the extraordinary story of China’s transformation since Deng abandoned Mao’s catastrophic Stalinism, and considers whether the story will end in war between China and America.

China erects skyscrapers in weeks while Parliament delays Heathrow expansion for over a decade. The EU discusses dumb rules made 60 years ago while China produces a Greece-sized economy every 16 weeks. China’s economy doubles roughly every seven years; it is already the size of America’s and will likely dwarf it in 20 years. More serious than Europe, it invests this growth in education and technology from genetic engineering to artificial intelligence.

Allison analyses the formidable President Xi, who has known real suffering and is very different to western leaders obsessed with the frivolous spin cycles of domestic politics. Xi’s goal is to ensure that China’s renaissance returns it to its position as the richest, strongest and most advanced culture on earth. Allison asks: will the US-China relationship repeat the dynamics between Athens and Sparta that led to war in 431 bc or might it resemble the story of the British-American alliance in the 20th century?

In Thucydides’ history the dynamic growth of Athens caused such fear that, amid confusing signals in an escalating crisis, Sparta gambled on preventive war. Similarly, after Bismarck unified Germany in 1870-71, Europe’s balance of power was upended. In summer 1914, the leaderships of all Great Powers were overwhelmed by confusing signals amid a rapidly escalating crisis. The prime minister doodled love letters to his girlfriend as the cabinet discussed Ireland, and European civilisation tottered over the brink.

Allison discusses how America, China and Taiwan [or Korea] might play the roles of Britain, Germany and Belgium. China has invested in weapons with powerful asymmetric advantages: cheap missiles can sink an aircraft carrier costing billions, and cyber weapons could negate America’s powerful space and communication infrastructure. American war-games often involve bombing Chinese coastal installations. How far might it escalate?

Nuclear weapons increase destructive power a million-fold and give a leader just minutes to decide whether a (possibly false) warning justifies firing weapons that would destroy civilisation, while relying on the same sort of hierarchical decision-making processes that failed in the much slower 1914 crisis.

Terrifying near misses have already happened, and we have been saved by individuals’ snap judgments. They have occurred, luckily, during episodes of relative calm. Similar incidents during an intense crisis could spark catastrophe. The Pentagon hoped that technology would bring ‘information dominance’: instead, technology accelerates crises and overwhelms decisions. Real and virtual robots will fight battles and influence minds faster than traditional institutions can follow.

Allison hopes Washington will rediscover its 1940s seriousness, when it built a strategy and institutions to contain Stalin. He suggests abandoning ‘containment’, which is unlikely to work in the same way against capitalist China as it did against Soviet Russia. It could drop security guarantees to Taiwan to lower escalation risks. It could promote new institutions to tackle destructive technology and terrorism. Since China will upend post-1945 institutions anyway, why not try to shape what comes next together? Perhaps, channelling Sun Tzu, the West could avoid defeat by not trying to ‘win’.

It is hard to see how the necessary leadership might emerge.

We need government teams capable of the rare high performance we see in George Mueller’s Nasa, which put man on the moon; or in Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs such as Sam Altman and Patrick Collison. This means senior politicians and officials of singular ability and with different education, training and experience. It means extremely adaptive institutions and state-of-the-art tools, not the cabinet processes that failed in 1914. It means breaking the power of self-absorbed parties and bureaucracies that evolved before nuclear physics and the internet.

New leaders must build institutions for global cooperation that can transcend Thucydides’ dynamics. For example, the plan of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, to build a permanent moon base in which countries work together to harness the resources of the solar system is the sort of project that could create an alternative focus to nationalist antagonism.

The scale of change seems impossible, yet technology gives us no choice — we must try to escape our evolutionary origins, since we cannot survive repeated roulette with advanced technology. Churchill wrote how in 1914 governments drifted into ‘fathomless catastrophe’ in ‘a kind of dull cataleptic trance’. Western leaders are in another such trance. Unless new forces evolve outside closed political systems and force change we will suffer greater catastrophe; it’s just a matter of when.

I hope people like Jeff Bezos read this timely book and resolve to build the political forces we need.

(Originally appeared in The Spectator.)

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A few other thoughts

I’ve got some quibbles, such as interpretations of Thucydides, but I won’t go into those.

There are many issues in it I did not have time to mention in a short review…

1. Nuclear crises / accidents

In the context of US-China crises, it is very instructive to consider some of the most dangerous episodes of the Cold War that remained secret at the time.

Here are some of the near misses that have been declassified (see this timeline from Future of Life Institute).

  • 24 January 1961. A US bomber broke up and dropped two hydrogen bombs on North Carolina. Five of six safety devices failed. ‘By the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted’ (Defence Secretary Robert McNamara).
  • 25 October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A sabotage alarm was triggered at a US base. Faulty wiring meant that the alarm triggered the take-off of nuclear armed US planes. Fortunately they made contact with the ground and were stood down. The alarm had been triggered by a bear — yes, a bear, like in a Simpsons episode — pottering around outside the base. This was one of many incidents during this crisis, including one base where missiles and codes were mishandled such that a single person could have launched.
  • 27 October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A Soviet submarine was armed with nuclear weapons. It was cornered by US ships which dropped depth charges. It had no contact with Moscow for days and had no idea if war had already broken out. Malfunctioning systems meant carbon dioxide poisoning and crew were fainting. In panic the captain ordered a nuclear missile fired. Orders said that three officers had to agree. Only two did. Vasili Arkhipov said No. It was not known until after the collapse of the Soviet Union that there were also tactical nuclear missiles deployed to Cuba and, for the only time, under direct authority of field commanders who could fire without further authority from Moscow, so if the US had decided to attack Cuba, as many urged JFK to do, there is a reasonable chance that local commanders would have begun a nuclear exchange. Castro wanted these missiles, unknown to America, transferred to Cuban control. Fortunately, Mikoyan, the Soviet in charge on the ground, witnessed Castro’s unstable character and decided not to transfer these missiles to his control. The missiles were secretly returned to Russia shortly after.
  • 1 August 1974. A warning of the danger of allowing one person to give a catastrophic order: Nixon was depressed, drinking heavily, and unstable so Defense Secretary Schlesinger told the Joint Chiefs to come to him in the event of any order to fire nuclear weapons.
  • 9 November 1979. NORAD thought there was a large-scale Soviet nuclear attack. Planes were scrambled and ICBM crews put on highest alert. The National Security Adviser was called at home. He looked at his wife asleep and decided not to wake her as they would shortly both be dead and he turned his mind to calling President Carter about plans for massive retaliation before he died. After 6 minutes no satellite data confirmed launches. Decisions were delayed. It turned out that a technician had accidentally input a training program which played through the computer system as if it were a real attack. (There were other similar incidents.)
  • 26 September 1983. A month after the Soviet Union shot down a Korean passenger jet and at a time of international tension, a Soviet satellite showed America had launched five nuclear missiles. The data suggested the satellite was working properly but the officer on duty, Stanilov Petrov, decided to report it to his superiors as a false alarm without knowing if it was true. It turned out to be an odd effect of sun glinting off clouds that fooled the system.
  • 2-11 November 1983. NATO ran a large wargame with a simulation of DEFCON 1 and coordinated attack on the Soviet Union. The war-game was so realistic that Soviet intelligence thought it was a cover for a real attack and Soviet missiles were placed on high alert. On 11 November the Soviets intercepted a message saying US missiles had launched. Fortunately, incidents such as 26 September 1983 did not randomly occur during this 10 days.
  • 25 January 1995. The Russian system detected the launch of a missile off the coast of Norway that was thought to be a US submarine launch. The warning went to Yeltsin who activated his ‘nuclear football’ and retrieved launch codes. There was no corroboration from satellites. Norway had actually reached a scientific rocket and somehow this was not notified properly in Russia.
  • 29-30 August 2007. Six US nuclear weapons were accidentally loaded into a B52 which was left unguarded overnight, flown to another base where it was left unguarded for another nine hours before ground crew realised what they were looking at. For 36 hours nobody realised the missiles were missing.
  • 23 October 2010. The US command and control system responsible for detecting and stopping unauthorised launches lost all control of 50 ICBMs for an hour because of communication failure caused by a dodgy component.
  • A 2013 monitoring exercise found the US nuclear command and control system generally shambolic. Staff were found to be on drugs and otherwise unsuitable, the system was deemed unfit to cope with a major hack, and the commander of the ICBM force was compromised by a classic KGB ‘honey trap’ (when I lived in Moscow I met some of the women who worked on such operations and I’d bet >90% of male UK Ministers/PermSecs would throw themselves at them faster than you can say ‘honey trap’).

This is just a sample. The full list still understates the scale of luck we have had in at least two ways. First, the data is mostly from America because America is a more open society. The most sensible assumption is that there have been more incidents in Russia than we know about. Second, there is a selection bias towards older incidents that have been declassified.

Right now there are hundreds of missiles on ‘hair-trigger’ alert for launch within minutes. Decisions about how reliable a warning is and whether to fire must all be taken within minutes. This makes the whole world vulnerable to accidents, unauthorised use, unhinged leaders, and false alarms. This situation could get worse. China’s missiles are not on hair-trigger alert but the Chinese military is pushing to change this. Adding a third country operating like this would make the system even more unstable. It also seems very likely that proliferation will continue to spread. The West preaches non-proliferation at non-nuclear countries but this unsurprisingly is not persuasive.

2. China’s weaknesses, including the tension between informational openness needed for growth and its political dangers

During the Cold War, many people from different political perspectives were agreed on one thing: that the Soviet Union was much stronger than it later turned out to have been. This view was so powerful that people like Andy Marshall, the founder and multi-decade head of the Office of Net Assessment, struggled to find support for his argument that the CIA and Pentagon were systematically overstating the strength of the Soviet economy and understating the burden of defence spending. They had, of course, strong bureaucratic reasons to do so: a more dangerous enemy was the best argument for more funding. It is important to keep in mind this potential error viz China.

1929 and 2008 each had profound effects on US politics. China, interestingly, was not as badly hit by 2008 as the West. What is the probability that it will continue to avoid an economic crisis somewhere between a serious recession and a 1929/2008-style event over the next say 20 years? If it does experience such a shock, how effective will its political institutions be in coping relative to those of America’s and Britain’s over the long-term? Might debt and bad financial institutions create a political crisis serious enough to threaten the legitimacy of the regime? Might other problems such as secession movements (perhaps combined with terrorism) cause an equivalently serious political crisis? After all, historically the country has fallen apart repeatedly and this is the great fear of its leaders.

China also has serious resource vulnerabilities. It has to import most of its energy. It has serious water shortages. It has serious ecological crises. It has serious corruption problems. It has a rapidly ageing population. Although it, unlike the EU, has built brilliant private companies to rival Google et al, its state-owned enterprises (with special phones on CEO desks for Communist Party instructions) control gigantic resources and are not run as well as Google or Alibaba. There has been significant emigration of educated Chinese particularly to America where they buy houses and educate their children (Xi himself quietly sent a daughter to Harvard). Many of these tensions result in occasional public outcries that the regime carefully appeases. These problems are not trivial to solve even for very competent people who don’t have to worry about elections.

In terms of the risks of war and escalation over flashpoints like Korea or Taiwan, major internal crises like a financial crash might easily make it more likely that an external crisis escalates out of control. When regimes face crises of legitimacy they often, for obvious evolutionary reasons, resort to picking fights with out-groups to divert people. Much of Germany’s military-industrial elite saw nationalist diversions as crucial to escape the terrifying spread of socialism before 1914.

I’m ignorant about all these dynamics in China but if forced to bet I would bet that Allison underplays these weaknesses and I would bet against another 20 years of straight line growth. In the spirit of Tetlock, I’ll put a number on it and say a 80% probability of a bad recession or some other internal crisis within 20 years that is bad enough to be considered ‘the worst domestic crisis for the leadership since Tiananmen and a prelude to major political change’ and which results in either a Tiananmen-style clampdown or big political change. (I have not formulated this well, suggestions from Superforecasters welcome in comments.)

Part of my reason for thinking China will not be able to avoid such crises is a fundamental dynamic that Fukuyama discussed in his much-misunderstood ‘The End of History’: economic development requires openness and the protection of individual rights in various dimensions, and this creates an inescapable tension between an elite desire for economic dynamism and technological progress viz competitor Powers, and an elite fear of openness and what it brings politically/culturally.

The KGB and Soviet military realised this in the late 1970s as they watched the microelectronics revolution in America but they could never develop a response that worked: they were very successful at stealing stuff but they could not develop domestic companies because of the political constraints, as Marshall Ogarkov admitted (off-the-record!) to the New York Times in 1983. China watched the Soviet Union implode and chose a different path: economic liberalisation combined with greater economic and information rights, but no Gorbachev-style political opening up. This caution has worked so far but does not solve the problem.

Singapore and China could not develop economically as they have without also allowing much greater individual freedom in some domains than Soviet Russia. Developing hi-tech businesses cannot be done without a degree of openness to the rest of the world that is politically risky for China. If there is too much arbitrary seizure of property, as in the KGB-mafia state of Russia, then people will focus on theft and moving assets offshore rather than building long-term value. Chinese entrepreneurs have to be able to download software, read scientific and technical papers, and access most of the internet if they are not to be seriously disadvantaged. China knows that its path to greatness must include continued growth and greater productivity. If it does not, then like other oligarchies it will rapidly lose legitimacy and risks collapse. This is inconsistent with all-out repression. It will therefore have to tread a fine line of allowing social unhappiness to be expressed and adapting to it without letting it spin out of control. Given social movements are inherently complex and nonlinear, plus social media already seethes with unhappiness in China, there will be a constant danger that this dynamic tension breaks free of centralised control.

This is, obviously, one of the many reasons why the leadership is so interested in advanced technology and particularly AI. Such tools may help the leadership tread this tightrope without tumbling off, though maintaining a culture at the edge-of-the-art in technologies like AI simultaneously exacerbates the very turbulence that the AI needs to monitor — there are many tricky feedback loops to navigate and many reasons to suspect that eventually the centralised leadership will blunder, be overwhelmed, collapse internally and so on. Can China’s leaders maintain this dynamic tension for another 20 years? As Andy Grove always said, only the paranoid survive…

3. Contrast between the EU and China

High-tech breakthroughs are increasingly focused in North East America (around Harvard), West Coast America (around Stanford), and coastal China (e.g Shenzhen). When the UK leaves the EU, the EU will have zero universities in the global top 20. EU politicians are much more interested in vindictive legal action against Silicon Valley giants than asking themselves why Europe cannot match America or China. On issues such as CRISPR and genetic engineering the EU is regulating itself out of the competition and many businesspeople are unaware that this will get much worse once the ECJ starts using the Charter of Fundamental Rights to seize control of such regulation for itself, which will mean not just more anti-science regulation but also damaging uncertainty as scientists and companies face the ECJ suddenly pulling a human rights ‘top trump’ out of the deck whenever they fancy (one of the many arguments Vote Leave made during the referendum that we could not get the media to report, partly because of persistent confusion between the COFR and the ECHR). Organisations like YCombinator provide a welcoming environment for talented and dynamic young Europeans in California while the EU’s regulatory structure is dominated by massive incumbent multinationals like Goldman Sachs that use the Single Market to crush startup competitors.

If you watch this documentary on Shenzhen, you will see parts of China with the same or even greater dynamism than Silicon Valley and far, far beyond the EU. The contrast between the reality of Shenzhen and the rhetoric of blowhards like Macron is one of the reasons why many massive institutional investors do not share CBI-style conventional wisdom on Brexit. The young vote with their feet. If they want to be involved in world-leading projects, they head to coastal China or coastal America, few go to Paris, Rome, or Berlin. The Commission publishes figures on this but never faces the logic.

Chart: notice how irrelevant the EU is

Screenshot 2017-09-28 16.42.08

We are escaping the Single Market / ECJ / Charter of Fundamental Rights quagmire that will deepen the EU’s stagnation (despite Whitehall’s best efforts to scupper the referendum). The UK should now be thinking about how we provide the most dynamic environment in Europe for scientists and entrepreneurs. After 50 years of wasting time in dusty meeting rooms failing to ‘influence’ the EU to ditch its Monnet-Delors plan, we could start building things with real value and thereby acquire real, rather than the Foreign Office’s chimerical, influence. Let Macron et al continue with the same antiquated rhetoric: we know what will happen, we’ve seen it since all the pro-euro forces in the UK babbled about the ‘Lisbon Agenda’ in 2000 — rhetoric about ‘reform’ always turns into just more centralisation in Brussels institutions, it does not produce dynamic forces that create breakthroughs and real value. Economic, technological, and political power will continue to shift away from an EU that cannot and will not adapt to the forces changing the world: its legal model of Single Market plus ECJ make fast adaptation impossible. We will soon be out of Monnet’s house and Whitehall’s comfortable delusions (‘special relationship’, ‘punching above our weight’) will fade. Contra the EU’s logic, in a world increasingly defined by information and computation the winning asset is not size — it is institutional adaptability.

Those on the pro-EU side who disagree with this analysis have to face a fact: people like Mandelson, Adair Turner, the FT, and the Economist have been repeatedly wrong in their predictions for 20 years about ‘EU reform’, and people like me who have made the same arguments for 20 years, and called bullshit on ‘EU reform’, have been repeatedly vindicated by actual EU Treaties, growth rates, unemployment trends, euro crises and so on. (The Commission itself doesn’t even produce fake reports showing big gains from the Single Market, the gains it claims are relatively trivial even if you believe them.) What is happening in the EU now to suggest to reasonable observers that this will change over the next 20 years? Every sign from Juncker to Macron is that yet again Brussels will double down on Monnet’s mid-20th Century vision and the entire institutional weight of the Commission and legal system exerts an inescapable gravitational pull that way.

4. ‘Anti-access / area denial’ (A2/AD)

One aspect of China’s huge conventional buildup is what is known as A2/AD: i.e building forces to prevent America intervening near China, using missiles, submarines, cyber, anti-space and other weapons. The US response is known as ‘AirSea Battle’.

I won’t go into this here but it is an interesting topic that is also relevant to UK defence debates. The transformation of US forces goes back to a mid-1970s DARPA project known as Assault Breaker that began a series of breakthroughs in ‘precision strike’ where computerised command and control combined with sensors, radar, GPS and so on to provide the capability for precise conventional strike. The first public demo of all this was the famous films in the first Gulf War of bombs dropping down chimneys. This development was central to the last phase of the Cold War and the intolerable pressure put on Soviet defence expenditure. Soviets led the thinking but could not build the technology.

One of the consequences of these developments is that aircraft carriers are no longer safe from cheap missiles. I started making these arguments in 2004 when it was already clear that the UK Ministry of Defence carrier project was a disaster. Since then it has been a multi-billion pound case study in Whitehall incompetence, the MoD’s appalling ‘planning’ system and corrupt procurement, and Westminster’s systemic inability to think about complex long-term issues. Talking to someone at the MoD last year they said that in NATO wargames the UK carriers immediately bug out for the edge of the game to avoid being sunk. Of course they do. Carriers cannot be deployed against top tier forces because of the vast and increasing asymmetry between their cost and vulnerability to cheap sinking. Soon they will not be deployable even against Third World forces because of the combination of cheap cruise missiles and exponential price collapse and performance improvement of guidance systems (piggybacking the commercial drone industry). Soon an intelligent terrorist with a cruise missile and some off-the-shelf kit will be able to sink a carrier using their iPhone: see this blog for details. The MoD has lied and bluffed about all this for 20 years, this Government will continue the trend, and the appalling BAE will continue to scam billions from taxpayers unbothered by MPs.

5. Strategy, Sun Tzu and Bismarck: Great Powers and ‘the passions of sheep stealers’

China is the home of Sun Tzu. His most famous advice was that ‘winning without fighting is the highest form of warfare’ — advice often quoted but rarely internalised by those responsible for vital decisions in conflicts. This requires what Sun Tzu called ‘Cheng/Ch’i’ operations. You pull the opponent off balance with a series of disorienting moves, feints, bluffs, carrots, and sticks (e.g ‘where strong appear weak’). You disorient them with speed so they make blunders that undermine their own moral credibility with potential allies. You try to make the opponent look like an unreasonable aggressor. You isolate them, you break their alliances and morale. Where possible you collapse their strategy and will to fight instead of wasting resources on an actual battle. And so on…

Looking at the US-China relationship through the lens of ‘winning without fighting’ and nuclear risk suggests that the way for America to ‘win’ this Thucydidean struggle is: ‘don’t try to win in a conventional sense, but instead redefine winning’. Given the unlimited downside of nuclear war and what we now know about the near-disasters of Cold War brinkmanship, it certainly suggests focus on the goal of avoiding escalating crises involving nuclear weapons, and this goal has vast consequences for America’s whole approach to China.

Allison’s ideas about how the US might change strategy are interesting though I think his ‘academic’ approach is too rigid. Allison suggests distinct strategies as distinct choices. If one looks at the world champion of politics and diplomacy in the modern world, Bismarck, his approach was the opposite of ‘pick a strategy’ in the sense Allison means. Over 27 years he was close to and hostile to all the other Powers at different times, sometimes in such rapid succession that his opponents felt badly disoriented as though they were dealing with ‘the devil himself’, as many said.

Bismarck contained an extremely tyrannical ego and an even more extreme epistemological caution about the unpredictability of a complex world and a demonic practical adaptability. He knew events could suddenly throw his calculations into chaos. He was always ready to ditch his own ideas and commitments that suddenly seemed shaky. He was interested in winning, not consistency. He had a small number of fundamental goals — such as strengthening the monarchy’s power against Parliament and strengthening Prussia as a serious Great Power — which he pursued with constantly changing tactics. He was always feinting and fluid, pushing one line openly and others privately, pushing and pulling the other Powers in endless different combinations. He was the Grand Master of Cheng/Ch’i operations.

I think that if Bismarck read Allison’s book, he would not ‘pick a strategy’. He would use many of the different elements Allison sketches (and invent others) at the same time while watching China’s evolution and the success of different individuals/factions in the governing elite. For example, he would both suggest a bargain over dropping security guarantees for Taiwan and launch a covert (apparently domestic) cyber campaign to spread details of the Chinese leadership’s wealth and corruption all over the internet inside ‘the Great Firewall’. Carrot and stick, threaten and cajole, pull the opponent off balance.

I think that Bismarck’s advice would be: get what you can from dropping the Taiwanese guarantees and do not create nuclear tripwires in Korea. He was contemptuous of any argument that he ought to care about the Balkans for its own sake and repeatedly stressed that Germany should not fight for Austrian interests in the Balkans despite their alliance. He often repeated variations on his famous line — that the whole of the Balkans was not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier. Great Powers, he warned, should not let their fates be tied to ‘the passions of sheep stealers’. On another occasion: ‘All Turkey, including the various people who live there, is not worth so much that civilised European peoples should destroy themselves in great wars for its sake.’ At the Congress of Berlin, he made clear his priority: ‘We are not here to consider the happiness of the Bulgarians but to secure the peace of Europe.’ A decade later he warned other Powers not to ‘play Pericles beyond the confines of the area allocated by God’ and said clearly: ‘Bulgaria … is far from being an object of adequate importance … for which to plunge Europe from Moscow to the Pyrenees, and from the North Sea to Palermo, into a war whose issue no man can foresee. At the end of the conflict we should scarcely know why we had fought.’

In order to avoid a Great Power war he stressed the need to stay friendly with Russia, and the importance of being able to play Russia and Austria off against each other, France, and Britain: ‘The security of our relations with the Austro-Hungarian state depends to a great extent on our being able, should Austria make unreasonable demands on us, to come to terms with Russia as well.’ This was the logic behind his infamous secret Reinsurance Treaty in which, unknown to Austria with which he already had an alliance, Germany and Russia made promises to each other about their conduct in the event of war breaking out in different scenarios, the heart of which was Bismarck promising to stay out of a Russia-Austria war if Austria was the aggressor. In 1887 when military factions rumbled about a preventive war against Russia to help Austria in the Balkans he squashed the notion flat: ‘They want to urge me into war and I want peace. It would be frivolous to start a new war; we are not a pirate state which makes war because it suits a few.’ Preventive war, he said, was an egg from which very dangerous chicks would hatch.

His successors ditched his approach, ditched the Reinsurance Treaty, pushed Russia towards France, and made growing commitments to support Austria in the Balkans. This series of errors (combined with Wilhelm II’s appalling combination of vanity, aggression, and indolence which is echoed in a frightening proportion of leading politicians today) exploded in summer 1914.

Would Bismarck tie the probability of nuclear holocaust to the possibilities for extremely fast-moving crises in the South China Seas and ‘the passions of sheep stealers’ in places like North Korea? No chance.

Instead of taking the lead on Korea, I suspect Bismarck’s approach would be to go quiet publicly other than to suggest that China has a clear responsibility for Kim’s behaviour while perhaps leaking a ‘secret’ study on the consequences of Japan going nuclear, to focus minds in Beijing. Regardless of whose ‘fault’ it is, if the situation spirals out of control and ends with North Korea, perhaps because of collapsed command and control empowering some mentally ill / on drugs local commander (America has had plenty of those in charge of nukes) killing millions of Koreans and America destroying North Korea, who thinks this would be seen as a ‘win’ for America? Trump’s threats are straight out of the Cold War playbook but we know that playbook was dodgy even against the relative ‘rationality’ of people like Brezhnev and Andropov, never mind nutjobs like Kim…

So: avoid nuclear crises. Therefore do not give local security ties to Taiwan and Korea that could trigger disaster. What positive agenda can be pushed?

America should seek cooperation in areas of deep significance and moral force where institutions can be shaped that align orientation over decades. Three obvious areas are: disaster response in Asia (naval cooperation), WMD terrorism (intel cooperation), and space. China already has an aggressive space program. It has demonstrated edge-of-the-art capabilities in developing a satellite-based quantum communication network, a revolutionary goal with even deeper effects than GPS. It will go to the moon. The Cold War got humans onto the moon then perceived superiority ended American politicians’ ambition. Instead of rebooting a Cold War style rivalry, it would be better to try to do things together. One of the most important projects humans can pursue is — as Jeff Bezos has argued and committed billions to — to use the resources of space (which are approximately ALL resources in the solar system) to alleviate earth’s problems, and the logic of energy and population growth is to shift towards heavy manufacturing in space while Earth is ‘zoned residential and light industrial’. Building the infrastructure to allow such ambition for humanity is inherently a project of great moral force that encourages international friendship and provides an invaluable perspective: a tiny blue dot friendly to life surrounded by vast indifferent blackness. People can be proud of their nation’s contributions and proud of a global effort. (As I have said before, contributing to this should be one of the UK’s priorities post-Brexit — how much more real value we could create with this than we have in 50 years with the EU, and developing the basic and applied research for robotics would have crossover applications both with commercial autonomous vehicles and the military sphere.)

Of course, there must be limits to friendly cooperation. What if China takes this as weakness and increasingly exerts more and more power, direct and indirect, over her neighbours? This is obviously possible. But I think the Bismarck/Sun Tzu response would be: if that is how she will behave driven by internal dynamics, then let her behave like that, as that will do more than anything you can do to persuade those neighbours to try to contain China. Trying to contain China now won’t work and would be seen not just in China but elsewhere as classic aggression from an imperial power. China is neither like Hitler’s Germany nor Stalin’s Soviet Union and treating it as such is bound to provoke intense and dangerous resentment among a billion people who suffered appallingly for decades under Mao. But if America backs off and makes clear that she prefers cooperation to containment, and then over time China seeks to threaten and dominate Japan, Australia and others, then that is the time to start building alliances because that is when you will have moral authority with local forces — the vital element.

A Bismarckian approach would also, obviously, involve ensuring that America remains technologically ahead of China, though this is a much more formidable task than it was with Russia and that was seen for a while (after Sputnik) as an existential challenge (and famous economists like Paul Samuelson continued to predict wrongly that the Soviet economy would overtake America’s). Attempting to escape Thucydides means trying to build institutions and feelings of cooperation but it also requires that militaristic Chinese don’t come to see America as vulnerable to pre-emptive strikes. As AI, biological engineering, digital fabrication and so on accelerate, there may soon be non-nuclear dangers at least as frightening as nuclear dangers.

Finally, there is an interesting question of self-awareness. American leaders have a tendency to talk about American interests as if they are self-evidently humanity’s interests. Others find this amusing or enraging. Its leaders need a different language for discussing China if they are to avoid Thucydides.

Talented political leaders sometimes show an odd empathy for the psychology of opposing out-groups. Perhaps it’s a product of a sort of ‘complementarity’ ability, an ability to hold contradictory ideas in one’s head simultaneously. It is often a shock for students when they read in Pericles’s speech that he confronted the plague-struck Athenians with the sort of uncomfortable truth that democratic politicians rarely speak:

‘You have an empire to lose, and there is the danger to which the hatred of your imperial rule has exposed you… For by this time your empire has become a tyranny which in the opinion of mankind may have been unjustly gained, but which cannot be safely surrendered… To be hateful and offensive has ever been the fate of those who have aspired to empire.’ Thucydides, 2.63-4, emphasis added.

Bismarck too didn’t fool himself about how others saw him, his political allies, and his country. He much preferred boozing with revolutionary communists than reactionaries on his own side. When various commercial interests tried to get him to support them in China, he told the English Ambassador crossly:

‘These blackguard Hamburg and Lubeck merchants have no other idea of policy in China but to, what they call ‘shoot down those damned niggers of Chinese’ for six months and then dictate peace to them etc. Now, I believe those Chinese are better Christians than our vile mercantile snobs and wish for peace with us and are not thinking of war, and I’ll see the merchants and their Yankee and French allies damned before I consent to go to war with China to fill their pockets with money.’

There are powerful interests urging Washington to aggression against China. The nexus of commercial and military interests is always dangerous, as Eisenhower famously warned in his Farewell Speech. They will be more dangerous as jobs continue to shift East driven by markets and technology regardless of Trump’s promises. The Pentagon will overhype Chinese aggression to justify their budgets, as they did with Russia.

Bismarck was a monster and the world would have been better if one of the assassination attempts had succeeded (see HERE for other branching histories) but he also understood fundamental questions better than others. Those responsible for policy on China should study his advice. They should also study summer 1914 and ponder how those responsible for war and peace still make these decisions in much the same way as then, while the crises are 1,000 times faster and a million times more potentially destructive.

Such problems require embedding lessons from effective institutions into our systematically flawed political institutions. I describe in detail the systems management approach to complex projects developed in the 1950s and 1960s that is far more advanced than anything in Whitehall today and which is part of necessary reforms (see HERE, p.26ff for summary of lessons). I will blog on other ideas. Unless we find a way to build political institutions that produce much more reliable decisions from the raw material of unreliable humans the law of averages means we are sure to fall off our tightrope, and unlike in 1918 or 1945 we won’t have anything to clamber back on to…

Unrecognised simplicities of effective action #2: ‘Systems’ thinking — ideas from the Apollo programme for a ‘systems politics’

This is the second in a series: click this link 201702-effective-action-2-systems-engineering-to-systems-politics. The first is HERE.

This paper concerns a very interesting story combining politics, management, institutions, science and technology. When high technology projects passed a threshold of complexity post-1945 amid the extreme pressure of the early Cold War, new management ideas emerged. These ideas were known as ‘systems engineering’ and ‘systems management’. These ideas were particularly connected to the classified program to build the first Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) in the 1950s and successful ideas were transplanted into a failing NASA by George Mueller and others from 1963 leading to the successful moon landing in 1969.

These ideas were then applied in other mission critical teams and could be used to improve government performance. Urgently needed projects to lower the probability of catastrophes for humanity will benefit from considering why Mueller’s approach was 1) so successful and 2) so un-influential in politics. Could we develop a ‘systems politics’ that applies the unrecognised simplicities of effective action?

For those interested, it also looks briefly at an interesting element of the story – the role of John von Neumann, the brilliant mathematician who was deeply involved in the Manhattan Project, the project to build ICBMs, the first digital computers, and subjects like artificial intelligence, artificial life, possibilities for self-replicating machines made from unreliable components, and the basic problem that technological progress ‘gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we have known them, cannot continue.’

An obvious project with huge inherent advantages for humanity is the development of an international manned lunar base as part of developing space for commerce and science. It is the sort of thing that might change political dynamics on earth and could generate enormous support across international boundaries. After 23 June 2016, the UK has to reorient national policy on many dimensions. Developing basic science is one of the most important dimensions (for example, as I have long argued we urgently need a civilian version of DARPA similarly operating outside normal government bureaucratic systems including procurement and HR). Supporting such an international project would be a great focus for UK efforts and far more productive than our largely wasted decades of focus on the dysfunctional bureaucracy in Brussels that is dominated by institutions that fail the most important test – the capacity for error-correction the importance of which has been demonstrated over long periods and through many problems by the Anglo-American political system and its common law.

Please leave comments or email dmc2.cummings at gmail.com

 

Unrecognised simplicities of effective action #1: expertise and a quadrillion dollar business

‘The combination of physics and politics could render the surface of the earth uninhabitable.’ John von Neumann.

Introduction

This series of blogs considers:

  • the difference between fields with genuine expertise, such as fighting and physics, and fields dominated by bogus expertise, such as politics and economic forecasting;
  • the big big problem we face – the world is ‘undersized and underorganised’ because of a collision between four forces: 1) our technological civilisation is inherently fragile and vulnerable to shocks, 2) the knowledge it generates is inherently dangerous, 3) our evolved instincts predispose us to aggression and misunderstanding, and 4) there is a profound mismatch between the scale and speed of destruction our knowledge can cause and the quality of individual and institutional decision-making in ‘mission critical’ institutions – our institutions are similar to those that failed so spectacularly in summer 1914 yet they face crises moving at least ~103 times faster and involving ~106 times more destructive power able to kill ~1010 people;
  • what classic texts and case studies suggest about the unrecognised simplicities of effective action to improve the selection, education, training, and management of vital decision-makers to improve dramatically, reliably, and quantifiably the quality of individual and institutional decisions (particularly 1) the ability to make accurate predictions and b) the quality of feedback);
  • how we can change incentives to aim a much bigger fraction of the most able people at the most important problems;
  • what tools and technologies can help decision-makers cope with complexity.

[I’ve tweaked a couple of things in response to this blog by physicist Steve Hsu.]

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Summary of the big big problem

The investor Peter Thiel (founder of PayPal and Palantir, early investor in Facebook) asks people in job interviews: what billion (109) dollar business is nobody building? The most successful investor in world history, Warren Buffett, illustrated what a quadrillion (1015) dollar business might look like in his 50th anniversary letter to Berkshire Hathaway investors.

‘There is, however, one clear, present and enduring danger to Berkshire against which Charlie and I are powerless. That threat to Berkshire is also the major threat our citizenry faces: a “successful” … cyber, biological, nuclear or chemical attack on the United States… The probability of such mass destruction in any given year is likely very small… Nevertheless, what’s a small probability in a short period approaches certainty in the longer run. (If there is only one chance in thirty of an event occurring in a given year, the likelihood of it occurring at least once in a century is 96.6%.) The added bad news is that there will forever be people and organizations and perhaps even nations that would like to inflict maximum damage on our country. Their means of doing so have increased exponentially during my lifetime. “Innovation” has its dark side.

‘There is no way for American corporations or their investors to shed this risk. If an event occurs in the U.S. that leads to mass devastation, the value of all equity investments will almost certainly be decimated.

‘No one knows what “the day after” will look like. I think, however, that Einstein’s 1949 appraisal remains apt: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”’

Politics is profoundly nonlinear. (I have written a series of blogs about complexity and prediction HERE which are useful background for those interested.) Changing the course of European history via the referendum only involved about 10 crucial people controlling ~£107  while its effects over ten years could be on the scale of ~108 – 10people and ~£1012: like many episodes in history the resources put into it are extremely nonlinear in relation to the potential branching histories it creates. Errors dealing with Germany in 1914 and 1939 were costly on the scale of ~100,000,000 (108) lives. If we carry on with normal human history – that is, international relations defined as out-groups competing violently – and combine this with modern technology then it is extremely likely that we will have a disaster on the scale of billions (109) or even all humans (~1010). The ultimate disaster would kill about 100 times more people than our failure with Germany. Our destructive power is already much more than 100 times greater than it was then: nuclear weapons increased destructiveness by roughly a factor of a million.

Even if we dodge this particular bullet there are many others lurking. New genetic engineering techniques such as CRISPR allow radical possibilities for re-engineering organisms including humans in ways thought of as science fiction only a decade ago. We will soon be able to remake human nature itself. CRISPR-enabled ‘gene drives’ enable us to make changes to the germ-line of organisms permanent such that changes spread through the entire wild population, including making species extinct on demand. Unlike nuclear weapons such technologies are not complex, expensive, and able to be kept secret for a long time. The world’s leading experts predict that people will be making them cheaply at home soon – perhaps they already are. These developments have been driven by exponential progress much faster than Moore’s Law reducing the cost of DNA sequencing per genome from ~$108 to ~$10in roughly 15 years.

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It is already practically possible to deploy a cheap, autonomous, and anonymous drone with facial-recognition software and a one gram shaped-charge to identify a relevant face and blow it up. Military logic is driving autonomy. For example, 1) the explosion in the volume of drone surveillance video (from 71 hours in 2004 to 300,000 hours in 2011 to millions of hours now) requires automated analysis, and 2) jamming and spoofing of drones strongly incentivise a push for autonomy. It is unlikely that promises to ‘keep humans in the loop’ will be kept. It is likely that state and non-state actors will deploy low-cost drone swarms using machine learning to automate the ‘find-fix-finish’ cycle now controlled by humans. (See HERE for a video just released for one such program and imagine the capability when they carry their own communication and logistics network with them.)

In the medium-term, many billions are being spent on finding the secrets of general intelligence. We know this secret is encoded somewhere in the roughly 125 million ‘bits’ of information that is the rough difference between the genome that produces the human brain and the genome that produces the chimp brain. This search space is remarkably small – the equivalent of just 25 million English words or 30 copies of the King James Bible. There is no fundamental barrier to decoding this information and it is possible that the ultimate secret could be described relatively simply (cf. this great essay by physicist Michael Nielsen). One of the world’s leading experts has told me they think a large proportion of this problem could be solved in about a decade with a few tens of billions and something like an Apollo programme level of determination.

Not only is our destructive and disruptive power still getting bigger quickly – it is also getting cheaper and faster every year. The change in speed adds another dimension to the problem. In the period between the Archduke’s murder and the outbreak of World War I a month later it is striking how general failures of individuals and institutions were compounded by the way in which events moved much faster than the ‘mission critical’ institutions could cope with such that soon everyone was behind the pace, telegrams were read in the wrong order and so on. The crisis leading to World War I was about 30 days from the assassination to the start of general war – about 700 hours. The timescale for deciding what to do between receiving a warning of nuclear missile launch and deciding to launch yourself is less than half an hour and the President’s decision time is less than this, maybe just minutes. This is a speedup factor of at least 103.

Economic crises already occur far faster than human brains can cope with. The financial system has made a transition from people shouting at each other to a a system dominated by high frequency ‘algorithmic trading’ (HFT), i.e. machine intelligence applied to robot trading with vast volumes traded on a global spatial scale and a microsecond (10-6) temporal scale far beyond the monitoring, understanding, or control of regulators and politicians. There is even competition for computer trading bases in specific locations based on calculations of Special Relativity as the speed of light becomes a factor in minimising trade delays (cf. Relativistic statistical arbitrage, Wissner-Gross). ‘The Flash Crash’ of 9 May 2010 saw the Dow lose hundreds of points in minutes. Mini ‘flash crashes’ now blow up and die out faster than humans can notice. Given our institutions cannot cope with economic decisions made at ‘human speed’, a fortiori they cannot cope with decisions made at ‘robot speed’. There is scope for worse disasters than 2008 which would further damage the moral credibility of decentralised markets and provide huge chances for extremist political entrepreneurs to exploit. (* See endnote.)

What about the individuals and institutions that are supposed to cope with all this?

Our brains have not evolved much in thousands of years and are subject to all sorts of constraints including evolved heuristics that lead to misunderstanding, delusion, and violence particularly under pressure. There is a terrible mismatch between the sort of people that routinely dominate mission critical political institutions and the sort of people we need: high-ish IQ (we need more people >145 (+3SD) while almost everybody important is between 115-130 (+1 or 2SD)), a robust toolkit for not fooling yourself including quantitative problem-solving (almost totally absent at the apex of relevant institutions), determination, management skills, relevant experience, and ethics. While our ancestor chiefs at least had some intuitive feel for important variables like agriculture and cavalry our contemporary chiefs (and those in the media responsible for scrutiny of decisions) generally do not understand their equivalents, and are often less experienced in managing complex organisations than their predecessors.

The national institutions we have to deal with such crises are pretty similar to those that failed so spectacularly in summer 1914 yet they face crises moving at least ~103 times faster and involving ~106 times more destructive power able to kill ~1010 people. The international institutions developed post-1945 (UN, EU etc) contribute little to solving the biggest problems and in many ways make them worse. These institutions fail constantly and do not  – cannot – learn much.

If we keep having crises like we have experienced over the past century then this combination of problems pushes the probability of catastrophe towards ‘overwhelmingly likely’.

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What Is To be Done? There’s plenty of room at the top

‘In a knowledge-rich world, progress does not lie in the direction of reading information faster, writing it faster, and storing more of it. Progress lies in the direction of extracting and exploiting the patterns of the world… And that progress will depend on … our ability to devise better and more powerful thinking programs for man and machine.’ Herbert Simon, Designing Organizations for an Information-rich World, 1969.

‘Fascinating that the same problems recur time after time, in almost every program, and that the management of the program, whether it happened to be government or industry, continues to avoid reality.’ George Mueller, pioneer of ‘systems engineering’ and ‘systems management’ and the man most responsible for the success of the 1969 moon landing.

Somehow the world has to make a series of extremely traumatic and dangerous transitions over the next 20 years. The main transition needed is:

Embed reliably the unrecognised simplicities of high performance teams (HPTs), including personnel selection and training, in ‘mission critical’ institutions while simultaneously developing a focused project that radically improves the prospects for international cooperation and new forms of political organisation beyond competing nation states.

Big progress on this problem would automatically and for free bring big progress on other big problems. It could improve (even save) billions of lives and save a quadrillion dollars (~$1015). If we avoid disasters then the error-correcting institutions of markets and science will, patchily, spread peace, prosperity, and learning. We will make big improvements with public services and other aspects of ‘normal’ government. We will have a healthier political culture in which representative institutions, markets serving the public (not looters), and international cooperation are stronger.

Can a big jump in performance – ‘better and more powerful thinking programs for man and machine’ – somehow be systematised?

Feynman once gave a talk titled ‘There’s plenty of room at the bottom’ about the huge performance improvements possible if we could learn to do engineering at the atomic scale – what is now called nanotechnology. There is also ‘plenty of room at the top’ of political structures for huge improvements in performance. As I explained recently, the victory of the Leave campaign owed more to the fundamental dysfunction of the British Establishment than it did to any brilliance from Vote Leave. Despite having the support of practically every force with power and money in the world (including the main broadcasters) and controlling the timing and legal regulation of the referendum, they blew it. This was good if you support Leave but just how easily the whole system could be taken down should be frightening for everybody .

Creating high performance teams is obviously hard but in what ways is it really hard? It is not hard in the same sense that some things are hard like discovering profound new mathematical knowledge. HPTs do not require profound new knowledge. We have been able to read the basic lessons in classics for over two thousand years. We can see relevant examples all around us of individuals and teams showing huge gains in effectiveness.

The real obstacle is not financial. The financial resources needed are remarkably low and the return on small investments could be incalculably vast. We could significantly improve the decisions of the most powerful 100 people in the UK or the world for less than a million dollars (~£106) and a decade-long project on a scale of just ~£107 could have dramatic effects.

The real obstacle is not a huge task of public persuasion – quite the opposite. A government that tried in a disciplined way to do this would attract huge public support. (I’ve polled some ideas and am confident about this.) Political parties are locked in a game that in trying to win in conventional ways leads to the public despising them. Ironically if a party (established or new) forgets this game and makes the public the target of extreme intelligent focus then it would not only make the world better but would trounce their opponents.

The real obstacle is not a need for breakthrough technologies though technology could help. As Colonel Boyd used to shout, ‘People, ideas, machines – in that order!’

The real obstacle is that although we can all learn and study HPTs it is extremely hard to put this learning to practical use and sustain it against all the forces of entropy that constantly operate to degrade high performance once the original people have gone. HPTs are episodic. They seem to come out of nowhere, shock people, then vanish with the rare individuals. People write about them and many talk about learning from them but in fact almost nobody ever learns from them – apart, perhaps, from those very rare people who did not need to learn – and nobody has found a method to embed this learning reliably and systematically in institutions that can maintain it. The Prussian General Staff remained operationally brilliant but in other ways went badly wrong after the death of the elder Moltke. When George Mueller left NASA it reverted to what it had been before he arrived – management chaos. All the best companies quickly go downhill after the departure of people like Bill Gates – even when such very able people have tried very very hard to avoid exactly this problem.

Charlie Munger, half of the most successful investment team in world history, has a great phrase he uses to explain their success that gets to the heart of this problem:

‘There isn’t one novel thought in all of how Berkshire [Hathaway] is run. It’s all about … exploiting unrecognized simplicities… It’s a community of like-minded people, and that makes most decisions into no-brainers. Warren [Buffett] and I aren’t prodigies. We can’t play chess blindfolded or be concert pianists. But the results are prodigious, because we have a temperamental advantage that more than compensates for a lack of IQ points.’

The simplicities that bring high performance in general, not just in investing, are largely unrecognised because they conflict with many evolved instincts and are therefore psychologically very hard to implement. The principles of the Buffett-Munger success are clear – they have even gone to great pains to explain them and what the rest of us should do – and the results are clear yet still almost nobody really listens to them and above average intelligence people instead constantly put their money into active fund management that is proved to destroy wealth every year!

Most people think they are already implementing these lessons and usually strongly reject the idea that they are not. This means that just explaining things is very unlikely to work:

‘I’d say the history that Charlie [Munger] and I have had of persuading decent, intelligent people who we thought were doing unintelligent things to change their course of action has been poor.’ Buffett.

Even more worrying, it is extremely hard to take over organisations that are not run right and make them excellent.

‘We really don’t believe in buying into organisations to change them.’ Buffett.

If people won’t listen to the world’s most successful investor in history on his own subject, and even he finds it too hard to take over failing businesses and turn them around, how likely is it that politicians and officials incentivised to keep things as they are will listen to ideas about how to do things better? How likely is it that a team can take over broken government institutions and make them dramatically better in a way that outlasts the people who do it? Bureaucracies are extraordinarily resistant to learning. Even after the debacles of 9/11 and the Iraq War, costing many lives and trillions of dollars, and even after the 2008 Crash, the security and financial bureaucracies in America and Europe are essentially the same and operate on the same principles.

Buffett’s success is partly due to his discipline in sticking within what he and Munger call their ‘circle of competence’. Within this circle they have proved the wisdom of avoiding trying to persuade people to change their minds and avoiding trying to fix broken institutions.

This option is not available in politics. The Enlightenment and the scientific revolution give us no choice but to try to persuade people and try to fix or replace broken institutions. In general ‘it is better to undertake revolution than undergo it’. How might we go about it? What can people who do not have any significant power inside the system do? What international projects are most likely to spark the sort of big changes in attitude we urgently need?

This is the first of a series. I will keep it separate from the series on the EU referendum though it is connected in the sense that I spent a year on the referendum in the belief that winning it was a necessary though not sufficient condition for Britain to play a part in improving the quality of government dramatically and improving the probability of avoiding the disasters that will happen if politics follows a normal path. I intended to implement some of these ideas in Downing Street if the Boris-Gove team had not blown up. The more I study this issue the more confident I am that dramatic improvements are possible and the more pessimistic I am that they will happen soon enough.

Please leave comments and corrections…

* A new transatlantic cable recently opened for financial trading. Its cost? £300 million. Its advantage? It shaves 2.6 milliseconds off the latency of financial trades. Innovative groups are discussing the application of military laser technology, unmanned drones circling the earth acting as routers, and even the use of neutrino communication (because neutrinos can go straight through the earth just as zillions pass through your body every second without colliding with its atoms) – cf. this recent survey in Nature.