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December 2019: China, AI, government action, Lord of the Rings

Really grokking the rise of China

China has a good chance to become the world’s dominant superpower within the next 10 to 50 years. I have not yet fully grokked this fact and I don’t think I’m the exception here. I was hit with realization when reading Graham Allison’s Destined for War (in a nutshell). He dedicates a whole chapter to make this clear. A few excerpts (all emphases in the original): 

  • “Most students are stunned to learn that on most indicators, China has already surpassed the United States. As the largest producer of ships, steel, aluminum, furniture, clothing, textiles, cell phones, and computers, China has become the manufacturing powerhouse of the world. Students are even more surprised to discover that China has also become the world’s largest consumer of most products.”
  • “Since the Great Recession, 40 percent of all the growth around the world has occurred in just one country: China.”
  • “By 2005, the country [China] was building the square-foot equivalent of today’s Rome every two weeks. Between 2011 and 2013, China both produced and used more cement than the US did in the entire twentieth century. […] Indeed, China built the equivalent of Europe’s entire housing stock in just 15 years. […] Overall, China built 2.6 million miles of roads – including 70,000 miles of highways – between 1996 and 2016, connecting 95 percent of the country’s villages and overtaking the US as the country with the most extensive highway system by almost 50 percent. […] Indeed, China now has more high-speed rail tracks than the rest of the world combined.”
  • “A generation ago, 90 out of every 100 Chinese lived on less than $2 a day. Today fewer than 3 in 100 do. Average per capita income has risen from $193 in 1980 to over $8,100 today.”
  • “By one count, China surpassed the United States as the country with the most billionaires in 2015 and is now adding a new billionaire every week. […] Chinese shoppers bought half of the world’s luxury goods sold in 2015.”
  • “China has seen its share of total global value-added in high-tech manufacturing increase from 7 percent in 2003 to 27 percent in 2014.”
  • “Including its commitment of $30 billion to the AIIB [Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank] as starting capital, China’s combined international development finance assets in 2016 were $130 billion larger than those of the six major Western development banks combined.”
  • “At this point, OBOR [China’s One Belt, One Road initiative] includes 900 projects at a cost exceeding $1.4 trillion. Even after adjusting for inflation, this amounts to 12 Marshall Plans, according to the investor and former IMF economist Stephen Jen.”

China’s continued rise is not a foregone conclusion. It is a very, very serious possibility.

The grimmest implication is the one that Allison himself investigates: the likely conflict between the United States, the ruling power, and China, the rising power. A crude outside view based on his own research suggests a probability of 75% for an armed conflict between the two countries. That is a lot. I have definitely not yet grokked this either. As a European born after the end of the Cold War, I’m just not used to the possibility of war. Admittedly, we have not seen a hot great power war since WW2 (or the advent of nuclear weapons). On the other hand, some statisticians argue that this Pax Americana is still within the statistical models based on historical data (discussion of the disagreement here and here). It’s simply too early to determine whether we’re observing a real trend toward a more peaceful state or merely an interwar period. If I had time to thoroughly look into this question, I’d be surprised if I’d put the chance of a major armed conflict between the two countries this century below 15%. That is still a lot – enough to worry about.

Honest comparisons between human and AI decision-makers

For a long time now, I have been frustrated with the double standards being applied to the decisions made by algorithms and those by humans. Rarely do books or thought pieces on the topic grapple with the comparative in an honest and empirical manner:

  • Whose decisions are more biased? Whose biases can be fixed more easily? (Let’s ignore the fact that the whole “bias in algorithms” debate is often terribly simplistic to begin with.)
  • Whose decision rationales are more accessible to others and the agent themselves?
  • Whose decisions can be more easily evaluated across a wide range of environments, including extreme situations?
  • Whose decisions are more predictable across a range of environments by other humans?
  • Whose decision-making mechanisms are more susceptible to “adversarial attacks”?

This is compounded by the fact that our intuitive answer to these questions is probably affected by a strong status quo bias in favor of human decision-makers. I didn’t realize this myself before reading this really insightful and humorous article that imagines how we would think about using humans instead of AI decision-makers if the latter were the norm (reversal test).

P.S.: Another beautiful narrative reversal test is this one about the otherization of nerds. One bit: “Nielsen is a wamb [the opposite of a nerd] — empathic but intellectually stunted. Wambs are good at thinking like animals, by instinct and loose association, but less able to comprehend abstractions, rules and systems. Nielsen’s ability to emote, flatter, and gain sympathy eventually helped him land some acting jobs, but it wasn’t helpful for understanding the world around him or developing healthy intellectual interests.”

How to get stuff done in government

Earlier this year I read The Power Broker, the biography of Robert Moses who singlehandedly reshaped the entire infrastructure of New York City over the course of several decades. It’s a fascinating study into the machinations of power. Since then I’ve tried to articulate what made him so effective. There are personal explanations that focus on his obsession, ruthlessness, and political instinct. There are functional explanations that focus on the various self-crafted roles and positions he held at the peak of his power. Eggers’ and O’Leary’s If we can put a man on the moon provides another interesting process-level perspective on this. They argue that effective government action requires a holistic view of the policy process from idea generation, policy design, and legislation to implementation and iteration. During his time in government, Moses had effective control over all these stages. He generated the ideas for new infrastructure projects himself, he was intimately involved in their design, he had effective control over both the city and state legislatures, and he was responsible for the implementation of the projects through his various positions and authorities. This turned him into the singular author of most of these projects which cut out all the distortions, compromises, and coordination problems that usually bedevil big government projects. 

P.S.: This related quote from George Bernhard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

The Lord of the Rings production: another extraordinary group

I have been obsessed with the Lord of the Rings films for years now. I have even watched the behind the scenes footage multiple times. When rewatching parts of it recently, I realized why this film production continues to fascinate me. It’s a sneak peek into an extraordinary group of people who lived and breathed for an incredible project for multiple years. The kind of group that suffers through hardship because they believe in a shared purpose. This commitment by everybody to the vision of Peter Jackson shows in and behind all the scenes of the films. Just take the two guys who created all the chainmail armor for the trilogy. For over three years, they manually linked and glued together 12.5 million plastic rings made from over 12km of plastic pipe. When asked about it, one of them says: “I would not have traded this experience for the world. It has been the most amazing time of my life.” That is insane. Or take the scene in the second film of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli chasing a group of Uruk-hai. During the shoot, the three actors suffered from two broken toes, a cracked rib, and a dislocated knee respectively. That is insane. There is tons of stuff like this and I wholeheartedly recommend the hours of behind the scenes footage (you can access parts here, here, here, here, and here). As I wrote last month, finding such an extraordinary group or tribe, even just for a few years, is an incredible experience.

P.S.: On Viggo Mortensen’s last day of photography, the New Zealand stunt team performed a haka for him, a ceremonial dance usually reserved for dignitaries. Just another illustration of the close bonds forged during that time.

Other things I read


  • All Quiet on the Western Front: I got sucked into WW1 (again) and was most interested in first-person accounts this time around. I’m already enjoying Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel more than Remarque’s novel though. 


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