The Insider - March 2023
On company building, geoengineering, artificial intelligence, and the kindness of strangers.
Welcome to the March edition of the Insider. Do you know someone who would enjoy the Insider? Forward this email to them and they can subscribe here.
The four-acts of company building
The story of Unreasonable/Uncharted could be told in four acts:
- Early traction and success
- Everything seems possible, so an expansion into many possibilities
- Over-extension and over-expansion, eventually leading to a sense of having lost its way
- Refocusing on fundamentals and practicing discipline to stay true to them
One year ago today, Uncharted merged with Common Future, after having spent over a decade exploring all types of possibilities, only to return to its roots. Were all those strategic pivots and model evolutions the necessary intervening steps so we could be reminded about who we were? Or is there some leadership framework that could have helped guide us more directly? I don’t know, but I do notice a similar four-act storyline playing itself out in other companies. Perhaps this is the inevitable arc of entrepreneurs who find themselves trying to negotiate a truce between their blooming ambition and their soft-spoken judgment. Or perhaps this is the homeostatic process of growing up as a leader: up, down, left, right, until we recognize we’re just zeroing in on the path that’s ours to take.
Last week the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released its latest report. In sober tones, the panel said it is unlikely we will keep the world from warming beyond 1.5°C (the world has already warmed by 1.1°C). In most things, humans tend to be more interventionist than preventionist, and I imagine that as the world continues to warm, we’ll begin to seek drastic interventionist measures. These include solar geoengineering, the risky technique of spraying sulfur dioxide and other microparticles into the stratosphere to reflect the sun’s rays and cool the planet. Mexico has already banned this type of experiment after an entrepreneur sold “cooling credits” for balloon flights that released reflective sulfur particles over the nation without seeking scientific or government approval. As we enter a stage of greater desperation for last-ditch interventions, we need more research into the full implications of Hail Mary solutions. Fortunately, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is beginning to conduct formal research to better understand the potential risks.
To go deeper:
- Mexico’s ban on geonengineering
- New federal research into geoengineering
- An op-ed on geoengineering in the Washington Post
On Artificial Intelligence
We have come to believe that intelligence is something intrinsic to us, a thing we possess. But the writer Tressie Cottom has a different view, suggesting that intelligence is not something fixed within ourselves, but rather a relationship between us and the technologies and norms popular at a specific moment in time. A genius in one era is not necessarily a genius in the next because technological advances like reading glasses, the printing press, computers, the internet, and now AI are all reshaping who and what we perceive to be intelligent and valuable.
In this new paradigm of AI, new forms of intelligence will blossom, and some existing perceptions of intelligence will wane. Similar to the way the internet de-emphasized the intelligence connected to memorizing facts, AI will de-emphasize types of intelligence that have flourished in today’s knowledge economy.
Last week I had an HVAC repairman working on my house, and we struck up a conversation while I was working on my computer. He told me that working in the trades was a skill I should consider. After all, he said—pointing at my computer—“If you work in tech, you could be disrupted. The trades will be a skill you can fall back on.”
We have elevated the knowledge economy as something more important, and maybe even more intelligent, than other sectors or industries only because today’s technologies and norms reinforce certain skills over others.
But new AI models will lead to a different knowledge economy that will elevate different forms of intelligence. Electricians, people working in the trades, and other sectors who drive value by applying deep knowledge into specific contexts will thrive. As will those who find ways to partner with AI algorithms, working as a human-computer team to achieve more than humans could do by themselves. Determining the best way to prompt AI chatbots will become increasingly valuable, as will knowing how to identify AI-generated misinformation (which will proliferate).
Perhaps the people who should be most afraid of AI are those who believe that intelligence is intrinsic and fixed. But for those who understand that intelligence is a relationship between us and the world, a new technological era has the chance to elevate different voices, unbundle and rebundle what we consider valuable, and challenge our understanding of what is actually intelligent.
Can you help?
- What are the best articles you’ve read in the last month?
- What is the most insightful newsletter you subscribe to?
What I am Reading
- AI is “the most important advance in technology since the graphical user interface,” according to Bill Gates. What AI can achieve in the next 5-10 years. Gates Notes.
- Can psychedelics be a tool to advance social and environmental movements?Two peer-reviewed studies have found evidence that psychedelics may influence pro-environmental behaviors. Atmos.
- Long Covid might bring about an attitude shift in medicine to finally start listening to people with unexplained medical conditions. Coda.
- How ChatGPT might revolutionize the economy, change the labor force, and impact economic inequality. MIT Technology Review.
- The unique mental health decline of liberal teenage girls, and how social media has led to a mental health epidemic. Jonathan Haidt Substack.
- Podcast: The Witch Trials of JK Rowling. I’ve been riveted by this podcast that somehow is about everything: feminism and the transgender movement, the radicalization of social media, the rise of cancel culture, and the question of what to do if we are wrong in our righteousness.
Two weeks ago we got into a bad car accident in remote Wyoming. We were rear-ended by someone going 70 miles-per-hour in a 30-mph zone, and our car was sent into a snowbank and totaled. The skis in the back narrowly missed us as they flew forward and crashed into the front dash. Thankfully, we were largely uninjured, but bruised, sore, and shaken up.
In the minutes and hours after the wreck, we had a series of extraordinary interactions with strangers. In the cold, desolate landscape of rural Wyoming, suddenly there was this burst of humanity. It was like we had entered some peculiar portal of heightened connection. Civilians materializing out of nowhere within seconds of the wreck and running towards us. The gentleness of the paramedics in the way they cared for us. The way the Wyoming state trooper swept the highway clean of debris with a house broom as if it was his kitchen floor. The warm hospitality of the elderly tow-truck driver. The friendship we formed with the owner of a private taxi company as she rearranged her day to drive us two hours to the next town, sharing stories of heartbreak and triumph until we had nothing left to say.
Maybe it was the pairing of our tenderness after the wreck with the warmth of strangers that led to something remarkable: a rare opening to connect with unexpected strangers that is mostly missing from the planned, remote, virtual lives we lead.
At home in Denver,