Friday, April 19, 2024

"The bug in Sam Altman’s industrial revolution We are losing our grip on material reality" (fortunately there's an ETF for that)

From UnHerd, March 21:

It has been an intense few months for OpenAI CEO Sam Altman. Having survived an attempted coup, he is now looking to accelerate his artificial intelligence revolution. His next step is to raise $7 trillion in investment capital to build the chip factories needed to power the next wave of major advances. Should Altman get anywhere close to raising this astronomical sum, and creating the physical and energy infrastructure he envisions, it would amount to nothing less than a private, Silicon Valley-based, one-man industrial revolution.

Such grandiose schemes are nothing new in the tech world: after all, Elon Musk has dreamed of colonising Mars, while Peter Thiel is said to aspire to immortality. But what is significant about Altman’s trillion-dollar moonshot is that it would put him in competition with another powerful actor: the United States government. Under both Trump and Biden, the White House has pursued a policy of re-industrialisation.

For ultimately, Altman’s plans may be compared to the bipartisan CHIPs Act in their ambition. And if successful, they would address many of the underlying strategic issues that the US government is seeking to resolve, such as the danger of falling behind China in the long-term race for AI and manufacturing supremacy, or the risk posed by a microchip shortage in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Indeed, Altman is requesting Washington’s backing for his venture, most probably in anticipation of the major national security and legal antitrust objections that his gambit is likely to raise. (He is also seeking funds from foreign governments such as the UAE.)

Yet despite the apparent convergence in goals between Washington and OpenAI, there is, in fact, a stark choice to be made between them. As Thiel said, there is a great difference between progress in the world of bits and progress in the world of atoms. The problem is that while American society has had no problem churning out “innovations” of an increasingly dubious social utility in the former, it has struggled to produce any comparable achievements in the latter. While an endless stream of apps and content has inundated consumers since the advent of the Web 2.0, the material foundations of America — its electrical grid, basic infrastructure, industrial hardware, national defence base, and more generally, its collective capacity to produce material goods — has declined into obsolesce. Boeing’s string of engineering failures is just the latest example. Or, as Thiel put it a decade ago: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

And while OpenAI’s generative AI products, from ChatGPT to Sora, might appear more impressive than a 140-character tweet, they carry the same fundamental premise: large-scale innovation in the West is now something that mostly takes place in a non-corporeal universe mediated by screens. Contrary to futurist discourse promising science fiction-like visions of a radically more expansive and technically advanced built environment, Silicon Valley has instead delivered infinite arrays of two-dimensional spectacle combined with total civilisational stagnation in the crumbling three-dimensional world. Indeed, its technologies have had the effect of warping and undermining society’s shared notions of reality. And herein lies the problem with the prospect of a new industrial revolution led by Altman and his fellow travellers: it threatens to supercharge the explosion of content in the world of bits, while the accompanying benefits in the world of atoms remain vague to non-existent....


And the ETF? We'll get to that this summer as the reality distortion field becomes evermore irresistible.