Steve’s ITK: Cult of Silicon Valley
Opening thought: The altar of Altman!
The big event this week was of course… No, not Brexit! Sam Altman, president of Silicon Valley startup accelerator and investor Y Combinator, visited London and participated in a special on-stage Q&A organised by his pals at Mosaic Ventures.
Held in East London’s Shoreditch Town Hall, the event was noteworthy on a number of counts, not least for how oversubscribed it was. Just hours before kickoff, Mosaic sent out an email advising registered attendees to arrive early or risk being denied entry.
I got there about 20 minutes early and there was already a substantial queue. Luckily, having called ahead, the venue was expecting me and I was able to successfully queue-hack my way to the front.
Once inside, the atmosphere had, dare I say it, a bit of a rock concert feel to it (or, perhaps, a religious gathering), albeit one overwhelmingly attended by men under the age of 25 sporting Hacker News t-shirts.
I’m told the venue was at full capacity, and the Shoreditch Town Hall staff I spoke to didn’t seem quite sure what to make of it. There were 750 attendees in total, including the fully occupied balconies. Cult of Silicon Valley has certainly reached the UK capital city.
Altman, who didn’t appear phased at all, gave a good interview, in spite of a series of somewhat lacklustre opening questions from the two Mosaic partners. Send a VC to do a journalist’s job!
Early on in the Q&A he put to bed the idea that failure should always be celebrated. ‘I think failure is still bad and people should try to avoid it,’ said Altman, which was met with laughter all around the hall.
‘I think one of the odder things about Silicon Valley is that people brag about failure. Failure sucks! Like anybody else, I’ve done things that have worked really well and plenty of things that haven’t, and it’s much more fun when things work.’
But where the conversation got a little meatier was when it turned to the topic of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and humanity’s future, a subject Altman has likely given more thought to than most and is heavily invested in.
The Silicon Valley investor said he sees the future of the human race as a ‘merge’ with machines, not a conflict with them, Business Insider’s James Cook reports.
‘If you have the AIs and the humans and they’re both trying to enslave the other, and they both want the same thing … that’s a recipe for conflict every time. I think we should try to avoid that,’ Altman said, somewhat understated.
One possible solution is for humans to plug a device into our brains and more directly augment our own intelligence with AI.
‘I think we’re going to need something like that so that we’re one thing and it’s not us versus AI,’ he said, matter-of-factly.
More immediately, however, machine learning is reaching every vertical and Altman reckons that 75 per cent of the most repetitive tasks carried out by humans could now be automated, citing things like legal work to radiographers. This will also see robots replacing almost every factory job within ten years, too.
‘There are mega consequences to this. Huge job disruption and job elimination in a way that is scary,’ he said.
The answer in the short term was re-training people and making better use of their talents, whilst in the longer term governments will need to do a lot more in terms of taxation and redistribution.
Altman’s point, which sounded extremely interventionist compared to Silicon Valley-styled libertarian groupthink, was that the AI revolution will make society wealthier as a whole but that wealth will be highly concentrated, and the mythical trickle down effect ain’t gonna cut it.
Instead, we will require something akin to a basic wage, underpinned by other ‘rights’, such as universal healthcare. This, he conceded, will make some people feel ‘very uncomfortable’ because even though it won’t be socialism it will feel a lot like it.
Bonus: Which co-founder of a British ‘unicorn’ — that is, a startup valued at a billion dollars or more — was spotted sat in the balcony of Shoreditch Town Hall enjoying the Altman Q&A?
Things I wrote
Flourish, a new startup out of London, has launched what it describes as a data visualisation platform, designed to make it easier for companies, including media organisations, to visualise and tell stories through data.
Canon Europe seems to be developing a penchant for buying up London-based startups in the photo or printing space.
Beekeeper, a Switzerland and U.S.-based startup that provides a mobile-first communications platform for employers that need a better way to communicate with blue-collar and service-oriented workers, has raised a further $8 million in new funding.
Nested, the London ‘proptech’ startup that guarantees to sell your house within 90 days or offer you a cash advance instead, has raised a further £8 million in funding.
Italy’s MotorK, a company that offers digital services to the automotive industry, raises $10M Series A
MotorK, an Italian company that offers a number of digital products to the automative industry, has raised $10 million in Series A funding.
Conversocial, a U.K.-headquartered social customer care platform, has acquired Silicon Valley startup HipMob.
Closing thought: Meta
It doesn’t get much more meta than writing about email newsletters in an email newsletter, but here goes.
Revue, the Netherlands-based startup that powers Steve’s ITK (and countless other newsletters), recently got its content marketing act together and has been publishing a series of blog posts titled ‘Inbox Talks’. The format is a Q&A with a personal newsletter author and this week it was my turn.
In the interview I talk a little about the process of writing a weekly newsletter, what the feedback has been like so far, other newsletters I read, and what made me start one:
I wanted to pull the curtain back a little on the process of tech journalism (and other aspects of the tech industry), which I think lots of people don’t fully understand. In an era of so-called ‘fake news’ and where trust of the media is at an all time low, this has become a bit of a personal mission.
The Revue team also caught me in a particularly reflective mood regards my return to music production, something I’ll likely be talking about more as I get closer to finishing the album I’m working on.
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Till next time,