Ghost writers in the machine

I get a lot of odd emails pitching me services I don’t want. Private jets and yachts aren’t really my thing.

But one offering to ‘build my audience without spending hours writing content’ intrigued me so I followed the rabbit hole to see what was down there. It turns out there’s a whole industry of people who will pretend to be a better version of you on social media, especially on Linkedin.

I have to admit it hadn’t really crossed my mind but it was only when I spotted someone I’ve been following as a (semi-anonymised) case study in materials that I realised I’d been taken in. It didn’t feel good.

If you’re a founder, be careful. Not all those VCs posting on LinkedIn are who you think they are.

Does it matter? I can see the temptation – it takes a lot of time and headspace to think of things to write. But I think it does break trust and ultimately the reason I’m still on some of those platforms is to maintain and create new relationships. And trust is important for those.

Big Tech malaise

I loved that the FT published a version of Cory Doctorow’s Marshall McLuhan Lecture in the FT Magazine. On the surface it seems so ‘unFT’ – both in style and approach – but it’s reflective of a lot of conversations I have with people in the tech and finance worlds.

They’re often called ‘Big Tech’ but the biggest tech firms aren’t just big, they’re ginormous – both in terms of their financial power and influence over our lives and politics. They’re Big with a capital B. And I don’t think it will last forever.

The backlash among activists and people in the industry has been going on for a while but as Cory points out, now the experience of users and customers (often advertisers) is getting worse and worse. At some point, people and Governments will break.

It strikes me that the moves by some of those large companies to do share buybacks and even (whisper it) pay dividends smacks of desperation. It’s a defensive play to prop up share prices for a bit longer and an admission that they’re not the best allocators of capital for innovation.

I think that leaves lots of space for new startups to create value in a more sustainable way. And if those startups learn what the current generation of giants forgot (that you need to be able to demonstrate that you have a positive impact on the world), then the future of tech is rosy. Those companies that success will still be big but not Big.

Weary Giants and AI

The tech world has a strange relationship with regulation. Often characterised as a libertarian crowd, Silicon Valley leaders used to be vehemently against government involvement. Written in 1996, John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace began:

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

Fast forward to 2023 and the new generation of Silicon Valley’s tech leaders are making calls for generative AI to be regulated. Many of them will be in London in the autumn for the Prime Minister’s AI Summit. What’s changed?

There’s no doubting that the pervasiveness and economic impact of technology have upped the stakes for governments. But the tech world has also realised that trust is vital for its survival and effective regulation is essential for that.

The debate about AI regulation currently focuses on trying to stop really bad things from happening. Others far smarter than me will have to work out how you do that. But for what it’s worth, I’m sceptical of apocalyptic near term predictions for AI. I feel more affinity with science fiction author Ted Chiang and his advice to replace the words ‘artificial intelligence’ with ‘applied statistics’ in headlines and see whether they have the same power.

But if you’re going to regulate technology, could you regulate it ‘for good’? I’d argue that if you’re a government you’re better off shaping incentives for the direction of innovation in the future than trying to shut the stable door after the proverbial horse has bolted.

And that’s where policy towards impact investing comes in. By tilting large capital allocators – particularly those with a public subsidy like pension funds and endowments – towards deliberate and measurable social and environmental impact, the next generation of innovations in AI and other fields will be more likely to have a public benefit.

The days of the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace are long gone. Technology, government and finance are all now interdependent. A future where tech is used for good must recognise that.

This article first appeared in The Practical Optimist, a newsletter I send out once a month from BGV for investors with an interest in tech for good.

A campfire in the dark forest

When I posted that I’d started blogging again, Andy Thornton posted a link to an article he’s written called “Into the Woods…”. It’s a really interesting piece and made me pause to reflect.

I wondered why I stopped blogging and using social media so much a few years ago. In my head there were many reasons – a different routine, different responsibilities a lack of time and so on.

But one, if i’m honest was that I was scared.

The ‘woods’ in Andy’s title refers to the Dark Forest theory which I first came across in in Liu Cixin’s books. It’s one of the most unsettling ideas you’ll find in science fiction and was created to try to answer one of the oddest questions in astrobiology. In an infinite universe which we now know has plenty of other planets, there is a very strong probability of other intelligent life, so why haven’t we made contact with any? It’s called Fermi’s Paradox.

The Dark Forest theory says the reason for this is that intelligent civilisations keep quiet. In a dark forest you don’t want the really scary beasts to know where you are, or even that you exist.

Over the last decade the open web and social media seemed to become more full of scary beasts for me. As Andy puts it:

This state of mutual suspicion and caution towards exposure is also one with echoes in our wider contemporary zeitgeist, in which rational paranoia is increasingly becoming the default mindset.

I guess I became scared of putting ideas and opinions out there. Partly in case people were rude about them, but also because I felt the chances of things being misunderstood unless you made your writing ‘perfect’ had increased.

So what’s changed? The spectre of almost everything on the web being written by ChatGPT and the like somehow fired me up. The forest is about to get much denser and darker.

It made me want to fight back and start to share things again. After all, the other way of looking after yourself in a dark forest, isn’t to hide, but to light a campfire. To do something that the scary beasts don’t understand.

Current email, calendar and task list setup

I use a few tools to help me keep on top of my email, calendar and task list. These are in addition to the basic Gmail and Google Calendar services.

Airmail – I’ve always preferred having my email in a client rather than in the browser and the cleaner and simpler the better. Airmail does the job very nicely if you’re a Mac user.

Sanebox – the filters/tabs for ‘promotions’ and so on in Gmail don’t really cut the mustard for my inbox – I need something that can spot just the important messages and filter out the rest. I also like to be able to have a set up where I only look at unimportant messages once a day. Sanebox does all of that and has some great other features too.

TextExpander – part of my job involves saying the same thing to lots of different people and so saving snippets in TextExpander saves me a lot of time. You soon remember the keyboard shortcuts to paste whole messages and then tweak before sending.

Motion – I’ve found that the best way for me to manage my task list is to allocate time for things directly on my calendar. Motion is the most intelligent way of doing that I’ve come across. You add things to the task list and then it automatically allocates them to a free slot in your calendar and updates as things change. Really helpful for less urgent but important recurring tasks.

HubSpot – we use Hubspot for a lot of things at work and I prefer their meeting booking experience over the other options I’ve tried. It means you can send a link to people for them to choose a time for a call.

I recommend all of them but also keen to hear if there’s anything else I should be trying!

Some thoughts on AI and tech for good

I’ve been working around the edges of machine learning and AI for many years now. We implemented some basic machine learning in the startup I was running in 2006 and I watched as many other startups implemented similar things during the 2010s. As an investor at BGV I’ve seen our portfolio companies use AI to differing extents to build successful businesses and have a positive impact.

So I knew that the recent spate of LLM innovation was coming. It’s impressive to see what companies like OpenAI and others have achieved. There’s something uncanny about the interactions you have with ChatGPT or Bard and the like and I’ve watched it already have an impact on the stuff I read.

Unfortunately, the most obvious thing in my case is inbound unsolicited marketing emails. As I’m fairly public about my contact details, I’ve always had a fair amount of speculative sales messages from recruiters, outsourced software development houses, lead generation and many other services that I just never use. It doesn’t get flagged as spam but I use software called Sanebox (itself an interesting application of machine learning) to filter it and then have a quick scan once a day.

In the last couple of months, the nature of those emails has changed. They are now mainly generated by chatGPT and the like. Because there is enough information about me and BGV in the public domain, they can ‘personalise’ the approaches in a way that wasn’t possible. I’ve also noticed a fair amount of ChatGPT generated posts on Linkedin, Twitter and the like. It’s an interesting twist to sales and marketing but it leaves me underwhelmed.

Despite how impressive the technology is, so far I’ve found limited use cases for ChatGPT in ‘doing’ any part of my job. I find it useful for sense checking and improving the quality of output but it’s not capable of fundraising or making investment decisions. It can help but it’s a long way from being a direct replacement for human activity.

I’ve been asked quite a few times in the last six month about the relationship between tech for good and AI. The short answer is that it’s no different from any other technology. A tech for good AI startup will set out to intentionally solve a particular social or environmental issue and it will measure its impact as it tries to do that. No other AI startup will be tech for good. You can’t accidentally be tech for good.

Part of the reason for this post is that I think ChatGPT and the like will lead to people writing less and that is a shame. Seeing it in action has spurred me to do something which I’ve been thinking about for a while and start blogging again.

I’m going to try to write a weekly post, usually about tech or impact investing. Maybe I’ll just be talking to the bots. Does anybody ready blogs anymore? I’m not sure!

Everything on the internet is wrong so don’t take me too seriously. But I hope it will help me improve my thinking which is something that leaving everything to AI certainly won’t.

My favourite books of 2021

For the first part of 2021, my reading mainly consisted of Agatha Christie and John le Carré novels which I found were very easy to read with a tiny baby asleep on you. But as the year went on I found more time to read non-fiction and some more contemporary fiction. My top few of each were:

Non-fiction

  • Our lady of perpetual hunger by Lisa Donovan – best known as a pastry chef whose work in New Orleans gained her international acclaim, this is a book about far more than cooking. It’s a phenomenal memoir and inspiring parenting and professional tale. But it also makes you want to try some of those old fashioned desserts from the American South.
  • The Premonition by Michael Lewis – there’s still nobody better at taking a technical and often bureaucratic system and making it into a gripping yarn. The Premonition is the story of the people who helped make sure that covid wasn’t as bad as it could have been under Donald Trump’s presidency.
  • The Key Man – brilliant reportage about something very close to home in my day job. Abraaj was one of the first high profile international investment firms that called themselves impact investors. They had billions under management – the trouble was, it was all based on lies and fraud. There are lessons for all of us in the impact investing world from the book but it’s also a cracking good read as Wall Street Journal journalists Clark and Louch piece together what really happened.
  • Everything I learned about life I learned from PowerPoint. Russell Davies settled down in lockdown to write this love letter to a piece of software that is both a wonderful piece of social commentary and a compendium of tips for how to give better presentations. I remember first seeing Russell do a presentation at a conference in Newcastle years ago and knowing straight away that he was a master of the craft.

Fiction

  • Contacts by Mark Watson – I think Mark Watson is one of the best comedians of his generation but he’s also a fantastic novelist. This is an alternative take on the power of social media and smart phones. I can’t work out whether it will feel dated in a few years time or whether it will still make sense. Having read all those Agatha Christie novels earlier in the year I think it might last.
  • Broken Stars by Ken Liu. I’ve developed a liking for Chinese sci-fi and this year I read another collection of short stories. There are several that have stuck with me, particularly one where lives run in the opposite direction through Chinese history since 1945. It’s a phenomenal piece of creativity.
  • Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky – this however was the best sci-fi I read in 2021. Adrian Tchaikovsky deservedly won the Arthur C Clarke award for this. So many nooks and crannies of imagination and you’re left thinking very differently about our possible place in the universe.

My favourite books of 2020

It was an odd year but I really enjoyed reading. I made it through a book every couple of weeks – 26 in total – and these were my favourites. Maybe this year I’ll make it to a book a week.

Non-fiction

  • Wilding by Isabella Tree – my review here. This genuinely changed the way I think about nature and the countryside.
  • The Man Who Solved the Market by Gregory Zuckerman. A brilliantly written story of Renaissance, the incredibly successful investment firm created by Jim Simons. The problem was it didn’t have a purpose other than making money and that eventually made monsters or bitter men of its senior staff – including one of them becoming the biggest backer of Donald Trump’s election 2016 campaign.
  • Eat a Peach by David Chang – a great book about business and mental health with the odd bit of cooking thrown in.

Fiction

  • Exhalation by Ted Chiang – Chiang is the author of the piece that became the movie Arrival. This collection of short stories is a great selection of new writing.
  • The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. It won the US National Book Award in 2004 and is set in the aftermath of the Second World War in Asia and Europe.
  • Agency by William Gibson. He’s still cyberpunk and still great. His new novel is set in near-future/current San Francisco and a future London. I loved it.

Electric dreams

Earlier this week the UK Government brought forward the deadline for a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2040 to 2030. This is a jolly good thing.

The resulting media coverage has mainly been about whether or not it’s possible. My recent experience makes me think it is. We switched from a plug-in hybrid (Audi e-tron) to a full electric (Tesla Model 3) about three months ago. We don’t have a charging point at home for complicated reasons (the freehold of our building is currently being sold) but it’s been very easy to keep it charged up via local public charging points (often free) and the brilliant Tesla superchargers for long distance trips.

I will also say that full electric is a better experience than a hybrid. I’m no Elon Musk fanboy but Tesla are way ahead of their legacy auto sector rivals. The whole experience and business model is just better thought out than any car I’ve had previously. I’m not sure the difference can justify the market cap without them selling many millions more cars but I pity the short-sellers on that one.

It’s also made me think that the transition to zero carbon transport is going to be a lot faster than people currently imagine. When people try this generation of electric cars, they won’t go back. The uptake will also drive a huge amount of change in the wider energy system. With millions of batteries around, flexibility in the grid becomes a much greater possibility and renewables become even cheaper.

As a side note, I also think the market for electrified classics is going to grow quickly as the price of components comes down. It’s going to be much cheaper and easier to maintain an old car once you rip out the internal combustion engine and associated gubbins and replace them with the simplicity of batteries and a motor. Just check out this video on Fully Charged of a converted Ferrari.

Underland by Robert Macfarlane

I really enjoyed Underland by Robert Macfarlane. It’s an account of his journeys to places that could be thought of as underworlds – entrances to hell – or at least places hidden from human eyes. Macfarlane is a naturalist and environmentalist. He’s also not afraid of caving or climbing which helps. But he’s also one of my favourite writers – I love his tone and turn of phrase.

The book starts in a mine in North Yorkshire where in one direction the tunnel heads under the Yorkshire Moors but in the other, it disappears underneath the North Sea.

One of the most interesting chapters for me is set a few miles from our home – in Epping Forest. It explores an underground world that isn’t as inaccessible as caves on the Norwegian coast but is nonetheless hidden from most of us – the underfloor of the forest. It turns out that scientists are now starting to realise that trees are societies too. They are able to communicate and transfer water and nutrients to one another underground over large distances. Roots are amazing things.

He also visits caves that have been scarred by war as well as caves that have hidden burial sites and art for millennia. Glaciers that are deep under the ocean and hold ice that is hundreds of thousands of years old. Caves in Somerset that were settlements well before Stonehenge was built. And modern caves that are being built to hide some of the most dangerous things we’ve been responsible for – particularly nuclear waste.

He mentions a project to warn future (potentially non-human) generations about sites that hide deadly nuclear waste. Some people think that generating stories and myths about the sites might be better than any sign or warning ‘sculpture’ you could create. His guide tells him the workmen on the project joked when they first started digging they’d find the nuclear waste of some previous civilisation that we had no idea ever existed.

This was my first book by Robert Macfarlane and I loved it – I’ve read several others since.