Letter #24: Balaji Srinivasan (2020)

The Purpose of Technology: If the proximate purpose of technology is to reduce scarcity, the ultimate purpose of technology is to eliminate mortality.

Hi there! I go by KG, and I love studying the history of business and investing. I’ll be sharing some notes from one Investor/Shareholder letter per weekday (mostly from my compilations) here.

Today’s notes are on Balaji’s essay The Purpose of Technology. Balaji’s not a fan of credentialism, which is surprising given his long list of accomplishments and glowing recommendations. Over the past two decades, he has been a GP of a16z, where he spearheaded the launches of their Biotech and Crypto funds, CTO of Coinbase, Founder of Counsyl, and a BS, MS, and PhD in Electrical Engineering and an MS in Chemical Engineering, all from Stanford, where he also taught. Fellow VC and Internet Pioneer Marc Andreessen has called him “the person with the highest output per minute of new ideas of anybody I’ve ever met in my life.” That’s high praise from someone who literally built the Internet, and interacts with some of the smartest and creative founders and investors on a daily basis.

You can find this essay at his website

Oh, I should also mention, Balaji was one of the, if not the, first people in the West to take coronavirus seriously. He was also by far the most vocal — even though it resulted in several hit pieces against him. He was also very prescient in how it would affect the real world — see tweet below.

If you want to see how on of the greatest interdisciplinary thinkers of our time gathered data and analyzed a first-even worldwide pandemic, check out my Balaji Srinivasan Compilation, under COVID-19 Coverage.

If you have any thoughts on what you’d like to see, let me know!

Notes

If the proximate purpose of technology is to reduce scarcity, the ultimate purpose of technology is to eliminate mortality.

  • Ever since the commoditization of the internet, we’ve lived in a world (the digital world) where scarcity only exists as created (copyright, limited editions, etc)

  • Technology has reduced scarcity in the digital world — now it’s time for the physical world

  • See Steve Jurvetson’s comments on “Matter becomes code” — if this is true, does it matter that we eliminate scarcity in the real world? If matter is becoming code, we need to focus on turning humans into code

  • See USV’s Albert Wenger on The World After Capital

At first that sounds crazy. But let's start with the premise: is the proximate purpose of technology to reduce scarcity? Think about how a breakthrough is described: faster, smaller, cheaper, better. All of these words mean that with this new technology, one can do more with less. In the digital world, Google made information on any topic free to anyone with an Internet connection, and WhatsApp made it free to communicate with the same. In the physical world, innovations like the Haber Process or the Green Revolution allowed us to produce more with less. In a real sense, these technologies reduced scarcity.

  • lol is it crazy that I don’t find this crazy? (total missed opportunity for 10X faster, smaller cheaper hahahahhaha)

  • See Floodgate’s Mike Maples on How to Build a Breakthrough

Now for second half of the sentence, the logical implication. Is the ultimate purpose of technology to eliminate mortality? Well, mortality is the main source of scarcity. If we had infinite time, we would be less concerned with whether something was faster. The reason speed has value is because time has value; the reason time has value is because human life has value, and lifespans are finite. If you made lifespans much longer, you'd reduce the effective cost of everything. Thus insofar as reducing scarcity is acknowledged to be the proximate purpose of technology, eliminating the main source of scarcity – namely mortality – is the ultimate purpose of technologyLife extension is the most important thing we can invent.

  • What’s harder — removing scarcity from the physical world or transporting humans into the digital world?

And it's actually feasible today. It's been shown that we can extend healthy lifespans in mammals – and even reverse aging to bring people back to youth. Here's link after link after link after link on the topic.

  • Link 1: Ageing is a degenerative process leading to tissue dysfunction and death. A proposed cause of ageing is the accumulation of epigenetic noise, which disrupts youthful gene expression patterns that are required for cells to function optimally and recover from damage… old tissues retain a faithful record of youthful epigenetic information that can be accessed for functional age reversal.

  • Link 2: Laura Deming’s Longevity Fund (See Longevity FAQ)

  • Link 3: Here we show that transient expression of nuclear reprogramming factors, mediated by expression of mRNAs, promotes a rapid and broad amelioration of cellular aging, including resetting of epigenetic clock, reduction of the inflammatory profile in chondrocytes, and restoration of youthful regenerative response to aged, human muscle stem cells, in each case without abolishing cellular identity. '

  • Link 4: a single administration of an adeno-associated virus (AAV)-based gene therapy, which delivered combinations of three longevity-associated genes to mice, dramatically improved or completely reversed multiple age-related diseases, suggesting that a systems-level approach to treating such diseases could improve overall health and lifespan. 

You probably weren't aware of this, though. You probably also weren't aware of how far we've come on gene therapy, how much has been done in regenerative medicine, how advanced the latest bionic eyes are – or how deadly COVID-19 was as a threat until March of 2020.

  • Link 1: Preliminary results from one of the earliest clinical trials of CRISPR—Cas9 provide evidence that the technique is safe and feasible to use for treating human diseases.

  • Link 2: Treated guinea pigs recovered the ability to hear some loud noises by three weeks after the intervention, and the recovery lasted until the end of the study at nine weeks. While control animals ended up lacking the majority of their hair cells, treated animals displayed less overall hair cell loss along with the presence of ectopic and immature hair cells, which the authors describe as signs of regeneration.

  • Link 3: Here we present an electrochemical eye with a hemispherical retina made of a high-density array of nanowires mimicking the photoreceptors on a human retina. The device design has a high degree of structural similarity to a human eye with the potential to achieve high imaging resolution when individual nanowires are electrically addressed. Additionally, we demonstrate the image-sensing function of our biomimetic device by reconstructing the optical patterns projected onto the device. 

A duty to evangelize technological progress

That is because people with scientific and technical backgrounds have not taken it upon ourselves to write about technological progress as a duty. We need to take time out of our busy days to make the case, repeatedly and with high production values, that technological progress is the most important thing we can do for broad-based prosperity and economic growth, and for life itself.

  • People often complain about or criticize journalism — This piece is so bad, I could do better. But they rarely do. Hedge fund managers do — but their analysis usually remains private

That starts with testing, drugs, treatments, and vaccines for COVID-19. But it goes far beyond that. Put another way: we may not get life extension or the whole suite of transhumanist technologies (brain-machine interfaces, stem cells, CRISPR gene therapy, and more) unless you, personally, evangelize them online. Not just tweets, but articles. Not just articles, but videos. Not just videos, but feature films. And not just a few films, but an entire Netflix original library's worth, a parallel tech media ecosystem full of inspirational content for technological progressives. A lifetime's worth of content that makes the case for immutable money, infinite frontier, artificial intelligence, and eternal life.

This may mean less focus on the businesses and personalities of technology. After all, do we care whether the technology for reversing aging is developed by a startup, an academic lab, a scientific consortium, or a solitary biohacker in their garage? No. What we care about is the goal of transcendence. If the technology ends up being completely free and open source, so much the better. A corporate vehicle is just one means to an end, not an end in itself. We may need to understand every detail of operating a business, but we can't get lost in those details.

  • The best technology is/will be commoditized — Water, Electricity, Internet, AI

  • See Andrew Ng’s “AI is the New Electricity

The point of doing a startup after all is to build something you can't buy. Money can't yet buy you a trip to Mars. Or a neural implant. Or a medical tricorder. And at one point in the not-too-distant past it could not buy you a web browser, a search engine, or a smartphone. When the iPhone did not exist, people had to invent it. And they needed to be inspired to invent it.

  • Marc Andreessen — IT’S TIME TO BUILD

  • Josh Wolfe — SciFi <> SciFact

  • Elon Musk — Everything he builds

  • Steve Jurvetson — Everything he invests in

  • If you don’t have something, build it — from woodshop projects to 3D printers to computer programs

A sense of purpose

Why doesn't inspirational content for technological progressives exist in abundance? Part of the reason is adverse selection. While science fiction – even dystopian science fiction – can inspire, the scientists, engineers, founders, and funders thus inspired are often more occupied with building technology than evangelizing it. But this in turn means that we aren't directly educating the next generation, or the public at large.

  • Quick, name one science fiction book/series started in the 2000s (to make it harder, no naming Ted Chiang)

  • Why is most SciFi dystopian? Rarely do you see positive happy SciFi. Anyone have recommendations?

We need to change that. Specifically, people who know math and science, who have experience in managing and investing, who are technological progressives rather than technological conservatives – these people need to learn to write, report, publish, and direct. We need to consciously build a parallel tech-driven decentralized media ecosystem, and we need it to become the first point of call for anyone seeking to learn about technology.

  • Who are the most outspoken tech evangelists? I’ll start: Peter, Balaji, Elon

In this we will have allies around the world. Only the very richest people can afford to be cynical about the merits of technological progress. The billions of people who just got their first smartphone have had their lives dramatically improved as a consequence, and are too pragmatic to romanticize the past. If you haven't already internalized this point, take two minutes to watch this.

  • This is kind of funny — Peter often talks about technological stagnation, but the Internet and smartphones has DRASTICALLY increased the quality of life all around the world

Back? OK. So, building a media ecosystem for technological progressives clearly starts with technical education. At the K-12 level, we've already got plenty of learning apps, and the next step is remote schools. And at the level of collegiate education and continuous learning, Lambda School, Fast.ai, Coursera, Udacity, Udemy, Binance Academy, and the countless GitHub tutorials are an amazing start. But our duty extends beyond education to media of all kinds, particularly visual media.

  • If I were to start a country — my first focus would be education — Fight Me.

  • Education in the US today is more about babysitting than learning

  • Education needs to be pervasive — all forms of media and surround us (film, tv, books, magazines, everything)

The tech ecosystem has natural advantages here. We have the domain knowledge. And the experts at hand. We're already doing content marketing, podcasts, conferences, and a tweetstorm or two. We understand search engines, social networks, and distribution. And yes, we have learned to code.

  • The tech industry BUILDS. Tech needs to build a media ecosystem as if it was a startup. I’m conflicted here — build a transhumanist Netflix, but also if it’s going to be commoditized who’s going to go after it?

What we haven't done yet is full stack narrative. That is, with a few exceptions, like Elon Musk, we haven't really told story arcs with technological progress at the center. We haven't taken the pitch we use to recruit engineers and externalized it for the public. We haven't infused emotion and meaning into our public communications. We haven't made every one of our companies a media company. We haven't set out to tell our story ourselves.

We need to correct that immediately, and start evangelizing technological progress with every word and action. To recognize that the purpose of technology is to transcend our limits, and to motivate everything we're doing with a sense of that purpose. To take the winnings from our web apps and put them towards Mars, to feel no hesitation towards starting small and no shame in dreaming big, to tell the world that it actually is possible to cure the deafrestore sight, and end death itself.

  • See Lux Capital’s Futura Series

Wrap-up

If you’ve got any thoughts, questions, or feedback, please drop me a line - I would love to chat! You can find me on twitter at @kgao1412 or my email at kevin@12mv2.com.

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