How ‘Sex at Dawn’ Saved my Startup

You might think you’ve seen it all in Silicon Valley, but unless you’ve come back from lunch to find a 45 year old legendary VC performing the “rights of Venus” on a 23 year old intern in the meeting room of your startup you haven’t. Let me explain. I was hired as the fourth employee of a small messaging/dating app company. The aforementioned VC was an angel investor in the company and he got me the job. The company was started by a young couple out of Stanford and a former Googler. Things were going well relatively speaking, we were burning through our initial investment but we had a few solid backers. That’s when the VC, lets call him Jason, called me up and told me that he wasn’t going to be investing further in the company. I begged him to tell me why but he wouldn’t. Later I would find out from the male co-founder let’s call him Ken. His girlfriend had slept with the third co-founder. He told me that he couldn’t even look at them and that he couldn’t help but be jealous, its human nature, so the startup was finished. That last part stuck out in my mind. I had just finished reading a book called “Sex at Dawn” that called the concept of male jealousy as a consequence of evolution into question.

I tracked down Jason at a bar I know he frequents and told him that all I asked is that he go on the weekend retreat we had planned. I thought if I could just get everyone together there was a chance I might be able to save the startup. I put together a deck and made the best presentation I’ve ever done. For 45 minutes I went on and on about anthropological examples, biological examples, cross-cultural experience, the mosuo, partible paternity, social experiments, risk taking and Plato’s Republic. I was fighting not just for the startup but for a whole new way of looking at social relationships. Here is the beautiful part. I had everyone together and because everyone assumed that the startup was done we spent the next 8 hours discussing my presentation.

Six months later the startup is stronger than ever. I don’t think I can fully explain what we’ve created if you haven’t read Sex at Dawn, lets just say what Google did with not wanting people to leave work to get food we’ve expanded upon. You’ve heard of work spouses? We have become an extremely tightly knit group. Jason, who used to come by rarely, now stops by at least twice a week. His mentorship is invaluable. We have just hired our 9th 10th and 11th employees lets call them, Gretchen, Melissa and Iyelllen. We still aren’t profitable but I’m more confident then ever we will be. At the very least we are no longer hemorrhaging users. I don’t think this could work for everyone, we had a young open minded group of people and it was like the perfect storm. I have deliberately hidden the name of the company and its members so I hope you all will respect the anonymity the internet provides but I do plan to right a book about the experience some day if the startup fails and there is interest.

Avogadro Corp: The Singularity is Closer than it Appears

This is one of the best books on the singularity I have ever read. Set in a fictional company that very clearly is intended to represent Google, it takes the reader through a plausible, fascinating and entertaining trip. It reminded me of a talk by Jaan Tallin in that it encourages looking at the world from the perspective of data centers.

Essentially, it presents a highly plausible way in which AI could arise. The open minded perspective the author brings to it is reminiscent of Issac Asimov.

Hats off to William Hurtling on a fantastic first novel.

At $2.99 for the kindle version it might be the best money you ever spent. Cheaper than a cup of coffee which I’m sure the author would appreciate…

Two Free Fiction Novels about the Singularity Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect and Accelerando

These two works of fiction go further than any others I have read in imagining what a post-singularity future would be like. They are both also available for free online. I have criticisms of both books but I wholeheartedly recommend them both.

Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect depicts a hard take-off scenario in which a strong AI emerges in the near future. Accelerando depicts a soft take-off with less of an emphasis on strong AIs developing but rather takes the reader through a future in which change happens gradually, albeit quickly and exponentially, and themes of mind-uploading, and augmenting human intelligence play a more prominent role.

Thematically, Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect focuses, to a fault in my opinion, on the hypothetical problem of what it would be like if we had everything. Kurzweil hinted at this theme in the Age of Spiritual Machines in which he recounted an episode of The Twilight Zone in which a man dies and goes to heaven which is a casino where he always wins. Eventually bored with always winning the man asks to go “to the other place” and is told that he is in “the other place.” Personally, I do not think we define our lives with pain and problems. We can also create new games, new art, have new experiences and will probably never run out of things to learn. I think we are better off without real problems in a world where, for instance, there is no war, we could still play war video games if we are so inclined. I think imagining that having everything would be bad is far off base. Nevertheless, I think this book is very interesting and creates a plausible seeming future world that is definitely worth reading.

Note that this story has extreme sex and violence that might offend some

Here is a link to a free full text version ofThe Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect.

Accelerando stretches the limits of human imagination and to my mind embodies the theme that we have no idea what to expect post-singularity. I especially enjoyed the early parts of this book and overall found it very enjoyable. As the novel progresses it gets more incomprehensible but I suppose that might be the point.

Here is a link to the free full text of Accelerando. (I didn’t know it was free and purchased it on kindle myself)

The analogy of “the singularity” as it is sometimes formulated is supposed to be a point that we cannot look beyond. Maybe such a point exists but I still find it fascinating to speculate at what life will be like just before the singularity. Its hard and maybe even impossible to make predictions beyond a certain point but I see no harm in trying. Anyway, I should add that neither book claims to be predicting anything and even predicting the future before the singularity occurs is inherently very hard.

Response to Sarah Lacy on This Week in Startups Discussion of Price Gouging

Ms. Lacy,
I posted this online because you do not have your email available. (at least from what I saw you’re only reachable by social media)

I write to express my disappoint with the way you portrayed the concept of price gouging on This Week in Start Ups.
“Price gouging” is often maligned but it is a good thing for the following two reasons:

1. It sends a signal to service providers to provide goods where they are needed.
2. It causes consumers to ration goods and thus allocates resources more effectively in times when this is of utmost importance

I understand that some people have their sensibilities offended by pricing going up in times of crisis. However, not everyone shares this emotional reaction. I do not wish to question the legitimacy of an emotional response but I hope that you understand that by perpetuating an emotional response to this you make crises worse in the future for people like myself who live in New York.

Economists agree that anti-price gouging laws and anti-price gouging sediment make crises worse. The inconsistency between the way many people feel and the reality of the situation have been addressed by both NPR and Slate.

Sadly, I think those who criticize price gouging are like advocates of the death penalty. They emotionally feel justified but are on the wrong side of history. In any event, all the best.
Dan

The Facebook Effect

This book is primarily a biography of Zuckberberg and the company he founded. To a lesser extent it explores the social implications of the company and tries to draw general business lessons from the company’s culture. In this way it is different from What Would Google Do. This book is less about the changing technological landscape and less about the singularity so I won’t spend a ton of time on it. But I would recommend it as an interesting book about one of the great business success stories of our time. This book paints Zuckerberg in a more favorable and probably more honest light than the doubtless more widely seen movie “The Social Network.”

Snowcrash

Without a doubt Neal Stephenson produced a masterpiece with this novel. So many interesting concepts ranging from religion, psychology, politics, technology and many more are explored and the novel is extremely well written.

Most famously, this book introduced the idea of the “metaverse” an entire world in software which rivals the real world in realism. The closest real world analogy to this we have today is Second Life.  Second life lacks in realism today but there is plenty or reason to believe that we are aiming in that direction as our technology improves exponentially.

In the past few years I think voice recognition has gotten a lot better and this has sort of snuck up on us and not gotten much media attention. As we build towards a more metaverse-like technology the same thing might happen. Teleconferencing companies are GoToMeeting and toys like the Kinect pull the user into a virtual environment. They are hints at things to come.

This book also deals with what’s now called trans-humanism although the term isn’t used. The way he explores this topic is imaginative and compelling. Among the great fiction books reviewed on this site this one may be the best.

Plenzes

I stumbled on this book while looking for info on the new Google Glasses on Youtube. I enjoy this type of science fiction. Like Rainbow’s End it deals with technology that is not way into the future but that should be available in less than 5 years. This might be the first time in history that we are able to read interesting science fiction about technology that is so close at hand. The people in this video loved this book. If you click the video you will see them raving about it. The book was only $1 and short which was very cool. The book was not a bad read. Technology its central insight seemed to focus on the superiority of contacts over glasses which is kind of obvious but interesting to see it explored in fiction.

The book made me laugh out loud at times because I’d seen the video. I kept thinking that the main character in this book, Stewart, was a stand in for the author and the main character’s significant other, Kimi, was a stand in for this author’s significant author Margie. There’s this whole motif of violence against women and general resentment towards society running through Plenzes pretty hardcore and I couldnt help but think it must have been a little akward for the author’s significant author to read it. Anyway if you like your fiction bite sized click the amazon wheel somewhere on the page, spend $1 on this and I’ll earn a fraction of a penny or something.

 

Linked: The New Science of Networks

Unfortunately I wasn’t blown away by this book. A friend of mine gave it rave reviews and there is an interesting profile of the book’s author,  Albert-László Barabási, on PopSci. His work seems really interesting. However, Some of the concepts in this book like the 80/20 principle and the 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon discussed in the book never seemed like such a big deal to me. A lot of it seemed like it making a big deal out of nothing to me.

Two things I liked about the book. I thought the idea of how the internet was creating a super-organism was a cool concept. I also liked the section where the book discussed how AIDs pandemics could be stopped more efficiently by treating “hubs.”

Maybe you’ll like this book more than I did. I loved the Black Swan and Taleb writes about many of the same concepts in a different writing style.

Marooned in Real Time

This is a science fiction book by an outspoken singularity proponent. This book deals with the singularity in an indirect way. The singularity is one mystery, in a gripping book with many mysteries.

The singularity has many different formulations and definitions. However, one of its more universal features is that it is supposedly incomprehensible to us today. We think that the future will be so radically different from the way it is now that understanding it would be like an earthworm understanding Shakespeare. Because of this problem we aren’t supposed to be able to make predictions about it. While this may be so, it hasn’t stopped many futurists and singularity proponents from trying. Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil both believe that future A.I. will eventually try to turn the entire universe into one big highly efficient computer. Some predict we will extend our lifespans for thousands of years while others believe we’re certainly doomed.

Some are guilty of inconsistency because they believe that there is a point in the future beyond which speculation goes from merely very hard to completely impossible and then they try to look past that point anyway.  Vernor Vinge definitely is not guilty of this sort of inconsistency.  While his book imaginatively deals with future technologies, it sets the singularity clearly apart as a complete mystery. It also spells out clearly the accelerating nature of technological change- which is after all the whole reason believing the singularity is around the corner and the whole reason this is actually an interesting topic. The book accomplishes this by examining characters from different eras. Those from the time just before the singularity are dealt with in a particularly interesting way in the book.

Marooned in Real Time uses an altered timeline to look at the mystery of the singularity from another angle and in doing so makes the mystery of it all the more intriguing. It does so in one of the most enjoyable science fiction books I have ever read. It is hard science fiction and true to the concept of the singularity. I would highly recommend it.

The Singularity is Near

The Singularity is Near deals with many of the same concepts as Kurzweil’s previous books but attempts to be a more thorough exploration of the idea.

It begins with a section called “The 6 epochs” which is a very long summary of history from the big bang to the evolution of life on earth to the dawn of man and the evolution of human technology. One interesting fact is that for roughly half of the time since life evolved the only form of life was single celled organisms.

The next section is a theory of evolutionary processes. This explains the mechanism Kurzweil believes is behind exponentially accelerating technological progress. To put it briefly he believes that it occurs because at each stage we are using the tools available to us to generate the next set of tools. As the tools get better the progress accelerates building on itself and growing faster and faster.  To take extreme examples its easy to see why Google and Microsoft Excel speed technological progress and how a lack of basic tools like written language would slow it to a near halt.

There are separate sections on achieving the computational capacity of the human brain and achieving the software of human intelligence. Kurzweil estimates the computational power of the human brain and how long it will take computers to match this. One way in which these estimates is done is by looking at sections of the brain that are well understood and determining the equivalent amount of computer power necessary to achieve this on computer. If Kurzweil or even mainstream futurists are even remotely correct we will have no trouble achieving the computational power of the human brain. In fact in Kurzweil’s previous book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, Kurzweil predicts that by 2020 the computational power of the human brain will come at a cost of only $1000.

As I write this there are likely no computers in existence that have the hardware capacity of a human brain. The idea that that much computational power could be available so cheaply makes Kurzweil’s predictions about when we will have the software of A.I. seem almost conservative. I would imagine there will be an enormous economic incentive for businesses spending $30,000 a year on employees to create the software to replicate their jobs in $1000 machines. The incentive to create A.I. then cannot be overstated and given the hardware we have now there is not much economic incentive to do so, so we aren’t seeing a big push towards developing software yet. As I.J. Good said “the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make”.

But creating A.I. is only the beginning. In one part of this book Kurzweil attempts to ascertain what the power of a computer would be if engineers could design it to the absolute limits set by physics. He calls this the theoretical computer the “Ultimate Cold Laptop” and the conclusions he reaches are staggering. According to Kurzweil’s estimate “the optimal computational capacity of a one-liter, one kilogram computer at around 10^42 cps, which is sufficient to perform the equivalent of ten thousand years of thinking of ten billion human brains in ten microseconds.” Our brains are roughly 3 pounds of matter powered by a small amount of energy.  Science already tells us that the universe is staggeringly big and will last a staggeringly long time. The potential here for intelligent thought and experience is beyond comprehension. Simulations of every imaginable scenario would be possible.

Aritificial Intelligence skeptics’ more common criticism for the idea that A.I. is soon at hand is that even though we will reach the hardware capacity of the human brain we will not be able to create software.  Kurzweil believes this issue can be addressed by reverse engineering the human brain. He describes the exponential progress in the ability of brain scanners to understand sections of the human brain.

One section in this book deals with the three approaching revolutionary technological paradigms of genetics, robotics and nanotechnology.  Each of these new technologies could radically alter the world for the better or destroy it. Kurzweil believes we are in the beginning of the genetics revolution as usher in by the sequencing of the human genome. Many dystopian science fiction writers have written of the possibility of a future in which we can create designer babies; Gattaca is one example. Kurzweil’s vision is different, he writes of a potential for designer baby boomers in which adults alter their genes. Nanotechnology and Artificial intelligence will come later and have the potential to be even more powerful than genetics.

The only thing I disliked about the book is that that its results can come across a little too much like they are inevitable in places. Also Kurzweil risks sounding like a cult leader when he says he would like to label people who believe that the singularity will occur “singularitarians.” This language turned off a friend of mine who started this book but didn’t finish it. The book can seem a bit like a sacred tome when it discusses the “epochs” that the universe will go through.  However, while this tone is sure to put some people off I do think it is forgivable. The implications of the singularity are so fantastic that it can’t help but step on the toes of traditional with religion at times. No matter how concepts such as eternal life and superhuman intelligence are presented they are going to be offensive to some.

I loved the way this book carefully deals with objections to the theory that “The Singularity is Near.” There are several legitimate criticisms that can be made for Kurzweil’s timeline and he deals with them honestly.  Some of the criticisms include the criticism from Malthus, the criticism from incredulity and the criticism from software.

This book is a must read for anyone interested in the singularity. While most people probably consider it the definitive work on the singularity I’d still recommend starting out with Robot Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind or The Age of Spiritual Machines or even Kurzweil’s essay on the law of accelerating returns. The concept itself of the singularity is not overly complex and this book might seem daunting to someone who is not already sold on the idea.