Weekly Dose of Optimism #31
4 Day Work Week, Freak Trees, Quantum Computing, Technological Progress, Necessary Immigration, and Anti-Doomerism.
Hi friends 👋,
Happy Friday and welcome back to our 30th Weekly Dose of Optimism. Relatively quiet week on our end, but a bunch of good stuff happening around the universe that we’re excited to share.
Let’s get to it.
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(1) Trial Run of 4-Day Workweek Wins Converts
Lora Kelley for The New York Times
Fifty-six of the companies, or 92 percent, said they would continue with a four-day week, according to the new report, and 18 confirmed that the change would be permanent. The study also found that companies’ revenue stayed broadly the same on average over the trial period — and that attrition among employees dropped significantly. In a survey about halfway through the study, most of the companies reported no loss of productivity during the trial.
Progress is great. There’s this pervasive fear that productivity gains will take everyone’s jobs, but as we wrote about in our piece on Formic, what actually happens is that people find new, more interesting jobs. A much lower percentage of us work on farms to feed our families than we used to; now some people get to do silly things like write newsletters for work.
But something else happens, too. Instead of some people losing all of their work, most people get to work less. Kids don’t go to work on the family farm at ten years old; they go to school. Fewer people work until the day they die; many retire at 65. The two-day weekend, something we take for granted, didn’t become widespread until the 1930s.
Today, remote or hybrid work means less time commuting and more time at home. Some companies are even experimenting with a 4-Day Work Week, and the results of this study out of Britain are promising: less work, no productivity loss.
We McCormick boys are no future of work experts. Our situation is unique: Packy and I both work from home, do some amount of “work” 7 days a week, maybe talk about work-related topics live once per quarter, send a few Slack messages a day, manage a small super-liquid team, and haven’t changed out of sweatpants in three years. Some people are working on all-consuming, ambitious missions that require seven days a week, in-person, and we’re all for that too. But if people in a lot of jobs can get just as much shit done in four days as they do in five days, then why not give them back an extra day to pursue their non-work lives?
If all we get from this technological progress is 14% more time to do the things we love doing vs. working, that’s still pretty powerful.
Which is why we were pumped to see the positive results of the largest 4 Day Work Week Trial ever:
92% of trial companies plan on continuing the 4 Day Work Week model
No reported loss of productivity
No measurable decrease in trial company revenue
Lower attrition rates
The real question is: we taking off Mondays or Fridays?
(2) Genetically Modified Trees Are Taking Root to Capture Carbon
Margaret Osborne for Smithsonian Magazine
The San Francisco-based venture, called Living Carbon, intends to plant 4 to 5 million trees by the middle of next year, which they say will help with the looming climate crisis. This may be the first time genetically modified trees have been planted in a U.S. forest outside of a research trial or commercial fruit orchard, per the New York Times’ Gabriel Popkin.
There are two ways to reduce our carbon footprint:
Emit less carbon (most impactful)
Capture and remove carbon we’ve already emitted (less impactful, but still important)
We’ve written extensively about projects that are focusing on the latter. Carbon removal is the focus of Frontier, the advance market commitment, lead by Stripe and other major tech companies, to buy an initial $925M of permanent carbon removal.
Living Carbon, a SF-based startup that, as far as we can tell, is not associated with Frontier but is partnered with Stripe, recently became the first organization to plant genetically modified trees in the U.S. outside of trial or commercial forests. The trees are designed to grow up to 53% larger, suck up 27% more carbon, and store the carbon in a more permanent way than natural trees. The startup plans on planting 4-5 million of these freak-trees in the next year and hope to capture 600 megatons by 2030. They won’t solve climate change, but they’ll make a dent on removing carbon we’ve already emitted.
(3) Google’s quantum computer hits key milestone by reducing errors
Davide Castelvecchi for Nature
Physicists at Google have reached what they describe as their second milestone along the path to a useful quantum computer. At a laboratory in Santa Barbara, California, they have demonstrated that they can lower the error rate of calculations by making their quantum code bigger.
We will not attempt to explain this quantum computing milestone from a technical perspective — that’s way above our paygrade. But the breakthrough, most easily summarized as error reduction in quantum computing, is noteworthy because it’s the second of six milestones achieved by Google on its roadmap to producing a “useful quantum computer.”
We don’t know exactly when quantum computing will be “useful” but it’s worth noting that the progress does seem to be lining up with breakthroughs in AI. Quantum computers, in the simplest terms, allow for really big complex math problems to be performed more quickly. That may be an understatement: quantum computers are 158 million times faster than the most sophisticated supercomputers in action today.
So imagine an AI that is run on a computer 158 million times more efficient than whatever OpenAI is using today…and then imagine what the world will look like with that type of AI running around. Eliezer weeps.
The big question is: when quantum computing is commercially viable, will Google have what it takes to commercialize it, or will they really be the modern Xerox PARC?
(4) Technology over the long run: zoom out to see how dramatically the world can change within a lifetime
Max Roser for Our World in Data
Speaking of imagining how technological progress will shape the future (and the past), Our World in Data released a new report on technological progress throughout the course of history. The main takeaway for me is that the slope of technological progress exploded upwards starting in the 1800s. We went a million years between controlled fire and the invention of the steam locomotive. And 145 years between the invention of the steam locomotive and the first nuclear bomb.
Compounding is a hell of a drug, and save any catastrophic misstep, I anticipate that society will continue to compound its way on the long upward slope of progress for the foreseeable future. The type of progress that humans living today have experienced is more linear than exponential…but the introduction of something like a quantum-powered AI might just shoot that slope vertical. The not-so-distant future (100 years from now) will likely be less recognizable to humans today than the distant past.
(5) Two Essays from Noah Smith
Noah Smith for Noahpinion
We’ve said this before and we’ll say it again: if Noah Smith keeps putting out bangers, we’re going to keep covering them. He published five worthwhile pieces in the last week alone, but we’ll focus on two:
The U.S. Cannot Afford to Turn Against Immigration: In this piece, Smith makes the case as to why the U.S. needs more immigration and offers a compromise to make immigration more palpable for anti-immigrationists.
Why we need immigration: “We need continued robust immigration flows, especially of high-skilled immigrants, in order to keep our nation both prosperous and secure.” Smith’s argument here is two-fold: immigration keeps the American populace young (undoubtedly a good thing) and high-skilled immigration is crucial for invention and scientific research (especially in the age of an AI-focused potential Second Cold War.)
Compromise: “Increased border security is paired with increased legal pathways to immigration.” Smith argues that the chaos brought on by illegal immigration is not worth it. It’s a third rail issue that muddies one issue (southwest border immigration) with another more important issue (high-skilled labor immigration.) Tightening border policy quells the anti-immigrationists fears and allows for a more productive conversation to be had about high-skilled immigration.
Don’t Be a Doomer: This essay is Smith’s response to the below tweet from Taylor Lorenz. Listen, we’re not in the business of Lorenz-bashing (it’s a crowded and competitive industry) and neither is Smith. Smith’s rebuttal is a data-driven clear-headed response to the doomerism that Lorenz encapsulates in that tweet. Let’s go 1-by-1:People are like “why are kids so depressed it must be their PHONES!” But never mention the fact that we’re living in a late stage capitalist hellscape during an ongoing deadly pandemic w record wealth inequality, 0 social safety net/job security, as climate change cooks the world
Critique of Late Stage Capitalism
Smith’s Response: “Even as capitalism has conquered the world, humanity is richer now than it has ever been, and for the last three decades income growth has been concentrated in low-income countries. Poverty is down at every level, not just in rates but in absolute numbers”
U.S. has “0 social safety net”
Smith’s Response: “U.S. public social spending has risen steadily as a share of GDP. We have Social Security, SSDI, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, Section 8 housing vouchers, SNAP, the EITC, the child tax credit, and many other safety net programs.”
U.S. has “0 job security”
Smith’s Response: “The average tenure of employment has stayed the same since the 1990s. Except for a spike during the pandemic, the layoff rate has fallen slowly but steadily since the turn of the century.”
Smith’s Response: “Meanwhile, despite a steady drumbeat of new variants, Covid deaths in the West are stable, with nothing like the big waves of the first two years. This is due in part to the amazing efforts of human science, which developed safe and effective vaccines in record time. Those vaccines are now reckoned to have saved millions of lives in the U.S. alone, and tens of millions worldwide.”
Smith’s Response: “Climate change is definitely going to be a bumpy ride for the planet, and it’s not yet certain that we’ll defeat it in time to save ourselves from major harm. But recent progress is extremely encouraging.”
Once Smith properly addressed Lorenz’ claims, he delves into a full explanation as to why this type of doomerism is net bad for the world: it doesn’t allow for focus on the most important problems (ie Long Covid vs. Climate Change) and de-motivates people from trying to solve those problems.
We’re obviously in the optimistic camp here. We’re not blind to the troubles of the world, but we subscribe to David Deutsch’s Principle of Optimism states that “All evils are caused by insufficient knowledge.” In order to cure those evils, we need to get back to a society that prioritizes truth and doesn’t get caught up in doomerism.
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That’s all for this week. We’ll be back in your inbox on Monday.
Thanks for reading,
You can learn more on Wander Atlas’ website.
I get that Not Boring is about optimism, but I feel like attacking “doomerism” by quoting facts isn’t the most productive way forward. It comes across as saying “you are stupid to feel like that.” Which I’ve done too many time myself!
I’ve said it last week, and I’ll say it again: people who are scared and pessimistic don’t need more data, they need *compassion.*
Yes, believe me, I _know_ it is annoying and frustrating when people seem stuck in unhealthy mindsets that make themselves miserable and stifle progress. But they aren’t the problem -- they are the challenge!
Rather than berating people for feeling negative, why don’t we invite them reflect on what kind of positive change they’d need to see in order to feel more optimistic?
Their answers might be surprising, and even instructive...
Definitely Fridays off...