Michael Nielsen on Collaboration, Quantum Computing, and Civilization's Fragility (Ep. 213)

Is the status of linear algebra rising? 

Michael Nielsen is a scientist who helped pioneer quantum computing and the modern open science movement. He’s worked at Y Combinator, co-authored on scientific progress with Patrick Collison, and is a prolific writer, reader, commentator, and mentor. 

He joined Tyler to discuss why the universe is so beautiful to human eyes (but not ears), how to find good collaborators, the influence of Simone Weil, where Olaf Stapledon’s understand of the social word went wrong, potential applications of quantum computing, the (rising) status of linear algebra, what makes for physicists who age well, finding young mentors, why some scientific fields have pre-print platforms and others don’t, how so many crummy journals survive, the threat of cheap nukes, the many unknowns of Mars colonization, techniques for paying closer attention, what you learn when visiting the USS Midway, why he changed his mind about Emergent Ventures, why he didn’t join OpenAI in 2015, what he’ll learn next, and more. 

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Recorded March 24th, 2024

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Special thanks to Patrick DespresGallagher for sponsoring this transcript. Patrick gave in tribute “to the Stanford GSB Class of 2019, which celebrated its 5 year reunion in May, and in special remembrance of their classmate Erica Pincus who they miss and whose light they carry with them. Members of the class gifted this sponsorship, and they continuously remind Patrick that loving friendships are the currency of a life well lived.”

TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m here in San Francisco, chatting with Michael Nielsen. Michael is hard to introduce and also difficult to prepare for because he knows and has done so many different things. He’s from Australia, has a PhD in physics, has written what is perhaps the best-known text — or co-authored it — on quantum computing.

He’s one of the leaders of the open science movement, has co-authored with Patrick Collison on progress in science, has worked at Y Combinator. He’s an extraordinarily prolific writer, reader, commentator, tweeter, mentor to others, mentee, and many other things, and currently is thinking about the fragility of civilization and much more. Michael, welcome.

MICHAEL NIELSEN: Thank you so much, Tyler.

COWEN: You were saying there should have been a Metaculus on the opening question. Why is the universe beautiful to human eyes? Is it selection?

NIELSEN: I have no idea. Selection is a very attractive kind of idea. I’m inclined to think not, just instinctively. I don’t know. Why are there simple rules? Why do we have simple rules governing the universe? In fact, why is simplicity an arguable truth, somehow associated to beauty? Physicists tend to assert that this is the case, but I don’t think anybody really knows the reason why.

COWEN: How beautiful do we, in fact, think the universe is? People don’t buy paintings of the universe. People like you might, right?

NIELSEN: Oh, I have a painting. I have the Hubble Deep Field on my wall, of course.


COWEN: But the most expensive paintings are not of the universe. They’re of people, they’re of boating scenes, right?

NIELSEN: I don’t think that’s really true. The James Webb Space Telescope was about, I think, $10 billion —


NIELSEN: — and is arguably a machine for producing that kind of image. It’s got to be one of the most important image factories and most expensive image factories ever made, so I’m not sure I buy that.

COWEN: What’s the most beautiful image of the universe?

NIELSEN: We have a sequence of improved images of the 3-degree microwave background. I don’t know, is it the most beautiful? It’s maybe the most extraordinary. It really is a photograph of the universe as a whole. You can look at that, and it says something about structure out in creation.

COWEN: Why do the sounds of the universe not appeal to us so much? It’s beautiful visually, but aurally it’s, eh. We create very complicated things, which we call music, which are beautiful.

NIELSEN: That’s a great question. I don’t know why music is beautiful. People have made attempts. There are things like chirp sounds that might be produced near a black hole and ideas like this. And you’re right, they tend not to be all that beautiful. The only ones that I can think of offhand — it’s being produced by evolution. Birdsong is beautiful, but we are actually quite closely related to birds, so it’s maybe not so surprising.

If I think about things like — Ron Sexsmith, I think his name is — a composer in Toronto, has made these musical pieces based on the different periods in the solar system. The time that the earth takes, the one year to go around the sun, but also then Mars and Jupiter and all these. They are noticeably not particularly attractive musical pieces. So, that’s a good question.

COWEN: I wonder if the beauty of light isn’t part of the reason for the beauty of the universe. As human beings, maybe we’re evolved to be attracted to light. It gives you an integrated theory of the beauty of the universe and beauty of paintings. Vermeer, a great painter — he’s very attractive to people because of how he uses light. When you look at the universe, you’re typically seeing signatures of light in many cases. If you look at the Milky Way, right?

NIELSEN: It’s pretty strange. We see in such a tiny band of wavelengths. We’re really not seeing almost anything. We’re not seeing into the infrared and the radio. We’re not seeing into the ultraviolet and the X-ray. A lot of what we view as beautiful locally — it’s got this evolutionary explanation again, why the large-scale structure is beautiful. I partially believe this explanation, which is that we do seem to be programmed to recognize and find attractive (instinctively) novelty, which is associated to structure somehow. So, we look and we see spiral galaxies or things like that.

It’s reflecting something which is interesting. We don’t necessarily know quite what, but maybe there’s an evolutionary explanation for why that is attractive, at least. I can apply that explanation to your question about sound. It’s equally as good, and unfortunately, it just doesn’t seem to hold there, so I’m not that confident.

On good collaborators

COWEN: Now, you’ve written that in the first half of your life, you typically were the youngest person in your circle and that in the second half of your life, which is probably now, you’re typically the eldest person in your circle. How would you model that as a claim about you?

NIELSEN: I hope I’m in the first 5 percent of my life, but it’s sadly unlikely.

COWEN: Let’s say you’re 50 now, and you live to 100, which is plausible —

NIELSEN: Which is plausible.

COWEN: — and you would now be in the second half of your life.

NIELSEN: Yes. I can give shallow reasons. I can’t give good reasons. The good reason in the first half was, so much of the work I was doing was kind of new fields of science, and those tend to be dominated essentially, for almost sunk-cost reasons — people who don’t have any sunk costs tend to be younger. They go into these fields. These early days of quantum computing, early days of open science — they were dominated by people in their 20s. Then they’d go off and become faculty members. They’d be the youngest person on the faculty.

Now, maybe it’s just because I found San Francisco, and it’s such an interesting cultural institution or achievement of civilization. We’ve got this amplifier for 25-year-olds that lets them make dreams in the world. That’s, for me, anyway, for a person with my personality, very attractive for many of the same reasons.

COWEN: Let’s say you had a theory of your collaborators, and other than, yes, they’re smart; they work hard; but trying to pin down in as few dimensions as possible, who’s likely to become a collaborator of yours after taking into account the obvious? What’s your theory of your own collaborators?

NIELSEN: They’re all extremely open to experience. They’re all extremely curious. They’re all extremely parasocial. They’re all extremely ambitious. They’re all extremely imaginative.

COWEN: Do you think that ends up pairing you with collaborators who are more different than you? A lot of collaborators are very similar, and then other types are very different.

NIELSEN: Almost always, as well, I will select for somebody who has at least one very strong skill which I do not have. That’s enough diversity from my point of view.

COWEN: That may account for some of the age differences throughout your life.

NIELSEN: Yes, sure, but also then, there’s this local selection effect. When I live in the Bay Area, there’s a lot of really amazing 29-year-olds around, and it’s just incredible.

COWEN: I was told to ask, what’s the influence of Simone Weil on you?

NIELSEN: Oh, what an interesting question. She’s one of the maybe best examples of sincerity that I know of. The fact that she wrote what she wrote for herself. She wasn’t attempting to get published. It was just this deep internal colloquial that was going on, and it’s reflected in every aspect of her life. She went off to fight in Spain at a time when women did not go off to fight in Spain. Everything that she did, she did at 500 miles an hour. She’s remarkable. She’s a very extreme type of a human being in a way that I find very interesting.

COWEN: If you and she collaborated, what would it be on?


NIELSEN: I’m sure she was a difficult person. Although her brother, André Weil, was a very great mathematician. You can see in some of the stories about the two of them, that she must have quite liked the scientist types. Maybe we would have found something to collaborate on.

COWEN: Why is Charles Sanders Peirce still an important thinker?

NIELSEN: I don’t know enough about Peirce to be able to answer that question.

On Olaf Stapledon

COWEN: You and I — we’re both fans of Olaf Stapledon, who wrote the dual classics Last and First Men and Star Maker. What’s the biggest analytical mistake he made in those narratives? A lot of implausible things happen, but those are too simple to point to. Where is his understanding of the social world going wrong?

NIELSEN: He was both, certainly to some degree, a socialist and certainly a pacifist.

COWEN: Though in World War II he switched out of pacifism.

NIELSEN: He did, yes.

COWEN: As did many people, right?

NIELSEN: Like I see in many people.


NIELSEN: I find myself, as I read those books, actually becoming a little bit more sympathetic. I’m not, a priori, particularly sympathetic to them. I start to think, he has this very long view of history, much longer than most people who say they have a long view of history. I think he sees some of his pacifism in that light.

It’s questions about what’s actually good for a species, or in fact, not even a single species, but across multiple species, is it good to be pacifist? That’s a really interesting point of view. It’s hard to reconcile with a selfish-gene point of view, but of course, this is an ongoing problem in evolutionary biology.

It actually seems like group selection doesn’t quite work, but something at that level has to be a little bit true. So, if you take that seriously, then maybe his pacifism, which just seems like an outright mistake — maybe it’s actually justifiable in some way. Actually, I’m not answering —

COWEN: No, that’s an answer.

NIELSEN: I’ve answered the inverse of your question, which is to justify the bits that I, a priori, find most implausible, but, yes, I think those are mistakes.

COWEN: I worry that he too quickly assumes collective-action problems are solved, which is close to your answer. He thinks the League of Nations can be effective for a long period of time, which I suspect was not really contingently possible. And he has this Hegelian sense. What Hegel would call a national spirit, for him is a civilizational or certain stage of man’s spirit that so shapes how people think.

I hang out with a lot of economists. I think that’s much stronger than the economists believe — your overall view of the world and what’s important — but I don’t think it’s nearly as strong as Stapledon believed. The way in which collective spirit rules millions, billions, or trillions of beings — I feel he’s overestimating the efficacy of that.

NIELSEN: The comment about the League of Nations is really interesting. There’s this spirit at the time — lots of people wanted this idea to work. Lots of his friends would have wanted it. I think it’s a shallow kind of a mistake that he made there.

But your comment about collective-action problems seems much more to the heart of it. I think he didn’t really believe in them, or actually understand just how difficult they are to solve, how difficult it is to supply public goods and these kinds of things. He always does away with it, narratively, and it’s assumed away without really a mechanism being given. He assumes a lot away in those books, but when the problems are interesting, he usually doesn’t. That problem is interesting, and he still assumes it away. I am not very sympathetic to that at all.

COWEN: I’m not sure how big a mistake League of Nations was. Clearly, it didn’t work, and I just criticized him for it. But if you think about 1815 up through the First World War — almost a century — you have an unprecedented degree of peace in much, not all of Europe, and everyone has just lived through that. They maybe thought that was not possible. Maybe that is itself still a bit of a mystery.

Then there’s World War I, and you feel you can get back to some version of what you had. The League of Nations appears to be the closest path to doing that. It might have been more plausible at the time.

NIELSEN: I’m just saying there’s a gap between aspiration and what actually happened with the League, and then later, with the United Nations. I think you had the hopes, and then you had what actually happened, and there’s a very large gap. Although, of course, as prototypes over the next few centuries, maybe these things are terrific. Maybe we learn a lot from them. Things like, I don’t know, would the Montreal Protocol have been possible without the United Nations? Probably not.

On quantum computing

COWEN: I have a very concrete question for you, and this is to clear up a confusion of mine. I’ve asked experts in quantum computing, “What’s the status of quantum computing right now?” Some of them say, “We already have it.” Some of them say, “The others will tell you we already have it, but we don’t.” Others will say, “We’re on the verge of having it.” There are two or three other answers I hear, often people who nominally would seem to know what they’re talking about.

Let me ask you, Michael, what is actually the status of quantum computing right now?

NIELSEN: See, I’m the wrong person. I am determinately very agnostic about this. I stopped. I worked on it from 1992 to 2007. Actually, I do keep up with friends. In fact, I’m going to have a coffee after this with somebody who’s still on the quantum train.

It’s very impressive progress each year. It is an extremely difficult problem. It’s not solved. There’s no way. It’s definitely not solved. But the fact that there’s order-100-qubit systems, which you can apparently manipulate as you will, suggests to me we just wait. It’s going to happen. We don’t know what it will mean.

COWEN: What’s your maximum likelihood estimate for the first year when it will do something useful?

NIELSEN: Useful to me or useful to civilization?

COWEN: Useful to anyone.

NIELSEN: The most interesting thing would be to discover that quantum mechanics was wrong, from my point of view. The other most interesting thing is probably discovery of new materials.

COWEN: How would it discover new materials?

NIELSEN: Just by being able to do simulations very, very rapidly. It’s very hard to do simulations of stuff down at the quantum scale. The ways that we have are pretty terrible and often produce wrong results. The fact that we may actually have a very high-throughput way of doing lots and lots of simulations which give correct results — it’s being able to do a thousand times as many experiments as before. That will just speed things up. Insofar as there’s anything to discover, I can’t tell you what we’ll discover.

COWEN: Will there be quantum money? Will all money be quantum money in this world, whenever it comes?

NIELSEN: I actually don’t know. There’s this old idea of Stephen Wiesner, which he called quantum money. It’s meant to be uncounterfeitable. I don’t know.

COWEN: Isn’t everything else counterfeitable if quantum computing is up and running, and thus you need a quantum money to protect against just sheer counterfeiting? Most of the 19th-century monies — they were often counterfeit. We don’t know the exact percentage, but we believe it was quite high.

NIELSEN: Yes. It’s still true in the world today —


NIELSEN: — never mind the 19th century, as we’ve talked about before. Yes, I won’t be surprised if we end up with systems like that. It’s hard to make it stable. That’s the issue, but my guess is that, in the long run, we actually will find ways of making quantum systems surprisingly stable. That’s speculation on my part, but if I come back in 100 years’ time and that’s true, we may just have quantum coherence everywhere.

COWEN: Do you think that leads to a mass privatization of a lot of social activity? Something like AI. We’re in San Francisco — the private sector does it. No government is really close to doing it, right? You have to pay high salaries, hire the most talented people. So if AI and quantum computing are done by the private sector, what is government in that world?

NIELSEN: I don’t know. It’s an interesting fact that work on nuclear weapons was actually nationalized in, I think, 1948, or something like that. Potentially, that’s just one answer, right, contingently?

COWEN: But that seems more of a brute-force thing than what say OpenAI has done.

NIELSEN: Sure. I’m just saying that’s a potential outcome — I think quite a plausible potential outcome. I don’t think it’s likely, but it’s not 99 percent unlikely either.

Yes, certainly, it’s a very Neil Postman point of view. You have this, basically, almost Larry Lessig “Code is Law.” You just keep building more and more governance infrastructure into the technology, and you’re moving it out of the hands of the population and into the technology. That seems to be, certainly, the story of the last 100 years, and very likely the story of the next 100 years.

COWEN: Is the status of linear algebra rising?

NIELSEN: [laughs] That’s a great question. It probably has, yes.

COWEN: It’s prominent in quantum, right? It’s prominent in AI.

NIELSEN: Google is built on matrix multiplication. It’s prominent for a lot of reasons.

COWEN: What should we infer from that about the whole nature of the world? If differential equations were rising in status to a similar degree, we might infer one set of things —


COWEN: — but linear algebra — you almost feel a bit more grounded, don’t you? Because when I took that class, I felt I understood it.


NIELSEN: I never quite know what your status questions mean, Tyler. I don’t know what it means for something to rise in status.

COWEN: Well, AI now seems more important than it did five years ago, and matrix multiplication is a big part of that. If quantum computing happens as you’re predicting it will, that, I think, would also make matrix algebra rise in status, like, “Oh, this is a really important tool. It’s behind all our quantum money.”

NIELSEN: Do you mean it’s going to have more money go to it, more power go to it, more glamor go to it? Are people going to regard this as sexy or what?

COWEN: All of those, but you would revise your ideas about the fundamental nature of the universe. Just like our current understanding of quantum mechanics, it might be incorrect, but at least in the short run, it seems like probability theory is somehow more important than Einstein might have thought. As you know, he famously asserted God is not playing dice with the universe, perhaps incorrectly.

NIELSEN: The people who remake this understanding are very good at ignoring status.

COWEN: But others aren’t.

NIELSEN: But others aren’t. I think I’m inclined to think maybe I don’t care. [laughs] I actually just don’t care that much. If you’re searching for comparative advantage in doing creative work, you want to know where status is, but mostly so you can avoid it.

COWEN: Yes, absolutely. “Be short status,” as Peter Thiel likes to say.

NIELSEN: Yes, exactly. That’s well put.

COWEN: Is there any chance Roger Penrose is right and the human brain is some kind of quantum computer?

NIELSEN: I would love it if he was right. I think the answer, unfortunately, is not really, no. [laughs] It’s certainly possible that there’s some very interesting structure in there that is quantum mechanical in some really interesting way. Lots of structure in there is quantum mechanical. The reason why atoms are stable has to do with quantum mechanics. All these sorts of things.

An interesting, unsuspected way — that would be terrific and I think is not completely out of the question, but it probably doesn’t affect anything about consciousness or anything like that. I would be very surprised if that were the case.

COWEN: How are we going to make progress toward a theory of quantum gravity, a general understanding of everything? We seem to be stuck. Many people hate string theory. Many people hate Everett’s many worlds. Those seem to be two major contenders. Where are we at? And what’s going to happen next?

NIELSEN: One fun reason for working on quantum computing is you’re trying to build the largest-scale, fully quantum-coherent systems that have ever been built. Whenever you push on into a new regime like that, there’s some chance that things break down. If something was to break down there, that would be fantastic.

COWEN: Because we’d learn a lot.

NIELSEN: Because we’d learn a lot. The problem in some ways in physics has been that the fundamental theories have been just too successful for the last 50 years. Yes, you’re right again, it’s very attractive for a few years, but over 50 or 60 years, it’s terrible. I think that’s certainly part of the issue with quantum gravity.

COWEN: Does it bother you that so many people hate string theory, think it’s now low status, think it’s not aesthetic, think it’s unintuitive? Does that carry any weight with you? Or do you want to be short status again on this one?

NIELSEN: There’s the question of inside and outside the profession. There’s also the question of inside and outside the group of people who know something. Those two are not exactly the same group, but there’s a lot of overlap. Outside, it affects funding a little bit — well, actually maybe quite a bit, and so, in that sense, it matters.

But internally, I think I’m more interested in the question of just how much diversity of opinion is there? Are people pursuing lots of different ideas? One of the things that I’ve noticed over many years is, I find mathematicians — when I talk to them, it’s such a healthy culture because each mathematician is really, well, a lot of them are very unique. They’ve got their own particular path and their set of beliefs.

Theoretical physics often seems just a little bit more monotone. They can sum themselves up in a few words when they’re talking to their professional colleagues, and that’s not so healthy. So, I’m really not so interested in the question you asked. I’m much more interested in the question of, how do you generate that kind of diversity?

COWEN: Do you feel that, ultimately, the final theory of a universe or a metaverse ought to be simple?

NIELSEN: Who’s declaring “ought” here?


COWEN: When someone presents a theory to you, do you ever say, no, that’s too complicated? It might be an intermediate theory at some level, but it’s not going to be the final theory. Because I hear this from many people — a lack of satisfaction.

NIELSEN: You weren’t surprised. It’s the same, the tiny pieces of economics I’ve learned when I hear about — I don’t know — Ricardian comparative advantage or something like this. There’s just a nice little element of surprise that you’re getting a free lunch somehow. I’m more interested in that than I am maybe in the question of simplicity.

On finding young mentors

COWEN: What makes for physicists who age well?

NIELSEN: [laughs] I spent quite a bit of time thinking about this, actually, in my late 20s and went to look and see what seemed to distinguish older physicists who had aged well and older physicists who had maybe gotten a bit too complacent. As far as I could tell, having younger mentors was really the key thing.

COWEN: Why is that important?

NIELSEN: I don’t know. I have theories. This was an empirical observation.

COWEN: Yes, but what’s your best theory?

NIELSEN: What I think is probably the case — it’s almost a network effect. Basically, if there is some slight downhill slide, and most of your friends are not quite at the edge anymore, that’s going to infect you. If you still have mentors who are 25, 28, extremely active, and they’re active in the latest ways, you get to partake of the positive network effects. I think that’s why it’s very important not to have people who work for you — lots of 70-year-old physicists have 23-year-old students — but actually to have 23-year-olds, 28-year-olds who you really learn from and you regard as your mentors.

COWEN: Holding constant your degree of power and influence, what’s the best way to attract younger mentors?

NIELSEN: Find people whose work you admire and befriend them.

COWEN: You think that works pretty well.


COWEN: And just being nice?

NIELSEN: I’m not sure being nice is the right term. There’s degrees.

COWEN: You have a lot of younger mentors.


COWEN: You’re known famously for being very nice, right? This is partly a question about your own self-awareness, but has you being very nice helped you get more younger mentors? Or are they attracted to other aspects of you?

NIELSEN: I am extremely disagreeable, but in a polite way, I hope, and a kind way, hopefully.

COWEN: [laughs] So you are very nice, then.

NIELSEN: People often find people who are disagreeable actually quite difficult, but if you look at all of the younger mentors I’ve had in the last, say, seven or eight years, they’re all people who enjoy disagreement. They say the thing that they think is obvious, and you say, “Here’s another way of looking at it.” And they’re like, “Oh.” They want to engage. Some people get insulted, or they get threatened, or they get annoyed when you do that, and those people — they’re not going to be good collaborators. They’re not going to be a match.

On belief in God

COWEN: As the years pass, do you think your probability for God existing is going up or down?

NIELSEN: Which type of God are you referring to here? Are you referring to the Abrahamic God or what?

COWEN: Not a particular religion, but some explanation that would seem to stand prior to and outside of what we call physics and would be mystical in some way.

NIELSEN: Oh. That hasn’t changed since I was seven years old.

COWEN: That’s weird that it hasn’t changed, right? You’ve learned a lot. Why shouldn’t it change in whichever direction?

NIELSEN: I had explained to me three basic theories of cosmology when I was seven, one of which was the Big Bang, and then there were two others, which was steady state theory, and a third whose name I don’t even remember anymore. They leave some questions unanswered. Why is there anything?

As far as I can tell, we haven’t made any progress on those things in the 40-odd years since. It’s frustrating, actually, that that’s the case. I think you’re correct to say, “Oh, you’ve learned a lot. Why haven’t you changed?” My response to that is, I’ve learned a lot. Gosh, it’s really annoying that it hasn’t impacted that question more.

COWEN: I think my p has gone up a modest amount over time. When I was, say, in my young 20s, I thought physics was going to make more progress than it has at fundamental theoretical levels. The fact that it hasn’t — it nudges me a bit to wonder. These other types of explanations that I was not so keen on, maybe they’re a bit more important than I had thought. That hasn’t happened with you?

NIELSEN: No. That’s interesting. It hasn’t really. I just don’t think 40 years is very long. If it had been 100,000 years —

COWEN: But it’s all I’ve got, in a sense.

NIELSEN: I know.

COWEN: I have a bit more, but —


NIELSEN: Hopefully, yes.

COWEN: — my opinion time span is going to be 40 plus something.

NIELSEN: I think my appreciation for God has gone way up. I appreciate the construction of the religions far more than I did. What notions of God do for people — I’m vastly more appreciative. My probability, I don’t think, has really changed.

COWEN: What about evolutionary frameworks where there’s some Darwinian process, some kinds of universes within a broader metaverse? They reproduce at greater frequencies. That shapes the properties of what we live in. Isn’t that a substitute for a good explanation, and that rises in probability just a bit?


COWEN: Why not?

NIELSEN: You’re relabeling what you mean by universe. If you just use a term that means everything that is, then that hasn’t changed. Our model of what it might be has potentially changed quite a bit over the last few decades.

COWEN: Maybe there’s a simple theory for the metaverse, but we can never, ever see it. It’s like gnostic religion. Then our own universe — there’s not a simple theory, but we do know the parameter values we’ve got are enough to drag it across the finish line, and that takes some of the burden off physics in a way. Just like the platypus — it seems an unlikely creature, but it has, in fact, survived.

NIELSEN: Okay, you’re just saying that some of the things that seem arbitrary —

COWEN: The universe is like a platypus. Being a good Australian, you appreciate the platypus, right?

NIELSEN: Yes, indeed, I appreciate the platypus quite a bit. It’s good for fooling visiting Americans about whether or not this animal can exist or not.

I still don’t find that compelling, I think, because we’ve always known that there seemed likely to be fairly contingent facts about the universe. It shifts the level at which they are. It’s more interesting if the value of the fine structure constant is actually a contingent fact. That is interesting. Or if some of the other coupling constants are changing over time, or models like this. But it’s still not getting at the essential question, from my point of view, which is, why is there something rather than nothing?

COWEN: That, I’ve long thought, is an impossible question. We might have theories of parameter values, or be able to predict how things interact, or what happened a long time ago. The Heideggerian question— I don’t think it’s a meaningful question at all because the word why is already embedded in some context which — it’s then a self-undercutting query.

NIELSEN: Oh, yes.

On open science

COWEN: Now open science — why do some fields have preprint platforms and others not? Is there an actual regularity, or is that random and path-dependent?

NIELSEN: I think a lot of that probably comes down to individuals. One of my favorite things, years ago, before they’d started to spread in biology, I would often ask physicists and biologists this question: “Why are there preprints in physics but not in biology?” The biologists would say, “Biology is so much more competitive than physics that we can’t possibly bear to share our results too early.” The physicists would say, “Physics is so much more competitive than biology that we have to share them as rapidly as possible to get the word out.”

COWEN: But with COVID, didn’t biology — at least some parts of biology — go the route of physics?

NIELSEN: It just seems like it’s just a cultural problem. It turns out it’s a little bit more like fashion, or something like that. It does need to be solved. If you look at what was done in the early days of the physics preprint server, some very clever things, actually, things which are reflected in some of my favorite economists . . .

Some of their ideas were done by Paul Ginsparg when he was starting up the preprint server. He went very narrow. He didn’t try and solve the problem all across all the fields. He went and twisted the arms, at some level, of some very high-status, high-profile physicists to say, “I would like you to use this server, so just send me your best paper.”

On the first day, Andy Strominger, who I think is at Harvard, and then was on the preprint server, and Ed Witten showed up very quickly. These are very prominent people. It’s a tiny community, but then you can agglomerate. You can start to attach other communities. That’s a very contingent fact about history. It could have happened in some subdiscipline of biology as well.

COWEN: Why do so many crummy journals survive? They can be quite expensive. You might also have to pay to publish in them. They seem so terrible that if a good piece were in them, the journal would not certify the piece. If anything, the piece would help certify the journal. Why can’t we get out of that?

NIELSEN: There’s a complicated set of things going on. One is that libraries pay, not individuals, usually, for subscriptions. The person getting the utility is not the same as the person making the buying decision. That’s always bad.

There’s also the fact that since the 1990s and the rise of the internet, we get economies of scale. Libraries don’t subscribe to individual journals for the most part. They subscribe to all these giant bundles, which is actually a terrific idea at some level. It’s a way of passing on economies of scale and publication to the customers, but it does go some way to explaining why these crummy journals persist.

COWEN: You think, in part, libraries are inefficient at capturing rents for themselves? They get this budget, they spend it on bad journals. It might be better for the world if they just took the money home and bought ice cream, right?

NIELSEN: Or did whatever, yes. There are many other things that could be done with that money. It’s difficult for them to reason about. Having talked to many librarians, they will do things, like they will use impact factor. That’s the differentiator that they tend to use. They’ll try and get all impact factor — whatever it is — and above journals. That’s the way they seem to think. They’re just using a very imperfect proxy. They understand, as well as anybody, that their proxy is imperfect, but they don’t have anything better to do as far as I can tell. It’s a very unfortunate situation.

COWEN: Right now, how high are the marginal returns to greater openness? Put aside terrorists manufacturing new pathogens. Put aside people figuring out how to make their own nuclear weapons, AI problems. Putting aside the very negative, just if the good stuff were more open, how much more rapidly would science progress?

NIELSEN: Openness per se — that’s a very weak word. You need to be much more specific. If you look at, say, the culture around Jupyter Notebooks in machine learning, I think having those very openly available and widely available really has driven a lot of progress. You can just write your Jupiter Notebook with your experiment. You make it available to other people, and that can really drive a lot of progress.

It’s not the same as making your journal article openly available. It’s a much more active kind of a material. Do I think that that is an important component in really significantly speeding up science? Yes, but it’s not —

COWEN: It’s not going to be 2x or —

NIELSEN: I think that there’s much larger than 2x possible, and this is a piece of that.

COWEN: Yes, but it’s not 2x on its own.

NIELSEN: No. Actually, it’s too undefined a term. Openness is always with respect to what platform, with respect to what set of institutions, with respect to what set of norms. With the current sets of norms and institutions that we have, it buys you a little bit. I don’t think it buys you that much, but the norms and institutions — they’re going to change in response. The way in which people work will change in response — the Jupyter Notebook example I gave is, I think, a good example of that.

COWEN: Why are science textbooks so expensive? Is it marginal cost? Is it third-party payment problems? Is it something else?

NIELSEN: I don’t know.

COWEN: Is it instructor lock-in, because the notes are geared to the text they’ve worked with for 15 years?

NIELSEN: Very few professors make that much money from the textbooks that they write, but they’re often very protective. I see people complaining on Twitter that they’re not going to get the $400 check next year for their textbook under a new open-access policy, and they’re really up in arms about this $400. That’s interesting. It’s hard for me to empathize with, psychologically. I don’t understand. A priori, I wrote this neural nets textbook, which I put online for free, and that’s made a really large difference to the impact which it’s had.

Even if I just think purely financially — I wasn’t doing it thinking financially, this would be better off — but the greater impact has actually benefited me much more financially than any amount of royalties ever would.

COWEN: You mean like giving talks or being invited?

NIELSEN: Yes, and just in general, people know who you are, what you’ve done, what you’re interested in, and they’re much more likely to provide all sorts of different opportunities, including jobs. I think from the point of view of the authors, it really actually doesn’t make that much sense. From the point of view of the publishers, though, it might make more sense. The textbook market is not huge, but it is multi-billions.

On progress in science

COWEN: You have a well-known article with Patrick Collison on progress in science slowing down, and it’s published at a point, say, right before mRNA vaccines, right before GPT-4, other developments. How well can we know the progress of science at any point in time? Isn’t there often an everything-all-at-once effect, and in fact, those years we were building up and investing in things that very suddenly then flourished?

NIELSEN: Yes, it’s amusing to think about different points of time at which you could try and write the same article. Probably the years before the Principia you would have been able to do the same thing.

There is some question about what certain types of institutions make possible. Actually, I don’t know. I think, really, the higher the bid in my response is going to be something like, I just think AI — it’s not yet 100 percent clear, but I think it’s very likely to drive a lot of scientific progress over the next few years. That’s just a case of, we’re moving so much of our cognition, and eventually, also the actuators, the way we operate in the world, out into these devices, where all of a sudden it becomes much more mutable and hopefully improvable.

COWEN: Do you think the private-sector wages of scientists are a good proxy for progress in science? If science is declining in value, you would think scientists would be paid less and less, but over the last 40 years, mostly those wages haven’t fallen.

NIELSEN: Isaac Newton wasn’t the richest person to ever live, but he probably did more for human understanding than anyone else.

COWEN: But there’s more of a market now. The Isaac Newton of today would probably be pretty wealthy.


COWEN: Einstein could have been wealthy had he done more media, right?


NIELSEN: He wouldn’t have been wealthy for what he did well. He would have been wealthy for very indirect ways.

COWEN: But still, his wage would have reflected his fame. He could have endorsed ski boots and other things.

NIELSEN: Famously, what was it, he asked for $3,000 a year when he moved to the IAS, and they gave him $15,000. I think he wasn’t very good at negotiating.

COWEN: Just say that the wages for private-sector pharma scientists — they seemed to go up for quite a while when the drug pipeline seemed slow. Should we have inferred from that, “Well, we’re building up to some big things, some blockbusters,” or not?

NIELSEN: I don’t know. This is a question for you, Tyler. It’s not a question for me.

COWEN: That’s why I’m asking you.

NIELSEN: Good reason to do so. I think I’m inclined to think, and there’s always this interesting balance. Actually, AI is a really interesting example at this point in time. There’s this theory which has become widely believed by almost everybody that scaling is very important.

COWEN: Right.

NIELSEN: Scaling is a very capital-friendly story. It actually moves some of the negotiating power from individual researchers, I think, to the centers of capital, but it is just a story. I think it’s quite interesting that, in some sense, it gives the individual researchers less negotiating power.

Whether or not this is going to eventually result in a diminished ability to build personal brands and then capture value from that, I don’t know. I’m really interested, actually, to see what will happen over the next few years. It used to be that the big companies published a lot of papers very openly, and that is gradually going away. And as that goes away, it damages the individual researchers because they’re not able to build their brands publicly in that way. They’re not as easily able to say, “I am the person who did whatever.”

COWEN: But this is a small city. Doesn’t everyone know? I had dinner with a bunch of AI researchers last night. They all seem to know each other’s relative importance.

NIELSEN: Yes. [laughs]

COWEN: You look at their salaries, so there are rumors —

NIELSEN: They’re doing fine. [laughs]

COWEN: — that top researchers can be offered $5 million to $10 million a year. Those must be some of the highest science salaries ever, and you’re saying AI is such a big thing. You seem to be coming down on the side of the wages predicting something.

NIELSEN: I think so much money is going in, and it’s going in on the basis of brand to some extent. “We’ve hired such and such a person who did such and such a thing.” And if that can make your company valuation go up by a few hundred million dollars, then offering them another extra million dollars a year makes sense. But this is all local storytelling.

COWEN: Sure.

NIELSEN: It’s not grand theory of what’s actually going on. I haven’t thought it through in enough detail to have any confidence there.

On civilizational fragility

COWEN: Now, you’re working on what I think you call the vulnerable world hypothesis. Yes?

NIELSEN: Nick Bostrom — that’s his term.

COWEN: Oh. What do you think is the cost at which a nuclear weapon could destroy a city? If that costs only $50,000, it seems to me the world’s in big, big trouble pretty quickly. What’s that cost level where you get very, very nervous? If it’s $10 billion, maybe things are fairly safe. If it’s $50,000, we’re done for. What’s the threshold?

NIELSEN: It’s the cost and expertise, but let’s say, the expertise is comparable. So, somebody who has $50,000 is probably able to get the expertise as well. Yes, that’s not great.

COWEN: That’s my fundamental worry with or without AI, just that cost becomes low.

NIELSEN: Honestly, there’s some question about what exactly you mean by nuclear weapon. Is it portable?

COWEN: It would render a mid-sized city uninhabitable for a few decades at the very least.

NIELSEN: A multimegaton but not necessarily the largest things.

COWEN: It would make the headlines.

NIELSEN: It would make the headline.


A very small nuclear bomb will make the headlines if detonated. If we’re getting down to hundreds of thousands of dollars . . . The issue is, nuclear weapons are terrible, but they’re not civilization threatening directly.

COWEN: Sure, but if enough of these go off, life as we know it is over.

NIELSEN: They can certainly be destabilizing.

COWEN: It’d be like the fall of the Roman Empire, maybe worse.

NIELSEN: Yes, that’s what it starts to seem like.

COWEN: In what year do you think that the cost will be low enough that that happens?

NIELSEN: At this point, I don’t have a good sense. I suppose I’m actually more concerned about other threats. Biosafety is the obvious thing. Computer security.

COWEN: I wouldn’t call it a certain threat, but if you simply think technology will advance —

NIELSEN: Here’s the thing. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty means that we actually have a lot of controls of the ability to produce fissile material.

COWEN: But that’s like League of Nations, right, ultimately?

NIELSEN: Yes, it is. It’s really coming out of that same . . . We have this cartel of — whatever it is — 10 countries or something.

COWEN: It’ll fail when the cost is low.

NIELSEN: It will eventually fail, but that’s many decades away.

COWEN: You have reason to think we’re going to last a thousand years in a civilized state. Not every person dead —

NIELSEN: I think getting off planet Earth and establishing a civilization elsewhere is very, very important. Yes. Very hard for economic reasons but utterly crucial.

COWEN: Robots, in a sense, make it harder because you could send robots to Mars to do whatever might be economically useful there, means you never work hard on having humans do it.

NIELSEN: Yes, that’s true. We’re pretty curious.

COWEN: The robot will take perfect footage. Whatever is there, the robot will send back to us. You’ll have your whatever is the current version of Apple Vision Pro on. It will seem very realistic.

NIELSEN: You’re an economist. I’m a romantic, I think.


NIELSEN: Might be the difference.

COWEN: We’d have to settle them at scale, so 20 people on Mars limping along.

NIELSEN: Oh, we’re talking about a million people, not 20 people.

COWEN: If we can do a million, we can do a billion, I would think.

NIELSEN: Sure. I think it’s not going to be self — what’s the right term? It’s not going to be an autarky, or whatever the right term is. It’s not going to be completely self —

COWEN: Sustaining, yes.

NIELSEN: — sustaining, but at a million people, it has a lot of the civilizational infrastructure. I think that’s the right scale. Casey Handmer has a nice book, which I think is way too optimistic in many of its assumptions, but he’s got the right scale.

COWEN: Economics aside, what’s the main scientific constraint that has to be overcome? Is it gravity? Is it effects of radiation on the human body? Is it water?

NIELSEN: To some extent, we’re not going to know until we go. There was this great experiment done a few years ago where there was a pair of twins. One went up into space for a year, and the other one stayed on Earth. That was the first time we actually got to do a somewhat controlled study where we see what the impact of being in space for a long period of time does to a human body. They just discovered so many things. This is still below the Van Allen Belts as well. We just don’t know the answer to those questions.

There’s a whole bunch of problems. The regolith on Mars is terrible for human beings. I’m sure that the low gravity is going to be bad for them. What else are there shortages of? There’s nitrogen, fortunately, which we don’t really have on the moon.

COWEN: You’re making me think civilization as we know it won’t last a thousand years.

NIELSEN: No. I also have a lot of, I guess, faith in long-run economic growth. Basically, at the moment, for us to go to Mars is very, very, very expensive given the return, or to establish a permanent human presence in space. If we continue to have economic growth, the relative cost is just going to keep going down. At some point, it’s actually not going to be that difficult.

COWEN: Does a vulnerable world mean near-universal surveillance?

NIELSEN: Unfortunately, I think probably yes.

COWEN: Doesn’t that then become the great point of vulnerability?

NIELSEN: Oh, absolutely. Yes.

COWEN: If you could ban universal surveillance from here on out forever, would you press that button?

NIELSEN: No. The term surveillance — it’s funny. It has negative connotations. People think of Bentham and the panopticon, and The Gulag Archipelago, and the Stasi and all these things. But in fact, our ability to supply justice is dependent upon having a good understanding of what has occurred in the present and in the past. So, to the extent —

COWEN: Maybe it needs opaqueness as well. It’s this optimal mix of surveillance and opaqueness, that you actually have some latitude to break certain laws, to misbehave, that keeps the system stable, limits the abuses of power, limits how much power the powerful have over us.

NIELSEN: There has to be some Madisonian point of view where you’re bringing the powerful institutions into conflict with each other. We do that very imperfectly at the moment. Ideas like search warrants and things like this — they’re supposed to be checks and balances, but it seems like the organizations which do the surveillance are too powerful. They don’t have strong enough checks on them. I don’t know whether, just as a practical matter, the United States is capable of doing this well. I’d be much more comfortable if it was in other countries.

COWEN: In a strong AI future, where do the economies of scale lie? Say, within your lifetime, not 500 years from now. There’ll be one company, there’ll be one chip maker.

NIELSEN: I’m not sure what you’re pointing to.

COWEN: Well, we’re all trying to figure out how AI will shape the future, right?


COWEN: One model is everything is supplied competitively, maybe a bit like fast food today. I suspect that’s not true, but it could be true. There’s the oligopoly model. There’s the one company races ahead of the others, and then its own AI does R&D at an accelerated pace, and they stay ahead forever, or there’s one country, one company, one something controls all the chips. Where do you see the monopoly power evolving? Because it’s essential, I think, to predictions of the model.

NIELSEN: When I talk to people who know much more than I do, they all point at ASML as having been surprisingly hard to duplicate. It’s not so much do the lithography, but do the lithography at scale, which seems to be very, very hard.

COWEN: So we should be long Netherlands?

NIELSEN: Probably, yes.

COWEN: Yes. That would be an amazing conclusion, wouldn’t it?

NIELSEN: It would be an amazing conclusion. A return to the Dutch Renaissance.


COWEN: It’s like agriculture and lithography drawing on 17th-century strengths.

NIELSEN: Human services, maybe.

COWEN: That’s right. Yes.

NIELSEN: The return of Vermeer.

COWEN: Yes. What do you think of the Netherlands as a country?

NIELSEN: Oh, I love it. Actually, I spent a month there. Who am I kidding?

COWEN: That’s a lot of time.

NIELSEN: That’s a fair amount of time, in Leiden actually. It’s a lovely place. It has many problems, of course. Their altitude is not great. In some ways, it’s good. Yes, an interesting test case. They show what a strong, determined civilization can do in response to nature.

COWEN: Yeah. I like the flatness of it. I like the water being everywhere. Not everywhere, but most parts, at least, of Western Netherlands. I find that very attractive.

NIELSEN: There’s this stereotype I sometimes encounter. People view it as being a little orderly. I’ve heard people say it’s dull, but I think some of the most interesting experiences of my life were there. I went to a — it was like a jamboree in a field. What was it? Five days long, called Hacking at Random, in 2011, where some people from Anonymous spoke, a whole bunch of cryptographers spoke. It was really hacker culture. It was just intellectually wild in the most interesting way. It grew out of Dutch hacker culture. That spirit of the Dutch Renaissance is still visible.

COWEN: How would you describe the quality of those conversations? What were they like? Different than what’s in San Francisco?

NIELSEN: Oh, yes.

COWEN: How are they different?

NIELSEN: They’re not captured by capital to the same extent. Conversations in San Francisco, particularly with younger people, tend to be extremely idealistic and often very pro-social. But then later, there’s this negotiation that goes on, where they need access to capital to make their dreams come true. A certain amount of compromise is made, although they also often keep a lot of their original pro-social and idealistic character. In the Netherlands, in those particular events, there have been less of that. They also have less access to capital.

COWEN: If someone’s going to travel to the Netherlands — they have a tech background — what should they do? Or what advice do you have for them? How should they try to learn more from the Netherlands?

NIELSEN: [laughs] It’s been years since I’ve been there. I’m not the right person —

COWEN: But since you have good memory through spaced repetition.

NIELSEN: Maybe. Yes, I loved going to the museums in Amsterdam, just partially Rembrandt is maybe my favorite painter. It’s hard, actually, to think of anything else when I think of the Netherlands other than Rembrandt’s late self-portraits, which I think are some of the most extraordinary things ever done.

On non-legibility

COWEN: Let’s say we all had better memories. How big is the social gain there? Is there any social gain at all? You’ve been an advocate of spaced repetition for improving your memory. It works for medical students, it probably works for languages. But are there social gains, especially with AI coming?

NIELSEN: I wouldn’t say I was an advocate.

COWEN: But you do it.

NIELSEN: I do it.

COWEN: And you teach other people how to do it.

NIELSEN: I get benefits from it, and some other people get benefits from it. I’m very enthusiastic if they do. Lots of people try it and are like, “This isn’t working for me.” I’m like, “Well, stop doing it.” Same as if you listen to Bach and don’t like it. Stop listening to Bach.

There’s a long sequence of papers trying to elucidate the connection between deep practical expertise and the role of memory. I suppose, most famously, people like Herb Simon and Anders Ericsson and people like this have tried to understand what relationship, if any. It’s a little bit murky. They all make very strong claims about an expert is somebody who’s acquired 50,000 chunks of information and things like this.

They’re nice stories. They certainly seem to be borne out, but I don’t know what the causal thing is. If I talk to you about economics, you can tell me not just an astounding number of things about economics, but about a lot of different things. I don’t know, are you an expert because you know those things? Or is it really downstream of something else? I’m sure it’s part of it. If you had a magic memory, it might help you a little bit, but I suspect actually, it’s downstream of something else — your determination, curiosity, something like that.

COWEN: There’s some evidence that students learn better when they take notes of what’s being said. Do you feel there’s something for some people with memory a bit similar, that until they have memorized it, it’s less real for them? I don’t just mean that they remember it more, but the initial impact somehow is created or defined by the later act of memorization. People who take trips and until they photograph something, they don’t feel they’ve seen it.

NIELSEN: Yes. They very likely didn’t see it.

COWEN: Perhaps, yes.

NIELSEN: Certainly, it’s part of the reason why I take photos. I will look more closely. It’s part of the reason I will take notes. It is part of the reason why I do spaced repetition. It provides me with another way of paying attention to the world.

COWEN: But at some margins —

NIELSEN: Those things are very valuable, right? Any general-purpose strategy you have which will cause you to pay attention to the world is incredibly valuable, so I collect things like that. Why did I say yes to coming on the podcast? A huge part of it is because I know it’s going to make me pay attention in different ways.

COWEN: To what we talk about.

NIELSEN: I know that you’re going to ask me questions that nobody else is going to ask me. For me, the reason I do spaced repetition and the reason I will come on a podcast with somebody like you who asks very interesting questions — it’s the same.

COWEN: In some other ways, you’re a fan of non-legibility, as am I at other margins. There’s some tension because when you take the photo, when you remember something, when you write it down, there’s less legibility.

NIELSEN: There’s no tension at all there. You’re constantly expanding the legible, and when you do that, there’s this penumbra of illegibility that surrounds it. That moves, but it gives you access to those other spaces. You go to the Netherlands, you travel in general. You make more of the world’s culture, you make people much more legible to yourself. That expands what you’re able to see, as well, at the edge of that. That’s part of the reason for doing it. That’s part of the reason for wanting to make things legible.

COWEN: What’s underrated about travel other than that?

NIELSEN: Oh my God. Almost everything. You denied saying this, but somebody once said to me that travel is the only education, and it’s really stayed with me as expressing some deep truth. I think mostly just the world is so incredibly deep.

COWEN: Absolutely.

NIELSEN: There’s 8 billion people.

COWEN: It’s the only way to see that depth and breadth.

NIELSEN: Yes. It’s just unbelievable. You pick almost a random person anywhere, and you could spend a great year with them just learning things. You can’t, unfortunately, do that 8 billion times. But yes, it’s very, very underrated. It’s been very underrated in my life. I haven’t traveled nearly as much as I should.

COWEN: What is it, the Midway Aircraft Carrier? Why is that so interesting?

NIELSEN: There are many reasons.

COWEN: That’s in San Diego, right?

NIELSEN: It is, yes. For about 10 years, it was probably the most dangerous object in the world. It carried nuclear weapons, I believe, having 5,000 people on it. Basically, people have been making objects like that for many centuries. They keep getting better at it. There’s so much knowledge built into that environment. It expresses so much very deep expertise.

Then you have 4, 4 ½ thousand people, all completely dedicated to a single purpose. They all care an enormous amount about this purpose. They don’t suffer like large organizations that have all kinds of bloat and all kinds of problems. So many of those problems are gone away there, partially because when you’re on a boat, it’s not so easy to empire build, like there are real reasons to trim fat.

You have amazing unity of purpose: What the captain or what the admiral — there was both on the boat — say, that goes. You’re not arguing about what the right corporate strategy is. You have incredible clarity. You have incredible belief in this purpose. It actually is a high purpose in their case. Talking to some of the sailors — they felt very strongly they were protecting civilization that they cared about a great deal. They speak with so much pride about it. It’s almost the perfect floating civilization in some regards. It’s just immensely interesting.

COWEN: Here’s something you once wrote, and I quote, “The great talent identifiers I know or know of all seem very idiosyncratic. They’re rather like Michelin chefs.” This is getting us back to the tension between the opaque and the legible. Why do you think that’s true, that they’re idiosyncratic?

NIELSEN: Actually, it’s just because the boundaries of knowledge at any given time tend to be idiosyncratic almost by definition. They haven’t been commoditized yet. There is a best person at making superconducting circuits in the world. There is a best person . . . Thomas Schelling, I think, was your PhD supervisor?


NIELSEN: When you read Schelling, you realize that some of the things he did, he did very well. It must have been remarkable to talk to him, but he’s a little bit illegible —

COWEN: That’s right.

NIELSEN: — even though he’s a very, very —

COWEN: And he was when you would speak to him as well.

NIELSEN: I’ll bet he was, but that’s part of the value. You’re like, “Oh, this person is actually out on the edge of civilization.” I think that people who are good at identifying people who are able to expand boundaries like that — they need to have some sense of that edge.

COWEN: Here’s a question you wanted me to ask you. “You initially were skeptical of Emergent Ventures, but you’ve changed your mind and become enthusiastic about it. What caused the switch? And what would you change about Emergent Ventures?”

NIELSEN: The biggest single thing, it’s just empirical. I’ve met a bunch of EV grantees. I’ve encouraged a bunch of people to apply. Some of them you’ve given grants to. They’re great. You haven’t funded in the way I might have expected. I was talking to somebody — I’ve actually forgotten who it is — they clearly had some socialist, quite anti-libertarian ideas, and you’ve given them a grant.

COWEN: Might have been a mistake, of course. [laughs]

NIELSEN: I thought, “That’s so typically Tyler. He’s trying to figure out, do they actually believe in this idea? Do they actually really care?” Then you don’t mind. They’re certainly not coming to the Mercatus Center to carry forth the libertarian flag. I think seeing so many people who are doing very worthwhile things which have no or very little institutional chance of support, being amplified — that I care about a great deal, and it seems like EV is one of the places that is doing that the best.

COWEN: What do you think we can do to attract more non-legible but excellent people?

NIELSEN: Find other people like yourself. They’re going to be like you in this abstract way but actually very unlike you in other ways. I think about, I don’t know, people like Stewart Brand and people like that in the past who’ve just been wonderful at talent identification. But they’re not identifying the same talent as you. To some extent, they’ve become human marketplaces as well. Actually, they’re at a crossroads. They’re connecting people to opportunity. That’s a very special type of person. I’ve maybe met five to ten people in my life who seem like that. Really strong.

COWEN: Here’s something else you wrote, and I quote. “I internalized a lot of Ivan Illich, John Holt, A.S. Neill, and Paulo Freire as a kid.” What did you mean? You were talking, I think, in the context of agency, but how did that shape you?

NIELSEN: At the time, as a 12- or 13-year-old, it mostly probably made me insufferable to my parents because I hated school already.

COWEN: That’s a good thing, right?

NIELSEN: It gave me a real way of expressing that, and they dealt with me very patiently.

I think over the long term, the most important of those was, for many years I would have said Illich. I’d maybe still say Illich. Basically, his point — it’s about the question of what’s the relationship between human beings and institutions, and how paternalistic are those institutions towards the humans. In Deschooling Society, he really makes the point that, in fact, schools do not treat children as human to some extent at all. It denies them the most basic claims of agency.

Just thinking about that relationship, what relationship should our institutions have to individuals, was very, very important to me as a teenager and through my entire life.

COWEN: Is that why you didn’t join OpenAI in 2015?



COWEN: Do you regret that decision?

NIELSEN: [laughs] I suppose I did consider going as they were getting started. It would have been an interesting life choice. I had a lot of doubts about the wisdom of pursuing artificial general intelligence, which was not at all resolved then. There were just fears. That was part of the reason. Honestly, really, the main reason at that time — it’s this point about comparative advantage. It was like, “Oh, AI is happening. It’s become very fashionable.”

If you wake up in the morning, and then it turns out that some institution is mad keen to pay you to do whatever it is you’re doing, you should actually think about whether or not you’re in the right line of business. I tend to think, unfortunately for creative work, there’s an anticorrelation between how valuable what you’re doing is and what you’re being paid, often.

It’s the anti-economist point of view. It’s not right. There’s a simple model in which that is right. Actually, very much an economist’s model. I have felt for more than a decade that AI, around 2011–2012, when I decided to start writing my book about neural nets, it had become this unstoppable force in the world, or very difficult to stop. It was clear it was going to attract more and more capital, more and more people. Also, to some extent, I just thought I should go and do something else if that’s the case.

COWEN: In the next 20 years, what do you think your comparative advantage will be?

NIELSEN: I’ll tell you after 20 years.


COWEN: But you face the year coming up now, right? There’s a step before you.

NIELSEN: Yes. The problem is, of course, it’s very helpful for motivational reasons to have answers to that, but your answers never turn out to be what the correct answer was. Probably my ability to write.

COWEN: Your Twitter biography says, “Searching for the numinous.” What does that mean with respect to you?

NIELSEN: Just trying to find the deepest possible experiences in the world, in people and things and ideas and places.

COWEN: Final question. What do you think it is that you will learn about next?

NIELSEN: [laughs] You love to ask this question. I’ve heard you ask it before. I will learn much more deeply about religion than I have in the past.

COWEN: That involves travel, going to church, reading books, talking to people — all of those things?

NIELSEN: It involves all of those things, yes. I’m going to see the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul in the near future.

COWEN: That’s gorgeous.

NIELSEN: I wanted to see it almost all my adult life, and I have never been.

COWEN: Have you been to Amritsar?


COWEN: That, to me, is the most religious-feeling site I’ve ever visited, so I would recommend going there. It’s not a hard trip in any way at all.

NIELSEN: I’ve never been to India.

COWEN: You must go to Amritsar. The old cliché, something like, “When it comes to religion, every Indian’s a millionaire.” It’s not really true, but I still think India is the best place to go to think about religion.

NIELSEN: That makes a lot of sense. I’d love to go to Jerusalem as well, I think, for somewhat similar reasons.

COWEN: But there you think about tension.


COWEN: The religious aspects of tension. I think more about tension than about religion per se, and it’s very useful for that. Michael Nielsen, thank you very much.

NIELSEN: Thanks so much, Tyler.