Q&A

First Published: Mar 2021

I’ve had to write some of this about myself for an application, thought may as well at least get some leverage on it and put online (what could possibly go wrong?…) I may update this and add new questions and answers going forward.

What do people not find out about you until they’ve known you for a while?

I value the social aspect of work more than people would probably assume when initially meeting me. The sense of camaraderie and shared history when you have worked with someone on a project for a long time is really awesome.

May not be initially obvious how I value the teleology of my work. I steer clear of working on projects for which that don’t have an obvious end goal (it could be far in the future but it has to exist). This is also probably why despite being an infovore, I find many classes incredibly frustrating.

The amount of dry humour I inject into what I’m saying is often not obvious to people not listening for it.

Most people assume I’m British when they first meet me, but in fact I have never lived there and have no relationship to the country. My accent is the result of some combination of Irish parents and having lived in Canada, Australia, the Czech Republic, and Switzerland at various points (it’s complicated…)

To answer the contrary question, things that I would say are obvious to people even when first meeting me: I’m technically minded and like to talk about details; consequently I dislike too much hand-waving when talking through ideas with others.

What has been the biggest change to your beliefs or values in the past two years, and what caused this change?

An expanded appreciation of the power of higher order effects and how they impact almost every interesting sociotechnical system. The ‘obvious’ impacts of a decision or feature of a system can often be in tension with the impacts of those impacts (and so on) meaning that change intended to perform one thing can in-fact produce the opposite effect

This applies everywhere from low-level hard-technical areas all the way up the stack to big picture societal ideas.

A consequence of the change is that I can much more easily internalise the views of people I disagree with. The pros and cons in any decision are usually not contentious, but the weighting people place on first order vs higher order impacts often causes friction. When you understand this, many differences in policy or opinion become a lot easier to interpret.

The change was triggered by reading more long-form content outside of mostly technical areas that I previously defaulted to. While I have been a consumer of news for a long time, I had not read as many books in less hard-science domains such as business and social science (eg. ‘The Case Against Education’, ‘Revolt of the Public’. Reading such material forces you to think about how smart people can have such divergent views on topics they have thought a great deal about.

 Tell us about three core interests you have

Robotics is unreasonably ineffective. Many problems in the physical world have not been touched by the scalability and repeatability of software. There are a few areas where the technology is either deployed (warehouses / manufacturing) or is well on the way (self-driving). However the leap from Boston Dynamics video to product especially in unstructured environments has been elusive. This is unfortunate as it has the power to unlock huge economic potential (by making services such as construction, transportation, and healthcare far cheaper) and mitigate suffering (by being safer and providing essential services such as care for the elderly). I’m particularly interested in how we can go from the lab to large-scale deployment of this technology.

I want to find out how we can decrease conservatism in systems of many people. From governments in responding to COVID to the lack of creativity in many academic fields, there’s a general way in which the number of humans involved decreases experimentation and thus outcome quality. This is a shame because scaling the number of people is one of the primary tools we use to try to increase the rate of progress, but right now it seems to have the opposite effect.

The incredible amount of human potential wasted in the way we currently do education is sad. The ‘kids in a box’ model needs to go. While not a problem I’m working on right now, this is something I want to help change in the future.