Competent Elites

Followup to: The Level Above Mine

(Anyone who didn’t like yesterday’s post should probably avoid this one.)

I remember what a shock it was to first meet Steve Jurvetson, of the venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson.

Steve Jurvetson talked fast and articulately, could follow long chains of reasoning, was familiar with a wide variety of technologies, and was happy to drag in analogies from outside sciences like biology—good ones, too.

I once saw Eric Drexler present an analogy between biological immune systems and the “active shield” concept in nanotechnology, arguing that just as biological systems managed to stave off invaders without the whole community collapsing, nanotechnological immune systems could do the same.

I thought this was a poor analogy, and was going to point out some flaws during the Q&A. But Steve Jurvetson, who was in line before me, proceeded to demolish the argument even more thoroughly. Jurvetson pointed out the evolutionary tradeoff between virulence and transmission that keeps natural viruses in check, talked about how greater interconnectedness led to larger pandemics—it was very nicely done, demolishing the surface analogy by correct reference to deeper biological details.

I was shocked, meeting Steve Jurvetson, because from everything I’d read about venture capitalists before then, VCs were supposed to be fools in business suits, who couldn’t understand technology or engineers or the needs of a fragile young startup, but who’d gotten ahold of large amounts of money by dint of seeming reliable to other business suits.

One of the major surprises I received when I moved out of childhood into the real world, was the degree to which the world is stratified by genuine competence.

Now, yes, Steve Jurvetson is not just a randomly selected big-name venture capitalist. He is a big-name VC who often shows up at transhumanist conferences. But I am not drawing a line through just one data point.

I was invited once to a gathering of the mid-level power elite, where around half the attendees were “CEO of something”—mostly technology companies, but occasionally “something” was a public company or a sizable hedge fund. I was expecting to be the youngest person there, but it turned out that my age wasn’t unusual—there were several accomplished individuals who were younger. This was the point at which I realized that my child prodigy license had officially completely expired.

Now, admittedly, this was a closed conference run by people clueful enough to think “Let’s invite Eliezer Yudkowsky” even though I’m not a CEO. So this was an incredibly cherry-picked sample. Even so...

Even so, these people of the Power Elite were visibly much smarter than average mortals. In conversation they spoke quickly, sensibly, and by and large intelligently. When talk turned to deep and difficult topics, they understood faster, made fewer mistakes, were readier to adopt others’ suggestions.

No, even worse than that, much worse than that: these CEOs and CTOs and hedge-fund traders, these folk of the mid-level power elite, seemed happier and more alive.

This, I suspect, is one of those truths so horrible that you can’t talk about it in public. This is something that reporters must not write about, when they visit gatherings of the power elite.

Because the last news your readers want to hear, is that this person who is wealthier than you, is also smarter, happier, and not a bad person morally. Your reader would much rather read about how these folks are overworked to the bone or suffering from existential ennui. Failing that, your readers want to hear how the upper echelons got there by cheating, or at least smarming their way to the top. If you said anything as hideous as, “They seem more alive,” you’d get lynched.

But I am an independent scholar, not much beholden. I should be able to say it out loud if anyone can. I’m talking about this topic… for more than one reason; but it is the truth as I see it, and an important truth which others don’t talk about (in writing?). It is something that led me down wrong pathways when I was young and inexperienced.

I used to think—not from experience, but from the general memetic atmosphere I grew up in—that executives were just people who, by dint of superior charisma and butt-kissing, had managed to work their way to the top positions at the corporate hog trough.

No, that was just a more comfortable meme, at least when it comes to what people put down in writing and pass around. The story of the horrible boss gets passed around more than the story of the boss who is, not just competent, but more competent than you.

But entering the real world, I found out that the average mortal really can’t be an executive. Even the average manager can’t function without a higher-level manager above them. What is it that makes an executive? I don’t know, because I’m not a professional in this area. If I had to take a guess, I would call it “functioning without recourse”—living without any level above you to take over if you falter, or even to tell you if you’re getting it wrong. To just get it done, even if the problem requires you to do something unusual, without anyone being there to look over your work and pencil in a few corrections.

Now, I’m sure that there are plenty of people out there bearing executive titles who are not executives.

And yet there seem to be a remarkable number of people out there bearing executive titles who actually do have the executive-nature, who can thrive on the final level that gets the job done without recourse. I’m not going to take sides on whether today’s executives are overpaid, but those executive titles occupied by actual executives, are not being paid for nothing. Someone who can be an executive at all, even a below-average executive, is a rare find.

The people who’d like to be boss of their company, to sit back in that comfortable chair with a lovely golden parachute—most of them couldn’t make it. If you try to drop executive responsibility on someone who lacks executive-nature—on the theory that most people can do it if given the chance—then they’ll melt and catch fire.

This is not the sort of unpleasant truth that anyone would warn you about—at least not in books, and all I had read were books. Who would say it? A reporter? It’s not news that people want to hear. An executive? Who would believe that self-valuing story?

I expect that my life experience constitutes an extremely biased sample of the power elite. I don’t have to deal with the executives of arbitrary corporations, or form business relationships with people I never selected. I just meet them at gatherings and talk to the interesting ones.

But the business world is not the only venue where I’ve encountered the upper echelons and discovered that, amazingly, they actually are better at what they do.

Case in point: Professor Rodney Brooks, CTO of iRobot and former director of the MIT AI Lab, who spoke at the 2007 Singularity Summit. I had previously known “Rodney Brooks” primarily as the promoter of yet another dreadful nouvelle paradigm in AI—the embodiment of AIs in robots, and the forsaking of deliberation for complicated reflexes that didn’t involve modeling. Definitely not a friend to the Bayesian faction. Yet somehow Brooks had managed to become a major mainstream name, a household brand in AI...

And by golly, Brooks sounded intelligent and original. He gave off a visible aura of competence. (Though not a thousand-year vampire aura of terrifying swift perfection like E.T. Jaynes’s carefully crafted book.) But Brooks could have held his own at any gathering I attended; from his aura I would put him at the Steve Jurvetson level or higher.

(Interesting question: If I’m not judging Brooks by the goodness of his AI theories, what is it that made him seem smart to me? I don’t remember any stunning epiphanies in his presentation at the Summit. I didn’t talk to him very long in person. He just came across as… formidable, somehow.)

The major names in an academic field, at least the ones that I run into, often do seem a lot smarter than the average scientist.

I tried—once—going to an interesting-sounding mainstream AI conference that happened to be in my area. I met ordinary research scholars and looked at their posterboards and read some of their papers. I watched their presentations and talked to them at lunch. And they were way below the level of the big names. I mean, they weren’t visibly incompetent, they had their various research interests and I’m sure they were doing passable work on them. And I gave up and left before the conference was over, because I kept thinking “What am I even doing here?”

An intermediate stratum, above the ordinary scientist but below the ordinary CEO, is that of, say, partners at a non-big-name venture capital firm. The way their aura feels to me, is that they can hold up one end of an interesting conversation, but they don’t sound very original, and they don’t sparkle with extra life force.

I wonder if you have to reach the Jurvetson level before thinking outside the “Outside the Box” box starts to become a serious possibility. Or maybe that art can be taught, but isn’t, and the Jurvetson level is where it starts to happen spontaneously. It’s at this level that I talk to people and find that they routinely have interesting thoughts I haven’t heard before.

Hedge-fund people sparkle with extra life force. At least the ones I’ve talked to. Large amounts of money seem to attract smart people. No, really.

If you’re wondering how it could be possible that the upper echelons of the world could be genuinely intelligent, and yet the world is so screwed up...

Well, part of that may be due to my biased sample.

Also, I’ve met a few Congresspersons and they struck me as being at around the non-big-name venture capital level, not the hedge fund level or the Jurvetson level. (Still, note that e.g. George W. Bush used to sound a lot smarter than he does now.)

But mainly: It takes an astronomically high threshold of intelligence + experience + rationality before a screwup becomes surprising. There’s “smart” and then there’s “smart enough for your cognitive mechanisms to reliably decide to sign up for cryonics”. Einstein was a deist, etc. See also Eliezer1996 and the edited volume “How Smart People Can Be So Stupid”. I’ve always been skeptical that Jeff Skilling of Enron was world-class smart, but I can easily visualize him being able to sparkle in conversation.

Still, so far as I can tell, the world’s upper echelons—in those few cases I’ve tested, within that extremely biased sample that I encounter—really are more intelligent.

Not just, “it’s who you know, not what you know”. Not just personal charisma and Machiavellian maneuvering. Not just promotion of incompetents by other incompetents.

I don’t say that this never happens. I’m sure it happens. I’m sure it’s endemic in all sorts of places.

But there’s a flip side to the story, which doesn’t get talked about so much: you really do find a lot more cream as you move closer to the top.

It’s a standard idea that people who make it to the elite, tend to stop talking to ordinary mortals, and only hang out with other people at their level of the elite.

That’s easy for me to believe. But I suspect that the reason is more disturbing than simple snobbery. A reporter, writing about that, would pass it off as snobbery. But it makes entire sense in terms of expected utility, from their viewpoint. Even if all they’re doing is looking for someone to talk to—just talk to.

Visiting that gathering of the mid-level power elite, it was suddenly obvious why the people who attended that conference might want to only hang out with other people who attended that conference. So long as they can talk to each other, there’s no point in taking a chance on outsiders who are statistically unlikely to sparkle with the same level of life force.

When you make it to the power elite, there are all sorts of people who want to talk to you. But until they make it into the power elite, it’s not in your interest to take a chance on talking to them. Frustrating as that seems when you’re on the outside trying to get in! On the inside, it’s just more expected fun to hang around people who’ve already proven themselves competent. I think that’s how it must be, for them. (I’m not part of that world, though I can walk through it and be recognized as something strange but sparkly.)

There’s another world out there, richer in more than money. Journalists don’t report on that part, and instead just talk about the big houses and the yachts. Maybe the journalists can’t perceive it, because you can’t discriminate more than one level above your own. Or maybe it’s such an awful truth that no one wants to hear about it, on either side of the fence. It’s easier for me to talk about such things, because, rightly or wrongly, I imagine that I can imagine technologies of an order that could bridge even that gap.

I’ve never been to a gathering of the top-level elite (World Economic Forum level), so I have no idea if people are even more alive up there, or if the curve turns and starts heading downward.

And really, I’ve never been to any sort of power-elite gathering except those organized by the sort of person that would invite me. Maybe that world I’ve experienced, is only a tiny minority carved out within the power elite. I really don’t know. If for some reason it made a difference, I’d try to plan for both possibilities.

But I’m pretty sure that, statistically speaking, there’s a lot more cream at the top than most people seem willing to admit in writing.

Such is the hideously unfair world we live in, which I do hope to fix.

Part of the sequence Yudkowsky’s Coming of Age

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