July 13, 2024
How Marc Andreessen is like Robert Moses: ‘It’s time to build’ AI  | The AI Beat

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Did you spend your weekend driving down the New Jersey Turnpike, mulling over the similarities between a16z co-founder Marc Andreessen’s outspoken opinions on the future of AI and famed urban planner Robert Moses’ confident views on the future of cities? I did. 

Honestly, I can’t stop thinking about Andreessen’s “Techno-Optimist Manifesto” from last week. I’m fully ashamed to say that on Friday night, even as I sang along with my niece during the Taylor Swift Eras Tour movie, and fist-pumped to “I Knew You Were Trouble,” my mind wandered to Andreessen’s 5,000-word screed filled with sentences like “We believe that since human wants and needs are infinite, economic demand is infinite, and job growth can continue forever” and “We believe any deceleration of AI will cost lives.” 

In my newsletter, I wrote that Andreessen’s essay about the future of artificial intelligence was hilarious. A giggle-fest. An absolute knee-slapper. Come on — build AI so our descendants will “live in the stars?” Really? 

But upon further reflection, I realize that the “Techno-Optimist Manifesto” is dead-serious. 


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Robert Moses was outspoken, steadfast and uncompromising 

That is, serious in the way that Robert Moses was outspoken, steadfast and uncompromising in his efforts to transform New York City and its suburbs, changing the way cities around the U.S. were designed and built. Moses believed it was “time to build” in order to eradicate“blight” — by constructing high-rise public housing projects and bulldozing neighborhoods in order to connect suburbs to the city with new highways. He razed city blocks and forever eliminated Black, Latino and Jewish neighborhoods. At least a quarter of a million New Yorkers were estimated to be displaced during his four-decade reign.

This was all in service to Moses’ unshakable belief that “cities are created by, and for traffic,” envisioning the city as a place where private cars would whisk people to and from suburbs via expressways. He famously responded to critics of his methods, saying “If the end doesn’t justify the means, what does?” 

Moses’ power, of course, led to some incredible achievements. Thanks to the “man who gets things done,” we got Jones Beach State Park, the Triborough Bridge, the Throgs Neck Bridge, Lincoln Center, and Shea Stadium, among other massive projects. But by the 1980s, Robert Caro’s book “The Power Broker” and other writings provided a reckoning with Moses’ legacy. Today, Moses’ firm belief that cars were the future of cities is no longer in vogue — in fact, these days cities are replacing parking spaces and streets with pedestrian areas and bike paths, while New York City Mayor Adams recently kicked off a study to even reimagine Moses’ long-derided traffic nightmare, the Cross-Bronx Expressway. 

Marc Andreessen says AI is a ‘universal problem-solver’

Andreessen, too, is filled with single-minded, confident, no-shadow-of-a-doubt opinions about artificial intelligence in his Techno-Optimist Manifesto. AI, he says, is “best thought of as a universal problem solver.” So we should build AI, without the “demoralization” of things like “sustainability,” “social responsibility,”  “trust and safety,”  “tech ethics,” “risk management,” and “the limits of growth.” 

Worried about energy? No problem: “We have the silver bullet for virtually unlimited zero-emissions energy today – nuclear fission.” And that’s not all — “We believe a second energy silver bullet is coming – nuclear fusion. We should build that as well. The same bad ideas that effectively outlawed fission are going to try to outlaw fusion. We should not let them.”

The bottom line? “It’s time to be a Techno-Optimist,” he writes. “It’s time to build.” 

Ah, if only it were so simple, right? The truth is, we have little to no idea what is really going to happen as AI technology continues to develop. As I said back in June, the future of AI is unknown — which is the biggest problem with tech prophecies like the Techno-Optimist Manifesto. Even the most confident AI forecasts are not facts, just like Robert Moses’ predictions for the future of cities were not either. 

Consider the future of AI by looking at Robert Moses’ past

I urge Andreessen and other Techno-Optimists to consider the location of the New York City office of Andreessen’s VC firm, Andreessen Horowitz: 200 Lafayette Street in Manhattan’s SoHo — a sought-after spot in a trendy neighborhood filled with galleries, lofts and highly-rated restaurants, northeast of Tribeca and southeast of Greenwich Village. 

Back in the 1940s, Robert Moses hatched a plan to build an expressway that ran right across lower Manhattan. The Lower Manhattan Expressway was designed to help with traffic problems so commuters could speed across the city. It would have cut through the “decaying” Greenwich Village and SoHo and carved through Washington Square Park. It was only because of massive pushback from the affected communities, led by urban activist Jane Jacobs, that the plan was scrapped

As VC firms build a strong AI community around lower Manhattan, I think it’s worth remembering that if Robert Moses had had his way, the winding, tree-lined streets of downtown Manhattan would no longer exist. Perhaps that should be a sign that humility about the future of AI — that is, admitting what we do not know — could be more powerful than manifesto-style statements about the all-good and no-bad nature of technology development. If not, they might one day find themselves dealing with a Moses-style reckoning.

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