Azeem Azhar’s Weekly Wondermissive: Future, Tech & Society
This issue has been supported by Open Climate Fix:
⚡ Managing a power grid when electricity generation is driven by the weather is hard. Helping to solve that problem will accelerate the uptake of renewable electricity. Open Climate Fix is using open science and AI to learn to predict solar electricity power generation.
I’ve dropped a slightly longer EV for you. I assume many of you are going on breaks and may need lovely things to think about.
Take a moment to forward this newsletter to a couple of friends who will appreciate it.
Dept of the near future
🚘 The obsession with personal cars may have been a strange and damaging blip of cultural history which is coming to an end. A beautiful essay by Nathan Heller. (New data from Europe shows car sales in June are the lowest in 2019 so far.)
🚸 How much would you pay for your child to be the healthiest kid in the classroom? How about the smartest, tallest, best looking, most athletic, or, if you can afford it, why not all of the above? As human gene editing becomes ever more accessible and acceptable, Walter Isaacson explores the question of whether the rich should be allowed to buy the best genes for their children. (Naturally, we already have an answer to this question. In the UK, the richest quintile parents are four times more likely to pay for extracurricular activities for their kids than the poorest. The situation is similar in the US. For broader context on the genetic technologies, listen to my podcast with Steven Hsu which touches on some of these issues.)
🤳 Apple may be weaning itself off the iPhone. The percentage of quarterly revenue which Apple made from iPhone sales in Q3 of 2019 was the lowest since 2012, despite a slight increase in Apple’s overall quarterly revenue. Meanwhile, Apple’s revenue from services has jumped 20% since the same quarter last year.
🧐 Influential economist Tyler Cowen and Stripe CEO Patrick Collison are calling for a new academic inter-discipline for studying the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement. ‘Progress studies’ would seek to understand the policy mechanisms, institutions and contexts from which progress arises. (EV reader, Gina Neff, critiques the claims.)
🔥 Climate breakdown: 410.59ppm | 3,944 days
Each week, we’re going to remind you of the CO2 levels in the atmosphere and the number of days until reaching the 450ppm threshold.
The latest measurement (as of August 1): 410.59 ppm; 12 months ago: 408ppm; 25 years ago: 360ppm; 250 years ago, est: 250ppm. Share this reminder with your community by forwarding this email or tweeting this.
It turned out that July was the hottest month in human history. Also, 2018 was our record year for burning fossil fuels.
⚠️ The Greenland ice sheet is in the middle of its biggest melt season in recorded history. As the European heatwave moves north, temperatures this week have been up to 30°F hotter than normal. Twelve billion tons of water is estimated to have melted from the ice sheet on August 1st alone. It will measurably raise sea levels.
The more ice we lose, the less light the Earth reflects, so the hotter it gets. The loss of reflective sea ice in the Arctic is likely to increase global warming by the equivalent of twenty-five years of global CO2 emissions. If that wasn’t alarming enough, researchers have found that the speed of Arctic melting is outstripping computer forecasts. We’re going to tackle climate modelling in one of our members-only briefings come Fall.
🌳 Ethiopians planted 350m trees in twelve hours as part of a reforestation programme.
After the closure of the German-owned 1,500 megawatt Aberthaw B plant in Wales, just four coal plants will remain in the UK’s power system.
💡 More than forty British readers have switched to Bulb Energy, the carbon-neutral energy supplier that I use (and now recommend!). Assuming average UK energy usage, this could abate around 120 tons of CO2—and signal to the market that consumers want to switch to renewables. If you are in the UK, I encourage you the make this switch. Bulb will give you £75 if you do. If you run a domestic renewable energy provider in the United States, I’m happy to hear from you to see how we can encourage American readers to switch as well.
Dept of artificial intelligence
This super fun paper by Alan Winfield, a robotics researcher, lays out some challenges to achieving artificial general intelligence from the perspective of the energy cost. (Full paper, only 13 pages long here; summary blog post here.) Alan writes:
a significant proportion of AI research is not hypothesis driven, but incrementalist and ad-hoc. [...] Of course such an approach can and is leading to interesting and (commercially) valuable advances in narrow AI. But [w]ithout strong theoretical foundations, the grand challenge of human-equivalent AI seems rather like trying to build particle accelerators to understand the nature of matter, without the Standard Model of particle physics.
I’ve spoken with many AI researchers, most recently Stuart Russell, Jürgen Schmidhuber and Andrew Ng (coming up in September), about the prospects for achieving artificial general intelligence in any time frame. My take is similar to Alan’s: if building an artificial general intelligence is an engineering problem within the domain of natural problems (that is, we don’t have to appeal to the supernatural for mechanisms to achieve it), we need to have a working theory of how to build that entity. And we don’t have a good one yet.
The rest of this section its available to the members of our Premium tier only. If you subscribe now, you’ll have a chance to read about:
- Different approaches to creating AGI, including the biological and hybrid approach;
- China’s progress in developing its own chip design capabilities,
Should AI systems be recognised as inventors by patent offices?
Short morsels to appear smart at dinner parties
Like most big bureaucratic systems, China’s social credit system is both less effective and more fragmented than it is often made out to be. That doesn't necessarily make it less worrying.
✊ Hong Kong protesters are fighting facial recognition with lasers. (Amazing video.)
💸 Evolution of money. Fascinating and relevant for the future of money.
Five Eyes governments continue to push for access to encrypted messages on platforms like WhatsApp. No one has yet proposed a way of doing so which doesn't increase the risk from cybercrime to the general public, however.
🎭 Chinese vloggers use face filters to appear younger than they are. One got unmasked in a platform glitch.
Exchange-traded funds are diversifying, from indexing on the marijuana trade to ‘biblically responsible’ ETFs.
More than a fifth of Americans have changed their minds about whether technology companies are having a positive impact on the United States in the past four years.
📁 Inventors applying for patents used to have to justify why their inventions would not lead to reduced employment. Not any more.
☎️ The hottest phones for the first-time internet consumers aren’t smartphones.
Forty million people competed to qualify for the Fortnite World Cup.
What a hot July! A flaming hot, ice melting, tundra burning, water draining, feedback-looping July. It really, really seems to be happening. Even the resource extractors recognise the need to rapidly decarbonise our economies and put our lives on a more sustainable footing. Andrew Mackenzie, the CEO of BHP Biliton, wrote in the FT this week:
The price of tackling global warming will be high, but the cost of failing to do so will be higher still.
After reviewing the July data, I feel lost for words. .
P.S. Our readers have raised investment rounds, written on fascinating subjects and are looking for new colleagues at their organisations. Scroll down to see more!
This edition of Exponential View has been supported by Open Climate Fix:
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What you are up to—notes from EV readers
Congrats to our readers at Lux Capital on raising more than $1bn for two new funds!
John Battelle is starting a new media company. Recount aims to cover political news in a new format: short-form video.
From a number of White Star Capital readers: Unpacking the UK VC landscape.
Congrats to Rob and Hussein at Hoxton Ventures. Babylon Health, one of their portfolio companies, recently became the third company in their first fund to achieve unicorn status.
Denise Melchin on how deepfake porn bans will impact cloud computer providers.
Louis Coppey at Point Nine Cap is hiring a research associate. Apply or recommend!
SweeKiat created an online primer for algorithmic bias.
Dimitry Foux shares his new research paper on innovation in the insurance industry.
Davide Casaleggio: The UN should play a key role in governing Facebook’s Libra.
Haydn Belfield at the University of Cambridge is looking for a research associate in paradigms of AGI and their associated risks.
My colleagues at the Ada Lovelace Institute are looking for a Director for a new network on AI and Ethics.
Email email@example.com to share your news and project.