Azeem Azhar’s Weekly Wondermissive: Future, Tech & Society
Dept of podcasts 🎧
The Exponential View podcast is supported by Spotify.
My conversation with OpenAI's Policy Director, Jack Clark, was a real treat to end 2018 with. If you haven't listened to it yet, I highly recommend it.
Heard that one? Here are the most popular episodes of Season 2 so far:
- Kai-Fu Lee on China as the AI superpower (Spotify | iTunes | Soundcloud)
- Matthew Taylor on the future of work and democracy in the information age (Spotify | iTunes | Soundcloud)
- Michael Liebreich on renewable energy, climate change and technology (Spotify | iTunes | Soundcloud)
And if you’ve listened to them, please pop over to iTunes and give us a five-star rating. It really helps!
Dept of the near future
😬 Apple missed their numbers. It's been fifteen years since Apple last revised their earnings downwards. MG Siegler breaks down what this means: Apple needs to continue to pivot towards services, treading a path that, ironically, Microsoft has already taken. Services made $10.8bn in revenues in the last quarter. That said, as we've previously pointed out, Apple has other irons in the fire. The Apple Watch is a bigger business than iPad ever was. Apple has at least 70 autonomous vehicles on the roads and 2,700 core employees working on autonomous driving. Although it isn't clear where its AV project is headed. (Kara Swisher, one of the most respected tech journalists in the world, reckons this undershoot is a sign of a general stalemate in innovation. I take a slightly different view to Kara who explicitly highlights "Uber, Airbnb, Pinterest and, yes, Tinder" as the "last cool set of companies". Our framework for evaluating what is worthwhile innovation needs to change. There are now bigger, more meaningful opportunities to rebuild the infrastructure of the economy than the thin patina provided by UX-driven apps, such as blockchain, quantum computing, clean tech & health tech.)
🔥 “[We] don't want to be their real-world mistake”, Arizonans attack Waymo's self-driving cars. “They didn’t ask us if we wanted to be part of their beta test.” A fascinating policy conundrum. Innovations are better polished in real-world environments. That is what we learnt from lean startup disciplines over the past two decades. But equally, the nature of modern network technologies, both purely digital ones like social networks and physical interlopers like robotaxis, is that they meaningfully impact those who haven't opted in to the experiment. This isn't the technology of the 70s, like my old Binatone TV Master Mk IV, these are services with measurable spillovers onto non-participants and the communities in which they live.
⚡ "What began as a mapping of human meaning now defines human meaning, and has begun to control, rather than simply catalog or index, human thought." Technology historian George Dyson's beautiful essay on the ascent of analogue systems' uncontrollable reign. Short, gorgeous, read it twice. (Also, Stephen Cave argues for democratising the development of AI systems to avoid a Kafkaesque future.)
🏁 Not the end of history. We're seeing disjunctures at many fractal dimensions of systems right now. Here, a recent Rand Corporation assessment of the emerging era of international competition describes: "global patterns of competition are likely to be complex and diverse, with distinct types of competition prevailing in different issue areas" involving "a drawn-out combination of contestation, competition, and cooperation in which "winning" or "victory" is the wrong mental model." Also check out some recent network science research suggests that war might be a phenomenon that emerges from the network structure of society, baked into the very web of relationships that connect us. This insight could also give us clues on how to avoid it. (See also, An Xiao Mina, we face a "death of consensus" not the death of truth. Authenticity and affiliation may matter more.)
Dept of AI
What does 2019 hold for AI: approaches requiring less training data; a focus on tackling operationalising AI; and increased conversations on the social and ethical considerations of building AI systems. Opinions from Hilary Mason, Andrew Ng, Rumman Chowdhury & Yann LeCun.
Some fascinating breakthroughs in the space of AI and health:
- An overview of how the biotech company Recursion Pharma uses machine learning to access the potential of new medicines. The company just signed a licensing agreement to develop a treatment for a rare type of cancer.
- A machine learning algorithm identifies signs of consciousness in brain-injured patients in three out of four cases.
- AI could detect Alzheimers six years in advance by analysing PET scans.
- Using neural networks, researchers turn brain activity into speech.
The machine learning race really is a data race: how firms need to find differentiated data.
Using algorithms to nudge workers towards happiness.
Algo-trading is a useful system to explore the broad interactions amongst autonomous systems. One result is herd-like trading behaviour.
Dept of energy transition
Electric vehicle adoption has blown away most forecasters, OPEC and Bloomberg New Energy Finance alike. (Our view has been more closely aligned with Tony Seba, we think the transition can happen faster than most forecasters have predicted because of the multiple exponential improvements across battery, drive train, distribution & marketing.)
🌟 Tesla had a stunning year. The firm delivered 91,200 vehicles in the fourth quarter of 2018, a four-fold increase compared to the same period two years earlier. It is now the top luxury car seller in the US. Elon Musk may be eccentric, laddish & hubristic but the leadership Tesla shows in making electric vehicles quotidian deserves acknowledgement. (Check out this mind-boggling video of Model X owners at a meetup in Changsha, Hunan, China.)
2018 was a good year as US coal product slumped to its lowest for nearly 40 years. See also: renewables overtake coal as Germany's main source of energy.
Good news from the UK, too: electricity generation fell to the lowest point since 1994, while renewables rise to 33% of total power generated in 2018.
🌡️ Stark visualisation of temperatures in the UK from 1772 to 2018.
Short morsels to appear smart at dinner parties
🥩 Alternative proteins: Switching from beef to alternative proteins would have significant health and emissions benefits (perhaps as much as 2% of all global emissions), according to new research from WEF and Oxford Martin School. (Note: I've only had time to digest the executive summary and not the full report.)
Plant-based food that mimics meat has been part of the Chinese cuisine for hundreds of years, having originated in Buddhist monasteries. Now it's finding the market in the West.
Censoring China's Internet for stability and profit. A detailed investigation into the private sector firms which monitor China's internet. Super interesting.
🇮🇳 The Chinese takeover of the Indian app ecosystem. "The message is clear for the Chinese — if you want growth, conquer India."
🚻 The Internet-connected toilet. #privacy
Porn sites collect more data than traditional streaming services. And it shows. #privacy
😂 Mobile payments + arm wrestling: true innovation in China (video)
The 'magic angle' that gives graphene previously unexpected properties.
🧬 'Omnigenic' model suggests that all genes influence our complex traits and diseases.
🚀Human colonisation will be the first global change on Mars since the atmospheric loss a billion year ago, and other ways humans will impact the Red Planet.
This year, I have decided to become carbon neutral. Historically, I've offset a variable number of my flights but haven't acted strongly to offset as much of my carbon footprint as I could. After my conversations with Kate Raworth and Michael Liebreich, I decided that, even if mitigating anthropogenic climate change demands governmental and inter-governmental action, I'll take my own steps to limit my exposure. (This essay by climate scientist, David Reay, on the steps he has taken to tackle his own carbon footprint, was also inspiring.)
What I have done and will do:
- Switched to a UK energy supplier called Bulb, which generates 100% of its electricity & 10% of its gas through renewable/zero-carbon sources. If you are in the UK, you can access Bulb here. I'll pledge all referral fees earned towards carbon offsets or similar.
- My house has been recently reinsulated, meeting current building regulations for insulation etc, and we’ve moved to LED lighting throughout the building. Unfortunately, I wasn’t forward thinking enough to plot a deliberately low energy home when I started the project. But I am measuring energy consumption across gas and electricity much more precisely. I haven't found a good wifi-connected energy monitor for UK homes, which is frustrating.
- Measured my carbon footprint. It was really very high, driven mostly by the number of flights I take. My family carbon footprint, based on one calculator, ran to about 60 tonnes per annum, but I suspect this estimate is on the low end. Earth needs us to get to net zero carbon within 15 to 20 years, and even muted suggestions of what a household carbon load ought to be are around 2 tonnes per annum. In the richer parts of the world we should aim for net zero within a short generation. The average Briton runs to about 15 tonnes per head, the typical American chunters out 21 tonnes per annum.
- Endeavour to offset 125% of my carbon footprint. I haven't decided the best way to do this, whether it is to use certified offset schemes or whether I am better doing something else (like supporting green investment or R&D in some other way).
- As a product and service, Exponential View will be carbon neutral from now on. (This will not be audited, you'll need to trust me!)
- I've just moved back into my house, but there are still a few things with which I can tinker. I'm actively looking at decentralised energy products such as heat pumps, CHP fuel cells and solar, as well as off-grid storage, such as batteries.
I found the process of finding out somewhat cumbersome. There seems to be an opportunity for entrepreneurs to bring some design and product thinking to this arena.
Finally, welcome to 2019. Please kick off the year by sharing Exponential View to your friends. Twitter and forwarding the email work really well.
Have a great one!
What you are up to
A slew of 2019 predictions from readers:
Congrats to Levin Bunz on joining Sunstone Capital as a Partner.
Congrats to Jason Whitmire and Ciaran O'Leary for raising their second fund, Blueyard 2.
Gregor MacDonald published Waste Crash, the third (and final) part of his series on how solar and wind power will jailbreak the power grid.
As a reminder, if you are doing something interesting — an exhibition, a new job, a funding round, a new podcast, won an award — please do let Marija know (firstname.lastname@example.org). We’d love to share your news with other readers.