Azeem Azhar’s Weekly Wondermissive: Future, Tech & Society
You are reading the free edition of Exponential View.
One of the perks that all Premium readers of Exponential View get is access to special briefing calls with leading researchers, academics, entrepreneurs and investors.
We have a fascinating discussion coming up on September 12, 4pm London time, with Professor Myles Allen who was one of the lead authors on the IPCC’s 1.5 degrees Special Report. Myles will take us through the science of climate modelling and prediction, why climate models matter and what kinds of models do we need to deal with climate breakdown.
In October, we have another member’s briefing, with Paul Nemitz, a principal advisor at the European Commission, who was responsible for leading the work on the GDPR, data protection and privacy.
To attend these briefings, upgrade your Exponential View subscription to Premium.
Dept of the near future
💼 For nearly fifty years, the Friedman doctrine has driven corporations in the Anglosphere with the adage of ‘there is one and only one social responsibility of business: to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game.’ Last week, 180 of the US’s biggest corporations recently came together to promise that from now on, their driving animus will be about more than just making their shareholders rich(er). CEOs of companies like Walmart and JP Morgan Chase pledged to focus on increasing ‘stakeholder’ value, including employees, communities and the public good. Of course, ‘thousands of companies that are already doing [this]’ through the B Corporation movement. They include industry leaders like Patagonia, Danone and Hootsuite. They let the Business Roundtable know with an advert.
🤔 The Economist argues that this form of collective capitalism could be damaging for two reasons: lack of accountability, and lack of dynamism. After all, can CEOs be trusted to adequately reflect what ‘society wants’? The Economist analysis is worth reading but misses a key point. At times like these, amid major societal changes, there are gaps between what technologies allow us to do and where our agreed values and norms are. Formal regulation and institutions are lagging even further behind. We’re actually in the midst of an adjustment process to figure out what those norms and values are. Businesses, their employees, and the CEOs that lead them will need to be part of the conversation until society makes its mind up.
👾 The future of crime fighting? French Police teamed up with Avast, a cybersecurity firm, to remotely remove malware from 850,000 PCs, mostly in Latin America. Fascinating because of the complexity of the co-ordination and the intriguing cross-border issues involved. (Some additional details, including the FBI’s involvement here.)
💬 [Video] Jack Ma debated Elon Musk on whether machines are better than people. Spoiler: Ma’s answer wins.
☣️ The Pentagon admitted that China’s military-civil fusion gives it various strategic advantages in developing military users of AI. ‘If we do not find a way to strengthen the bonds between the United States government and industry and academia, then I would say we do have the real risk of not moving as fast as China’ said one general.
🔥 Climate breakdown: 409.69pm | 3,916 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 29): 409.69ppm; 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.
Dept of finance
Global remittances are now the largest source of capital inflow into developing economies. They exceed $500bn annually according to the World Bank, growing around 10% in the last year and from a level of around $300bn a decade ago. The volume of digital remittances has quadrupled in the past five years. Unlike foreign direct investment or international development funding, remittances from migrant workers to families back home are more resilient and responsive than other forms of capital. It also reminds us that people do care about more than rationally maximising their expected utility. They also care about their families and the places they came from.
The rest of this section is open to members only. In it, I discuss the paradigm shift affecting the financial system, including:
- The prospects of creating a synthetic hegemonic currency,
- How novel financial products, including digital currencies, are emerging,
- How gig work can provide financial incentives and security to emerging markets.
Dept of Surveillance, Fakes and Forgeries
Kate Crawford of the Partnership for AI joins my colleagues at the Ada Lovelace Institute in calling for a moratorium on facial recognition. The point of this technology is that:
Scholars have been pointing to the technical and social risks of facial recognition for years. Greater accuracy is not the point. We need strong legal safeguards that guarantee civil rights, fairness and accountability. Otherwise, this technology will make all of us less free.
👀 Amazon’s Ring has teamed up with 400 US police departments to create a virtual enforcement network. I find this particularly disquieting, an unregulated, unaccountable move towards big data policing. Presumed innocent becomes “assumed to be a suspect.” What safeguards will be in place?
As facial recognition and emotion detection spread, a fight-back is underway. These include a speech re-synthesizer that defeats emotion detection systems and this whacky ‘adversarial’ patch on a beanie hat that can fool state-of-the-art facial recognition.
Is our future one where we have to disguise our real selves (and emotional states) in order to be true to them?
- A crazy story about a $243,000 heist where criminals used an AI-based speech generator to impersonate a chief executive’s voice;
- What happens when you create photo-realistic emoji using progressive super-resolution techniques?
🏆 This edition has been supported by Deloitte Private
Every year, we celebrate the 50 fastest-growing technology companies in the UK. Have one in mind you’d like to see win the prestigious Fast 50 award? Nominate them today right here.
Department of internet businesses
Peloton, the exercise club, published its IPO documents. It’s quite something. Revenue hit $915mm, more than double the previous year. Peloton’s subscription metrics are also impressive. The firm more than doubled subscribers to 511k in the year to June 2019. Each subscriber was also cycling more often. Rides per month per subscriber grew from 8.7 to 12 in under a year.
Although I don’t own one, I’ve ridden the bike. It is superb. It is the most comfortable stationary bike I’ve tried. The instructors are impressive and the quality of the workouts does make stationary rides more interesting and challenging.
At $2k per bike, it is a premium business. But I spy enough resilience in the model. The hardware attracts a 40+% margin and and the subscription, with its attendant instructor costs, also runs to a 40+% rake. I’ll be curious about whether its subscription margin will increase as subscriber numbers grow. Presumably, they don’t need to add expensive class instructors as quickly as they add paying riders..
😏 Elon Musk put Tesla on the line to save SolarCity. It may not have been worth it. Cracking tale.
💸 Uber and Lyft take a lot more money from drivers than they’ve been reporting.
A department store founded in 1826 was just bought by a 7-year-old clothing rental start-up. The deal may offer a glimpse into the future of the garment industry.
Interesting data on European Series A venture capital investment shows that larger series A rounds ($7m+) have become significantly more common over the past couple of years.
Short morsels to appear smart at dinner parties
🛰️ 5G networks could disrupt weather forecasting.
Research suggests that women score higher than men in most leadership skills.
14,000 carbon nanotubes replace silicon in a new chip.
👛 How Americans across different age groups spend their incomes.
‘Autonomous’ food-delivery robots, Kiwibots, are operated by remote workers in Colombia for $2/hour. (More on this next week.)
The BBC is recording the voices of its staff across the UK in an effort to teach Beeb, the company’s voice assistant, to understand regional accents.
😀 Optimists live 11-15% longer on average and have greater odds of exceptional longevity, controlling for socioeconomic status and other attributes, says a study of more than 70,000 people.
How technology ruined design. Insightful view from Tariq Krim.
Readers in the UK have an exciting few weeks ahead of us. We’re in the midst of the greatest political crisis for 330 years. If you’re observing from afar, wish us luck!
EV is approaching 45,000 readers, which is another milestone. Take a moment to share the post to help us pass it: Twitter, LinkedIn, or forward this email.
Have a lovely week!
What you’re up to—notes from EV readers
Anne Currie’s sci-fi novel explores trust in the age of extensive surveillance.
Marko Balabanovic asks: what role will AI systems take in organisations? Rather thoughtful.
Anastasiya Giarletta is organising an event about longevity which you should check out if you’re in London on 12 September.
Lysandre Debut shares that the Hugging Face team published a new version of their online AI auto-completion tool. You can try it here.
Adarsh Jain writes about Vipassana meditation from his own experience.
Aimun Jamjoom invites you to fill out the iRobot Surgeon Survey which aims to understand the public opinion concerning robotic surgery.
Brett Bivens describes ‘creative compounding,’ knowledge accelerated through the channels of technology that grows and matures into novel forms so that previously scarce feats become new normal in no time. Interesting idea.
To share your news and projects, email firstname.lastname@example.org