Hi, I’m Azeem Azhar. I convene Exponential View to help us understand how our societies and political economy will change under the force of rapidly accelerating technologies.
This Friday, I asked members for their thoughts on the recent spate of cyberattacks in the United States.
🎧 In the latest podcast episode, I discuss the emerging venture landscape with my friend and the founding General Partner at Kindred Capital, Leila Rastegar Zegna. We dig into the ways to better align incentives between entrepreneurs and investors, in order to build a healthier innovation ecosystem.
🎧 📖 The transcripts of my two recent conversations are now available to members. Read here the transcript of my discussion with investor Chamath Palihapitiya where we cover SPACs, funding climate change solutions, and Silicon Valley. The transcript of my conversation with CEO of Zymergen, Josh Hoffman, about the new frontiers of biology is here.
Dept of the near future
👩🏻🏫 Fascinating new research was published this week into the long-term effects of computer-assisted learning (CAL) on students’ development. Focused on the “largest ed-tech interventions” in history, the study reviewed China’s attempt to connect more than 100 million rural students through satellite internet. Exposure to computer-aided learning platforms reduced the earnings gaps between urban and rural students by 78%.
I love this comment from one participant from a mid-tier town: “The CAL program provides me with the opportunity to be instructed by the most excellent teachers. I always feel that now I am a student in an elite school in a modern city.”
The size and duration of the study is impressive. It also creates an optimistic path for tackling the education of the large youthful populations in Africa and India.
See also – skilled video game players may actually develop other skills too, some of which can be leveraged in the world of work. In one example, students who played the popular game “Civilization’’ well tended to have better problem-solving, organizing, and planning skills than the students who had lower scores on the same game. The ability to do well in several of these games may also be correlated with higher levels of general intelligence (or maybe this is an acquired skill gained from hours of practice). (Azeem’s comment: the thousands of hours I invested in Civ III and IV were clearly not wasted.)
👷♂️ Warehouse jobs in the United States were once a ticket to the middle class but a flurry of reporting has found that warehouse jobs at Amazon have the opposite results. This is a rough reality that seems more structural and tied to the changing nature of American manufacturing. It comes to light as the company announced a free programme to help retrain more than 29 million people worldwide with skills in cloud computing by 2025 (outside of efforts to upskill its own workforce).
🥳 Another pandemic unicorn. Virtual events startup Hopin has a $2.1 billion valuation – its average month-on-month growth rate is 50% (since May), and it has reportedly grown its revenue to $20m in the nine months since it launched. Hopin’s closest competitor, Zoom, took several years to reach the same revenue – and competitors could always emerge, particularly as virtual events are likely to be a mainstay for a while. (Johnny, Hopin’s founder, is quite the entrepreneur.)
🤳 OnlyFans will earn $300m in profits this year – the natural conclusion to a year that’s seen the platform grow from a niche subscription service to a tech phenomenon, buoyed by the growth of at-home entertaining during the pandemic.
See also: 2020 has been a bumper year for creators in general, not just on OnlyFans – Cameo expects to make $100m this year, and Patreon is now valued at $1.2bn.
🐄 Nature has a summary of six commercially available synthetic biology products changing our world. One may be more familiar, namely the synthetic burgers that are now commonplace at every fast-food chain (such as those sold by Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat). Others are far less quotidian, such as PROVEN, which is a fertilizer for corn, and Hyaline, a microbially-produced smartphone screen, which I discussed with Josh Hoffman here. The progress in the bioeconomy is going to amaze us in the coming years. It’s a hidden giant. Rob Carlson reckons that in 2017, the bioeconomy comprised 2% of US GDP. It’ll only have moved up since then. And we’ll need it to replace large parts of the plastics and other oil derivative industries, not to mention its forays into products from farmers and pharma.
🔋 Dept of decarbonisation: 413.65ppm | 3,449 days
Each week, I’m going to remind you of the CO2 levels in the atmosphere and the number of days until we reach the 450ppm threshold.
The latest measurement (as of December 15): 413.65 ppm; December 2019: 411.13 ppm; 25 years ago: 360 ppm; 250 years ago, est: 250 ppm. Share this reminder with your community by forwarding this email or tweeting this.
⚡️The new energy giants are renewable energy companies like Enel, NextEra, and Orsted, which built and created clean power plants when these were still considered expensive, and are now starting to see their efforts pay off.
🔋 The market average of battery pack prices is $137/kWh, but prices of less than $100/kWh were reported for the first time ever – these batteries were for buses in China, according to BNEF. It’s basically a 90% price decline in a decade, and below the magic number for electric vehicles to be cheaper to operate than petrol cars. Exponential!
Short morsels to appear smart while being vaccinated
📊 A study on trickle-down economics – examining policies in 18 countries over 50 years – demonstrates that giving rich people tax cuts doesn’t make life better for the poorest in those societies.
👀 Alibaba’s website demonstrated to clients how they could use Alibaba’s software to detect the faces of ethnic minorities, notably Uighurs, although it wasn’t explained how widely these capacities were used.
🕵️ The US government has spent billions of dollars on cybersecurity defense since the early 2000s, but a giant Russian hack on the US government and US companies went undetected until only a few weeks ago, calling into question whether these investments were effective.
🦠 Eva De Bleecker, the Belgian state secretary, accidentally published the EU price for various coronavirus vaccines and the results are interesting. The AstraZeneca vaccine is 10 times cheaper than Moderna’s because of concessions extracted by Oxford University. It also has far lower storage costs, which means it will work out even cheaper in the long run.
📝 Novelist Robin Sloan’s note-taking method is thoughtful: "You have to train yourself to notice things. It's not 100% natural at first – it certainly wasn’t for me – but raising those antennae is a very worthwhile thing to do."
💻 Academics at Ben Gurion University in Israel have published new research that shows how a RAM card can be converted to transmit sensitive data from inside a computer with no Wi-Fi card.
🏭 A nine-year-old girl in London who died following an asthma attack in 2013 has become the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death. The coroner said that she had been exposed to “excessive” levels of pollution.
🕊 Ravens and great apes may have very similar levels of physical and social cognitive skills.
🍣 A Massachusetts-based GMO company is bringing transgenic salmon to the market.
🥼 Victoria Gray is the first person in the US to be successfully treated for a genetic disorder with the help of CRISPR, the controversial gene-editing technique. “It’s better than I could have imagined,” she told NPR.
🏃♀️ A new study suggests that the Oura ring can detect coronavirus even before symptoms are identified. Apple is surely paying close attention.
👩💻 Is computer code analogous to a language? A new study found that reading computer code doesn’t activate the regions of the brain involved in language processing.
✍️ Every year journalists write a list of all the stories they wish they’d written in the past year. Perfect reading for a train ride home.
The antitrust hammer came down hard this week on Big Tech. The Texas-led case on Google and its alleged ‘unlawful agreement’, which gave Facebook privileges in exchange for promising not to compete, is an eye-opener.
The Federal Trade Commission will launch a new inquiry into the data collection practices of Facebook, Amazon, and other major tech companies, as well as platforms like Reddit and Discord (which are often not mentioned in the same breath as tech behemoths like Amazon and Facebook).
Regulators want to rein Google in – and are starting to look at the way Google’s index works to solidify this hold on the Internet, which some call the “gravitational centre of the company”. Google has also performed so many searches – far more than even its closest rivals – that its dominance only deepens, particularly as many websites change their rules to attract traffic from Google, which uses a “crawler” called Googlebot to index. This effect is, essentially, a data network effect, and the most profitable we’ve yet seen in action.
There is now enough antitrust activity going on in the US and Europe to give us a sense that something may happen. It almost doesn’t matter who wins these cases. It’ll change the timbre and tempo of these firms. Boards will think twice about aggressive sorties, decision making will slow down. It will hamper these firms just enough to nibble at their edges: new entrants will be allowed to thrive, entrepreneurial staff will leave. It’ll be curious to see what this means for the startup market. Despite a bumper crop of tech IPOs (and SPACs) in the past weeks, M&A exits have outvalued IPOs almost 10:1 in recent quarters. If four or five buyers (Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple) are thinking twice, it might alleviate some of the competition for deals. Happy to explore that in the comments.
What you’re up to – notes from EV readers
Lubna Arielle has a chapter on her Bridging The Blue VR artwork in The Expression of Emotion in Humans and Technology.
Robbie Stamp was on “Are You A Robot?” discussing hitchhiking on the information superhighway.
Patrick Callahan set up a non-profit called Delaware Data Innovation Lab using funding provided by the US CARES act.
Giorgio Patrini released a comprehensive database of deepfakes targeting public figures worldwide.
Jacqueline Schafer, the founder of Clearbrief, published a new article on how AI will transform government social services, including a discussion of the impact on court systems, privacy issues, and necessary federal legal changes.
Rudy de Waele and the Conscious Learning Tribe are organising the final UnConference session of the year entitled “INTENTIONS 2021” on Sunday, December 20, with 21 invited guests predicting trends and setting intentions for 2021 and the next decade.
Ana Bakshi and Oxford Foundry published their 2019-2020 Impact Report.
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