Azeem Azhar’s Weekly Wondermissive: Future, Tech & Society
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Dept of podcasts 🎧
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Dept of the near future
💞Cathy O'Neill challenges us with a history of cyborg sex to 2073:
“Society finally concluded that everyone deserves good sex as part of a good life, but not necessarily with each other.
Now that we don’t expect humans—let alone a particular gender—to fill that role, our interactions with other have improved. We ask less of each other, but we connect more, be it virtually or in reality. In short, we have all become more human now that we are fully coupled with cyborgs.”
🚲 Florent Crivello: The five promises of micromobility Exceptional essay arguing that micromobility will be more energy efficient than electric cars, more space efficient, safer, economically inclusive and better for cities. (Consultancy, McKinsey agrees, micromobility has the potential to have a major impact on how we move around our cities, as well as being a $500bn annual opportunity by 2030. Appropriate regulation may be necessary to maximise success. See also, after Oslo made the city centre car-free and invested in public transport and bike infrastructure, people loved it—despite the weather.)
🐌 Is the future of social networks, slower and local, rather than global? Interesting drill-down into Front Porch and how a focus on local issues can help rebuild community social capital.
☠️🔥 Climate catastrophe
Each week, I’m going to remind us of our level of the CO2 in the atmosphere. We must avoid a level of 450 parts per million.
This week's level: 411.36ppm (12 months ago: 407ppm; 250 years ago, est: 250ppm)
Fascinating report from the Brooking Institute shows that the American states most likely to suffer early human, social and economic damage from climate change are more likely. This may lead new types of politicians who pursue less denialist policies. By the time this change comes through, if it happens, we will have lost far more time, but still better late than never
From around World War 2, the fossil fuel industry knew about the damage CO2 was doing to the environment, and actively worked to cover up and discredit it.
Can we genetically modify plants to grow more cork and use that to sequester CO2? Joanne Chory is trying.
🍅 Must read. The mission of Impossible Foods: “our use of animals as a food-production technology has brought us to the verge of environmental catastrophe: The destructive impact of animal agriculture on the global environment far exceeds that of any other technology on Earth.” h/t Stefano Bernardi
Dept of platforms & politics
There are some new “poles” clearly emerging in our multipolar world. The large nations and the supranational blocs make part of this complex arrangement of power. And, increasing we can see Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google, with their own rivalries and collaborations, shows they too will form part of our multi-polar, fractal world. But they will have none of the accountability we can expect from states.
An example trigged yet again by Facebook. The company is so large, that each one of its missteps creates a whole plethora of fascinating questions as well as outrage and faux-trage.
This week, we found out that the firm paid teenagers $20 per month for access to their private data, beyond what even the Facebook app afforded, using a clever loophole on iPhones. It was rather invasive. That loophole was a legitimate process which allows enterprises to put test versions of their software on employees’ phones. But Facebook's approach breached Apple's guidelines, leading to Apple revoking Facebook's enterprise certificates.
What did this mean? Well, internal Facebook apps for thousands of employees stopped working, leading to frustration at the monopolist. Apple has subsequently re-enabled Facebook's corporate apps. (In the heady news cycle, it is easy to forget that only last week remember, unsealed court documents showed the Facebook referred to kids as young as five, who had wracked up thousands of dollars of credit card charges, as “whales”.)
None of this worried the market or advertisers. Facebook turned in staggering results on Tuesday and its stock popped. One critical metric, average revenue per user, or ARPU, was up to $7.37 for the quarter, a rise of 19% on the previous year, and nearly four times higher than four years ago. Monthly users only grew 2.1% Y-on-Y. Facebook is monetising its users’ attention better than ever before. If ever the market—of advertisers and shareholders—spoke on privacy, it intoned with clarity: “no-one cares.”
While some Facebook employees felt squeamish, others sided gaudily with Wall Street: “fuck ethics, money is everything.”
My reading is that Facebook is battening the hatches and preparing to weather the storm. Integrating Instagram, Whatsapp and Facebook more tightly is one key indicator that the social network still believes in its mission. Amazing financial results can only have Mark Zuckerberg girding his loins.
EV reader, Kevin Roose, suggests that maybe only Apple's Tim Cook can fix Facebook's privacy problem, because “[t]ime and time again, Facebook has shown that it cannot be trusted to protect users’ privacy unless it is forced to do so.” We might point to Europe’s GDPR, which allows a maximum fine of 4% of worldwide revenues for privacy infringements as a powerful stick to whack Zuck with.
But a firm like Facebook has an operating margin of 38%, even as it invests heavily in R&D ($7.8bn last year) and growth. By comparison, Goldman Sachs, the toniest of bankers, returns an operating margin of 32%. Facebook is dominant enough to maintain this massive level of R&D investment, withstand maximum GDPR fines of 4% of its revenue, every year, and still be more profitable than Goldman.
So Tim Cook, who can revoke Facebook’s App store access and more, might hold a stronger hand of cards than the regulators. Many issues of governance and accountability which will run into corporate interests. Google has used the same loophole as Facebook and Apple has also revoked Google's enterprise certificates breaking its internal apps. (And the practice is widespread amongst tech firms, how will Apple act then?) Is Apple doing a regulator’s job?
Or is this just a case of two large firms, with conflicting business models, competing? Facebook has its network effects, which it seeks to cement by gluing WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook together. Apple owns the device in your pocket, and has relied on hardware margin. But both firms recognise the limits of their own positions: Facebook is trying to break into the home via (poorly received) smart devices, while Apple sees the value in services.
Should we view this through the lens of treading new governance ground? Or the lens of inter-firm competition? Happy for subscriber comments below.
Elsewhere: Apple passed 1 bn users and it now has 360m subscribers to its paid services (up to three-fold on last year). Good graphic here and decent analysis on the numbers here (Apple Pay grew 100%, Apple Music surpassed 50m users.)
India has banned marketplace platforms selling their own label products. Amazon is scrambling, as products like the Echo have to be pulled from the virtual shelves.
Dept of machine learning
Neural networks are a very powerful technology. But we don’t really have a great theory for how they work. Nice overview of applied maths going to make progress int his area.
🧐 More details on Deepmind's performance in AlphaStar. Was it a fair fight? Maybe not. AlphaStar had an unfair advantage in that it was able to click with more precise API as opposed to clumsy mouse clicks, however, and did not have to move the camera around the battlefield in the way human players did.
Half of all patents in artificial intelligence have been granted since 2013, according to a new UN report.
😮 The Jennifer Lawrence / Steve Buscemi deep fake is deeply unsettling.
A man was fined £90 after he covered his face from facial recognition cameras.
A new study has found that emotion recognition systems assign more negative emotions to black men's faces than white men's.
US prison authorities are building a database of prisoners' voiceprints.
The Saudi Arabian “guardian system” which restricts the freedom of movement of women in the state is being partially digitised, allowing male guardians to track and even ban women from travel.
💯 Lukas Biewald: Why machine learning projects are hard to manage. (Super interesting)
Clemens Mewald argues that most startups building deep-learning tools for enterprises will fail. He has a particularly relevant dyad in his analysis: firstly, not every problem is a deep learning problem, and secondly, enterprise have very broad needs (in terms of data availability, algorithmic suitability, infrastructure constraints, and workflow) and so can't deal with specialised tools.
PapersWithCode is a useful way to track emerging machine learning research.
Medium-sized morsels to appear smart at dinner parties
🚬 Cal Newport: We'll look back on our smartphones like cigarettes. “If you put distraction aside, [your phone] probably requires 20 minutes on Sunday.”
♻️ A new platform is bringing together major companies to reduce packaging waste, by asking customers to give reusable containers back when they've finished with them.
😐 A ban on Instagram in Iran would kill off Iran's burgeoning (largely female) Instagram influencer industry and disproportionately impact LGBT communities.
European settlers killed so many indigenous Americans they cooled the climate, leading to the Little Ice Age.
Vegan burgers make men feel fuller than real meat, says this study.
😝 One Bitcoin costs a global average of $4060 to mine, and is currently worth less than $3600.
You spoke. I heard. A number of you collared me in the streets of London this week to say last week’s Exponential View was just too dense. Sorry! I got carried away. Trying a course correction this week, with a shorter edition. I hope this is an improvement.
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P.S. Scroll all the way down to read what your fellow readers are up to.
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What you are up to—notes from EV readers
Congrats to James Chin Moody for raising $20m for his logistics business, Sendle.
From Maeve Walsh at the Carnegie Trust an internet harm reduction proposal.
Tim Draimin on rethinking innovation policy.
Wendy Liu shares her piece calling for Silicon Valley's abolishment.
Jon Shell proposes a global effort to tackle technological unemployment.
Henry Ajder launched a newsletter focusing on the development of deep fakes.
Tim Gordon summarised the panel Azeem was on this week, discussing ways for organisations to minimise risk to the brand during AI adoption.
Chris Wigley discusses AI ethics on the McKinsey podcast.
Robin Dechant: Investment strategies for industrial startups.
David Mattin: What China's control of Fortnite tells us of liberal democracy's future.
Christoph Auer-Welsbach profiles neuroscientist Newton Howard.
Just a reminder: If you’re up to something interesting, let us know. If we don’t know, we can’t share! Email firstname.lastname@example.org.