Azeem Azhar’s Weekly Wondermissive: Future, Tech & Society
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Dept of podcasts 🎧
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Based on what we accomplished with the Panama Papers, many of the biggest banks contacted us, and said, “Hey, how come these journalists who are on the outside know more about our accounts than we do ourselves?”We said, “Well, it's because you used the wrong technology.” Fast forward to today, 20 of the 25 biggest banks use us.
If you're a human living anywhere in the world with the internet connection, the chances are high that you'll be using a service that is delivering something to you from a graph database, a technology which didn’t exist 20 years ago. I discuss the opportunities of data economy and the role graph databases play in it with the engineer who coined the term ‘graph database’, Emil Eifrem, the CEO of Neo4j.
Dept of the near future
🤒 The world is choking on digital pollution. The industrial revolution brought with it pollution, but Judy Estrin and Sam Gill argue that digital pollution is different for three key reasons: scope, scale and complexity:
it touches every aspect of human experience, reducing them all to a single small screen that anticipates what we want or “should” want...the kind of open and participatory structure [of the internet] created a flow of information and interaction that we may not be able to manage or control in a safe way
The result of this scope and scale is extreme complexity whose “effects rely on increasingly complex algorithmic and artificial intelligence systems, limiting our ability to exercise any human management.”
And they go on:
Human society now faces a critical choice: Will we treat the effects of digital technology and digital experience as something to be managed collectively? Right now, the answer being provided by those with the greatest concentration of power is no...
We require a similar understanding of digital phenomena—their breadth, their impact, and the mechanisms that influence them. What are the various digital pollutants, and at what level are they dangerous?
Azeem’s comment: It’s complicated! The rules are changing, and the argument is well-made in this piece. But even within this piece, you can see the American-perspective, an underlying hint that the individual consumption model lensed through the market is the unadulterated beach being despoiled by digital feculence.
(See also, Marietje Schaake, next week’s podcast guest, warns us to “beware of tech companies playing government.” And as an example of the need for more research, this large scale Oxford University study on screen time and mental well-being for teens demonstrated that ‘digital technology’ in general had a similar effect on well-being as potatoes. The debate needs nuance because “the associations between digital screen-time and child outcomes are not as simple as many might think.”)
🎮 The Fornite economy: the multiplayer videogame Fortnite is an example of a digital economic exchange to whose accounting and economic impact governments seem to lack a choate response. (Two things I learnt: there is an arbitrage play on Fortnite where experienced American players log-on to South America servers to joust less experienced markets. The second is that Fortnite's virtual currency is becoming a desirable tool for money laundering.)
📶 Ben Evans on what 5G infrastructure might mean. My take is that one of the key advantages of 5G will be its ability to support highly heterogeneous applications (mobile things like cars or bikes; things locked in situ like street diagnostics) rather than applications devised by the network. And yes, we humans will fill those pipes with whatever comes after YouTube.
🥟 Can China become gargantuan in science? A solid survey by The Economist: “But the idea that you can get either truly reliable science or truly great science in a political system that depends on a culture of unappealable authority is, as yet, unproven. Perhaps you can. Perhaps you cannot. And perhaps, in trying to do so, you will discover new ways of thinking as well as fruitful knowledge.”
🛴 Micromobility, not self-driving cars, may transform cities, argues Paris Marx.
🍏 Apple's Tim Cook calls for better privacy regulation and clamping down on data brokers. Matthew Ingram agrees but points out that Apple’s position, while better than Facebook or Google, is not without complexity. The firm has “a contract that is worth an estimated $9 billion” with Google and has had to comply with local Chinese laws on data storage. (Azeem’s comment: start somewhere. If Google had a clean business model that didn't rely on data broking, that would clean the Google contract with Apple and, possibly, reduce its value. See also, Roger McNamee’s essay on Zuckerberg below.)
Dept of geopolitics and misdirection
🤥 Deep fakes and the disinformation war. “Democracies will have to accept an uncomfortable truth: in order to survive the threat of deepfakes, they are going to have to learn how to live with lies.”
🐦 Oxford researcher Ben Nimmo analyses Twitter manipulation. It’s a highly accessible report which concludes that “conducted by skilled operators – the Le Pen supporters, in particular, were strikingly successful in getting their hashtags to trend – Twitter traffic can be manipulated and distorted by a combination of high-volume human users and high-volume bots. Working together, these can give a small group of users the appearance of a large and organically trending movement.”
What struck me about this research was how banal the tactics of the manipulators were. Several years ago while at PeerIndex, my previous startup, we were well aware of these types of tactics to drive Twitter trends and even built systems to track accounts doing that. I’m underwhelmed by Twitter's activities in not leveraging its considerable talent to deal with manipulation. But perhaps I've got something wrong. Happy to be corrected by one of my readers on Twitter (on or off the record.) See also: Jack Dorsey’s weirdly vague interview raises the question: does he know what Twitter needs?
The World Health Organisation has listed the anti-vax movement against vaccinations as one of the top ten global health threats. (Needless to say, celebrities and social media platforms have played their part in this movement. Great analysis of how this has played out across Facebook, YouTube and other social platforms in France, with a possible dose of Russian disinformation, is here.)
- China's first steps before going into battle will be information operations, broadly conceived to include “the network, electromagnetic, psychological, and intelligence domains.”
- “Cyber has come of age and is sitting at the table along with trade, terrorism, the military and Human rights in the Game of Nations”, says Sam Curry.
- Also, fascinating that the New York Times cut off behavioural ad exchanges in order to secure GDPR compliance. Revenues still increased and it has probably put the firm in a good position for when such legislation embeds more broadly in the US. Important issues: Europe export legislation into the US here and challenges the narrative that we actually need to exchange all this data to drive increased ad revenues.
- How a North Korean hacker took control of Chile’s ATM network via a Skype interview.
- Construction sites across the world at risk of being hacked.
- The number of state-sponsored attacks has grown more than 20x in the past twelve years. See the Council for Foreign Relation's interactive tracker for details.
Dept of artificial intelligence
Keeping human’s safe from robots: airbags.
💯 EV readers, Paul Daugherty and James Wilson, argue that it future AI systems will require less, not more data.
🦴 The shortage of data scientists in the US continues to bite. Salaries exceed $160k per annum on average in some metros.
Interesting (technical) overview of the architecture used by Insilico Medicine, a drug-discovery company using generative adversarial networks, to identify novel targets. One particular aspect that stood out: this architecture is custom-tooled, and not yet just something you can pluck from a major cloud provider.
⚖️ Could AI nudge judges into making less-biased decisions, including the elimination of the ‘gambler’s fallacy’?
Researchers test whether giving algorithms a sense of uncertainty could make their outcomes more ethical.
Short morsels to appear smart at dinner parties
Mark Zuckerberg’s former mentor, Roger McNamee: “Facebook has done some things that are truly horrible, and I can no longer excuse its behavio[u]r.”
🕴️ The most powerful man in Silicon Valley isn’t in Silicon Valley. A gripping portrait of Softbank's Masayoshi Son (See also, how the founder of WeWork, a Softbank investment, has bought buildings which he has then leased back to his own company for millions of dollars.)
🌱 How has agriculture changed land use? It isn't straight forward: urban densification and better farming often lead to more people, more food and more forests. “The future of the biosphere […] depends partly on economics, partly on politics, but also partly on vision [and on] what people’s values are.” Lovely visualisations too.
The hottest uncorrelated asset class? Lego sets.
We’re hooked. Now Netflix prices are rising across the board.
🌕 The Chinese successful grew a plant on the moon for a few hours.
Sunscreen might be a gigantic snafu and health risk. “Avoidance of sun exposure is a risk factor of a similar magnitude as smoking, in terms of life expectancy.” 😲
🇫🇮 Finland is the only European country which managed to decrease homelessness in the recent years. Here’s how.
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What you are up to
- Congratulations to Carl Pei whose OnePlus brand scored a record quarter of shipments in India.
- Geoff Mulgan announces he's leaving Nesta as Chief Executive - excited to see what's next for Geoff!
- Diane Coyle on economics books she looks ahead to this year.
- Gemma Milne on what the space tech holds for European startups in 2019.
- Eliot Peper's new near future thriller Breach is available for pre-order.
- Calum Chace argues that automation will be a relentless job killer, but that it could also drastically reduce the cost of living for those on low incomes.
- Ben Falk on the mission of his startup Yo-Da: putting control over data back into users' hands.
- Laura Roberts invites you to join for Hanover's breakfast panel on the future of brand reputation in the age of AI. (I will be charing this event.)
- Kirill Shilov’s 3-step strategy for setting business goals.
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