Azeem Azhar’s Weekly Wondermissive: Future, Tech & Society
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Dept of podcasts 🎧
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This week, I’m in conversation with Trent McConaghy, a visionary AI researcher and entrepreneur, on a mission to break down existing data silos. We discuss the current data landscape, how it influences the distribution of benefits from AI, and the opportunity of blockchain technology.
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Dept of the near future
⏲️ The efficiency delusion. Efficiency in modern societies is Janus-faced. On the one hand a quick shortcut is beneficial, helping us better allocate time or resources. On the other, efficiency can lead to implicit trade-offs with other values, like systemic effects, autonomy, sustainability, or emotional regulation. As Clive Thompson and Evan Selinger write:
Efficiency isn’t always value neutral. Placing efficiency over other values can be a mistake — a lapse in ethical, political, personal, or professional judgment. Some human or civic interactions thrive when they’re deliberate and erode when they’re sped up. There’s a great quote that’s been attributed to Virginia Woolf — ‘Efficiency cuts the grass of the mind to its roots.’
⛔ Tim Wu: Norms around privacy came into existence with the rise of the middle class (medieval farmers and peasants had no expectation of privacy because they literally had no private spaces) and the erosion of the middle classes and the shifting balances of power in capitalism are why we are now seeing doubt cast on that privacy.
🚘 Profile of China’s BYD, the world’s largest electric vehicle manufacturer.
BYD now has about a quarter-million employees and sells as many as 30,000 pure EVs or plug-in hybrids in China every month; most of them anything but status symbols. Its cheapest model, the e1, starts at 60,000 yuan ($8,950) after subsidies.
(Tesla, by comparison, sold an average of 20,000 pure EVs per month last year, annually just shy of 250,000. Tesla revenues, at $21.4bn, are higher than BYD’s $16.3bn due to its higher average sale price.)
🇩🇪 Can Germany adapt to the end of the internal combustion engine? The crossover point, when electric vehicles are cheaper than those with an internal combustion engine, is now estimated to be 2022 (four years earlier than the 2026 projections made by analysts in 2017.)
A joint study by Germany’s powerful IG Metall union and the respected Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering concluded that 75,000 of 210,000 positions across Germany in engines and transmissions will be obsolete by 2030, even as electrification will create about 25,000 jobs in that time frame.
🚿 Why autoimmune diseases are on the rise. Good read.
⚠️🌏 Burning planet: 413.54
Each week, we’re going to remind us of the CO2 levels in the atmosphere. We must avoid a level of 450 parts per million for a chance to keep global warming below 2°C. If we don’t change how we do things, we’re likely to exceed the target in 10-15 years.
- The latest measurement (as of April 18): 413.54ppm
- 12 months ago: 409ppm; 50 years ago: 326.66ppm; 250 years ago, est: 250ppm
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According to PwC and Microsoft, using AI could reduce worldwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 4% in 2030, an amount equivalent to 2.4 gigatonnes (GTCO2e) of carbon dioxide emissions and to the 2030 annual emissions of Australia, Canada and Japan combined. (Simulator you can play with here.)
A sobering letter from the Governors of the Bank of England and Banque de France urges the financial sector and policy-makers to act on climate change.
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Dept of autonomous things
KITT reigns supreme. At the end of 2017, I predicted a slowdown in the arrival of “fully autonomous vehicles” and suggested that “autonomous vehicle pilot [programmes] will become increasingly ambitious, but the real-world hurdles will still take time to navigate.” In hindsight, I was even more optimistic back then than I should have been!
Jim Hackett, CEO of Ford, agrees that the industry “overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles”.
Premium subscribers have access to a longer version of this section, as well as notes from private briefings with experts on this topic.
Dept of internet conversations
Researcher Philip Lorenz-Spreen and collaborators explore the “Accelerating dynamics of collective attention” on social networks. They establish some empirical foundations, including that:
the accelerating ups and downs of popular content are driven by increasing production and consumption of content, resulting in a more rapid exhaustion of limited attention resources. In the interplay with competition for novelty, this causes growing turnover rates and individual topics receiving shorter intervals of collective attention.
The acceleration is present even during Twitter’s short life, where topics spiked and disappeared from collective attention faster during 2016 than in the period 2013-15. I do think this acceleration has been hard for us to deal with, and will continue to get harder. It may become too easy to use our attention budgets on things that don’t merit that attention, while losing track of the things that do.
🤨 Jack Dorsey is on a “mea culpa” tour as he tries to persuade us that Twitter can keep its nice things and move beyond the torrent of abuse, cyber-stalking, misogyny, racism and bullying that it somehow enables. Says Dorsey:
We have seen abuse, we have seen harassment, we have seen manipulation, automation, human coordination, misinformation. These are dynamics that we were not expecting 13 years ago.
Late last year, as EV reader, John Battelle, pointed out, Dorsey acknowledged that the advertising business model might have been at the root of these issues. He hasn’t gone as far in this recent interview, but John is correct: the advertising business model is dependent on scale and engagement. Engagement means things “of the moment” (as the research above points out) and scale encourages anyone to use the platform (without any real verification—or any means of being held accountable for the things they say). These are design choices. In a sense, Twitter is like a nuclear reactor that has been designed without control rods. The control rods are what maintains the health of the reactor and an unmanageable chain reaction in check. Control rods are expensive but important. It has been convenient for social media platforms to ignore such attenuators. Vulnerable individuals, and society as a whole, bear the fallout.
The inside story of Facebook’s terrible 15 months. And here is one of the firm’s naive original sins:
its assertion that if you just give people better tools for sharing, the world will be a better place. That’s just false. Sometimes Facebook makes the world more open and connected; sometimes it makes it more closed and disaffected. Despots and demagogues have proven to be just as adept at using Facebook as Democrats and dreamers. Like the communications innovations before it—the printing press, the telephone, the internet itself—Facebook is a revolutionary tool. But human nature has stayed the same.
(Mark Zuckerberg is also finally banning some far-right groups in the UK from using Facebook, at least one of which was connected to the murder of British MP, Jo Cox. Zuckerberg’s firm spends $22m per annum on his own personal security.)
- Carole Cadwalladr’s TED Talk on Facebook’s role in Brexit is a must-see.
- Facebook’s custom audience tool, which allows marketers to find ‘look-alike audience’, has been ruled to breach Bavarian data protection rules.
- Youtube's attempts at fighting misinformation failed in a very public way during the destruction of Notre Dame. Automated systems detected the burning/falling spire and popped up 'information panels' for viewers about 9/11.
Uber’s IPO numbers are remarkable: $100bn valuation. At $55 per share, Benchmark Capital, an early investor, will make 765 times its money. The firm invested $6.9m for a stake approaching $9bn.
Dept of machine learning
💯 Cathy O'Neil: Governments should regulate algorithmic-decision making.
AI and cloud are making it possible for big investors to further harness the so-called “alternative data” to learn about customer behaviour, geodata, traffic and sales.
🎬 Anyone can build a facial-recognition surveillance system for less than $100. With thousands of cameras in every city, if you’re an adult in the US, it’s highly likely that your profile is already in the law enforcement facial recognition database.
Video: How Ant Financial uses AI to issue loans to small businesses in three minutes - with no human intervention.
🤒 Traditional incumbent firms are struggling with their investments in AI:
There's nobody much past the easy-toe-in-the-water point in artificial intelligence [...] they are using AI because startups and big vendors alike are building it into their software […] by the time we see productions rolled out into production, our surveys are showing it takes about 3 years, not the one and a half that they start with... and the functionality is also lower than they thought at the outset.
My take: firms borne out of the Internet era: Google, Uber, Amazon, and their ilk, are orders of magnitude ahead of industrial-era successes. It is as much about business model, internal culture and deep-seated organisational debt as it is about technology.
Designer Philippe Starck created a chair using generative AI. Describes the collaboration with AI as similar to a conversation between two people. Contrast this with Joanna Bryson’s observation that AI is solely a function of human instructions.
Short morsels to appear smart at dinner parties
🛰️ Russian authorities have started hacking GPS systems, spoofing vehicles into thinking they are somewhere else. Particularly when Putin is around.
👾 This is a brain on nationalism: how basic biological and cognitive factors shape the dynamics of human group identity. Fascinating essay.
China is building its global cultural position via Confucius Institutes and through Facebook activity.
💥 The Universe’s first molecule was spotted just a week after the first sighting of a black hole. What amazing times we live in.
😮 Researchers have revived the disembodied brains of pigs four hours after they were killed.
A newly-identified risk score can identify the likelihood of obesity based on a person’s genetic make-up. (I will be discussing the landscape of polygenic risk scoring on my podcast in May.)
🌈 How many bags of Skittles do you need to open to find two identical ones?
Cotton tote bags are really terrible for the environment, and the push to replace plastic with cotton may actually be doing more harm than good. See also: Adidas releases fully recyclable shoes.
Thanks to Tom Loosemore for stepping in last week and helping us understand the nuances of government in the exponential age. I had an enjoyable week off.
A number of readers wrote in to challenge my observations about Cloudflare’s position in the VPN market in issue 212. I made two errors. One minor: Cloudflare’s VPN service is called Warp, not Wireguard. Wireguard is the open-source protocol Warp is based on, and Cloudflare is not actively contributing to that open-source project in a positive way.
One more significant, which Lucas Mayeur rightly drew me up on. His point is that Cloudflare has achieved a position in Internet infrastructure where it sits between and mediates many of the services we use. However, we don’t have a clear understanding of the data that Cloudflare collects on billions of people and devices, and millions of websites. In a sense, Cloudflare looks like a “man-in-the-middle” point-of-failure/control for the entire Internet. Thanks for inthe input, Lucas.
Exponential View is co-hosting part of the CogX festival of AI in London in June. I’m looking for people with expertise in synthetic biology, computational chemistry, drug discovery, AI & creativity, and autonomous systems to join a panel or two. If you are interested (no promises), drop your details here. Links to previous speeches are useful.
Have a lovely week,
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What you are up to—notes from EV readers:
Professor Ian Goldin produced a BBC documentary on how robotisation will impact poorer countries.
Stian Westlake writes an excellent analysis of how the Convervative Party talks about economics.
Amanda Robson, a venture capitalist, launched a blog about the applications of AI in companies across the globe.
Anna Antimilchuk shares that her team at ClauseMatch is expanding into Asia Pacific.
Pete Warden is presenting on Why the Future of Machine Learning is Tiny at the Embedded Vision Summit in May.
Brandon Metzger shares a podcast his company produces, Technovation with Peter High, which features weekly interviews with C-suite technology executives.
Tom Greenwood on how ergonomics can help digital teams create better products.
Matteo Berlucchi’s smart symptom checker, Your.MD, gets a nice review here.