Hi, I’m Azeem Azhar. I’m exploring how our societies and political economy will change under the force of rapidly accelerating technologies and other trends.
Today’s edition has been supported by our partner, Toptal
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Dept of the near future
👏 Sacha Baron-Cohen, he of Borat and Ali G fame, gives a staggeringly good 24-minute speech on the twisted logic of ‘free speech’ on social networks.
If Facebook were around in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem’
🧭 Europe’s tech industry is maturing according to Tom Wehmeier’s annual report on the state of European tech. In five years the number of $1bn+ unicorns has leapt from 22 to 99; $113bn of capital has been invested (an increase of 234 percent); and the number of $100m+ exits has doubled. One indicator that has failed to improve much is the amount of capital invested in female teams—hovering at a miserable 8.4 percent. This highlights a broader diversity problem that is afflicting the industry.
🌐 ‘China’s internet is flowering’, according to the New York Times. WeChat’s domination of the Chinese internet is well understood, and Western internet giants are taking note. ‘For decades, the online infrastructure—from design to programming languages to wireless protocols—came from the West... For the first time, a Chinese concept is taking on that role. With WeChat miniprograms, we’re seeing a technology copied not to China, but from China.’ (One key threat to WeChat may come from TikTok, see Morsels below. Also, Iranian authorities shut-down the internet across the country for five days.)
🍌 Resilience will be a significant issue as we handle various threats like cyber-security and climate change over the coming years. Here is one good example. The banana has turned into a monoculture, with the single Cavendish banana beloved by the homogenised global consumer. It is now existentially threatened by Panama disease.
🚧 Economist and historian Joel Mokyr argues in The Atlantic that ‘progress’ was invented sometime around the 18th century. Mokyr contends that the concept and value of progress is something which we should believe in, despite the costs: ‘Nowadays, unsubstantiated fears of monstrosities created by genetic engineering threaten to slow down research and development in crucial areas, including coping with climate change. Progress, as was realized early on, inevitably entails risks and costs. But the alternative, then as now, is always worse.’ (Article is two-years-old but worth going back to.)
📻 Listen to my discussion with Meredith Whittaker, the co-director of the AI Now Institute and one of the lead organizers of the Google Walkout. We dissect the power play that’s behind the creation and implementation of artificial intelligence.
Dept of AI
Authoritative paper on how machine learning advances are reshaping chip design by Google Senior Fellow and SVP of Research Jeff Dean. It can get a little technical but outlines how machine learning could drive rapid advanced in chip design and the availability of computation.
I’ve covered these issues many times before, including on a number episodes of the podcast. It is clear that ML is driven a remarkable burst of innovation in the semiconductor industry.
The rest of this section is available for Premium members only, where I cover:
- How the fastest AI computer system is being deployed in science,
- How AI could help us move beyond the scientific method,
- Why the field of AI resembles the Wizard of Oz collective,
💥 Climate catastrophe: 410.49ppm | 3,834 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 November 21): 410.49ppm; November, 2017: 405.14ppm; 25 years ago: 360ppm; 250 years ago, est: 250ppm. Share this reminder with your community by forwarding this email or tweeting this.
✈️ EasyJet is aiming to become the world’s first major airline with net-zero carbon flights across its network. The trouble is that Easyjet is offsetting at a rate of £3 per tonne. This is far too low. Earlier this year Microsoft increased its internal carbon price to $15 per tonne, about four times Easyjet’s. The European ETS market puts the price at around €25 per tonne. Many estimates suggest that a real cost could be closer to $100 or even $400 per tonne.
So Easyjet gets a half-clap for this. Disappointingly, by my rough estimate, even if Easyjet had adopted a $50 per tonne price for offsets, it would still have remained profitable.
Chart of the week (beta)
Brookings’ Mark Muro and colleagues drill into which jobs may be most affected by AI’s role out. By analysing AI-related patents and job descriptions, they endeavour to find statistical associations which help understand ‘AI exposure.’
Better-paid professionals and production workers may be most susceptible to AI’s spread in the economy; these are the groups who were less impacted by previous waves of automation. The chart above shows that susceptibility to AI peaks at workers in the 90 percent of wage earnings.
One assumption in the report is that exposure to AI is a net threat to workers. I’d argue that more nuance is required. Whether exposure to AI is a threat to particular groups of workers depends on other factors, including their relative bargaining power and the growth in demand for the tasks they undertake. Workers in an industry that is supply-constrained could do very well from AI exposure as they could use AI to increase their capacity to meet demand. This would be doubly the case if that industry lends itself to those employees starting their own businesses, augmented with AI tools, to meet that demand.
Short morsels to appear smart at dinner parties
🛃 How the West’s obsession with borders is fueling systematic abuse of human rights across the world. Crucial read.
😡 Fake Facebook accounts are ridiculously cheap and easy to get.
Good news, 65-year-olds! You’ve got another five years before you’re officially ‘old’.
ByteDance (which owns TikTok) is wolfing up digital media ad spend in China, from 5 percent to 23 percent in less than three years.
Well-known Chinese Twitter user AirMovingDevice compared censorship on TikTok to its Chinese sibling Douyin. He found that videos rarely pass review on Douyin, but that Douyin explicitly tells users videos are being reviewed where TikTok doesn’t. See also, TikTok might be about to release a music streaming service. (This could be colossal.)
🧐 The Bitcoin lightning network was meant to massively scale up the speed and transaction rate of the cryptocurrency and cope with the trillions of transactions a payment system needed. Data from 2019 shows it has fallen short.
🎞️ What happens when you are tracked on CCTV? One enterprising reporter dressed as a clown and discovered it was a mess.
This is a fascinating look inside what it’s like to work for Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.
👾 There’s a mysterious disturbance to GPS signals in Shanghai and no one’s quite sure whether it’s the Chinese government testing a new capability, or illegal sand miners trying to keep the authorities off their backs. (Cracking read.)
This week I was in Barcelona talking about smart cities, facial recognition and rights at the Digital Future Society summit, a collaboration which explores how global policies will evolve in the information age.
It gave me an opportunity to hear from some Spanish politicians and civil servants at national, regional and city level. This included Nadia Calviño, the economy minister, and Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona.
Wow, they get it. They separately delivered a rather good manifesto for how to deliver humanistic technology, how to think about rights in the digital age and the new public goods that might emerge around technology. To boot, they also had evidence of putting the rubber to the road, including the early stages of a roll-out of self-sovereign identity.
This profile of Colau in the New Yorker last year gives a sense of it. Barcelona is the beating heart of the growing ‘municipalism’ movement, a global pushback against traditional party politics and institutions in favour of the needs of a city’s residents and communities. ‘I’ve never been interested in independentist or nationalistic positions that say, ‘We want to live in isolation and we want to be separate from the others,’ says Colau. ‘We live in a world of interdependencies, where most of the things happen in cities, not in states. Therefore, to believe that all political solutions are based on the proposal for a new state—I think that’s a bad solution.’
This week, I heard these ideas articulated with some visionary but practical thinking about how to shape institutions for the information age. It is definitely worth watching how Barcelona and Spain approach these questions.
I’d like to speak to Nadia and/or Ada for the podcast, so if you can help make that happen, please let me know.
This edition has been supported by our partner, Toptal
What you’re up to—notes from EV readers
Bill Gross’ company Heliogen presents its solution to reduce carbon emissions in industrial manufacturing. This could be huge.
Katy Cook’s new book about the psychology of Silicon Valley is out now.
Bruce Pon on how to monetize and tokenize data.
Daniel Murray’s new brain health and cognitive performance company Heights, is giving EV readers 25 percent off with the code 'exponential'
Alao Abiola, researcher at DotEveryone, would like to hear from you if you’ve had experiences with the UK’s digital procurement ecosystem. Find out more about the project he’s working on here, and contact Alao at firstname.lastname@example.org.
EV’s Marija Gavrilov was part of the group that put together an analysis and call for a ban of the use of facial recognition by the police in Serbia this past week. The report is in Serbian, but contact her for more info in English (email@example.com).
Brett MacFarlane ponders on the challenges of unrealised potential and innovation.
Samuel Willis and Brock Smith recently received the prize for the best paper in the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists. The paper develops a new method for measuring poverty. Congrats!
Ludovico Fassati shares Vodafone’s view on creating a true Digital Single Market and Europe’s leadership.
Alessandro Lanteri shares his new book Clever in which he explores six strategic drivers for businesses in the digital era.
Nicolas Granatino: The value of knowledge flows.
If you have news or project updates to share, email firstname.lastname@example.org. No PR please.
Disclosure: I may be an advisor to, on the board of, or investor in some companies mentioned in this issue. For example, I am an advisor to & hold small positions in Bruce Pon’s Ocean; Nicolas Granatino’s Cronycle and Dan Murray’s Heights. I do not directly hold positions in any other firms mentioned but may have holdings via collective investment vehicles, such as pensions or funds.