8 min read

🔮 Taiwan's titanic power; Covid's gender shock; AI’s lousy year; flight simulators, the CIA & cephalopods ++ #304

Also we talk about social network policy. It's worth reading.
🔮 Taiwan's titanic power; Covid's gender shock; AI’s lousy year; flight simulators, the CIA & cephalopods ++ #304
Written by Azeem Azhar

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.

🎧 In the second part of my discussion with author and activist Cory Doctorow, we discuss the decade of antitrust and how a future wave of antitrust lawsuits could unleash innovation across sectors. Don’t want to take up too much of your time this week, but this is a cracker of a chat.

Dept of the near future

🌎 What’s the most important place in the world for technology? It’s not Silicon Valley but the tiny island of Taiwan. Through savvy (and steady) R&D investments since World War II, Taiwan and South Korea have become the undisputed global leaders in computer chip production. What set Taiwan apart from others was its early investment in local research facilities and the Silicon Valley approach to startups. With the global demand for faster and thinner chips, Taiwan’s position as a kingmaker in geopolitics comes into focus. If you haven’t yet, listen back to my discussion with Taiwan’s digital minister, Audrey Tang. (I talked about China’s strategy towards a domestic chip industry back in November, but I explicitly didn’t touch on Taiwan.)

📱 The growth (and dominance) of Apple’s App Store is core to antitrust lawsuits against the company. The latest revenue statistics demonstrate just how profound the App Store’s reach has become. Users spent $1.8bn on apps between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve in 2020. New Year’s Day saw a single-day spending record of more than $540m on the platform. Given the exponential growth in sales, the platform’s implied economic value is expected to hit $1 trillion within two years.

Apple payments to developers Source: Asymco

🦠 PwC has a new vignette of the shock impact of Covid-19 on the UK economy. Standout predictions include the fact that London’s population is expected to decline for the first time in the 21st century; there could be fewer babies born in 2021 than in any year since records began, and gender and ethnicity pay gaps are expected to increase in 2021, potentially reversing a decade of progress on the former.

🦠🦠 This is quite staggering. The US lost 140,000 jobs in December, of which 156,000 were lost by women. Male employment rose 16,000. In March last year, I explored the potential cleavages the pandemic would bring. I touched on the potential of a gender-based divide, but I didn’t imagine it would be as stark as this terrible data shows.

🌟  Filip Piekniewski is a sober-minded ML researcher. His review of 2020’s progress in AI is worth reading. While DeepMind had a remarkable breakthrough with Alpha Fold (read more about that in EV 299), it’s also bleeding money. Self-driving cars, a bellwether for the sector, also fared pretty badly. This could be detrimental for private investment in AI projects (especially ones focused on self-driving cars).

🔋 Dept of decarbonisation: 415.02ppm | 3,440 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 January 6, 2021): 415.02 ppm; January 2020: 413.58 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 unmistakable rise of green energy in ten charts. Energy stocks are in the toilet, oil’s ROE is below renewables, we’ve hit peak oil demand and the price of renewable energy is way, way down.

🏭 The effects of climate change are also unmistakable. Kenya accounts for less than 0.1% of global emissions. That’s the same as Ikea. Yet, the East African nation faces a $62bn bill to mitigate and adapt to climate challenges over the next ten years. For those who have read Kim Stanley Robinson’s excellent new book The Ministry of the Future, the story of smaller countries in the Global South paying an extremely high price for climate change hits home.

Short morsels to appear smart during the next insurrection

💸 With the Democrats winning the Georgia runoff election this week (and essentially taking control of the senate), get ready for much more pandemic stimulus. All this government aid is now breathing life into guaranteed income experiments across the United States. Several cities already have pilot programmes in place, and dozens more have expressed interest. Universal basic income is an old idea, but it might end up being one of the lasting legacies of Covid-19.

👀 When Google acquired the mapping startup Waze for $1.1bn, Israel’s deep tech ecosystem got a lot of international attention. Now, Israel is home to 10% of the world’s unicorns. Waze founder Uri Levine thinks his company has a lot to do with this impressive stat. Direct and indirect government support, especially in military technology, play a much more significant role.

✈️ Flight simulators have been on a tear over the last couple of years. From the rise of Twitch (and its subculture of flight sim enthusiasts) to the spike in online gaming during lockdowns. The release of Microsoft’s Flight Simulator last year brought a stunning new layer of realism to the space. Just watch this side-by-side landing at Gatwick.

🧬 Encouraging evidence that Crispr could cure progeria, a disease that causes rapid ageing.

🛫Amazon is expanding its delivery footprint with a fleet of Boeing 767-300 aeroplanes. The company isn’t a retailer. It’s an operator of logistics, warehousing, retail, and cloud-computing infrastructure.

🚙 A possible clue about Apple’s electric car? Foxconn, one of Apple’s primary suppliers, signed a cooperation deal with Chinese startup Byton to make the company’s first vehicle. Watch this space.

🕉 How insights derived from Buddist teaching can benefit those working in AI ethics. We need more of this approach to complex ethical questions raised by exponential technology.

🌆 Do we need to fundamentally rethink the way we imagine future cities?

♟ What one writer learned playing chess with his 4-year-old daughter.

🕵️ The CIA’s new brand was created by the people behind the branding of Soylent.

📡 Facebook is finally moving to monetize the most popular messaging platform in the world. The new WhatsApp privacy policy forces users to share their data on the app with Facebook. Unsurprisingly, there has been a flood of new users to Signal, the encrypted alternative.

🌞 Do we take the sun for granted? A fascinating look at how the sun appears on other planets.

🐙 The octopus continues to impress. New research from 2017 making the rounds suggests that octopuses routinely edit their RNA (ribonucleic acid) sequences to adapt to their environment. Maybe they’re aliens after all.

End note

A brief note on the moves by various technology platforms and the issues they raise:

  • Twitter permanently banned Trump.
  • Facebook has banned him until Biden’s inauguration.
  • Apple and Google have both suspended the app Parler because of the nature of terrorist violence being concocted there. (Apple’s ban may lift by the time you read this if Parler introduces content moderation on Saturday. They won’t. The app is pretty amateur.)

There are so many issues to unpack, but I want to highlight a few:

  • The platforms had got themselves into horrible contortions about why Trump (and others) weren’t violating their terms of service as private companies for years. Strangely, Trump was held to a lower standard of conduct than most users on these platforms because he was deemed to be newsworthy and a public figure. In most countries, public officials are expected to act with higher standards than the norm. (See the UK scandal over MP’s expenses, for example.)
  • These platforms have become so big they are part of the infrastructure of daily life. They aren’t just apps that Harvard sophomores or SXSW conventioners use to socialise. These companies, not primarily through their malfeasance, have ended up being state-level actors with, effectively, more power than the US Constitution on this matter.
  • The soc nets have created a new space that resembles a public sphere, in roughly a Habermas sense, the place where dialogue and discussion occurs. That public space ultimately does need conventions and norms. Given where we are, an open debate about what those should be and how they should be managed is important. However, the few, if any, governments have taken steps to create new rules for how these 20-year-old types of services should operate.
  • However you dress this turkey, it isn’t a free speech issue, in the context of the US Constitution. The US First Amendment doesn’t apply to private companies, and the First Amendment does not apply to the countries where most of these social networks’ users live. Nor is it a section 230 issue. This S230 protects platforms from liability for messages they carry. If S230 were repealed, terms of service would become tighter, and socnets would police bad behaviour more heavily. (Incidentally, S230 is part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, passed before the launch of Andrew Weinreich’s SixDegrees, the world’s first real web-based social network. In 1996, an election year, 3-4% of Americans went online for presidential election news.)
  • Facebook and Twitter have treated their home country very differently to the rest of the world. In the case of Myanmar, Facebook only banned political leaders after the genocide and gang-rape of thousands of Rohingya. And in 2016, Facebook deleted a post from the Norwegian PM on the topic of censorship of war reportage. Is it a coincidence that these companies have acted the day the Democrats secured control of the Senate to add to their Presidential and House power? And will Twitter and Facebook and the rest start to peer deeply at what is going on in other parts of the world?
  • They may have little choice. In the UK, for example, new online harms legislation has been proposed that will levy meaningful finds if platforms do not remove illegal content, like child abuse or terrorist material. These markets will be important enough to force some kind of local compliance (as the platforms have in Germany for >20 years).
  • If ever technology tied our previous beliefs in knots, this is it. Imagine being a libertarian in the US, proud of government non-interference, who now finds themselves having to argue that private actions taken by a private company about its products should be the purview of the state. What next? State ownership? 😂

So much to ponder,

Cheers,

Azeem

P.S. Our members had an electric discussion on some of these issues on Friday and Saturday. I’ve opened the thread up for non-members to read as well.


What you’re up to – notes from EV readers
Simon Roberts will celebrate the publication of his new book The Power of Not Thinking with a special discussion alongside Gillian Tett. You can join the online event.

Tom Glocer has teamed up with other business leaders to call for a smooth presidential transition.

Fred Wilson and Andy Weissman have launched a climatetech-focused venture fund.

Email joseph@exponentialview.co with your updates and projects.

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