🔮 The future of chipmaking; Covid inequality; corvid empathy, classical music, a Flash derailment++ #306

🔮 The future of chipmaking; Covid inequality; corvid empathy, classical music, a Flash derailment++ #306

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.

The EV community has been particularly busy this week. I urge you to check out “What you are up to” below.

Dept of the near future

🌟 Semiconductors have become a fascinating area of commercial and geopolitical competition over the past four years. Chip firms’ market caps have quadrupled in five years, and deals are up. One of the more exciting tensions is whether the gains for specialisation that has led to Taiwan and Korea concentrating manufacturing capacity will be offset by the “build it closer to home” initiatives from the EU, China and, to a lesser extent, the US. Good discussion from The Economist (plus their leader.) I’ve written a lot about this in previous EVs. My take is that China will, ultimately, create a native chip industry and rely less heavily on imports (c. $300bn a year). The time frame for building this type of expertise outside of Taiwan is measured in a decade. The growth in demand for processing power isn’t going to slow down, rather it will accelerate.

TSMC, the main chip fabricator, increased its 2021 capex from $17bn to $28bn. (For context, ExxonMobil’s 2021 capex is below $20bn.) This chip demand will be met by many different types of chips, suited for the tasks at hand. This creates space for novel architectures like AI-focussed accelerators as well as photonics-based solutions, are pootling along, and these don’t need the very latest traditional semiconductor manufacturing. Equally, a number of quantum computing startups think they will be delivering useful quantum computers by 2025.  (To get a sense of these new architectures and how they diverge from mainstream mobile, PC, and graphics chips, check out this write-up of how Graphcore’s specialist AI processors perform. Also, check this technical review of how a photonics-based accelerator can deliver 11 trillion operations per second for certain neural network tasks. I also rather liked this speculative argument as to why Apple might develop its own dedicated chips for any future car endeavour. As for quantum computing, I’m discussing its prospects in a future episode of the podcast. Season restarts next week. Finally, ASML, the Dutch photolithography specialist is often under-analysed in discussions of the chip industry. Recommend this marvellous summary of their extreme ultraviolet photolithography technology.)

💸 Did Covid-19 increase global income inequality? The argument ran that poorer nations don’t have the same resources to withstand lockdowns and other measures linked to fighting the virus. This belief is reasonable but false, argues Angus Deaton. Wealthier countries have actually experienced more deaths from the virus. More deaths mean a larger decline in income. Many emerging market countries have had lower death rates partly because of their younger populations. The slow vaccine rollout across these countries, however, will hinder their ability to reach herd immunity and that could end up tipping the balance Deaton describes.

💉 The science behind the Covid-19 vaccines is groundbreaking but what about the manufacturing and supply chains needed to get the vaccines in our arms. This beautiful exploration reveals the complexity of the supply chains at work. Even the vials holding these vaccines require special consideration because they have to withstand mechanical as well as thermal shocks due to cold storage.

📖 Wikipedia is one of the last spaces of the early internet. “If Wikipedia is a test case for techno-utopianism, it is also a test case for an older ideology similarly unfashionable these days—your garden-variety Enlightenment-era liberalism.”

📱Silicon Valley state of mind. Investor Kim Mai-Cutler shares data from her portfolio, concluding that “post-pandemic, Silicon Valley isn’t a place”. The trends towards other HQ locations and increased remote working were visible in 2016, although post-pandemic they may double, although the Bay Area remains the dominant choice.

🔋 Dept of decarbonisation: 415.02 ppm | 3,426 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 22, 2021): 415.02 ppm; January 2020: 412.37 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.

🌲 CEOs of major internet companies are getting into the carbon extraction space. Yishan Wong, the former CEO of Reddit, is focusing on forest planting. Tech CEOs know how to build mission-focused companies. They understand how to scale, engage and motivate employees, and bring capital with conviction. We need these skillsets for this challenge. (Separately, Elon Musk announced he will invest a prize equivalent to  5 cents in every $100 of his net wealth for a brilliant carbon capture technology. (This amounts to $100m—much needed—but I do think worth more than that.)

Short morsels to appear smart to your kids during homeschooling

💾 Ten computer codes that transformed science: from the Fortran compiler to IPython. Which is your favourite? Comment below.

🔦 The dystopian monitoring trend continues: a wristband that tells your boss if you are unhappy.

🦅 A precursor to empathy in ravens. A new study finds that young ravens copy older ones at play.

🩺 Low-grade inflammation might hold the key to cognitive decline related to ageing.

🎻 An unsupervised machine learning model retraced the evolution of classical music.

🇨🇳 Critical insight into Chinese machine learning research.

🚊 Always install updates! The railway system of Dalian, a city of nearly 7 million people in Northern China, collapsed after Adobe pulled the plug on Flash. City officials were warned of Flash’s demise as early as 2017.

👓 Apple is jumping headfirst into the virtual reality space with a pair of pricy glasses ahead of a bigger augmented project. Start small, go big. (see endnote below.)

🎈 Alphabet called time on Project Loon. For Flightradar 24 fans, like our senior editor, that means fewer balloons flying over Africa and parts of South America.

🇺🇸 The Biden Administration released a new whitehouse.gov website on its first day in office. It had an Easter Egg embedded in the code urging those that found it to apply to the US Digital Service.


So Apple is entering the virtual reality space. I first experienced VR back in April 1995. Silicon Graphics, a now-defunct hardware maker, had taken its Open Inventor scene description format and retooled it as the virtual reality modeling language (VRML) for the nascent web. Graphics capabilities were clunky at the time, but we’ve had 12-or-so Moore’s Law doublings since then. The web in 1995 was slow enough just looking at text-based pages, let alone efforts to render the world into 3-d.

In two decades, the ecosystem has matured. Naturally, hardware devices are better and better. But so too are the rendering engines, like Unity and Unreal, the tools creators have to play with, and our ability to craft these experiences.

I’ve been playing with an Occulus Quest 2 for a few months, and it falls into the category of a device that “just works”. I had some problems with my left leg (the VMO, thanks for asking) in October and was unable to run for three months. I relied on playing FitXR, a boxing game, on the Oculus Quest every day for 12 weeks while I undertook leg rehab. It was a belly saver. The screenshot shows a typical 30-40 minute boxing session at a burn of above 600 calories/hour. It does work the shoulder joint hard, so if you do this, I suggest a full sequence of shoulder mobility exercises before and after a VR boxing session.

The early headset VR systems I tried in 1996-2000 were heavy and blocky. Recent efforts like the 2017 Vintage HTC Vive delivered copious amounts of nausea. The Quest 2 is free from these problems, even after working out with the device for an hour. It offers nearly 4k video and occasionally a 90Hz refresh rate. Together with improved head tracking, it goes a long way to eliminate sea-sickness associated with earlier generations of VR.

This brings us to the Apple device. If the rumour mill is right, Apple’s foray into the VR space will be an expensive virtual reality headset, not a lighter weight pair of augmented reality glasses. But it will probably be rammed with Apple’s delicious custom silicon, so I feel that the technical specs will meet or exceed those of other products on the market. It will find a market amongst die-hard Apple fans as a precursor to a wider roll-out of more affordable devices.

Since Apple is not a technology-for-technology’s-sake business but focused on the user experience, I’m really curious about how they will make this device stand out. Scuttlebutt has thus far emanated from Apple’s supply chain. If there is a big reveal in 2022, content houses will be lined up soon to show off the headset to adoring fans, perhaps those creatives will be kind enough to leak what they are working on :)



P.S. In a weird turn of events, the original project lead for OpenInventor and VRML, Rikk Carey, would end up working for me some two decades later at my analytics startup, PeerIndex. In another weird turn, Gavin Bell, the other lead on VRML with whom I spoke in 1995, would go on to become Gavin Andresen, the lead developer for part of the bitcoin project. Spooky.

What you’re up to – notes from EV readers

Congrats to Clancy Childs who will join Signal AI as chief product officer!

Tom Wheeler published “Time for a US-EU digital alliance”.

🗣 Sonal Chokshi, who has run A16Z’s successful podcast series, is launching a new technology-focused publication with the venture capital firm.

The Oversight Board of which EV reader Alan Rusbridger is a member will examine Facebook’s decision to indefinitely suspend Donald Trump’s accounts.

Claire Curry and her team at Bloomberg NEF launched a climate-tech innovation competition.

Michael Baxter published a new book with Julien de Salaberry called Living in the Age of the Jerk.

Matthija Maas published a new open-access paper called “Bridging the Gap: The Case for an ‘Incompletely Theorized Agreement’ on AI Policy

Thomas Jestin released a new video about the Voyager Station.

Marius Paltanea is using the CountThings app to help with Covid-19 vaccines.

Jack Uldrich published a new article in Forbes on Five Disruptive Innovations Affecting Industry in 2021.

Denise Young launched a new podcast called New Climate Capitalism.

Monique van Dusseldorp has started a newsletter on the future of events. It is an exploration of online and hybrid events – what they are and what they’ll be.

Ollie Potter has a newsletter called The Triple Bottom about sustainable business, tech, and science.

To share your updates and projects, email joseph@exponentialview.co.


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