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.
👉🏽 We had an amazing discussion on how to make important technologies affordable with our members. It is so packed with expertise, insight, and curiosity, I’ve opened it up to all our readers.
EV reader, Scott Farquhar, has built one of the most remarkable software companies in the world. Atlassian, now valued at more than $50bn, was one of the earliest pioneers of SaaS products. He and I had an incredible conversation, we covered the evolution of software models, the future of remote work, and what it is to build a world-beating tech company outside Silicon Vally. Also, Scott is a really great human: please enjoy our discussion.
Dept of the near future
🏭 The last year has been a terrible one for the global economy even if the full reality of the crisis isn’t on display in the stock market. The world’s poor have been hit particularly hard by the rippling effects of global economic contradiction. This raises an important question: Does this crisis reveal something about the irredeemable nature of capitalism or can we use this experience to build a better version of capitalism? (This was a great Q&A with Esther Duflo.)
The answer is critical as we face other pandemic-like challenges such as climate change. Two new books, by highly influential people at the heart of the economic establishment, argue that the system we have currently is in dire need of reform. These new volumes by Minouche Shafik and Mark Carney call for a fresh social contract that will bind societies closer together to face challenges on the horizon. Rejecting the free market ideologies of Milton Friedman, these establishment pillars believe that we can make capitalism better by recognising the power societies can have when individuals acknowledge the collective good instead of focus on themselves. If we’re to have a chance at fighting climate change, we’re going to need this type of spirit.
You’re on mute
👔 It’s hard to pin down exactly where we stand on remote work. Last week, Goldman came out against remote work (perhaps because the company is concerned it’s harder to hit those 100 hour weeks when working from home). This week, the UK’s largest building society Nationwide said its 13,000 staff can work from anywhere. That’s a bold move for a traditionally conservative institution. And yet, demand for office space is booming in cities like New York, Seattle, and Washington. My take is that cities continue to matter, but they will reconfigure. I’ve spoken to dozens of firms, from the small to the very large, in many sectors. Roughly, the average is an expectation of two days per week in an office and three days per week at home or in local co-working. Always happy to hear your experiences in the comments.
The bitcoin battery
🔋 Is bitcoin a reckless waster of energy, or more precisely, our precious carbon budget? What if we thought about this in a different way. Nick Grossman of USV (which is a crypto investor and runs a climate fund) does exactly that and argues that Bitcoin and crypto mining is “driving the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables”. He takes this idea a step further by challenging our concepts of batteries. If you can translate electricity into something that can be used anywhere at any time, then you have a battery. Crypto mining converts electricity into value in the form of coins, which can be moved, exchanged, what have you. If we think of Bitcoin as a battery, the possible applications are varied and exciting. This idea sounds strangely similar to the Carbon Coin concept that Kim Stanley Robinson puts forward in The Ministry for the Future (two mentions in two weeks, it’s well worth reading). I won’t spoil it for you but if you’re interested in this idea, there’s some great background in this piece.
China and energy
🇨🇳 China’s growth has been achieved through a steady reliance on hydrocarbons—80% of its energy mix comes from coal, oil and gas—but that isn’t sustainable for much longer. Now Beijing is innovating creative solutions to achieve carbon neutrality by its stated goal in 2060. WoodMac, the consultancy, reckons “China can cast off the shackles of its reliance on others and dominate the resources and technologies the world needs to decarbonise.”
There’s just one problem, China is still happy to export hydrocarbon technology throughout its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). That’s the conclusion of the Council on Foreign Relations report on the BRI. While China might be going green, Chinese companies are still building coal power plants across Africa. It’s a bit like two steps forward and one step back. China is a massive market (check out this interactive map of its high-speed rail network as an example) but if its geopolitical power rests on the export of carbon-intensive industries, the planet still faces a serious problem.
GPT-3 to the moon
🤖 More than 300 applications are now using GPT-3 since the launch of the OpenAI API. An average of 4.5 billion words are generated per day and traffic is scaling. These are remarkable figures. But do remember that these large scale-transformer models can hide problematic biases that are hard to unearth. (A good paper on this is the Bender, Gebru et al, “Stochastic Parrots” work.)
In an example illustrating this class of issue, although not specifically using GPT-3, Gary Marcus tweeted a striking example of gender bias in the translation of Hungarian, which doesn’t have gendered pronouns (see the image below).
🔋 Dept of decarbonisation
CO2 level 416.16 ppm | 3,362 days
The latest measurement of atmospheric CO2 (as of March 24, 2021): 416.16 ppm; March 2020: 413.5 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.
Future of cars
Electric vehicles are defying growth predictions driven by incredible sales in China. A compact electric car from the Chinese manufacturer Wuling sold a remarkable 200,000 units within its first two hundred days on the market. It’s now the world’s best-selling electric vehicle, outshining Tesla’s Model 3. Growth in China coupled with a renewed drive from traditional manufacturers such as Volkswagen is putting pressure on Tesla’s dominance over the market. This was bound to happen and is an extremely positive indication of the overall health of the sector. The fast-food chain Chipotle is even getting in on the action with investment in an autonomous delivery startup called Nuro. The tide has turned.
See also: a steering wheel desk for your self-driving car. (This might be where we are headed even if this model is a joke)
The physical earth
Extreme soil erosion is being intensified by climate change on a level not seen in decades. And yet, pathways out of this mess are present in dirt. According to Scientific American, both “erosion and climate change can be mitigated by incorporating more carbon into soil. Photosynthetic carbon fixation removes carbon dioxide from the air, anchoring it in plant material that can be sequestered in soil.” The only problem is that we’re running out of soil much like we’re running out of sand.
Short morsels to appear smart during the next global shipping crisis
📱 The lifeblood of the internet. The UK’s Competition & Markets Authority is concerned about Facebook’s monopoly over global GIF supply.
🐋 Power to the whales. Humpback whales are organizing like never before and no one knows why.
🍔 Ikea is getting into the food waste space with a new cookbook.
👽 Incredible new images of black holes reveal a swirling magnetic field.
🎥 One step closer to the death of mainstream cinemas. Disney will make the upcoming release of Black Widow available on its premium streaming service at the same time as its theatrical release.
💻 Chalk one up for resilient supply chains and reshoring with the Intel announcement of two new chip factories in Arizona. Will it be enough to change the industry?
🌏 Want to ensure the planet’s survival? Great, everything must change.
🛳 The Cape of Good Hope is having a moment in the wake of the Suez crisis.
🦠 More cheers for scientists. Another deep dive into how the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates the power of modern biomedicine.
🇨🇱 Chile has an incredible vaccination programme, so why are daily cases exploding?
💨 Toshiba is looking to disrupt the drone market with a partnership with a US startup.
☎️ Can we occupy technology with love?
🐙 Do octopuses dream? The answer, unsurprisingly, is yes.
I had the first dose of my Covid vaccine this week. Very smooth process, one rough night. I realised that my extended family, from Louisiana to Lahore has enjoyed the fruits of four different vaccines: Moderna, Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Sinovac. It’s just amazing. Not a single one of those vaccines existed 15 months ago. Remarkable science, remarkable collaboration.
One thing we can take away from this pandemic is just how damn useful both science and cooperation are. Together with the reduction in volume of political bile and vitriol in the news and socials we’ve experienced this year, it’s a template I hope continues.
If you are in many parts of the world, the clocks go forward this weekend!
Have a splendid week,
P.S. If your company wants to support Exponential View, let us know.
What you’re up to – notes from EV readers
What’s going on in Turkey? EV’s Joseph Dana and Marija Gavrilov will discuss with EV reader Ussal Sahbaz and Nesibe Kiris. Join them on Clubhouse, Tue, 6pm UK time.
Laure Claire Reillier is chairing the Platform Leaders conference on 15 April, which gathers digital platform practitioners, policymakers, and academics to discuss some of the hottest topics in the platform world. Free limited availability.
Cameron Weise has been working on building a new World's Fair. He launched an essay re-introducing people to the importance of the Fair and our vision for the next one. If we're going to decarbonise, we need to work together to align on solutions to challenges in our world.
Mark Bunting published a piece outlining Ofcom’s consultations on regulation of UK-based video-sharing platforms.
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