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.
This week on the podcast, I discuss the politics, philosophy and the near future of Bitcoin with Meltem Demirors, Chief Strategy Officer at CoinShares.
Lilium, an electric plane maker, filed to go public. I invited members this week to discuss what they’re seeing in the transportation innovation space. It was a cracking conversation with great contributions from Michael Keating, Keith Timini, Paolo Bonomo, Frank Oelschlager and others.
Join our club on Clubhouse for weekly live discussions. Next Friday, I’m chatting with EV reader Ronit Ghose, head of financial services equity analysis for Citi, and author of a new report on the “future of money”. We’ll be covering cryptocurrency, central bank digital currencies (hello Bahamas!), big tech tokens and more.
Dept of the near future
Seeing it’s a long weekend in many parts of the world, this week we have several long reads exploring profound ideas. The first comes from Vitalik Buterin, one of the founders of Ethereum. He doesn’t write often, so when he does, it’s useful to pay attention. One of the challenges facing the blockchain ecosystem is legitimacy. This isn’t a new idea. Rather, the concept of legitimacy “appears in any context where there is coordination and especially on the internet.” What’s unique about cryptocurrency is that large pools of capital are controlled directly by concepts of legitimacy: “Bitcoin and Ethereum blockchain ecosystems both spend far more on network security … than they do on everything else combined.” He notes that one person “cannot simply allocate it to a centralized team without compromising on what makes it valuable. While Bitcoin and Ethereum do already rely on conceptions of legitimacy to respond to 51% attacks, using conceptions of legitimacy to guide in-protocol funding of public goods is much harder. But at the increasingly rich application layer where new protocols are constantly being created, we have quite a bit more flexibility in where that funding could go.”
This is a long and thoughtful read, regardless of your stance on cryptocurrencies.
🌏 Facebook and algorithm
Nick Clegg, the former deputy UK Prime Minister and current Vice President for Global Affairs at Facebook, published a long defence of his company and social media in general. His basic premise that Facebook isn’t to blame for how individuals use the platform has ruffled some feathers. Clegg’s thesis attacks the idea that Facebook’s algorithm transforms how users behave, what information goes viral, and how we think. He attempts to shift the debate by demonstrating how Facebook’s algorithm isn’t nearly as harmful as some in the media would have us believe. There is only one problem with this argument, Facebook doesn’t allow independent researchers to evaluate data on the algorithm. So we have to take Clegg and Facebook’s word that the information he presents is accurate. That’s a big jump given the company’s track record on transparency.
The larger point that Clegg is making does have some salience. People do hold a variety of opinions and viewpoints, some of which are incendiary and harmful. We should consider how these viewpoints enter the mainstream discourse and how we can challenge them. But this conveniently overlooks Facebook’s role in amplifying the most incendiary views on its platforms and how that amplification has a cascading effect on how the mainstream debate evolves. Clegg also raises important questions about who gets to set the guardrails for these types of discussions.
“Should a private company be intervening to shape the ideas that flow across its systems, above and beyond the prevention of serious harms like incitement to violence and harassment?” Clegg asks. “If so, who should make that decision? Should it be determined by an independent group of experts? Should governments set out what kinds of conversation citizens are allowed to participate in? Is there a way in which a deeply polarized society like the U.S. could ever agree on what a healthy national conversation looks like? How do we account for the fact that the internet is borderless and speech rules will need to accommodate a multiplicity of cultural perspectives?” I am quoting these questions at length because they are the right questions we should be asking. Clegg might fail to persuade us that Facebook is the right person to answer but that doesn’t change the fact that we need to be actively finding answers.
🤖 Who’s in control?
Are we close to artificial intelligence programmes having the ability to design improved versions of themselves and realising recursive self-improvement? Not so much, according to the acclaimed science fiction author Ted Chiang. Writing in The New Yorker, Chiang outlines in plain English how the great innovation in AI, whereby machines can create smarter versions of themselves, will only come from human ingenuity and we aren’t anywhere close to it right now.
In a far-reaching and stimulating conversation, Kazuo Ishiguro and Venki Ramakrishnan cover similar ground. Humans have already created areas of technology that are beyond our reach. We generate algorithms, like the one that Facebook doesn’t think poses an inherent problem to society, which go “off and carry out the designs.” Despite this technological reality, all three thinkers believe that humanity is still more or less in control. But for how much longer.
🔋 Dept of decarbonisation
CO2 level 417.17 ppm | 3,355 days
The latest measurement of atmospheric CO2 (as of March 31, 2021): 417.17 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.
🔋 Long time EV readers know that the falling price of lithium batteries has been a closely watched data point for me. Fresh data compiled by The Economist shows that lithium battery cost has fallen by a staggering 98% in three decades. The power of exponentiality in action. One challenge going forward is finding innovative ways to reuse all of these batteries.
☀️ Apple announced it would build a battery-based energy storage facility in California that will store 240 megawatt-hours or enough to power 7,000 homes for one day. Apple’s brand visibility (and a hefty pile of cash) make this push into renewables important for additional company shifts into this space. Amazon, for example, is busy building its own solar farm in South Africa to power upcoming data centres in the country. If companies can lead in this space, why can’t governments follow?
Short morsels to appear smart during the first days of spring
✍️ An age-old question: Is handwriting better than typing for memorisation when taking notes? (TL;DR paper and pen still has the edge)
💻 Department of chips: TSMC pledges $100bn to boost foundry capacity. Is this enough to break the global shortages in the sector?
🎨 An artist is bringing abandoned Soviet sanatoria back to life using NFTs.
A post shared by @ryan.koopmans
🕺 ByteDance, the Chinese startup behind TikTok, is close to a $400bn valuation for new investors.
💶 With more than €16bn, European startups raised a record amount of funding in Q1 2021. That's more than double Q1 2020.
🧬 Genetic variants are tied to sex differences in psychiatric disorders.
🔬 Frightening. The growing antiscience movement in the US is expanding rapidly beyond America’s borders.
📖 This is a positive development: Google Scholar will track whether research papers covered by public-access mandates set by funders are free to read.
🧑🍳 Oops! A fugitive mobster was caught because police identified his tattoos on a popular YouTube cooking channel he operated.
👩💻 New updates to Slack (dark humour): “We added a helpful bot that will automatically remind you each morning that you are isolated from the world.”
I recently finished two books on the history of work. Behemoth by Joshua Freeman catalogues the history of the factory. It’s robust, detailed and packed with eye-opening tales. I also read James Bessen’s excellent Learning by Doing which tackles the relationship between skills, technology and economic growth. More theoretical than the Freeman and another excellent sojourn.
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What you’re up to – notes from EV readers
EV’s Marija Gavrilov and Joseph Dana are hosting a discussion about job creation and net-zero transition in Latin America on Wednesday, Apr 7, noon ET.
Polly Mackenzie published “The pandemic has at last taught Boris Johnson what type of leader he is” in the Evening Standard.
Ben Hawes adds that an international group of organisations has published proposed shared international principles to guide the ethical use of location data. Users of location data are invited to apply the principles and join a community to promote and develop them in the future.
Mark Schaefer published his ninth book, Cumulative Advantage: How to Build Momentum for Your Idea, Business, and Life Against All Odds.
Paul Orlando finished his 100th article on the unintended consequences of tech and policy, popular with readers in government, investing, academia, and more.
James Vaughan adds that the World Health Organisation has just started using Plague Inc. to educate players about pandemic response and vaccines etc. They just released a video with some of their experts where they talk about how the game compares to their real-life experiences.
Sean West just had a launch following a successful fundraise for Hence Technologies. They are tackling the world of legal and consulting services by leveraging data and AI to help buyers take control of their relationships.
To share your projects and updates, fill out your details here. Because of space constraints, we prioritise updates from paying members and startups I have invested in. (You can become the former by subscribing, if you have not already, and the latter by getting an intro to me via a trusted contact.)