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’m in conversation with IonQ’s CEO Peter Chapman, and Co-Founder / Chief Scientist Chris Monroe. IonQ is the first company solely focused on quantum computing to go public. We explore how IonQ turned cutting-edge research into a scalable product, and look into the engineering challenges that remain before quantum systems become widely available. For more on the near future of quantum computing, listen to my discussion with the founder and CEO of PsiQuantum, Jeremy O’Brien.
Every Friday, I’m live in the Exponential View room on Clubhouse. Follow us there to join future conversations.
Dept of the near future
🔥 The National Intelligence Council, an American agency, rolled out some scenarios to 2040. They are quite interesting point to increasing numbers of shared global challenges, around climate change, technology risk, pandemics and other systemic issues, at the same time a weakening the geopolitical structure where such shared challenges can be addressed. It’s a really interesting, lean back read.
I haven’t publicly given out my forecasts to 2040, but you can read my forecasts to 2030 here.
Central bankers & their digital currencies
🤑 China is launching a digital currency, controlled by its central bank and designed to be untethered to the global financial system, called the digital yuan. The project to find a digital currency started in 2014, after the growth of bitcoin started to raise concerns in China. China is way of ahead of other major economies.
China’s experiment has key ramifications. The digital money is trackable, and not anonymous. It is also programmable and Beijing has tested expiry dates on money as a tool to jump-start consumer spending. It could even soften the ‘bite of US sanctions’ abroad.
Central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) targeting consumers will have a mixed impact in different countries. In advanced economies with efficient payment networks, unlikely to be a big deal. In poorer countries where payment rails are expensive, retail CDBCs will be attractive. In authoritarian countries, regardless of the current cost of consumer payments, the control afforded by a CDBC will be appealing. (Peter Thiel recently opined on the possibility that bitcoin could become a “Chinese financial weapon.”)
The crypto industry has been under the weight of the energy demands blockchain infrastructure requires to operate. Now a coalition of more than twenty private companies has come together to set standards for decarbonising the industry. One of the imperatives of the Crypto Climate Accords is to transition all blockchains to be powered by 100% renewable energy by the 2025 COP event. This is more than a lobby group; we’re seeing a relatively nascent industry pro-actively police itself where most governments wouldn’t have the mandate to act. And the challenge is enormous. The use of Bitcoin blockchain protocol in China may peak in 2024, and generate 130.5 million metric tons of carbon—the annualised emission output of some countries. A recent paper in Nature outlines policies that could help curb this.
Here be dragons
🧬 The advances in machine learning and AI are fueling an era of discovery in biology, pharma and medicine. The significance of this is that for the first time we’re seeing underlying mechanisms behind biology that haven’t been accessible to us before—and using growing knowledge to find new drugs, new ways of feeding the world, and solving climate change. I’ve covered this before in the newsletter and in the podcast with Zymergen’s Josh Hoffman, A16Z’s Vijay Pande, and nanoscientist, Sonia Contrera. Because of the enormous power of new biology to catalyse change, we’d fail to ignore the politics and civics of the industry. The industry has a chance to promote equity, ethics and global dialogue in the next two decades.
Synthetic biology holds a lot of promise – as this World Economic Forum report explains, if you’ve had an Impossible Food Burger, you’ve already experienced some of that promise. But synthetic biology is useful for more than good food – it’s responsible for the mRNA coronavirus vaccines, it could lead to DNA data storage (revolutionising our capacity to store data at a global scale), and it could lead to the creation of green chemicals and biodegradable plastics that can move us towards a sustainable future.
🤦♂️ Do we deserve better entrepreneurs than Elon Musk? Tesla makes great cars – even if there are some teething issues – but Musk’s behaviour, from his Twitter-fingers to his bizarre predictions about the Covid-19 pandemic, makes it hard to take his achievements seriously. In Current Affairs, Nathan Robinson points out that Musk and his ideologies (or those like it) are likely to persist for decades but it’s worth assessing what Musk actually stands for, and whether it’s worth pursuing.
In Musk’s case, a certainty about his genius results in an indulgence of his cruelty and a lack of scrutiny of his delusional (sometimes even dangerous) schemes.
Of course, what Musk has achieved with Tesla, Starlink, SpaceX and, now, Neuralink is amazing. Watch Pager, the macaque, play Pong using only his brainwaves modulated by Neuralink implants.
Dept of decarbonisation
CO2 levels 417.27 ppm | 3,348 days until we reach the 450ppm threshold
The latest measurement of atmospheric CO2 (as of April 7, 2021): 417.27 ppm; April 2020: 416.96 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.
Emissions from cycling are thirty times lower than driving on fossil fuels, and ten times lower than driving an electric car. Cities should prioritise upgrading their biking infrastructure to cut emissions quickly.
Extreme spring: temperature swings in Europe are damaging flora and fauna across the continent.
Changing eating habits is an important part of the decarbonisation efforts, so it’s good news that plant-based meat, dairy and eggs have outpaced the sales of animal products in the US for the third year in a row. Plant-based meat sales grew twice as fast as those of conventional meat. See also in the industry: Impossible Foods is eyeing a $10 billion IPO.
Short morsels with which to see in summer
AR hardware is coming of age. Apple, Niantic and Facebook are betting on it. I surveyed my Twitter followers:
🔑 Gradually, then suddenly: Bloomberg’s take on Bitcoin’s race to replace gold as the global digital-reserve asset is a must-read this week.
Coinbase’s ridiculous numbers show the crypto reality:
💡 Shigenobu Nagamori, chairman and CEO of Nidec (the world’s largest motor maker) said that electric car prices will fall to below $3,000 each and create new demand.
The hidden cost of GDPR - 5,000 European medical studies affected.
🎨 Scientists use AI to recreate a hidden Picasso painting — and sell it as an NFT.
🏋🏽♂️ If you’re a human, after you hit 30, your chances of dying increase every year - not so for some animals. Some scientists suggest that we might be able to learn from them and increase our longevity.
This week I read Kate Crawford’s new book, The Atlas of AI (UK link here). It is a brilliant critique of AI and how it is rooted in the tangible: the materiality of resources and energy, the digital labour and data used to build it, and the power wielded by those builders. Kate was one of the co-founders of the AI Now Institute, and she has outdone herself with what was a great read. She and I will explore these issues in next week’s podcast.
Finally, I am after a decent load-balancing router for my network. I’m toying between the Unifi Edgemax and a Draytek Vigor. My network is pretty much exclusively Unifi, so leaning towards the former. If anyone has any specific experiences, happy to hear!
What you’re up to — notes from EV readers
Congrats to Daniel Skavén Ruben for joining the team at Stockeld Dreamery, a Swedish company creating a more nutritious, delicious, non-dairy cheese.
Ryan Betters, the South Pole Station Manager, liaised with top economists and climate experts to develop a five-sentence treaty that achieves global net zero emissions by 2050: The Net Zero Treaty.
Rafi Cohen published a framework for capital allocation in the 2020s.
Simon Saint explores how applying automotive manufacturing techniques can help offer more flexibility in mass residential development.
Ahmed Gatnash’s book The Middle East Crisis Factory is out this week.
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.)