🔮 AI ethics; Amazon’s good and bad; The cold-hot war; Climate change on Google Earth & Psilocybin as an antidepressant ++ #318

Massive issue. Get comfortable. Find time.
🔮 AI ethics; Amazon’s good and bad; The cold-hot war; Climate change on Google Earth & Psilocybin as an antidepressant ++ #318

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.

What is the future of meat? I discuss with EV members

I had an extraordinary conversation with Dr. Kate Crawford as we deconstruct how artificial intelligence is shaping our world through resource extraction, labour, and massive data collection. You don’t want to miss this conversation. Listen here or anywhere you get your shows.

Join me on Clubhouse (almost) every week!

Dept of the near future

🤖 AI, ethics, and progress

Writing in the Boston Review, Daron Acemoglu, one of my favourite economists on topics like automation and institutions, frames artificial intelligence:

AI is not likely to make humans redundant. Nor will it create superintelligence anytime soon. But like it or not, AI technologies and intelligent systems will make huge advances in the next two decades—revolutionizing medicine, entertainment, and transport; transforming jobs and markets; enabling many new products and tools, and vastly increasing the amount of information that governments and companies have about individuals.

The crux is how do our political economies need to change to ensure AI is used to advance society. This comes through government involvement, shifting norms, and democratic oversight. Acemoglu (as do I!) argues for everyday safeguards in the realm of employment, education, and access to public services.

The European Commission’s proposed AI-specific legislation was leaked. There are proposed constraints on social scoring systems, mass surveillance, facial recognition amongst others. I’ve yet to dig into the detail of this but James Vincent does a good job reviewing it here.

The path forward is pretty clear but the work needed will require nothing short of a new social contract. (See also this hilarious guide to talking about AI ethics by Karen Hao)

📈 Artificial intelligence will have a bigger impact than Moore’s Law, the dynamic relationship that drove the tech industry to today’s gargantuan scale. But as Moore’s Law peters out, artificial intelligence will be the driver of technical progress in the industry, as I wrote back in 2017.

Solar PV: ready to power the future

I love solar PV for a number of reasons. We have an acknowledged path for cost reduction and industrial scaling—it is very Moore’s Law-ish. Newer technologies like perovskites and organic photovoltaics beckon in the future for higher efficiencies and lower cost. Solar PV is the one energy technology that uses the same industrial processes (think scale!) for large-scale “utility-grade” installs and small-scale decentralised systems.

This recent paper makes a robust case for solar PV and identifies key interventions to tackle some of the perceived blockers (like intermittency and cost).

Percentage of electricity demand covered by solar PV in different markets worldwide

Elsewhere, windpower experts expect wind energy costs to decline up to 35% by 2035. (As we detailed here, the learning rate of wind power is around 23%, meaning costs should decline 23% with every doubling of capacity. This expert group must reckon either that wind capacity won’t double by 2035 or the learning rate will decline further. I suspect they are too pessimistic. We’ll need to check in 14 years.)

For more solar in Exponential View read Ramez Naam’s guest edition.

🛒 Gargantua

As a company and a sheer force of economic might, Amazon is unavoidable. We know this, yet it's still hard to appreciate the scale of the company under the leadership of Jeff Bezos. In his final letter to shareholders, Bezos outlined the state of Amazon. More than 200m Prime members worldwide; close to 2m small and medium-size businesses operate as 3rd party sellers contributing up to 60% of Amazon’s retail sales; and 100m smart home devices connected to Alexa. Bezos also underlined Amazon’s various climate pledges including their own goal of using 100 per cent renewable energy by 2025.

Impressive but Amazon does have a darker side. You don’t achieve that sort of dominance without being ruthless in some regard. In a far-reaching investigation, the Wall Street Journal unpacked exactly how Amazon strong-arms its partners and rivals.

Amazon’s tactic of leveraging dominance in one business to compel partners to accept terms from another is a familiar one, said former Amazon executives and officials at companies on the receiving end. Amazon’s tactics, they said, go beyond typical product bundling and tough negotiating in part because the company threatens punitive action on vital services it offers, such as its retail platform.

My comment: the nature of Amazon is well beyond its economic impact. It now mediates so many different types of activity, it also has governance power. It is important that how this power manifests itself is capable of observation by outsiders. The Peter Parker Rule is not sufficient.

💣  New Cold War

It’s difficult to get a full picture of what’s happening in the cold cyber war that’s been brewing in recent years between the US and Russia. It’s pretty clear that Russian hackers, presumably at the behest of the government, have used social media platforms to manipulate popular sentiment in the US and sow discontent. We can only imagine that the US is taking similar action against Russian interests. The Biden Administration is moving this cold war into the public eye. Washington just sanctioned a cybersecurity firm called Positive Technologies (along with five other companies) it says is doing the hacking for the Kremlin. Don’t expect any resolution to this conflict in the near future. However, the best offence (and defense) just might be better education and awareness.

🔋 Dept of decarbonisation

CO2 level 418.32 ppm | 3,341 days until we reach the 450ppm threshold

The latest measurement of atmospheric CO2 (as of April 14, 2021): 418.32 ppm; April 2020:  418.32 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

🇩🇪 Germany is home to Europe’s largest car market. Electric vehicles now compose 25 per cent of the German auto market. This suggests that the world’s largest auto market has reached escape velocity. When this happened in Norway, which has one of the highest per capita all-electric cars numbers in the world, it took less than 10 years before the market was dominated by EVs.

🚙 Electric vehicles might grab the lion’s share of media attention, but electric bikes are surging in popularity across Europe. France just announced a plan to give citizens $3,000 to get rid of their car and hop on an ebike. This will hopefully ease traffic congestion in Paris.

🇦🇪 In its unending quest to be the smart city of the future, Dubai signed a contract with US manufacturer Cruise for a fleet of electric autonomous taxis. The Emirate says they will be deployed from 2023 (I would expect some delays). The city will make a fascinating test case for this technology because it is famously home to more than 200 nationalities (and driving styles). The programme should produce a mountain of data for the autonomous car sector.

🌏 Google Earth got a massive update this week complete with a unique time feature. You can now see the effects of climate change on the platform through timelapses. The gravity of our impact on this planet gets harder to avoid by the day.

Short morsels to appear smart during the next crypto IPO

📈 It was a big week for Coinbase and possibly an even bigger week for investor Garry Tan, who turned a $300,000 bet on the crypto exchange into $680m.

👔 When London’s Canary Wharf offices are fully occupied, they are home to 120,000 people every day. The pandemic has changed the calculation.

🚙 China’s biggest tech companies are ploughing into the smart car market. Xiaomi is the latest to join the trend.

🇷🇺 A trip to Russia’s techno-utopian village.

💻 Joe Biden’s plans to bolster US semiconductor research and manufacturing.

🇨🇳 What if US-China competition was a good thing for global efforts to save the planet.

🏠 The future? A hive-like house that is 3D printed, carbon-neutral, and made of clay.

🐒 Here come the hybrids: Monkey embryos containing human cells have been made in a laboratory.

🍄 An extremely important study found that the active psychedelic ingredient psilocybin can be used as an antidepressant.

🌈 Beautiful. The pre-Pantone 900-page guide to colour from 1692.


I first met Bezos back in 1996. We bumped into each other at the baggage pickup at Boston’s Logan Airport. I was there to hang out at the MIT Media Lab and also pop into a Forrester conference where he was speaking. As a young snapper-of-whips, I recognised him and struck up a conversation about our luggage. He complimented me on my new suitcase (a just-too-big for carry-on Tumi, that was the rage back in the mid-90s) with a “That’s a nice piece”. I got the business card, which was on the old “Amazon as a river” logo. We had a decent chat - and a long follow-up discussion at whichever faceless hotel the conference was at.

My first order from Amazon came a few months later.  I built a website that plugged into Amazon affiliates for a friend’s book in 1998. The affiliate fees paid for my first domain name and a new couch.

More than ten years later, we used AWS heavily in my startup—and were amongst the largest users of Redshift, their massively parallel columnar data store. I enjoyed Catastrophe and resist the Alexa. (Although one of the startups I backed was acquired by the Alexa team.)

What Bezos has achieved is incredible. But it’s not unimpeachably positive. History tells us that when any institution starts to control infrastructure, while also having horizontal and vertical integration, and scale, questions of power and governance will emerge. To complicate things Amazon enjoys various different types of fly-wheels, increasing returns to scale, over its already squid-like presence. So it’s reasonable and urgent to ask those hard questions about governance, accountability and restraint.



🏋🏽‍♂️🚀 Finally, if you want to sponsor this newsletter, please let us know. We’re backed up right now but happy to consider if we can.

What you’re up to – notes from EV readers

Ronit Ghose’s Future of Money report is a must-read. It’s 100 pages long, tho. Get a coffee.

Congrats to Libby Kinsey on her new role as Head of Data Science Strategy and Operations at Ocado Technology!

Kevin Werbach was interviewed on the latest developments happening in crypto.

Gianni Giacomelli is hosting an event on Tuesday, April 27 called Responsible Sourcing: leading practices to mitigate ESG risks in your supply chain.

Kaila Colbin is running a major event on the future of food and fibre covering agtech, finance, regenerative ag, and more on 11-12 May. They have major global speakers including former Unilever CEO Paul Polman, Louisa Burwood-Taylor who runs AgFunder News, and Amy Novogratz who runs Aqua-Spark Ventures. Exponential View readers can use the code Exponential20 for 20% off a virtual ticket.

Hannah Tucker guides us through the meaning of food as technology and science transform what we eat.

Clim8, a London-based sustainable investing platform started by EV reader Duncan Grierson, has launched its app after an eight-month beta testing period with a promise to help fix the “dysfunctional” landscape for ethical investing.

Lauren Crichton just joined the team at Sana Labs, a Stockholm-based startup that's using AI to reimagine learning. Congrats!

Tom Raftery's latest episode of the Climate 21 podcast features Michael Terrell, Director of Energy at Google, who talks about Google's inspirational emissions reductions strategies.

James McGregor-Macdonald built a 360° VR tour of a landmark exhibition of contemporary Māori art, and it just launched.

Pascal Tremblay wrote an article with ethical considerations for the emerging psychedelic business space. There are lots of investors interested in the space but there are many in it already who want ethics to be a core consideration in how businesses operate in the space. Where should we go from here?

Daniel Stanley is holding an event on Wednesday 21 April called 'Escape from humanity: the narratives behind Big Tech', which will look at the narratives that have motivated the tech platforms founders, and which they use to justify their impact on society.

To share your projects and updates, fill out your details here. Because of space constraints, we prioritize 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.)


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