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.
✨ In the latest podcast conversation, I go deep on corporate climate impact and the software stack that is enabling businesses to move the needle with Christian Anderson, co-founder and CEO of Watershed, one of climate tech’s hottest startups.
Dept of the near future
AI ain’t easy
💰 Artificial intelligence is hard. Melanie Mitchell of the Santa Fe Institute is here to bring us all back down to Earth. In her new paper, Why AI is Harder Than We Think, she describes four fallacies in common assumptions made by AI researchers, which lead to overconfident predictions. The paper is worth reading in full.
- Narrow intelligence is on a continuum with general intelligence.
- Easy things are easy and hard things are hard - alluding to Moravec’s paradox. As Mitchell says, “AI is harder than we think because we are largely unconscious of the complexity of our own thought processes.”
- The lure of wishful mnemonics: the benchmarks used to measure AI progress lull us into a narrower understanding of the task at hand.
- Intelligence is all in the brain: a plea to recognise the importance of embodied and contextual cognition.
Murray Shanahan also noted that core common sense is a critical challenge facing AI research.
(See also: Today, May 2, Baidu launches a driverless taxi service in Beijing, while Tesla just admitted that it may never achieve full self-driving cars.)
💉 We can’t speak enough about the incredible technology that is mRNA vaccines. We are only scratching the surface of what this technology can do.
The production process of the Pfizer vaccine takes sixty days, it happens in facilities across three US states and is a victory not only of bio-sciences, but also of computing. (Stunning must-read photo essay.)
Yet, despite the giant leap these vaccines represent for the scientific community, there are still practical challenges in getting them into people’s arms. India’s horrific Covid wave provides a cautionary tale. The country was set to open up vaccines to adults over 18 on May 1. Despite one of the largest vaccine manufacturing operations in the world, the country can only produce 70 million doses per month, which is a drop in the bucket. India’s vaccine challenges are partly due to the fact that the country exported so many vaccines to other countries. They also stem from the sticky intellectual property restrictions involved in manufacturing the vaccines. Thankfully, however, the Biden Administration is signalling that IP relief might be coming soon. It can’t come soon enough.
📈 It was an incredible week for earnings among the largest technology companies in the world. Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google all posted earnings that went far beyond what analysts were predicting. Amazon posted net sales of $108.5bn in the first quarter, up 44% from the same period last year. Apple’s stock was under pressure at the time of writing despite announcing a 54% sales increase from 2020 and profits that more than doubled.
We’re seeing the phenomenon of “superstar companies play out”. Complex businesses built on intangible assets able to rely on network effects see increasing returns to scale. Diminishing marginal returns or organisational complexity both being a brake on corporate growth has been true for decades… yet seems increasingly less so during the exponential age.
Also, European regulators charged Apple with an app store antitrust violation following a complaint from Spotify.
Work from home
📊 Even with the slow reopening of economies worldwide and lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, remote work continues to have staying power. The dynamic earnings from the likes of Amazon demonstrate how much money is being funnelled into the remote work landscape. Google reported this week that having its employees work from home is saving the company $1bn a year. The City of London is also feeling the effects of work from home but in a different way. The City of London Corporation will transform (currently empty) offices into homes to attract more revenue. The shift is real but don’t expect it to stay forever. Despite the savings, Google aims to have employees back in the office by the end of the year. Ultimately, it is just more productive for the company to have the employees on campus than at home on Zoom calls.
The new influencer
🎮 Two profiles of stars of the creator economy. The first is MeganPlays, who is earning millions streaming herself playing Roblox. One of her games is on track to net $8m this year.
Then I love the story about Kat Norton, the creator of Miss Excel, who is earning 6 figures with her brand of Microsoft Excel hacks and tips. Anything is possible.
🔋Dept of decarbonisation
CO2 level 419.29 ppm | 3,327 days until we reach the 450ppm threshold
The latest measurement of atmospheric CO2 (as of April 28, 2021): 419.29 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. (I am going to be updating these calculations in a couple of weeks.)
🚙 Bi-directional charging (V2G) advancements mean that EVs can give power to grids or private homes during peak usage hours. The Dutch city of Utrecht is running with these technological leaps. Through a partnership with Hyundai, Utrecht will become the “first bidirectional region in the world”. Auke Hoekstra captured what this announcement means for the future:
If batteries keep improving and if more and more cars add this feature we will get a future where every electric vehicle is actively stabilizing the grid, reducing grid emissions, and improving the adoption and business case of wind and solar.
💨 The declining cost of renewable energy is accelerating political fissures between cities and national governments around the world. As cities seek to carve out more independence, some are securing their own power supply outside of the confines of national political dynamics. This situation is unfolding clearly in Cape Town, as EV Senior Editor Joseph Dana reported in a new piece for MIT Technology Review. South Africa has a notoriously unstable power supply thanks to a mismanaged and old fleet of coal power plants. Cape Town wants to secure its own energy, using renewables. It sets up a showdown about where democratic governance of civic infrastructure should be located. (A good discussion on that question in power & other contexts is in this May 2021 paper, Interventions on Democratizing Infrastructure by Judson, et al.)
🌲 California’s approach to climate change is generally regarded as one of the most progressive in America. Yet, new research suggests that the state’s climate policy has achieved very little in terms of carbon savings. California's forest offset programme, which attempts to reduce carbon emission by preserving trees, has created nearly 39 million carbon credits but companies that purchase these credits end up polluting anyway.
Short morsels to appear smart during the next Big Tech bull run
🌏 Bill Janeway, a venture capitalist with an incredibly long perspective, has some important ideas on who should be in control.
🇨🇳 China is getting very serious about antitrust in cyberspace.
👨⚖️ The inside story on Jack Ma and his troubles with the Chinese government after the latest interest in antitrust.
🥩 Epicurious, the popular recipe platform, revealed it has stopped publishing new beef recipes (more than a year ago) to encourage more sustainable cooking. Bravo!
🐘 Why are elephants bigger than mice? These cellular clocks hold the answer.
🚀 Drone startup Manna, run by EV reader Bobby Healey, leads the expansion of the sector in the US.
🏕 If online gaming is bad for the environment then so is hiking in nature.
🔥 Get ready for city-appointed “heat officers” to assist in our warming urban environments.
🤖 Can algorithmic audits transform society and serve humanity? This researcher thinks so.
⚡️ In this day and age, everything is trackable including lighting across the world.
📖 How to (attentively) read stuff posted online. (Helpful tips).
It is the May holiday in many parts of the world. This is a day to recognise the workers’ movement. (Americans celebrate this as Labor Day in September.)
I thought I would remind us of where the balance between labour and capital currently stands. Labour share of income in the US (and most members of the OECD) is lower than it has been in about 70 years.
If you have a public holiday on Monday, have a great day! And if you don’t, also have a great day!
What you’re up to – notes from EV readers
Ash Fontana’s new book, The AI-First Company: How to Compete and Win with Artificial Intelligence, has just been published.
Kevin Werbach writes: DeFi is the Next Frontier for Fintech Regulation.
Nick Patience has recorded a couple of podcasts with colleagues from S&P Global on AI use cases and the effect of Covid on AI initiatives, as well as the transformation of the semiconductor industry.
AC Coppens curated the CPH:CONFERENCE, part of the CPH:DOX (Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival) from April 26-30. Titled RESET! this year's conference aimed to reshape the film, media, and arts industries through the lens of the social order.
On his Climate 21 podcast this week, Tom Rafferty interviewed Bill McDonough, renowned architect, designer, and author of Cradle to Cradle, on the role of design in carbon emissions reduction.
Peadar Coyle’s startup launched the world’s first audio-as-a-service API.
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