9 min read

🔮 Scientific collaboration; Flying cars; Ideology and society; Green BRI; Geothermal power & lithium in seawater ++ #327

Written by Azeem Azhar

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. My book Exponential (or The Exponential Age in the US & Canada) comes out in September. If you enjoy this newsletter, you'll love the book. Pre-order here.

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Dept of the near future

The problem isn’t ideology

🗣 Ideologies take time to develop and are vital to individuals and society alike. Despite the adverse reaction that many have towards the very idea of ideology, it is an unavoidable aspect of the modern world. The dramatic rise in the power and prevalence of technology over the past three decades is challenging ideologies and the very nature of how society operates. In his far-reaching piece, analyst and author Nicolas Villarreal argues that we need “new epistemologies”, capable of encompassing the old, but more appropriate for our present condition. (I’m not going to pretend this is the easiest essay to read, but it is worth it.)

Civilization Stripe

💳 Stripe’s approach to venture investing, whereby the company invests in companies that it competes with, is a strategy more closely aligned with Chinese tech companies and than western ones. John Collison expressed his fascination with China's tech conglomerates in his conversation with Ben Thompson:

Not all companies do this [venture investing], it’s actually a little more common outside of the US than in Silicon Valley Tech companies for whatever reason, but obviously, Tencent and Alibaba have paved the way with this model and do tons of it, they make Stripe look positively lazy in their investing activity. You’re looking for the capital towards achieving the set of Stripe goals and it’s another way to do it.

The spirit of scientific collaboration

🔬 The NFT boom might have reached its peak in the art world but that hasn’t stopped an entirely new set of users from availing the collaborative technology. According to Nature, scientists are embracing NFTs as a way to claim ownership over published work and even sell famous lines of code (as in the case of internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee, with whom I had dinner on Thursday). The issue of ownership and collaboration is also being raised with regard to Covid-19 research. I have taken an optimistic view on the last year of global scientific collaboration on Covid. Researchers have been working together to map the virus and find a vaccine in historic new ways. But Brendan Maher and Richard Van Noorden complied data that paints a different picture. They argue that after an initial wave of collaboration in the early days of the pandemic, political tensions dramatically slowed international partnership on the virus.

The next trend in technology

McKinsey just released its top trends in technology report. I was lucky enough to help on this project, which drew on very deep research, looking both at venture financing, patenting but dozens of conversations with technology leaders about where they were placing their bets.

Undermining the Federal Reserve

💵 Seemingly out of nowhere, El Salvador jumped right in and made Bitcoin an official legal tender. This is particularly interesting because the country has now outsourced its monetary policy to a “decentralized network of computers governed by a fixed set of rules […] not subject to the vagaries of politics”.

El Salvador made a bold move that will have serious implications for things like remittances (of which it depends) and its relationship to the United States (El Salvador dollarized its economy in 2001). It’s a test case for emerging and developing countries that want to break their dependence on more powerful institutions like the US Federal Reserve. Crypto-insiders tell me other smaller countries are considering similar moves.

Elsewhere, a good review on the benefits a central bank digital currency could bring the UK is here.  The mantra would be increased financial inclusion, lower rent-seeking and trustworthy digital infrastructure. (I’ll touch on some of these issues in next week’s podcast.)

Software is eating the car

🚙 The global semiconductor shortage brought a hefty among of attention to the complex computer systems that define modern vehicles. Whether you are driving a Tesla or a Ford, new cars are increasingly controlled by advanced computer systems. It’s the software that defines the success of a car more than anything else. The race to create the next great car is pushing manufacturers to add millions of lines of code to cars. The result, as Robert Charette explores in a stimulating essay, is that software is eating our cars.

(I also wrote about this in EV#324.)

Taking flight

🛫 Flying car startups are raising copious amounts of capital and creating some genuinely compelling prototypes. The New York Times sums up the sector neatly:

The rise of the flying car mirrors that of self-driving vehicles in ways both good and bad, from the enormous ambition to the multi-billion-dollar investments to the cutthroat corporate competition, including a high-profile lawsuit alleging intellectual property theft. It also recreates the enormous hype.

For all the hype, the focus should remain on the sustainable dimensions of the (flying) car industry. In transport, our goal must remain focused on green solutions that help diminish our carbon footprint. If flying cars can help achieve this goal, then let’s jump on board.

🔋Dept of decarbonisation

CO2 level 418.58 ppm | 3,273 days until we reach the 450ppm threshold

The latest measurement of atmospheric CO2 (as of June 16, 2021): 418.58 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.

🌏 Geothermal power doesn’t attract the same coverage as wind and solar projects. That’s curious considering how efficient the technology has proven to be across the world. For one thing, geothermal is much more stable than wind or solar power and it can provide a near-constant output of electricity day and night. Japan is set to accelerate its use of geothermal power to help meet its carbon emissions targets. The country will try to double its geothermal output by 2030. If successful, get ready for Japanese geothermal projects far beyond its borders.

🇨🇳 While China has been making clear efforts to clean up power creation at home, it has been generally assumed that Beijing continues to export coal power through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) around the world. A new report published by the International Institute of Green Finance in Beijing found evidence that coal projects were receiving less funding. Since 2014, Chinese entities have financed $160bn worth of coal power plants outside of China. But, the report finds, $65bn in funding has either “been shelved, mothballed, or cancelled, with many more projects seeing delays in construction.”  It likely influenced by a larger slowdown in BRI projects but it is a good start. Anything to wean China off of coal is beneficial for us.

Short morsels to appear smart during the next FTC hearing

🕺 Staggering growth. ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, saw its gross profit rise 93% to $19bn last year. The company’s annual revenue jumped to $34.3bn.

🕵️‍♀️ Google is deeply intertwined with the world of fake news. A new study finds that nearly all ads on fake news sites come from Google. 😴 If fake news ads weren't enough, advertisers are working on ways to track and analyse your dreams (to monetize them, of course).

🤖 Pew finds that Ethical AI Design is going to be a long time coming.

🔦 Karen Hao published a deep look at a defining story of our time: the fight to reclaim AI from Big Tech’s control.

👀 China is turning its massive surveillance apparatus on technology workers with chilling results. 👷 Also in China, as workers are monitored to maintain maximum productivity, Alibaba is deploying delivery robots to help manage China’s e-commerce boom.

🚨 Facebook researchers claim they have figured out how to detect (and trace) deep fakes.

🎭 A look at the role of arts and humanities in shaping AI.

🔋 Researchers propose lithium extraction from seawater.

📖 No big surprise: fresh discoveries undermine persistent European notions of African illiteracy.

Endnote

From researcher to the new head of the Federal Trade Commission in just five years, Lina Khan has arrived. Khan shook up the established thinking about anti-trust with her paper  ‘Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox’ in the Yale Law Journal just four years ago. In it, she was able to articulate what the gaps in existing anti-trust doctrines were and how we might resolve them. I’m more than intrigued about this appointment. In particular, Khan argues (and I do similarly in my book) that we need to rethink our anti-trust frameworks and introduce ideas of common obligations on firms that achieve certain infrastructural qualities.

This is the beginning of reform. Exponential Age firms behave very differently to industrial era ones, so for society to benefit from their innovation, scale and operations we need to adjust the rules by which they are managed. Bork-era competition policy which just focuses on consumer prices doesn’t cut the mustard. Perhaps Khan will help nudge us towards that new doctrine.

Cheers,

A

_________

What you’re up to – notes from EV readers

Congrats to Emil Eifrem on raising the largest funding round in database history: $325 million in Series F! Listen back to my discussion with Emil from a couple of years ago.

Lucy Hooberman is chairing a panel on algorithmic bias and facial recognition with Ricardo Baeza-Yates, Rumman Chowdhury, Margaret Mitchell on 22 June. Register here.

Eliot Peper published an interview with Brad Feld on Nietzsche for creators.

Hephzi Pemberton published The Diversity Playbook about greater inclusion and diversity in business.

Join Lisa Kay Solomon on Thurs, June 24th for the final Stanford University d.school futures series conversation with UNESCO's Head of Futures Literacy Riel Miller and anticipation specialist Kwamou Eva Feukeu to explore "Futures We Keep. Futures We Share."

Sonakshi Agarwal has created Atomchat, which adds text chat and video calling to websites.

Jono Baggaley is launching Fully Human, a new initiative exploring how education can best support young people to live ‘fully human’ lives in the face of technological change and climate crisis. Fully Human Issue #1: Pornography and Human Futures launches with an online event on Thursday 1 July.

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VP/Head of Product at Layer, building a machine learning operating system to empower data science teams to implement end-to-end machine learning effortlessly.

Marketing Leader at Pachama, a climate tech startup in a mission to restore nature to solve climate change.

Head of Technical Operations at Our Future Health, the UK’s largest ever health research programme, bringing people together to develop new ways to detect, prevent and treat diseases.

Director, Technology & Operations at ATÖLYE, a community-powered creative services organization that provides services to both clients and creative professionals globally.

Product Manager at ChAI, a startup offering commodity forecasts using AI on all of the data that matters.

Head of Power Business at Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which is on a mission to enable worldwide clean energy for everyone, creating a sustainable environment for current and future generations.

Head of Government Affairs at Dapper Labs, the NFT company behind he Flow blockchain, CryptoKitties and NBA Top Shot.

Head of Product at Zava, a healthtech startup which provides patients with healthcare that is dependable, affordable, and a fraction of today’s cost.

Data Platform Engineer at Analytical Flavor Systems, a venture-backed startup that models human sensory perception of flavor, aroma, and texture using proprietary machine learning in order to predict consumer preference of food and beverage products.

Principal Architect / Team Lead at Framebridge, revolutionizing the $4B custom framing industry.

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