🔮 Degrowth sceptics; Tech progress; US Fintech; The Book of 2021 & in utero dreaming ++ #333

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 edition has been supported by our partner, Fortris.

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Dept of Near Future

What is progress?

🌎 By seemingly dismantling critical parts of its technology sector, China is redefining what progress means. That’s the central argument Noah Smith puts forward in a persuasive post this week. It’s impossible to navigate the complex relationships between business and the Chinese state but on the outside it looks like China is “smashing” its tech sector. Why would it do such a thing? According to Smith, Beijing might have determined that too many resources were being poured into consumer-facing tech so the decision was made to pivot those resources back into military technology. That argument might be a bit narrow (not everything is about war) but I welcome the point that our understanding and definition of technological progress might be and deserves more reflection. (See also: Apple, amongst other tech companies, had an insane quarter)

This chart doesn’t even include Amazon.

Opportunities in US Fintech

🏦 Across emerging markets, the promise of financial technology to raise levels of financial inclusion has been a popular talking point for the last decade. With millions of unbanked people across the world, the ability to get new users signed up for a formal financial service through a smartphone can have several deep benefits for consumers, companies, and societies. But there is another market ripe for fintech disruption: the United States. Scott Galloway demonstrates just how stagnant financial services from the major banks have become over the past two decades. A quarter of US households are either unbanked or underbanked. Half of US unbanked households say they don’t have the funds to meet minimum balance requirements. Sounds like the sector is ripe for disruption.

Future of computation

💻 It’s been a rough year for Intel but the company is trying to reassert itself by announcing a new roadmap of ever smaller nodes. Gone are nanometre measurements. We are entering the era of ångströms. The company has an uphill battle to regain its once-coveted position. By agreeing to manufacture Qualcomm’s chips, it’s clear Intel is ready to swallow a bitter pill to get back in pole position. In a related development, PisQuantum raised $450mn to build a quantum computer. That’s commercialisation scale investment. (See also: My conversation with PisQuantum CEO Jeremy O’Brien).

Decentralising identity

🔍 The humble user login is one of the ubiquitous aspects of internet infrastructure that most of us likely take for granted. However, it contains a wealth of valuable information that is essentially commoditized by the world’s most powerful technology companies. One way to break the control over logins by major companies is with a blockchain. Jon Stokes argues that “moving [login] identity on-chain, and thereby removing the possibility of users-table-centric network effects, completely up-ends the entire landscape of API-based, access-controlled interoperability that the present Internet is built on.” This notion encompasses interoperability (not just data portability) around users, their data and relationships. Interoperability is one of the ideas I explore in my forthcoming book, so I found Stokes’ exposition interesting.

Degrowth sceptics

📈 “Can we have prosperity without economic growth?” is the question posed by the degrowth movement, a once niche cadre growing in visibility as a result of the climate crisis. The 2,000 Watt Society, which was founded in 1998, and raised in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, is one way of thinking about this. In my discussion with Vaclav Smil, he too emphasises the importance of planetary limits and restraining consumption. Writing last month, Branko Milanovic, poses a challenge to the degrowth movement. That, ultimately, for degrowth to work, 86% of people living in the richer world would need to see their standard of living decline for a decade or more. This would be politically unacceptable or as Milanovic says “now, the relevance of moral preaching of abstinence is close to zero.” It is a thought-provoking essay. (See also: An exemplary overview of the degrowth movement, read John Cassidy in The New Yorker.)

🔋Dept of decarbonisation

CO2 level 415.93 ppm | 3,252 days until we reach the 450ppm threshold

The latest measurement of atmospheric CO2 (as of July 25, 2021): 415.93 ppm; July 2020: 415.51 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.

☀️ Excellent report from Silicon Valley Bank on the future of climate tech that lays out the opportunities and challenges for decarbonisation in the US economy. Investments are going up as costs to deploy climate technology decrease. The result is a noticeable decrease in gas emissions.

🇰🇪 Geothermal energy is one of the most promising areas of renewable energy. The world leader in electricity generation from geothermal energy might surprise you. Kenya has quietly become a powerhouse in the field and is looking to double capacity to 1.6gw by 2030. The country reached this position because of savvy investments in geothermal technology as well as having particularly active volcanoes (like Mt Kilimanjaro). With its own power needs secure, Kenya can expand to the rest of the region and potentially have a dramatic impact on power generation.

🇨🇳China hasn’t financed a single overseas coal power project in the first half of 2021. Since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, this has never happened. China’s commitment to phasing out coal in the mainland has been clear for some time. However, Beijing has been fairly quiet about its plans for exporting coal and/or renewable energy projects around the world. While financing for green energy projects is also down this year, there is a clear drive to finance clean energy instead of coal.

Short morsels to appear smart during the next vaccine drive

Imagine if we’d grown up with The Usborne Book of 2021 instead of The Usborne Book of the Future. Dan Hon has a great thread on this premise.

👔 How to hire for a rapidly growing startup presented in a clear and straightforward manner by operator par excellence, David Sacks.

🏅Which national team at the Olympics has the highest vaccination rate among athletes? It’s not who you might think.

💻 Apple published a deep dive into how its on-device machine learning is used to recognise people in photos. (How it manages privacy and fairness is worth glancing at.)

🧬 DNA sequencing technology is coming of age as startup Omniome is bought for nearly $800mn.

🚕 Uber has reduced drunk driving by 6 per cent in the US.

🛻 Popular American SUVs and trucks are now larger than World War II era tanks.

🐅 Should animals get the Covid-19 vaccine? One zoo is debating the issue in a curious way.

🏄‍♀️ Artificial intelligence is transforming surfing as seen in the Olympic games this year.  

🌱 The journalist and writer Michael Pollan has done wonders for the mainstreaming of psychedelics in the US. He has a promising new book out this month.

🍄 Perhaps the most important part of a psychedelic experience might be the dreams you have afterward.

👶Mammals dream about the world they are about to experience before they are even born.

Endnote

I’m away this week on a short family break. EV will appear next Sunday but there will be no publishing during the week.

Have a great few days,

Azeem

P.S. We’re hiring an exceptional generalist. Is this you or someone you know? See more here.


What you’re up to – notes from EV readers

Nishant Nishant received a patent in AI. He and his team developed an AI interface that would sit across multiple unconnected websites, and allow the user to chat with the bot about content related to any of the websites.  

Ralph Perrine’s CarePath, the Innovation Garage's AI factory for producing high accuracy ethical predictions, received a Healthcare Innovations award for enabling more focused, personalized intervention during patient transition from hospital to home.

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.)


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