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.
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Dept of the near future
A milestone for open research
🧬 For the first time, IP was transferred and funded on a blockchain as an NFT, and is now owned by a decentralised autonomous organisation. According to Paul Kohlhaas, in an informative Twitter thread. ((h/t EV member Dave Goldblatt). This event represents full legal IP rights and data access control for biotech research and data. This feels like a milestone. It unlocks the risk involved in the research and development of IP via a DAO by distributing that risk and spreading the incentives for developing complex IP. Generally, companies must invest significant capital in this research, and once discoveries are made, they secure the rights for a long time, which pushes up prices. By distributing the risk for research, we are witnessing the start of a vital governance technology that may foster a wider vista for future research. [See also: Paul’s earlier post which describes a vision for drug development, where “patients directly fund researchers developing the next therapeutic breakthrough they need. One where drug development is collaborative, open, and decentralized.”]
Dept of future energies: fusion edition
⚡Limitless fusion energy. Such technology would transform our world, and we just took a meaningful step towards it. Science reports that last week “a single laser shot sparked a fusion explosion from a peppercorn-size fuel capsule that produced eight times more energy than the facility had ever achieved: 1.35 megajoules – roughly the kinetic energy of a car travelling at 160 kilometres per hour.” Importantly, the energy released represented 70% of the energy put in, tantalisingly close to being energy positive and reaching that point of “ignition” where the process becomes self-sustaining. The numbers are mesmerising. There was a
hot-spot the diameter of a human hair, generating more than 10 quadrillion watts of fusion power for 100 trillionths of a second.
EV reader Albert Wenger reminds us that fusion, the process that powers the stars, “could be the cleanest energy source for humanity”. Since we are already indirectly harvesting the power of fusion through solar energy, being able to build fusion reactors would give us an “always-on” version of this power. Fusion, in a nutshell, could be a critical part of decarbonised power economy. [See also: if you thought fusion was incredible, a new paper suggests that black holes surrounded by massive, energy-harvesting structures could power alien civilisations.]
China’s complex relationship with tech
🇨🇳 Over the summer, analysis on China’s transition to the exponential age had emphasised the high-profile “crackdowns” on consumer tech companies. Yet another intriguing development comes with the imminent passage of one of the world’s most stringent data privacy laws. The world’s leading practitioner of state surveillance just passed far-reaching data privacy legislation. It’s on par or even more strict than Europe’s GDPR as the new laws “will require any organisation or individual handling Chinese citizens’ personal data to minimise data collection and to obtain prior consent”. China is figuring out the dangers of the data economy, writing progressive legislation that could be emulated in the West while entrenching the dominant control of the government and the Communist party. [See also: Beijing tightens its grip on ByteDance by taking a stake and a board seat in the company.]
Waves of migration
🚔 The horrific events in Afghanistan last week brought renewed attention to the challenge of global migration. War and poverty have [obviously] accelerated the number of people attempting to enter western countries legally or by other means. The Afghan crisis won’t be much different, but the reality is that we have seen nothing yet. Our warming planet is going to spur a migration crisis unlike any other in human history. Writing in Foreign Policy, Anatol Lieven describes how the process of fortification that we have seen develop in Europe and the United States will only increase. Indeed, Greece has recently completed a 40km smart fence to fend of migrants of any type. We need clear-eyed thinking to find solutions to this problem, and yet, as the rhetoric around Afghanistan demonstrates, things appear to be going backwards. [See also: The natural side of climate migration, a useful pictorial summary. I also recommend John Lanchester’s novel, The Wall, which tackles this issue.]
AI under one roof
🤖 Tesla is making impressive progress in artificial intelligence. From core research to chips to the company’s ability to handle training data, Tesla is stepping ahead of the competition, and demonstrating the power of its increasingly integrated model. Semiconductor analyst, Dylan Patel arges that if Tesla’s claims are true:
Tesla has a [cost] advantage that is nearly an order magnitude better than an Nvidia AI solution. If their claims are true, Tesla has 1 upped everyone in the AI hardware and software field.
There is all the training data from hordes of cars, their own chips, and now technologies, processes and infrastructure to manage and manipulate the training data. I wrote about Tesla’s advantage, the network effects and its ability to bring many elements under one roof, six years ago. The investment is starting to show its heft. [See also: Samsung has its AI-designed chip, and others are following.]
🔋Dept of decarbonisation
CO2 level 414.74 ppm | 3,245 days until we reach the 450ppm threshold
The latest measurement of atmospheric CO2 (as of August 18, 2021): 414.74 ppm; August 2020: 413.56 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.
How to think about clean hydrogen
☢️ The UK government just announced an exciting plan for creating a hydrogen economy. The plan includes a new chunk of £240m to fund hydrogen projects. Hydrogen has a role to play in a clean energy future, but where exactly? Friend of EV, Michael Liebreich, provides a rather good framework for thinking about it. Looking at the hydrogen economy as a Swiss Army Knife (the graphic below) is handy for thinking through the potential changes to the global economy.
Producing electric vehicles
🚙 The transition to electric vehicles raises new questions about production and supply chains. Namely, how fast can we produce these vehicles, can we produce enough of them, and do we have access to enough materials required for batteries. The plummeting cost of lithium-ion batteries means that they will form a core component of EVs for the foreseeable future. While lithium isn’t scarce, rapid growth in the sector can lead to temporary shortages and price swings. There are also concerns about the environmental impact of extracting lithium and cobalt, which brings additional labour and human rights issues. These are good problems to solve.
Short morsels to appear smart during the next regime change
😇 Why do some tech companies have “founder mafias” and others don’t? A deep dive.
💻 Is anyone surprised? Harvard just discovered that PowerPoint is worse than useless.
👨💻 Autocorrect errors in Excel are creating major headaches for genomics researchers.
🇦🇫 Many lines on the role of social media in the fall of Afghanistan. This one, on WhatsApp, might be the most interesting.
💉 A robust paper on vaccine nationalism and the dynamics and control of Covid-19.
🪲 The CDC approved a vaccine for Lyme Disease back in 1998, but it was quickly taken off the market due to anti-vax activism. A new one is on the cards.
📦 Amazon might be cooling on drone delivery, but the sector is growing and is 90% cheaper than car-based delivery services.
📱 OnlyFans, one of the most successful creator platforms in history, is pivoting away from its cash cow.
🍳 Vegan eggs are nothing new, but they are finally making inroads in Africa.
🐮 First, it was burgers; now it is milk: Beyond Meat files trademark application for 'Beyond Milk'.
🇨🇺 Another instance in which Bitcoin is seen to be helping individuals achieve some form of economic independence in an authoritarian regime.
💸 At least in mathematical theory, economic egalitarianism is possible.
🚀 Not all infinities are the same size, deep math reveals.
🪰 Everyone needs friends: Lonely flies overeat and lose sleep.
One topic I didn’t quite get round to this week was the paper published by dozens of Stanford Researchers on Foundational AI models and the risks they entail. Researchers explored the impacts of these new massive transformer-based models, like GPT-3, that we have explored so extensively in EV (See archives here.)
They drew attention to the need for “critical research on foundation models will require deep interdisciplinary collaboration commensurate with their fundamentally sociotechnical nature.” They also described these models are representing a “paradigm shift” in AI development because the models are trained on such broad data yet can be applied very generally.
It is a 212-page report, so it’s in the queue! Forgive me for not getting through all of it. Naturally, I roughly agree with what I have read so far: important technologies need interdisciplinary discussions of their social, economic, and power impacts. I even wrote a book on the topic!
🌟 And finally, to mark the end of the month (why not!), I’m talking about how founders can keep ahead of the curve in the Exponential Age on August 31st. The event is open to all. Would be happy for you to attend.
P.S. Don’t forget the special promotion we have right now: discounted access to EV premium & a copy of my new book.
Enter promo code EXPONENTIAL30 during checkout. The offer is open until Thursday, August 26, 11:59pm BST.
What you’re up to – notes from EV readers
An exceptionally powerful speech by EV reader Tom Tugendhat, on the Western powers’ retreat from Afghanistan
Paul Swider finished a serialised story called "you don't know fruit, jack." It is about a would-be do-gooder who stumbles on some dangerous collaborators in his quest to redeem himself in the eyes of his estranged family.
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