🔮 Lab-grown meat; Small innovations; AI ethics; Dystopian adtech & the history of baklava ++ #341

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.

🎈 It’s my birthday on Monday and Marija’s is this week too. So if you are wondering what to get us, please treat yourself to a copy of my new book, EXPONENTIAL. (The Exponential Age in the US and Canada.)

The book argues for a reframing of how we organise and run our economies and societies. Having read a lot of books in the realms of the political economy and technology, I’m pleased about some of the many novel insights that are in it. So do get a copy—it’ll be a wonderful happy birthday to us!

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Dept of near future

The future of lab-grown meat

🌱 🐮Lab-grown meat might be the holy grail of a lower carbon diet. Not only does lab-grown meat cut out the cruelty of the animal agricultural industry, but it could dramatically reduce global carbon emissions. Naturally, it is prohibitively expensive today. It hasn’t yet walked down the learning curves that I describe in my new book.

It’s essential to make a clear distinction between lab-grown meat and plant-based alternatives. According to Axios, plant-based meat alternatives like Beyond Burger or the Impossible Burger are doing great business. Lab-grown alternatives, on the other hand, routinely miss product launch deadlines. David Humbrid, a chemical engineer who has spent years researching how to make the cell-culture process of lab-grown meat more cost-effective, concluded that the process “will be plagued by extreme intractable technical challenges at food scale”.

In a recent interview with The Counter, Humbrid said it was “hard to find an angle that wasn’t a ludicrous dead end.” Humbird’s discussion lays out many of the challenges to reducing the cost of cultured meat and it’s a detailed counterpoint to simplistic optimistic narratives of the space.

[See also: high-end French cooking is going vegan, and the recipes sound delicious]. For context on the industry, listen to my discussion with Aleph Farms' Co-Founder and CEO Didier Toubia.

Small steps forward

🤖 Even with advanced algorithms and data analysis platforms, it’s very difficult (if not impossible) to predict where the next big jump will take place with a degree of scientific certainty. While prediction might be out of the question, we can tell where and how existing technologies improve. This gives us great insight into the state of innovation. Through patent analysis, a new paper charting technology improvement rates found that more than 80% of technologies improve at less than 25% per year.

Distribution of Predicted Improvement rates (K-values in% per annum) for 1757 technology domains and best fit of the probability density function (lognorm).

The Wall Street Journal puts this finding in context, noting that “the underlying driver of this improvement is that all technologies, even software, are ultimately governed by the laws of physics, which over the long run determine just how far, and how quickly, we can get them to evolve.” This helps explain why big technology companies continue to snap up small rivals at a record pace. If the next significant advancement is unknown, it’s not a bad idea to purchase competitors to improve existing technologies.

ML ethics debate heats up

⚡️Five years ago, the Stanford One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence (AI100) determined that AI didn’t pose an immediate threat to humankind. Fast forward to the newly released report, and the Stanford panellists are now warning about possible dangers in the technology. For many AI and ML researchers, this doesn’t come as any surprise.

EV member Paola Bonomo tweeted that AI100 is a research program that is supposed to last for 100 years. Five years in, however, it finds "the field’s successes have led to an inflexion point: It is now urgent to think seriously about the downsides and risks that the broad application of AI is revealing."

Thomas Dietterich, a professor of AI at Oregon State University, pointed to another study advancing caution about machine learning. Comparing highly-cited papers about machine learning from 2008-2009 with papers from 2018-2019 published in NeurIPS and ICML, researchers discovered alarming trends. Virtually absent from the earlier papers, Dietterich notes, was concern about the end-users of ML systems (interpretability, fairness, privacy, user control, bias, etc) or the potential downstream harms of deployed ML systems.” Better scholarship about ML ethics and issues leads to a more robust discussion of the future we are all facing. That’s a good thing.

🔋Dept of decarbonisation

CO2 level 413.18 ppm | 3,210 days until we reach the 450ppm threshold

The latest measurement of atmospheric CO2 (as of September 22, 2021): 413.18 ppm; September 2020: 411.98 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.

⚡ Solar energy prices (yellow lines) are failing like a lightning bolt from the heavens. Via Tyler Bryant

Electric transformation: The lithium deficit in 2025 will be bigger than the entire industry was in 2016 [via Simon Moores]. Lilac Solutions is a startup using ion-exchange beads to extract lithium more sustainably and reliably.

Short morsels to appear smart while installing an ad blocker

👀 Online advertising is so pervasive and dangerous that the NSA and CIA have developed ad blockers.

🇪🇺 🇱🇹The European Union is getting serious about semiconductor sovereignty as Lithuania warns citizens not to buy Chinese smartphones over censorship concerns.

🚽 Nowhere is safe. Get ready for the era of the smart toilet.  

🍔 When McDonald’s came to Denmark, the chain created good jobs. This was thanks to organised labour.

🦠 More authoritarian attitudes and governance can translate into higher rates of infectious disease, a new study finds.

🤔 An incredible and not so pleasant look into what makes Peter Thiel tick.

🇺🇸 Forget about meme stocks. Some TikTokers are trading stocks by what members of Congress do.

📱The end of lightning or the beginning of portless phones? The EU is pushing for a one phone charging standard.

🇮🇳 Fantastic initiative: Indian ambulance sirens will be replaced by flute and tabla instruments. (Watch Zakir Hussain’s fantastically fast fingers on the tabla below.)

📚 A novel set entirely in Slack.

🍬 The sweet and multilayered history of baklava.


I’m speaking at a number of events in the coming weeks. Would be happy for you to drop by. They include:

Have a wonderful week! And if it’s your birthday too, happy birthday!

🥳 Azeem

What you’re up to – notes from EV readers

Jessica Valdez and Digital Catapult are launching a new global index and report on the 20th of September.

Abhishek Gupta published “The Imperative for Sustainable AI Systems”.

Congrats to Jaimie Boyd on her role as Partner and National Digital Government Leader with Deloitte Canada.

Ken Pucker published a new piece in Institutional Investor linking ESG investing to planetary impact.

Kent Langley published an article as the second part of a series on DAO's.

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.)

Exponential Jobs - future-building roles for our community

Every week, we curate jobs for our community, by our community. Our members are hiring in climate tech, blockchain, space tech, healthcare, future of work, among other areas. Here are the highlights:

Spark No. 9 is looking for a Creative Lead with strong storytelling skills to lead, inspire, collaborate with, and develop the growing creative team.

Build a Climate Startup is hiring a Venture Science Associate to lead technical diligence and analysis of venture creation opportunities in climate deeptech.

CitiVentures / D10x is looking for a Venture Builder / entrepreneur in residence to work with senior business leaders to discover, develop, build, take to market, and grow problems worth solving by Citi now.

X, the moonshot factory, is hiring a Moonshot Storyteller to inspire innovators, makers, entrepreneurs, and dreamers, inside and outside of X.

Tomorrow, startup on a mission to organise the world’s electricity data to drive tangible reductions in carbon emissions, is hiring a Head of Sales.

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