🔮 The future of the car; new democracies; here come the bots; renewables & imagination ++ #348

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. I wrote a book explaining the opportunities and challenges of the Exponential Age. For readers in the 🇬🇧 UK, get your copy on Kindle for 99p by ordering before the end of this month.

This week on the podcast

I speak with Ramya Swaminathan, CEO of Malta Inc, an energy storage startup that uses existing manufacturing and construction infrastructure to contribute to building a stable electric grid of the near future. Ramya and I discuss:

  • ☀️ Why progress in grid storage could hit an exponential tipping point [08.10]
  • ⛏️ How Malta could convert coal plants and stem job losses [21.10]
  • 🌐 How a decentralised grid will change the energy market [46.40]

Listen here, read a transcript here, read a summary here.

Dept of near future

The future of the car is now

🚙 Everywhere you look, the electric vehicle sector is surging. Global automakers are now planning to spend more than half a trillion dollars on EVs and batteries in the next eight years. Three years ago, Reuters found that automakers were only planning to spend $300bn on EVs. The commitment is remarkable but what is also astonishing is that it took Tesla to become far and away the most valuable car firm in the world for the incumbents to wake up.  

Foxconn, for example, just released a prototype SUV that will sell for less than $36,000. We are still waiting for firm details on Apple’s electric vehicle but given the aura surrounding Apple products, it will certainly drive even more expansion of the sector.

The actualisation of self-driving cars is also propelling the industry forward. Cruise, the self-driving subsidiary of General Motors, just launched a driverless robotaxi service in San Francisco. The programme is launching for employees of Cruise first. [See also: Apple hired a Telsa autopilot software director for its car programme. Rivian, the Amazon-backed EV maker, has a market valuation of more than $100bn after its IPO. That’s bigger than GM.]

Better democracy

There are many experiments going on with democratic mechanisms. I’ve been a fan of deliberative methods which allow groups of citizens to take their time exploring issues. Through a process of facilitated deliberation, where experts and advocates present arguments, a citizen’s jury can tease out the real issues that society might face. It helps frame contentious issues and that framing can be used by lawmakers or even in a plebiscitary referendum.

One great example of this process working was in Ireland back in 2018 when a series of citizen’s juries led to a referendum on reviewing a constitutional ban on abortion. A study of the epistemic effects of public debates by Suiter et al, shows that the citizen’s juries have led to a better quality of deliberation and more nuanced debate than the one that followed in the legislature. (It’s an accessible academic paper which is worth reading. h/t Claudia Chwalisz)

I’ve also been fascinated by how legitimacy for governance decisions can occur within decentralized autonomous organisations. Reddit may be experimenting with using cryptocurrency to enhance user interaction—and crucially giving users the ability to shape their communities based on group decisions.

The robots are here

🤖 In EV#345, I wrote about an exciting hypothesis by Seth Benzell and Victor Yifan Ye that automation can help wage stagnation. A new study found that American companies have added a record number of robots in 2021. According to data from the Association for Advancing Automation, North American factories ordered 29,000 robots valued at $1.48bn this year. That’s a 37% jump from last year. Labour markets are complicated: “many firms have struggled to lure back workers displaced by the pandemic and view robots as an alternative to adding human muscle on their assembly lines.” Four million workers are missing from the US economy–choosing, perhaps, not to return to low-quality jobs after the pandemic.

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