🔮 Fusion energy; The future of Moore’s Law; Transformers; Robotaxis & Nasa’s new telescope++ #350

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.

💡 Until November 30th (this coming Tuesday), my book is available in the UK for only 99p on the Kindle. Described by the Financial Times as “hard to beat” and “excellent” by the BBC, make sure to grab a copy before Amazon ends this deal. It’s also a great time to order a few copies of the hardback to give to friends for Christmas.


Today's edition has been supported by our knowledge partner, McKinsey & Company.

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Dept of near future

A revolution in energy

🌟 One of science’s most complex problems is tantalisingly in reach. The question of how we can harness the fusion reaction to create clean and limitless electricity has plagued scientists for over sixty years. Given the impressive achievements in green and renewable energy over the last decade, it would seem that nuclear fusion is behind the curve, but that’s changing rapidly. The challenge facing scientists and private companies racing towards a solution is which technological approach will succeed. How rapidly can we scale these technologies, and will they scale in the same way as solar energy has over the past two decades?

The potential upside for nuclear fusion is impressive. One glass of fuel created by nuclear fusion has the energy potential of one million gallons of oil, and unlike nuclear fission, the process doesn’t produce significant radioactive waste. While the Soviet Union pioneered research in the field, the great hope now lies in the private sector with companies aiming to get fusion power connected to energy grids by the 2030s. As Time magazine notes, “New advances in 3D printing (necessary for manufacturing equipment with hollow cavities), supercomputing (to calculate mass and energy), and material sciences (super thin, super-powerful magnetic tape) have led to a number of essential breakthroughs in recent months.”

Progress in fusion looks like it’ll see the private sector speed past publicly funded efforts. My hunch is that startups will beat the international collaboration reactor,  ITER, to useful fusion power and at a fraction of the cost. ITER is rumoured to need around tens of billions of dollars. [See also: A new study shows a plunge in lithium-ion battery costs, which is prompting a reexamination of the rate of lithium-ion technological improvements. In EV#339, we discussed Commonwealth Fusion Systems breakthroughs that relied on novel magnet technologies.]

Changing the playbook

💻 What does the current state of semiconductor manufacturing say about Moore’s Law? Before you rush to rethink your assumptions about technological progress, I can assure you that Moore’s Law isn’t dead. But it is changing. Fabricated Knowledge has an excellent breakdown of the current lay of the land. Growth in transistor-energy scaling and frequency scaling is slowing. The same is true for cost-scaling. This is compounded by the complexity of manufacturing semiconductors, which the current chip crisis has brought into sharp focus. Despite these changes, prices are still declining because the industry can respond and deliver lower costs.

I argue in my book that even though miniaturisation as a path of price-performance improvements in computing has started to run out of road, the industry will respond with other approaches: for example, novel architectures, systems innovations and cloud. This appears to be what we’re witnessing.

Transforming transformers

🔗 Transformers are one of the most interesting approaches to deep learning. Developed in 2017 by Google, they have taken research and industry by storm. They showed incredible flexibility in various generalised text-based tasks. OpenAI’s GPT series of transformers (the T in GPT stands for transformer) enabled text completion - including novel completions not in the original training data. (See my discussion back in July 2020 on this topic.) We’ve recently discovered that transformers are sufficiently general that they can move beyond natural language tasks into other domains, generalising not just across text tasks in natural language but in biology (for example in protein prediction) and in image and visual tasks.

Microsoft’s NuWA generates images from text prompts.cc

I came across Microsoft’s NuWa transformer recently and was quite impressed by its cross-domain capabilities. NuWa allows you to generate images and videos from text prompts, even for so-called “zero-shot” prompts (where the model hasn’t seen a query before). While the output might not yet look production-ready, it is likely to be soon. An accessible 20-minute video is here and a helpful tweetstorm is here.

It’s quite fascinating: partly because this kind of tool democratises content creation for good and ill. Tools like this might also be important for helping to develop the burgeoning multiple worlds of various metaverses. For the latest assessment of breakthroughs in AI, listen to my conversation with Ian Hogarth and Nathan Benaich, investors and authors of the State of AI report.

🔋Dept of decarbonisation

CO2 level 415.41 ppm | 3,161 days until we reach the 450ppm threshold

The latest measurement of atmospheric CO2 (as of November 26, 2021): 415.41 ppm; November 2020: 413.49 ppm; 25 years ago: 360 ppm; 250 years ago, est: 250 ppm.

🐋 Shell is moving forward with the transition to clean energy, but it’s a long process. The company plans to build a biofuels plant in Singapore to help meet its target of halving emissions by 2030. By itself, that’s fantastic news. However, looking at South Africa’s coastline this week, we see Shell is still in hot pursuit of hydrocarbons. The company’s leased Amazon Warrior ship just arrived in Cape Town as part of a seismic survey searching for oil and gas deposits on South Africa’s wild coast. The survey will require the use of sonar canons underwater. This is a direct threat to the many whales, dolphins, fish, and marine life that call the area home. The transition to green energy is a tricky business and can’t come soon enough.

✅ Sovereign wealth funds are making significant progress on climate change, according to a new survey. According to the 2021 IFSWF-OPSWF Climate Change Survey, 71% of sovereign wealth funds queried said they have “adopted an ESG approach”. This is a significant improvement over the 24% of survey respondents who said they had adopted similar positions in 2020. The next step is making sure investments take a proactive approach to climate change. ESG standards are fantastic but are more often reactive instead of proactive.

Short morsels to appear smart while exploring misinformation on Facebook

🔍 Karen Hao continues her incredible reporting at MIT Technology Review into how Facebook and Google fund global misinformation.

Apple’s augmented reality headset may launch next year and boast as much computing power as a Mac laptop.

🌍 A stunning photo essay revealing how Africa will become the centre of the world’s urban future.

🚢 The global supply chain is breaking down all at once, and you see the effects first-hand in California’s busiest port. 📦 If the global shortage issues weren’t enough, Black Friday is causing toxic traffic jams at major US ports.

🐺 The key to road safety? Wolves.

💉 This could save many lives: a smart artificial pancreas device senses blood glucose and administers insulin accordingly.

🤖 Get ready for robotaxis in Beijing. Baidu and Pony.ai have just won approval to deploy roughly 100 taxis in the Chinese capital. The firm’s cabs will be able to roam a 60 square kilometre zone (about the size of Manhattan).

🚀 Bitcoin’s growth over the past 11 years is remarkably stable.⚡️ Solana released its annual energy report, and it’s fascinating. A single Solana transaction uses roughly the same amount of energy as a single Google search.

🔭 One of the instruments on Nasa’s long-delayed telescope has 250,000 individually controlled shutters.

🧠 Scientists are using worms to understand the human brain better and predict smells with machine learning.

Endnote

One of my favourite research groups is the Oxford Martin School. More than 350 academics from across disciplines tackle the critical global priorities from AI to economic models to development and sustainability. Readers of this wondermissive will have read my research analyses springing from academics there, including Eric Beinhocker, Carl Frey, Penny Mealy, Doyne Farmer, Ian Goldin and others.

I was delighted when the director of the Martin School, Ian Goldin, described Exponential as a “tremendous book with far-reaching implications”. Ian kindly invited me to talk about the book. The discussion is being held in Oxford, but you can also listen in to the discussion via YouTube and other internet platforms. It is at 5.45pm UK time on Monday 29th November, a time that will work across the US and some parts of Asia. Please do join us.

Cheers,
Azeem


What you’re up to – notes from EV readers

Alex Robinson has announced the Circular Future Fund, a £1m grant fund in partnership between leading environmental nonprofit Hubbub and John Lewis.

Professor Alan Lesgold has co-created About Work, a periodic blog publication on Medium about the future of work.

Maury Shenk’s LearnerShape has been funded by the Cardano blockchain organisation for a universal skills authentication project.

Tilen Travnik and his startup Juicy Marbles are receiving a $4.5 million in seed raise to get their fancy plant-based filet mignon onto the market - and probably much more to come. (Another EV member, Alexis Caporale, is the investor in this round.)

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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AI and climate tech startup Carbon Re, dedicated to removing Gigatons of CO2eq from humanity’s emissions each year, is hiring a Senior Software Engineer (Full Stack).

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