🔮 Science turns to AI; Omicron & public goods; xenobots & whale sounds ++ #351

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 laid out my thesis about the transition to the Exponential Age in my book Exponential.

🎙This week on the podcast
A decade into the artificial intelligence boom, scientists in research and industry are making incredible breakthroughs. Increases in computing power, theoretical advances and a rolling wave of capital have revolutionised domains from biology and design to transport and language analysis. In the latest podcast episode, I am joined by Murray Shanahan, a senior research scientist at DeepMind. In the course of the conversation, we explore:

  • 🧬 Why transformer models were a surprise breakthrough [13.10]
  • 🦊 How animal cognition can help us understand AI [28.47]
  • 🧠 Whether electric cars can “think” [41.24]

Listen wherever you get your podcasts, read a transcript here or an overview here.

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

Leaders and the net-zero push. Coming out of COP26, one thing is clear: net zero is now a core principle for business. But how will companies move from pledges and commitments to clear, detailed plans? A new article highlights five fundamental considerations to help executives as they chart the path ahead.

Dept of near future

Why crypto now

📉 Bitcoin suffered a mauling over the weekend with its price dropping more than 8% as I write this. It came as I was penning a note on the importance of crypto for members of Exponential View next week. I still meet many people who doubt the purpose or longevity of crypto. This includes professional investors who remain deeply sceptical. Not of whether cryptoassets are overvalued (after all, any market will have overvalued assets) or the energy issues that have plagued the sector, but what its raison d’être is.

I think crypto is both real in the sense that it has meaningful uses and here to stay in the sense that significant parts of economic activity will migrate towards crypto and crypto will create de novo sectors of activity. Here is a sneak preview of my argument. I’ve identified seven elements that suggest crypto is on a firm foundation: the quality of engineers and founders working in crypto; the scale of value committed (more than $2 trillion); the growth in the number of asset allocators adding crypto to portfolios; the increasing number of real use cases that only seem possible because of crypto; the breadth of mainstream and leftfield creativity and experimentation; the growing availability of onramps; and the recognition by regulators that they need to come up with new approaches to the sector.

I’ll cover this framework off next week for members of Exponential View.

But in the meanwhile, I can commend this long, instructive (although slightly unedited) outlook on crypto for 2022 from Messari, a research house.

Better science through AI

🤖 Advancements in artificial intelligence are leading to small but significant scientific breakthroughs across disciplines. I discussed this a couple of weeks ago with Nathan Benaich and Ian Hogarth. AI systems are helping us explore spaces that we couldn’t previously access. In biochemistry, for example, researchers are using AI to develop new neural networks that “hallucinate” proteins with new, stable structures. This breakthrough expands our capacity to understand the construction of a protein. In another discipline, researchers at Oxford are using DeepMind to develop fundamentally new techniques in mathematics. They have established a new theorem with the help of DeepMind, known as knot theory, by connecting algebraic and geometric invariants of knots.

A twisting protein structure modelled with AI

NASA scientists are taking these developments to space on the Kepler spacecraft. Using a neural network called ExoMiner, scientists have discovered 301 exoplanets outside of our solar system. We don’t need to wait for AI to create thinking machines and artificial minds to see dramatic changes in science. By enhancing our capacity, AI is transforming how we look at the world.  

Public goods and Covid variants

🦠 I have consistently praised the international scientific community for its open sharing of information regarding Covid-19. Without the quick dissemination of the virus genetic sequence, public health officials wouldn’t have been able to construct strategies to contain and combat the spread. Gathering such information costs money and thus draws the spotlight on public goods and the pandemic. South Africa’s quick identification of the Omicron variant drives this point home. The AIDS crisis forced South Africa to invest in cutting edge virus surveillance. It is this infrastructure that has detected the Omicron variant quickly. The latest reports suggest that Omicron might have even mutated in another Southern African country without the sophisticated monitoring of South Africa. As the Financial Times pointed out, Omicron highlights uneven genomic sequencing capabilities worldwide. We can’t stop Covid-19 from mutating, but we can ensure that our surveillance systems detect new variants early. South Africa has shown how vital this time cushion is for protecting vulnerable people worldwide. [See also: A new South African study finds that you’re three times more likely to get reinfected by Omicron.]

🔋Dept of decarbonisation

CO2 level 415.82 ppm | 3,154 days until we reach the 450ppm threshold

The latest measurement of atmospheric CO2 (as of December 2, 2021): 415.82 ppm; December 2020: 413.77ppm; 25 years ago: 360 ppm; 250 years ago, est: 250 ppm.

💨 The International Energy Agency (IEA), which has a spotty track record of predicting renewable energy trends, is out with new predictions on renewable energy growth. The IEA forecasts that 2021 will be a record year of growth for renewables. The group raised concern over high commodity prices. If prices remain high through 2022, the “cost of wind investments will go back to levels last seen in 2015 and three years of cost reductions for solar PV would be erased”. The direction of travel is evident despite the IEA’s warnings.

Short morsels to appear smart as living robots reproduce

👀 Facebook’s decision to eliminate facial recognition suggests that the company is learning about privacy issues. But that’s not the whole story.

🤖 Xenobots, the first living robots, can now reproduce. See also, artificial servants, surveillance systems, and sex robots have been part of humanity for thousands of years.

🐳 Thanks to a new AI, we might be able to talk to whales soon.

🇯🇵 Japan’s robotaxi experiment is going surprisingly well.

🇨🇳 Analysis of how China has made concerted efforts to shape international technology standards processes, leaving the US to catch up. (Standards may be dry and technical but framing them does confer some strategic advantage: political or cultural values can be embedded in standards and early access to emerging standards provides a valuable lead to one’s domestic industry.)

🕵️‍♂️ The NSO Group is one of the more influential actors in the global technology landscape. A fine deep dive into what makes the company tick.

👩‍💼 What can we learn from sixteenth-century business jargon?

👨‍🔬 Science has become extraordinarily technocratic and complex. Is the decisive and straightforward experiment still a worthy ideal?

🐷 Pigs have been observed using tools for the first time.


If you are looking for some light-hearted comedy to brighten winter days, I can recommend Acapulco on Apple TV. And for those of you for whom it is summer now, queue it up for June’s chilly evenings!


What you’re up to – notes from EV readers

Congrats! Jay Lemery was elected to the National Academy of Medicine.

CTO Dan Brunner announced that Commonwealth Fusion Systems has raised $1.8 billion in funding to make nuclear fusion a commercial reality.

Maartje Bus and her team at Messari published their crypto theses for 2022, along with their first collection of NFTs.

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