🔮 Ideas about ideas; weak ties at work; cleaning lithium up; mental time travel & crumbling buildings ++ #329

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.

📚 My book, Exponential (The Exponential Age in the US and Canada), is a comprehensive guide to the near future of accelerating technologies and our collective being in the Exponential transition. Get a gift copy of my book with annual membership to Exponential View. Sign up here, and I'll send you a copy once it’s out on 7 September!

🎧 In the latest podcast conversation, I tackled the question of reigning in Facebook with the company's VP of Global Affairs, Nick Clegg. I was surprised by where the discussion took us. Listen here.

Dept of the near future

Ideas about ideas

🧠 Carlota Perez’s writing on techno-economic revolutions was instrumental for me in the writing of my forthcoming book Exponential. Her ideas are big and insightful — I quote them a lot and spoke to Carlota on the podcast a few years ago.

Enter John Danaher, a young Irish philosopher focusing on the moral philosophy of technology. Danaher uses Perez’s framework, the installation phase and the deployment phase, to explore how morality might be shaped by technological revolutions.

New ways of doing business generate new power relationships, new expectations, and new duties. This requires a new moral paradigm. But moral life does not begin and end in the market and so techno-moral paradigms are likely to affect non-economic aspects of life too.

This is also a theme of my book, so I enjoyed the argument and I think you might too.

[See also: Shannon Vallor argues for the importance of enriching the technological imagination through ideas from arts and humanities. The Economist argues for the ditching of the shibboleth of equilibrium from the discipline of economics.]

Weak ties and the future of work

👔 Has your ability to network been affected by a year of remote working? There are some ideas in sociology literature for why this is. In a new report on the future of work, which I recommend in its entirety, researchers at Microsoft remind us of the theory of strong and weak ties in social relationships. Strong ties consist of people with who we work closely, while weak ties might be people who we occasionally say hello to or know through contact. Weak ties are important to networking and collaboration because they often come from diverse backgrounds and have diverse interests. Over the last year of remote working, our weak ties have dried up since we are no longer in natural settings (like offices or conference rooms) where we can facilitate them. A paper from 2015 suggested that weak ties, in the form of Twitter connections, could make employees more creative. With more of us working remotely, I’m curious about startups explicitly tackling this problem.

Despite this gap, more data is showing that millions of people would rather quit their jobs instead of going back to the office. [See also: Remote work is a new “signing bonus” for new employees. UBS finds a hybrid work from home/office model that it wants to stick with permanently.]

The sustainability of lithium-ion batteries

🔋 Demand for lithium-ion batteries is going through the roof and unlikely to come down anytime soon. According to Nature, the market for lithium-ion batteries is projected to grow from $30bn in 2017 to $100bn in 2025. With so much money pouring into the sector, new questions over the sustainability of extraction and the ethical treatment of labourers are coming to light. In the desert regions of Chile and Argentina, the leading producers of lithium and cobalt, huge amounts of energy and water are used in the extraction process. Child labour and unsafe practices are all too common in the harvesting of these materials in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo. New standards must be put in place to address these challenges, as lithium-ion batteries are pivotal to the renewable energy revolution well underway.

Data-heavy AI

⚫️ Earlier this week, Carl Frey and I discussed the “AI great game” at the DLD Conference, and in it the topic of very large AI models showed up. The deep learning wave has grown the appeal of massive machine learning models that demand oodles of compute and masses of data. Models have gotten so large that the largest cost tens of millions of in compute dollars to train.

AI model size (Source: Microsoft)

The pressure for compute that can shift large amounts of data has resulted in innovation in the chip industry, “data-driven chip architectures” being a priority in parts of the industry. It now matters that chip designers reduce “the distance that data needs to travel, in turn [reducing] the amount of energy required to move that data.”

Nowhere is this more true than with Cerebras’s enormous “wafer-scale hardware” which, for now, replaces Moore’s Law’s protocol for performance through miniaturisation with a new mantra of performance from the overall physical size of a chip. Cerebras’ chips are huge.

One antidote to larger chips, may be to use photonics in deep learning, as argued by Ryan Hammerly. The first cloud-accessible photonics processors for deep learning were launched earlier this year by EV reader, Igor Carron.

Another might be to find alternative approaches to building AI systems that don’t require scads of data and compute. As I suggested in my discussion with Carl above, the fact that big-data models are working commercially and that the semiconductor and cloud industry is largely supporting those approaches could add more momentum, rather than less, momentum to this method, inelegant though it may seem.

Dept of decarbonisation

CO2 level 418.25 ppm | 3,259 days until we reach the 450ppm threshold

The latest measurement of atmospheric CO2 (as of June 30, 2021): 418.25 ppm; May 2021: 419 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.

🌱 Bitcoin’s environmental footprint is one of the most controversial aspects of the technology. As it stands, mining Bitcoins requires a substantial amount of electricity that often originates from destructive sources such as coal power. But what if we have reached peak Bitcoin emissions and it's downhill from here?  A piece generating debate this week suggests that emissions from Bitcoin will be less than a third of what they are today by 2026. By 2031, the emissions will be zero. The reason put forth is simple: it will become cheaper to mine Bitcoin using clean energy and the only motivation that miners have is maximizing profits.

🇷🇺 😱 The vast tundra of Russia’s far north is greatly affected by climate change. So much so that some of the region’s buildings are starting to crumble as the land shifts from thaws in the tundra and permafrost. With average temperatures along Russian’s Arctic coast rising as much as 4.95 degrees celsius since 1998, there is grave concern that massive Soviet-era apartment buildings will encounter problems with their foundations. The country’s Minister of Natural Resources says that 40 per cent of all buildings in the north are “now experiencing deformation in their building structure.”

🔥Too hot to live: The city of Jacobabad in Pakistan is pushing the limits of human existence due to its record-breaking heat and humidity.

The temperature in Jacobabad last Sunday. Source: World Weather Online

Short morsels to appear smart during the Antarctic winter

🧬 Taking tinkering too far? Biohackers are demanding the right to use mRNA technology to alter their own biology (and they are meeting some resistance).

🔬 Elite scientists are increasingly going into the deep tech startup world. Here’s why. Listen to my conversation about deep tech and abundance with Matt Ocko.

🍎 The relationship between Apple and Google has been rocky over the years but Apple has quietly become Google’s largest corporate customer for cloud storage, with a roughly $300mn spend forecast for 2021.

🥼 Concerning: lipophilic statins to lower cholesterol more than doubles risk of developing dementia.

🚜 Some countries are experiencing a positive boom in farming due to climate change (while most others are negatively affected).

🇺🇸 First, it was training dolphins and then the US navy tried to turn whale songs into secret codes during the Cold War.

🗣 Hinting at possible developments in human speech, researchers translated a bird's brain activity into song.

♟ The chess world had a big 2020 but all isn’t well as chess fans booed at this year’s world championship over the use of new data models that hinge on the average centipawn loss by game.

👩‍💻Unlocking value: McKinsey finds that economies that embrace data sharing for finance could see GDP gains of between 1 and 5 per cent by 2030.

🕺 The creator economy is booming. Hirings for creators have increased a staggering 489,000% since 2016.

🧠 Scientists have discovered new “time cells” in the brain that regulate the flow of time and thus could enable “mental time travel”.

🌱 You don’t have to be a “vegan” to be a vegan.


This was a baffling intersection of several recent trends: a hospital temperature sensor only allows access to staff with “normal temperatures”, part of the Covid safety theatre. But the air temperature, courtesy of our increasingly extreme climate, is above the normal human body temperature range. Result: a failed test, and a simple algorithm that won’t allow staff access.

My bingo card didn't have that on it! We live in interesting times.


🥵 Azeem

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What you’re up to – notes from EV readers

Nicolas Russell is wrapping up his work as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Conception X after three years, and passing the coaching baton to another EV member, Rodolfo Rosini.

Rafeal Kaufmann and Jacob Taylor published a paper called “An Active Inference Model of Collective Intelligence” in Entropy.

Annalee Bloomfield and her team at Sustain.Life, a software startup that specializes in B2B solutions for corporate sustainability efforts, are hiring a Head of Design.

To share your projects and updates, fill out your details here. Because of space constraints, we prioritize 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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