🔮 Quantum puzzle; crypto & the mirror of Erised; dark proteome ++ #357

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.

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

Do you have the right people to support your cloud ambitions? Investment in cloud transformations tripled between 2017 and 2021—but companies haven’t matched that frenetic pace on the talent front. And cloud is a crucial battleground for tech talent, especially given there’s more than $1 trillion of new value at stake. A new article lays out six actions for building the cloud talent you need.

🎙This week on the podcast

I spoke to my friend and EV member, world-leading neuroscientist,  Anil Seth about one of science’s most fascinating current issues: consciousness. Our conversation was wide-ranging, touching on how humans “hallucinate” their realities, whether an AI could ever become truly conscious, and what the science of the brain c an teach us about the metaverse. And, of course, the meaning of life - all the light stuff.

You can 🎧 listen to our conversation here or 📜 read a full transcript.

The near future

🧩 Quantum Computing: A possible bust?
Today the quantum computing industry exists as a wave function, a superposition of several states. It is all together the greatest invention of humanity; a powerful computer; an interesting tool; a false hope; a hype-driven balloon.

We’ve been getting hints and insights that this uncertainty may soon disappear, and quantum computing may deliver its awaited potential (somewhere between the first and second states mentioned in the list above). There’s growing industry interest in applying these new machines. Enterprising companies are already starting to plan for a world of quantum, even if it’s years down the road.

But what if, maybe, quantum computing is a bust? The technologies are complex, the scientists are elite and everyone has an incentive to present progress (progress means funding). Just because we have the idea, doesn’t mean we will be capable of using it wisely. The ramifications could be far and wide, argue Simson Garfinkel and Chris Hoofnagle.

If you want to dig deeper into quantum computing, listen to my discussions with Chad Rigetti and Jeremy O’Brien.

🚘 Self-driving cars
Brad Templeton is a software engineer who has advised autonomous vehicle firms like Waymo, Zoox and Cruise. He assessed the “Full-Self Driving” mode of the Tesla. He gave it an F: “Using it is a harrowing experience. It's definitely not relaxing or providing assistance.” This goes to show that we are still miles away from having the fully developed technology ready for self-driving cars.

Even dedicated autonomous vehicle firms have a far-from-perfect record. In California, nearly 1,500 autonomous vehicles, operated by robotaxi shops like Cruise and Waymo, had testing licences in 2021. This was up from under a thousand in 2020. But accidents more than doubled to 53 in 2021.

The Journal of Risk and Uncertainty in Engineering Systems reviews safety data on California AV trials. One study last year pointed out that autonomous vehicles tend to crash more than humans do. However, a majority of these incidents are rear-enders. This is partly because human drivers struggle to anticipate the driving style of the autonomous vehicle,demonstrating that these technologies still have some way to go. Test vehicles will also have substantially more maintenance, care and supervision than commercial vehicles once they are rolled out.

Interestingly enough in the UK, the Law Commission has proposed that a driver relying entirely on a self-driving system would no longer be at-fault for accidents. Instead, liability would fall on the manufacturer.

🍎 Juicy Apple
Despite one of the most challenging years in history, Apple had its most profitable quarter ever: $123.9bn in revenue, up 11% YoY, and $34.6bn in profits. Chip shortages cost the firm $6bn. Spending on Apple services now runs to about $100 per user per year Services now make up around a sixth of revenues (and are twice as big as the Mac computer business).

Apple’s franchise has proved robust. There are approximately 1.8bn Apple devices out there. And Apple services ecosystem counts nearly 800m subscribers, up from less than 400m a couple of years ago, according to analyst Neil Cybart.

I’m quite impressed. Sure, the company flubbed home entertainment devices (the HomePod was a bust and don’t talk to me about the Apple TV remote) and its automotive ambitions are certainly playing out slowly. But the appeal of its end-user devices remains, together with demonstrably capability to deliver a services-based business. At around $19bn a quarter, Apple’s subscriber business is about 2-3 times bigger than Netflix.

It’s not unreasonable to believe that having mastered phones, watches, subscriptions, refurbishments and payments, they’re well positioned for the future platforms like the metaverse.

Sunday commentary: The mirror of Otpyrc

Crypto is often associated with right-leaning or libertarian tendencies. Many involved with crypto view governments with a decent amount of skepticism. The idea that fiat power creates money and enforces the sanctity of that money through state violence comes straight out of some schools of libertarian thinking. If your dream parents were Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard, then crypto was for you. Or so the argument went.

However, analysis of Web3 and the structure of crypto projects is telling us there’s more to crypto-politics than libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism. Rather, crypto resembles the Mirror of Erised which, in the words of Albus Dumbledore, shows us the “deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts.” For the right, crypto may provide liberation for the tyranny of government and hierarchy, freeing the people from the yoke of statism and government bureaucracy.​​

This mirror of Erised (a.k.a. mirror of Otpyrc) also has something to offer those with less libertarian political views: centrists, communitarians and left-leaners can all get something from this emergent technology. Just look at the cryptocommunists.

Chris Dixon, a crypto convert who runs a crypto-oriented investment fund at A16Z, puts one case clearly. Crypto-land (or Web3 as we now call it) allows the creation of new public goods.

So let’s contextualize. The internet which I grew up with was a space of seemingly public goods. The protocols themselves generated network externalities, but there were limited choke points. Those externalities were shared by all users of the Internet. The shift to web 2.0 introduced incentives to control those network effects and the shift towards closed platforms. The social good of the network effect was privatized. In Dixon’s argument, protocol-based networks, as are common in Web3, create new public goods whose governance is more open and somewhat immune to being sequestered by a centralized power.

The services available on Web3 are not quite public goods in the same way that we might consider clean air, spillover effects of education, or investment in road infrastructure to be public goods. Economists formally think of public goods as ones which are non-rivalrous (meaning we can both consume them) and non-excludable (meaning I can’t stop you from using them).

After all, participation in the Helium network requires you to pay to participate.

But there is something distinct about Web3-based services which make them feel a bit like public goods. First, they are protocol-based, rather than platform-based. So just as you can change your phone handset and keep your phone number, you can move from one product or service to another and keep the data relevant to the protocol you are using. Protocols are the driving force behind interoperability, and interoperability is kryptonite to these centralised platforms.

There is another angle of crypto that speaks to social goods rather than as a private enclosure. The underlying mechanics of distributed authority, the trust that is mathematically secured rather than centrally-enforced, enables certain types of cooperative behaviours. The underlying game-theory mechanics can be used to enable cooperation, allow collective action and perhaps apply the practical application of the Principles of Mutualism.

I’ll pick up three example:

  • A couple of months ago, Drife, a competitor to Uber, launched in Bangalore. The Drife protocol enables the creation of Uber-style competitors in multiple markets.  Travellers and drivers negotiate fees for rides on a bidding basis. Unlike Uber or Lyft, drivers take 100% of the fee. Should Drife work, it will provide a less centralised, more democratic approach to running ride-sharing systems. Drivers can (if they have the time, skills and inclination) participate in the governance process of the underlying token, and can easily launch their own franchises (individually or collectively). It’s in the early days, but within the first couple months of operation, even under the shadow of Covid, Drife notched up 350 drivers and 3,000 riders in Bangalore alone.
  • PoolFoundation is a young project seeking to build “data unions”, a way for individuals to act collectively around the exploitation of any data to which they may have rights. Long-term readers of this newsletter will know of my interest in collective approaches to benefiting from aggregate data. Today’s models largely rely on data monopolies stockpiling and exploiting that data. Collective approaches (which are still few and far between) change the balance of power  away from centralised aggregators and towards the end users, acting together
  • Filecoin, the decentralised storage project based on the IPFS protocol, is huge. At the end of 2021, Filecoin counted 3600 unique storage providers contributing some 14 exabytes of storage of which some 25 petabytes are in use. (Network storage grew 9-fold in a year and usage increased 16 times.) In one of their recent updates examining Filecoin Plus, the team claims to be inspired by the work of Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel laureate best known for her work on governing the commons. Ostrom’s work, developed at the same time as (and in contrast to) the markets-first approach of Chicago School economics that was escaping the academy and becoming the political creed of Britain and America.

Who knows if any of these projects will succeed in the long-term? It is the case that many of the early researchers in cryptographically-based digital cash favor libertarianism. But it is also the case that from this set of technologies and design principles, many different ends can be served, including ideas of mutualism, collectivism and the commons.

The Mirror of Erised indeed.

P.S. Can’t avoid highlighting this week: Bitcoin drops further as the White House announces plans to regulate crypto. It’s amazing how Bitcoin has developed over the last decade from a niche for cypherpunks all the way to a threat on American National Security. Read an earlier essay about regulating crypto by EV member Kevin Werbach.

Dept of our climate future

In every Sunday edition, we track key metrics that tell us a little about our shared climate future. Read here to find out what these metrics mean and why I consider them relevant.

Every week, EV member, former tech journalist and entrepreneur Marshall Kirkpatrick curates stories for our climate future for you all. “This week’s selected stories,” Marshall says, “are about a victory blocking oil production, a global race for wind power leadership, and a story about how to shorten the timeline to decarbonization. None of it alone is enough, all of it together is great momentum to build on.”

👏 The largest sale of off-shore oil and gas drilling leases in US history has been blocked by a federal judge, saying the Biden administration did not sufficiently account for the climate impacts of the sale. The successful suit, brought by plaintiffs Friends of the Earth, Healthy Gulf, Sierra Club, and Center for Biological Diversity, was filed against Interior head Deborah Haaland, the State of Louisiana and the American Petroleum Institute. Climate leader Bill McKibben called it “a real win,” and celebration emanated throughout the climate community.

🌬️🇨🇳 China is now the #1 producer of off-shore wind energy in the world, according to new reports from the IEA. By adding 16.9GW of new production in 2021, the Chinese economy now produces 2.5X more off-shore wind than the UK, the world’s previous leader. A total of 47.6GW of new production capacity was reportedly built across on and off-shore in China last year. For context, last week’s giant auction of off-shore wind leases in Ireland, which would represent about half of the UK’s annual energy consumption, will deliver an estimated 25GW of new energy when built.

🔋 Shipping giant Maersk is launching what it calls the world’s first off-shore electric vehicle charging network. Their StillStrom recharging buoys can now recharge idling ships. The global shipping industry reportedly emits more greenhouse gases than all the coal power plants in the US combined. Earlier this month, Maersk announced it was accelerating its target for carbon neutrality, including scope 2 and 3 emissions, to 2040.  Maersk’s adoption of methanol-powered ships was critiqued in a CleanTechnica article this summer and debated extensively in comments there. See also this scathing June NYT report on the shipping industry’s interference with UN climate efforts, albeit with no mention of Maersk.

Short morsels to appear smart while appreciating human driving skills

🧮 Father of information theory Claude Shannon not only invented logic gates and non-numerical computer programming, but arguably machine learning, too.

😬 Underwater cables transport 95% of the world’s data, yet the rules that protect them are in desperate need of modernisation. They date back to 1884 and were designed for... the telegraph.

⚖️ Merck has won a lawsuit against its insurer for the 2017 NotPetya cyber ransomware. The court ruled that the cyberattack was not an Act of War, revealing the ambiguous status of cyberattacks compared to traditional warfare. In other court news: an Alabama farmer is suing John Deere for his right to repair, joining the movement against expensive and inconvenient repair practices.

⌛ Middle Eastern and North African women are stuck in the patrilineal trap, the negative feedback loop that excludes women from wage labour

🤩 The dark proteome is where the proteins that scientists haven’t found yet hide. Finding them is one of the biggest challenges in biology.

🌟 There are about 40 quintillion – more or less 1% of all normal matter – stellar-mass black holes in the observable universe.

👨‍🎤 Vamp drill, maplekore, dutch sigilkore, robloxcore, rocket tempo: all examples of the proliferating soundcloud microgenres.

🔤 Data scientists crack Wordle using Twitter to correctly guess the daily puzzle on the first attempt.

End note

Thanks to EV member Duncan Arbour, who is my go-to resource for myths and legend, for helping this week. I was looking for a classical reference to an object—or creature—who showed a person whatever was in their heart. Quick call to Duncan who usually has this information top of mind.

We struggled to find one, but Duncan then realised that the Mirror or Erised from Harry Potter fits the bill.


What you’re up to – notes from EV readers

Diogo Nogueira Leite and Jorge Félix Cardoso co-authored this article about how a European Parliament report is misrepresenting the risks and benefits of health AI.

Two interviews of Josh Berson with ABC radio have aired this week: one on the deep future of urbanisation, the other on the difficulties of having stuff.

Jordan Kallman wrote an essay about how Web3 will transform the event ticket and change the design dynamics of the experience economy.

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