🔮 Fusion & AI; crypto critique; neutrino mass; micromobility++ #360

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.

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Design for sustainability. The “great cleanup” is underway across industries, and the quest for a sustainable future requires actions on many fronts, including a crucial aspect: design. Up to four-fifths of a product’s lifetime emissions are determined by decisions made at the design stage. Here’s what you need to know about green product development, R&D, and design for sustainability.

🎙This week on the podcast

This week, I sat down with Horace Dediu, the world’s leading expert on micromobility – urban travel in vehicles like electric bikes and scooters. The market for those vehicles is growing rapidly as the world’s population continues to urbanise. Horace talks me through how the proliferation of small vehicles could make our cities greener and more liveable – and how big tech firms like Apple and Meta might lean into the trend.

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

The near future

🇨🇦 Oh, Canada!
I’ve found the recent events in Canada to be quite astounding. The use of emergency powers to quell trucker protests may have catalysed something more dramatic. Izabella Kaminska, one of the most thoughtful and sceptical analysts of bitcoin, describes it as the “M-Pesa moment for bitcoin”.

Kaminska points out that:

M-pesa, the hugely popular privately-managed parallel currency (in the Tether sense) of Kenya, didn’t gain the popular ground it now holds because of a simple launch campaign by Safaricom. What cemented its mass adoption was the practical utility it offered the population in the aftermath of the post-election chaos of 2008… For Kenya this was a pivotal economic moment, as it represented the point when the core banking system became beholden to a private telecoms group.

Kaminska’s observation is that what might seem to be heavy-handed interventions in Canada may have created a case for crypto:

Crypto is a terrible system. And I would seriously rather not operate via its channels. But with great centralisation comes great authority [which the Canadian government seems to have abused], and having a pesky challenger in the mix is probably a good thing. It keeps the core system honest.

(See also this response by the makers of a self-custodial Bitcoin wallet to a court order mandating they release user information. The exponential gap between Canada’s legal-institutional frame and bitcoin is visible.)

🤠 Is the vibe shifting?
Are we on the cusp of the next movement? Maybe, and perhaps it “is unnerving because when you really consider it, you can feel people flocking to a new thing. [...] something has shifted.”

I find this question particularly interesting because it is the kind of emergent behaviour that we might expect to see at times of transition. What kind of direction does it take and how does it end up expressing itself in our lives? The Arts & Crafts movement of the late 19th century resisted the mechanistic in favour of the ornate. But technologies marched on: the car, mass production, telephones, increasing urbanisation. So by the 1920s, the creative community had embraced technologies and other markers of modernity. The Modern Movement brought mechanisms to the form. Le Corbusier saw houses as “machines for living in”. Bauhaus brought its distinctive theory that drove the style. The written word too took a turn, a vibeshift: Joyce, Pound and Eliot. (Listen to this exceptional podcast on the subject.)

What might this mean today? In the Exponential Age, we’re much more interconnected, more susceptible to fads but also meaningful changes. Consider the NFT market, from nothing to $40bn in 2021. Even if crypto is over-valued tenfold, that is remarkable momentum. I don’t have an answer but I do have a sense that we should discuss the question: what does it mean if the vibe is shifting?

🌡️ AI’s fusion control
Scientists have struggled for years to control the 150,000,000ºC temperatures of plasma in fusion reactors. Researchers are coming to find that machine learning approaches might help. Google’s fusion group applied AI to experiments with the fusion company TAE about five years ago. Now, DeepMind, using their deep reinforcement learning playbook, has reached a milestone in this control problem. In simulations, they were able to control not one but two blobs of plasma to their physical limit for the materials inside the tokamak reactor. The publication in Nature describing the resultant findings is worth the read.

This milestone is fascinating, as EV member Ramsay Brown pointed out, because it suggests the control problem is solved. In some sense, the challenge of fusion is now a material science problem. Can we build containment units from materials that last as long as our machine-learning control systems can handle the hot plasma for us? Of course, machine learning will help in the discovery of new materials, as this technical review points out. (One example of ML-driven material discovery: a group at the University of Liverpool found four new materials last year.)

Sunday commentary: Shadow blocking

David Rosenthal, a world-renowned computer researcher, wrote a many-hued critique of crypto. It’s a great piece that raises several interesting questions. I commend it, and if you haven’t read it, you should. As a caveat, I don’t agree with a lot of his argument, including ancillary points around energy trends, but there are specific points he makes that I do think are worth giving some consideration to.

As you might expect, it spurred a cavalcade of responses around the Internet. For example, EV member Sutha Kamal writes a long rebuttal of the central claims. And Brian Behlendorf, the man behind the Apache webserver and involved in Hyperledger, the permissioned blockchain, adds nuance to the arguments.

Both Sutha and Brian make comments that are hard to summarise, so I won’t do that.

Instead, I want to draw on a couple of threads that are rather entwined. One is the notion of “socially valuable” resource utilisation: that crypto uses resources that are not put to good use. The other is that crypto has baked in it an inexorable logic of greater resource use.

Socially valuable

Rosenthal suggests that cryptocurrencies “compete with more socially valuable [uses of power]”, that is there are more worthwhile things to do with resources than the computations needed to secure blockchains.

This argument strikes me as having three problems. The first is judging what “socially valuable” really is. “Socially valuable” encompasses a broad range of often conflicting activities. Dictating what “socially valuable” means, in extremis, is inimical to ideas of freedom.

The rest of this essay is open to members of Exponential View. Get your membership for $120/year or $12/month to get unlimited access to my commentary.

Dept of our climate future

In every Sunday edition, we track key metrics that tell us a little about our shared climate future. We’re experimenting with different formats, so they may vary from one week to the next.

We have invited EV member Marshall Kirkpatrick to curate stories about our climate future in this section every week.

“This week’s stories suggest an emerging future of exponential change and paradigm transformations,” Marshall says. “They also raise questions: What will the next big wins look like, as new multi-GW renewable projects become increasingly common? How can emerging operational knowledge today become foundational tomorrow? And can we make the changes to the relationship between humans and the rest of the earth that are required for responsible, accountable, and just transformation?”

Cleaner corporations: How much clean energy are the corporations of the world buying? Led by Microsoft and Amazon, global corporate procurement of clean energy, mostly solar, grew 24% year over year in 2021, to more than 30 GW, according to Bloomberg NEF and PV Magazine. To put that in perspective, 1 GW powers 3.125 million photovoltaic panels. Membership in the RE100, the widely-respected group for global corporations committed to 100% renewable energy use, grew 23% this year to 355 firms. RE100 says that almost ⅔ of its new members from last year were headquartered in Asia, and called last month for governments to remove regulatory barriers to corporate clean power procurement.

Sunny solar: BloombergNEF’s annual predictions in solar power have been published for 2022. The firm predicts that 2022 will be the first year in which more than 200GW of solar will be installed around the world, that solar module prices will fall to 25 U.S. cents per Watts in 1H, and decline another 10 to 15 percent in 2H, thanks to expected resolution of solar supply chain bottlenecks. See also:  Australian renewable energy investors have registered commercial interest in an estimated 40GW of energy projects worth $100B in the traditionally coal-dependent area of Hunter-Central Coast.

Giant ambitions: The Abu Dhabi-based global International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the world’s largest utility company, the State Grid Corporation of China, have released a 136 page document titled Smart Electrification with Renewables: Driving the Transformation of Energy Services. The document discusses strategies and trade-offs to support a scenario where global electricity consumption doubles by 2050 but global temperature increase remains “well below 2C.”

Keep climbing: Dutch research leader Auke Hoekstra, known for his role debunking misinformation against electric vehicles in the 2020 Astongate controversy, this week shares and comments on a collection of the most-recent scientific studies about the evolution of energy systems. He calls for a shift away from hopelessness. “We are heading towards 2.2-2.7C on average according to the latest science,” he writes, “which compared to ~10 years ago is very good news and brings 2C by 2100 within ‘easy’ reach… So no reason whatsoever for a victory lap. But plenty of reasons to think this is a hole we can climb out of if we are willing to focus on decoupling wealth and happiness from robbing and polluting the earth.”

Short morsels to appear smart while manipulating plasma

🤭 Is the big tech just beginning?

🚲 Covid, lay-offs, and Sex and the City: inside Peloton’s rocky recent run.

😍 Researchers are getting close to discovering the mass of the most mysterious elementary particle: the neutrino.

🤥 AI-generated faces look more trustworthy than natural faces.

💥 JP Morgan joins the metaverse.

🌍🎮 Africa is becoming the world’s fastest growing video game market.

📴 We’re one step closer to using satellites and quantum physics for fully secure communication.

Group bike buses are the new way for kids to go to school.

End note

I’m sure many of you have been observing the events unfolding in Ukraine. I’ve found LiveUAMap to be a useful and reliable aggregator. Here is to a peaceful resolution as soon as possible.


What you’re up to – notes from EV readers

Rachel Osnos and her team published the latest edition of the StateUp21 report, featuring key trends and profiles of the most exciting startups in public-purpose tech.

Rumman Chowdhury co-authored “A Silicon Valley love triangle: hiring algorithms, pseudo-science, and the ques for auditability”, a paper outlining the socio-technical approach to audit automated hiring tools.

Josh Bushueff launched a pilot project cultivating kelp in Massachusetts, USA, to explore carbon sequestration and bioremediation through seaweed. He shares his journey here.

Kevin Bloch has published his predictions for the ICT trends of 2022-2023.

Kris Østergaard co-authored "Ethics at Work: Dilemmas of the Near Future and How Your Organization Can Solve Them".

Paul Swider published “19, of flight and freedom”, in which he imagines a world where the Olympics replace wars.

Jay Lemery co-authored an essay arguing that a new era of climate action calls for educating physicians in climate resilience.

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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