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.
🎙This week on the podcast: The future of warfare is here
Three years ago, I discussed how technology is changing warfare with former commander of the UK’s Joint Forces Command, General Sir Richard Barrons. As war returns to Europe, I found it important to bring this conversation back to you. It is as relevant as ever, and will give you a helpful framework to think about Putin’s intentions and the West’s capabilities to secure peace. Listen to my conversation with General Sir Richard Barrons here.
Today’s edition has been supported by our knowledge partner, McKinsey & Company.
The dawn of the FemTech revolution. As opportunities in women’s health accelerate, FemTech is helping to match capital and talent to unmet needs—with promising early results. In just a few years, FemTech has grown to encompass a range of technology-enabled, consumer-centric products and solutions for women’s health needs. A new article unpacks findings from research into 750-plus FemTech companies.
The near future
📉 Faster, cheaper, cleaner, better
Learning curves – making things cheaper as we learn how to build them better – are the heart of the Exponential Age. This creates a fascinating flywheel. The faster you move to a new technology, the more rapidly that technology gets cheaper. (I discuss all this in chapter two of my book.)
This has ramifications for the renewable transition, Auke Hoekstra points out in this Twitter thread. The idea is to spend now and increase the rate at which these renewable technologies decline in price, which in turn creates the economic incentives to switch to renewables, which further drives down the cost curve. Auke built a simple model which shows why a fast transition more rapidly reduces end user electricity costs.
A more formal treatment is in this paper from Oxford University’s Institute for New Economic Thinking from last September. Take for example, the potential cost curves for batteries and electrolyzers (batteries needed for storage, electrolyzers for producing green hydrogen).
Traditional analyst forecasts from the IEA are in red lines, learning curve-based forecasts are in the blue, with the blue dotted line showing the median forecast, and the shading a 50% confidence interval to a 95% confidence interval. The point is that the cost of electrolyzers might not-unreasonably fall by two orders of magnitude over the next 30 years.
This means that a fast transition is cheaper than a slow transition or no transition at all over any timeframe up to 2070.
Indeed, a fast transition would require above 15% less investment than no transition over the next 40 years.
This is one of the remarkable features of the Exponential Age – a slew of general purpose technologies with high learning rates. The faster we buy them expensively, the quicker they will go down in price – ultimately towards ubiquity.
Buying it faster, gets it cheaper, makes it cleaner, now it’s better. Our work will soon be over.
🦘 Crypto’s leapfrog potential
From a low-base, cryptocurrency payments in Africa grew 1200% in the year to June 2021. Sub-Saharan Africa lends itself to low-end disruption in financial services. Nearly two-thirds of adults do not have a bank account in the region. But crypto can provide a route towards more affordable lending and remittances, according to this analysis by Brookings. Kenya has set up a regulatory sandbox for financial innovation that can take place under the gentle purview of the regulator. (The Nigerian Central Bank, astute readers of EV will remember, has taken the opposite tack, instituting various bans on crypto exchanges. See EV#308).
The Ukrainian government 🇺🇦 announced legislations to create a legal cryptocurrency market, creating another resilient financial infrastructure as the country suffers at the hands of Russia’s illegal invasion.
Elsewhere: A great profile of Ethereum co-founder, Vitalik Buterin, and his hopes and fears for Ethereum. Hopes include better voting systems, public goods and city governance. Fears the vulgarisation of crypto and its malicious use. Great long-ish read.
Sunday commentary: Deep learning thirty years from now
The latest edition of Stanford University’s AI Index was published. A number of exponential trends are visible.
AI patents filings are growing at 76% per year. (All the charts below are sourced from the Stanford University AI index.)
Technical progress on various lab benchmarks continues to improve, but it is best seen in longitudinal data. For example, in facial recognition, the best algorithms have a close to 100% accuracy rate on the most challenging data sets. In some areas, like question answering, state of the art models exceed human performance (again, in lab tests.)
Most illuminating, investment levels in AI companies have rocketed. In 2021, $175bn went to such firms whether by private investment, IPO, M&A or minority stakes. This is an eight-fold increase in five years. AI infrastructure layers (meaning data management, cloud computer), healthcare and finance were the top three sectors.
The market is both maturing and immaturing at the same time. We are witnessing the rapid deployment of capital to apply this new general purpose technology. As I talk to firms using these techniques, it’s clear that most are still at the start of their journey.
📧 This is an exceprt from today’s Sunday Comentary. My full assesment of deep learning’s past and its future will arrive to members’ inboxes separately, shortly after this email. To access the essay, become a member.
Dept of our climate future
In every Sunday edition, we track key metrics that tell us a little about our shared climate future. We have invited EV member Marshall Kirkpatrick to curate stories about our climate future in this section every week: “Just as a nexus of factors has brought us to this place of instability in the earth’s climate, so too will it take a broad range of actions to mitigate and adapt to the changes we are witnessing. Many actions have been taken, around the world, in the past week, here are a few that may inspire the most momentum.”
1 Terawatt: In a major milestone, it’s estimated that there is now 1 TW of solar power production capacity installed around the world. That means 1 TW of solar power could be produced at any given moment across the globe. In terms of terawatt hours that have actually been produced, PV Magazine, where the estimate was originally published, put it in context like this: “According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2021, the world generated 26,823 terawatt hours of electricity in 2020. 855 of those terawatt-hours – 3.1% – came from solar. Since solar grew 23% in 2021, it is likely that next year’s BP Statistical Review will show that solar generation broke 1 petawatt hour of generation in 2021.”
Blockchain & greening the supply chain: An executive order issued earlier this week by the Biden administration includes a call to apply blockchain technology to address the challenge of managing greenhouse gas emissions along complex supply chains. The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) says “The executive order could help unlock the incredible potential of a data-powered green economy.” RMI’s offering in this space, called Horizon Zero, is a system to “create ‘digital twins’ of emissions and track them via a blockchain architecture that creates transparency around the emissions associated with a product at every stage of its life cycle. With each product transaction, the liability of emissions associated with those products is simultaneously tracked in the blockchain ledger. Blockchain architecture’s enhanced traceability features will allow insights that create accountability where it was previously impossible — improving climate disclosures and visualising emissions at an unprecedented scale and level of accuracy.”
Nature to the rescue: Despite centuries of degradation & neglect, natural ecosystems such as forests and oceans may be holding steady or even increasing their ability to absorb CO2 emitted by human activity, according to a new study published in Nature. Forests and trees capture about half of human emissions, with the remaining half entering the atmosphere and causing climate change. The new study’s lead author Margreet van Marle explained on Twitter: “Based on trend analyses of the airborne fraction our results imply that the CO2 uptake by nature has kept pace with the growing emissions from fossil fuels and may even have become more efficient over time.” Lest this good news be used in support of what are called ‘nature-based solutions.’ This week’s critique from Cultural Survival of that paradigm is important to read as well. See also: a better way to support those forests, with a transition from fire suppression to an anti-fragile strategy of resumed prescribed fires.
Millions of minigrids: The World Bank is reportedly aiming to provide electricity to 490 million people this decade by installing 210,000 mini-grids. Minigrids are typically a combination of renewable power generation, storage, and transmission, optimised for resilience.
Short morsels to appear smart while analysing deep fakes
🎞️ The everything company: Amazon is acquiring film studio MGM.
👀 Under the UK’s new Online Safety Bill, big tech executives could face jail time. This is a deeply problematic bill, proposed by a very problematic politician, which will force big tech firms to police “legal but harmful” content on their platforms. I’ll keep an eye on this and you should too. See also, to better enforce data privacy laws, the FTC now makes misbehaving tech companies to destroy their algorithms.
😉 The newest development in Moore’s Law: a graphene transistor gate the width of an atom.
🔎 Strange behaviour in hybrid matter-antimatter atoms is opening up new lines of research.
🗣️ Russians are flocking back to social media platform Clubhouse to curb Putin’s anti-social media measures. Clubhouse’s popularity has nose-dived, making it easy for censors to forget about it.
😔 Prediction markets on the future of the war in Ukraine are interesting - and painful - to watch. For example, forecasters reckon it is probable that between 4.5m and 6.25m refugees will leave the country in 2022.
Exponential View member, Sarah Meyohas, treated some of the members of our private community, Exponential Do (applications to join the community are open for annual members), to a personal tour of her new exhibition at Nahmad Projects in London. Sarah’s work includes a pioneering cryptocurrency project, Bitchcoin, and a musing on the nature of automation and work - and much more.
If you have time, it’s worth swinging by the gallery in Cork St, London.
What you’re up to – notes from EV readers
Kaila Colbin is organising the Boma Agri Summit on the 21-22 June 2022 to explore the future of food and fiber. Readers of Exponential View get $100 off in-person tickets (code: EV_100) and $20 off virtual tickets (code: EV_20).
Carlota Ochoa wrote an article exploring the ramifications of the conflict in Ukraine for climate tech.
Join Adam Oskwarek and his team on the final beta (closes tomorrow!) for a free, 3-day email course to help leaders and employees build climate positive businesses together.
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