🔮 Fake news; drones & Ukraine; stange space; memory DNA++ #366

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 latest conversation

I’ve been fascinated by the prospects of nuclear fission as a source of energy for decades. This week, I spoke with Troels Schönfeldt of Seaborg Technologies: the startup that is building compact nuclear reactors on barges to deliver energy wherever it’s needed the most. Seaborg’s approach is based on the fundamentals of physics and chemistry, meaning that safety is baked into the physics and chemistry of its reactors. The reactor cannot melt down or explode. It operates at atmospheric temperatures and does not produce explosive gases. Members can read the notes from this episode here.

Today’s edition is supported by our knowledge partner, McKinsey & Company

Transforming supply chains: Are your company’s supply-chain capabilities up to snuff? What will it take to accelerate them? Companies know they need workers who have the digital and analytics skills to manage today’s supply chains, but it’s not always easy to find that talent. A new article explores how to develop a robust capability-building program that aligns with strategic goals.

The near future

🤔 Fake fake news
Has the proliferation of news, especially on digital platforms, led to a more ignorant, polarised and susceptible citizenry? No, according to research from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, which analysed news consumers in Brazil, India and the UK. The analysis found that:

“More frequent general news use led to stronger political knowledge gain over time in Brazil and the UK (in India, the results were not statistically significant)” and “news use increases political knowledge gain, and while it often broadens people’s awareness of false and misleading claims, it does not increase the likelihood—and in several cases decreases the likelihood—of coming to believe misinformation.”

There is nuance, of course: not all news outlets have positive effects, say the researchers. Full preprint is here.

Related: the ASPI think tank released a swish new analytics service to track disinformation campaigns on Twitter. The worst offender: Russia. Go have a play!

🇺🇦 🤳 Stick and stones
There are a  few fascinating aspects coming from the messaging front of the Russian war in Ukraine. Here we have a detailed exegesis on Ukrainian tactics to freak Russian troops out using phone messages.

A snippet of a conversation with a Belarusian soldier runs as follows:

“Look, we know each of you. We have a database of your soldiers. We have telephone numbers, names, surnames, dates of birth — we know everything about you, you get it? We don’t want Belarus to fight with Ukraine. If you go forward, you will all die here. We are waiting for you. Is it clear? Personally, I have tons of friends, relatives in Belarus, and I don’t want us to fight with Belarusians. Therefore make the right decision, don’t go to Ukraine because you will die!”

Also, a Harvard psychologist and a Norwegian computer scientist have teamed up to use behavioural research to reach Russian citizens. They’ve crafted millions of messages to send directly to Russians, helping to inform them about the invasion of Ukraine.

👾 Big Apple
Last week we pointed out that Apple has acquired a UK-based open banking credit reference agency, CreditKudos. This seems to be part of a significant move by Apple to build its own financial services business. The reliable Mark Gurman reports on Apple’s plans to expand their capabilities to include “payment processing, risk assessment for lending, fraud analysis, credit checks and additional customer-service functions such as the handling of dispute”, which it currently does not handle in-house. Mark says that part of “the project has been dubbed “Breakout” internally, underscoring the idea of breaking away from the existing financial system”.

Combining Apple’s knowledge of customers could enable a whole slew of internal capabilities around credit, insurance and fraud… Apple has more than a slice of our purchase history, after all.

Apple buys a handful of companies every year. It is acquisitive, but not usually big-banner acquisitive like Microsoft or Cisco or Meta. The $3bn acquisition of Beats in 2014 ($3.6bn in 2022 terms) is its largest acquisition by far in dollar terms, but only represents 2% of the value of the firm. The 1997 acquisition of NeXT, $700m in today’s money, is about a fifth of Apple’s market cap. Such was the price of getting the Mach kernel that forms the basis of MacOS today and, of course, hiring Steve Jobs back.

Apple buys firms to enable both front and back-end capabilities. And it is typically quite serious about how widely it rolls out those services across its user base.

This is a tale of dominant firms in the exponential economy: we fully expect these superstar firms to aggregate and expand. The old mantra of “sticking to [your] core competences” is not complemented by broadening one’s capabilities to expand the economic footprint.

🧞 Musings on the metaverse moolah
EV member, Ronit Ghose, hit us with a 180-page doorstopper on money in the metaverse. Ronit runs financial services research at Citi, a bank. I haven’t had time to read the whole report. But some headlines:

  • He views the Metaverse as a $13 trillion opportunity by 2030.
  • The metaverse is a broad expansion of the Internet user experience, and not simply about VR and AR.
  • We’ll need to build out infrastructure, specifically around network latency (the delay in communication handshaking.) If you want to check out your latency, visit speedtest.net and look at the ping time in the top right. Share yours in the comments below, a prize to anyone who betters my ping test which is 1 millisecond.)
  • He expects forms of new digital money, as well as digital wrapping of existing forms of money, to exist in the metaverse, but that this financialisation will exist in a tension with many classes of users who may object to it.

Sunday commentary: Send in the drones

We’re now familiar with how well the Ukrainian armed forces can use drones in their mounting defence against the illegal invasion launched by the Russian Federation. One key story has been about the Turkish TB2 Bayraktar. This drone, while costing $5m a piece, is cheap by military standards.

As I wrote in Exponential, the TB2 has cut its teeth as a low-cost weapon, occasionally being 20 times cheaper than some American drones. I also identified that the consumerisation of drone technology has enabled civil drones to take on military uses. Kurdish and Houthi forces have used consumer drones against Turkish and Saudi targets in previous years.

In the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, Azerbaijan used the TB2 (and other drones) to devastating effect. I’ve argued that this demonstrates “the men- and-materiel approach of the twentieth century was vulnerable to low-cost exponential technologies.”

The Ukrainians have taken this to a new level. Remember the Russian “column” of military vehicles snaking towards Kyiv to deliver whatever malevolence its commanders had in mind?

Now it seems that the column was stalled by Ukrainian intervention, specifically  by the Aerorozvidka unit, “which began eight years ago as a group of volunteer IT specialists and hobbyists designing their own machine.” These drones were MacGyvered together with small explosive charges, sufficient enough to destroy the lead vehicles in the convoy and create a traffic jam.

Aerorozvidka is also handy with social media marketing, setting videos of their operations to the moody rap of Ukrainian artist, Skofka.

Drone race

The success of these increasingly cheap and consumerised drones is no longer a secret. If Aerorozvidka’s claims are correct, their small operation, supported by crowdfunding, may have stopped a meaningful proportion (A tenth? A twentieth?) of the entire Russian Army’s mission to commit atrocities in Kyiv. A dramatic example of force multiplication. Who wouldn’t want some?

In the Exponential Age, methods, protocols, and tactics will be studied and copied. This will drive down costs and increase the prevalence of these weapon-bots. They won’t replace traditional warring; tanks, guns and boots will still matter. But they will change the composition of a force and Kalashnikovise the technology: cheap, prevalent, ubiquitous.

👋 The rest of today’s Sunday commentary is open to the paying members of Exponential View. To become a member and access the essay, become a monthly or annual member. No strings attached, cancel any time.

Dept of our climate future

In every Sunday edition, we track key metrics to tell us a little about our shared climate future. We have invited EV member Marshall Kirkpatrick to curate stories that speak of positive developments – see below. Thanks, Marshall!

Greener electricity: 10% of global electricity consumption is now powered by wind and solar, according to the latest annual report by independent UK energy think tank Ember.

  • Good news: “To be on a pathway that keeps global heating to 1.5 degrees, wind and solar need to sustain high compound growth rates of 20% every year to 2030. That’s the same rate of growth as their average over the last decade,” the report said.
  • Bad news: The downside is that total electricity demand rebounded last year, causing record growth in coal and a 7% increase in power sector emissions.
  • All around the world: 50 countries around the world now get at least 10% of their electricity from wind and solar, as of 2021.

Climate experts called the data in the Ember report incredible and amazing, though limited to the electricity sector. Elon Musk said it shows great progress, and the sombre earth-loving scientist Peter Kalmus said “Just think how fast we could go if we really tried.“ (See Emily Atkin’s new explanation of the difference between 1.5C vs 2C in the men’s magazine GQ to underline Kalmus’s perspective.)

Doubling of Climate VC: EV member Sophie Purdom and her team at Climate Tech VC have updated their list of climate-tech focused venture capital funds, and the number has more than doubled over two years, up to 177. The funds fall into three categories: survivors from the Cleantech 1.0 era, existing VCs (specifically those who spun up green tech funds to meet the demands of ESG-minded Limited Partners [investors in funds]), and “the third type… a renaissance of new, climate-first venture GPs [General Partners, fund managers]”.

Superior sequestration: A new study of satellite data from the World Resources Institute in DC found that land controlled by Indigenous peoples and local communities can sequester on average 2X more carbon per hectare than land owned by large outside parties. They said this type of ownership is essential if the Paris agreement’s national carbon emissions commitments are to be met. The WRI’s senior economist told The Guardian that “if the rights of Indigenous people and forest communities were not protected, the ‘most likely hypothesis’ would be a failure to achieve the Paris climate goal of keeping global temperature rises below 1.5C.”  At least 92% of forested lands held by Indigenous peoples and communities in Amazonian countries are still carbon sinks, the report found.

Short morsels to appear smart while ogling odd radio circles

🥫 One of the worst IPOs in the UK: Deliveroo’s disastrous year.

😓 Ivermectin doesn’t work. Full stop.

🔃 As Europe makes an aggressive move into interoperability across messaging services (something I think is largely important), security experts are pointing out that the cost of broad interoperability may be the weakening of user privacy.

🔅 On a similar note, crypto enthusiasts/innovators/fans are up in arms as EU legislation takes another step towards banning “unhosted” wallets. Geek out here for a breakdown of the arcane EU legislative process, and the implications for European crypto innovators.

😲 20 milliseconds: University of Geneva researchers have broken the record for quantum storage, bringing us closer to ultra-secure quantum communication.

🐭 New sequencing techniques have allowed researchers to find fear memories within mice’s “junk DNA”. See also, human genome - decoded! (h/t EV member Stephen Meyer)

☄️ Mysterious space radio circles.

🔉 The speed of sound is strangely different on Mars, which has fascinating implications.

👻 Combining new biotechnologies with archaeological and environmental records to reconstruct ancient smells.

✂️ 70 brands are participating in Decentraland’s Metaverse Fashion Week, including Estée Lauder, Tommy Hilfiger, and Dolce & Gabbana.

End note

I’ve been sick most of the week - finally over it. Thanks for bearing with me.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t seen it, I do recommend reading this speech by Jeremy Fleming: the head of GCHQ, the British spy agency. It’s utterly remarkable that their top spy would be so open about the intelligence they’ve found. I think this marks a profound change in the importance of strategic communications to help shape a conflict. Also interesting are the points he makes about the nature of alliances (with other nations, but also business). I think this puts a market in the sand about the web of technical, strategic and political partnerships which will start to emerge to tackle supranational threats. And if you haven’t had enough of this topic, remember I spoke with Jeremy’s predecessor, Robert Hannigan, on the podcast a couple of weeks ago.

Stay healthy!


P.S. I’ll be at the KITE Festival in Oxford from June 10-12, alongside Ai Weiwei, Richard Dawkins, Rory Steward, Grace Jones (!) and many others. I hope to see you there!

What you’re up to – notes from EV readers

Denise Young's latest episode of the New Climate Capitalism podcast goes behind the scenes of the latest IPCC report on adaptation.

Ramsay Brown raised $2M for his AI Safety startup, the AI Responsibility Lab. Congrats!

Dr Katy Cook is embarking on a year-long research trip across the U.S. to investigate the mental health, wellbeing and psychology of the country. She’s looking to speak with anyone who has expertise in the area.

John C. Havens of IEEE is leading the new Planet Positive 2030 campaign, focused on imagining and designing an equitable, safe and flourishing planet by 2030.

David Shor and his team at Blue Rose Research have announced their software engineering fellowship, a great opportunity to make an impact leading up to the 2022 elections.

Jean-Baptiste Fantun and his team at NukkAI designed an AI that recently won against world-class champions at the game of Bridge.

Dr Antonio Weiss and Kogan Page  published “The Practical Guide to Digital Transformation”, an accessible guide for making end-to-end digital transformation happen.

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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