🔮New brains; just Web3 ; implementation; work-from-home and bad maths++ #372

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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🎙This week on the podcast

About six or seven years ago, companies that were going to tackle flying cars started popping up. And back then, I was skeptical. This week, I got together with Florian Reuter, CEO of Volocopter, to understand the urban air mobility opportunity, the emerging market, and how flying taxis could shape our cities. Listen to the conversation here, and read a brief summary here.

Thank you to EV member Patrick Edmond for providing valuable insights and resources about urban air mobility for our conversation with Florian!

The near future

🧠 New types of brains
Do natural cognitive designs exhaust the space of the possible?” asks complexity theorist Richard Solé and his collaborator. In other words, are the different ways of constructing intelligence, from the smallest units of signalling to the hierarchies and architecture that are different from the designs we find in nature? Many of today’s artificial intelligence systems (not yet intelligent and not cognitive) are heavily inspired by the systems we find in nature. Are there roads not taken? (This is an academic preprint, so a sit-back read.)

Separately, DeepMind released GATO, an impressive neural network which can play Atari, control a robot, caption images and chat. Based on the popular transformer architecture, this is a small network, only 24 layers deep, which is impressive in its generalisability. DeepMind reckons that performance across all tasks will improve with the scaling of data, parameters and compute. Obviously, the direction of travel here is finding methods of building AI systems that are progressively more general, for the vaunted sally to AGI. But in industrial contexts, I wonder how useful these types of networks will ever be. AI today is deployed in specific contexts - won’t specialist networks trump general ones?

⚖️ Web3 & a theory of justice
John Rawls is one of my favourite philosophers. His work in the early 1970s was an attempt to ally some solid foundations in favour of a liberalism that cared about equality. While there are convincing challenges to his work, I rather like his thought experiments of the veil of ignorance and the original position as analytical tools to understand what principles we might find some consensus around. Now, Li Jin and Katie Parrot suggest that bringing  Rawlsian principles - the “justice as fairness” - to Web3 might build a fairer more inclusive digital space. My take: I think it’s refreshing to see political theory come into the discussions of technology choices. These technology choices do, after all, express and encode political power. It’s also refreshing to see new ideas (not merely those of the Austrian school, libertarian, commons-oriented or radical left) be proposed for the Internet.

🧵 More tortoise
Derek Thompson: “Invention is easily overrated, and implementation is often underrated.” But more than that, Thompson calls for an ‘abundance agenda’, which, as readers might expect, I find some sympathy for.

Dept of our climate future

In every Sunday edition, we track key metrics that tell us a little about our shared climate future. Our member Marshall Kirkpatrick takes the time to curate positive stories for this section every week. Here’s Marshall: “This week The Guardian reporters and an international team of scientists surfaced 425 new oil and gas projects around the world each with >1 gigaton potential CO2 emissions. In total they would  produce over their lifetime the equivalent of 18 years worth of current global emissions (34 GT/year) and could push temperature increases to a devastating 2.7C above pre-industrial levels. The scientists referred to the projects as Carbon Bombs and said in the journal Energy Policy, ‘Defusing carbon bombs should be a priority for climate change mitigation policy.’ Nonetheless, my role here is to bring good news to the table, in order to help rally us to accelerate decarbonization at scale. That’s necessary, if not sufficient.”

Big faith-based calls for divestment: Leaders from all three of the world’s biggest Abrahamic religions and the United Nations called for a total cessation of investment in fossil fuel projects this week. The 138-year old New York Board of Rabbis, 74-year old Christian World Council of Churches, and 8-year old Muslim Council of Elders participated. “For too long, the financial services sector has enabled the world's fossil fuel addiction,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. “The scientific and moral imperative is clear: there must be no new investment in fossil fuel expansion, including production, infrastructure and exploration.”

All others bring data: Climate crisis energy data startup Arcadia, which offers analytics about the carbon impact of energy sources in support of decarbonization projects, has raised a $200M series E round at a $1.5B valuation. Reminds me of the children’s book titled I am a Unicorn and I Like to Fight.

Learning ventures: Speaking of young people, John Doerr, who became one of the most successful venture capitalists in history through early investments in platforms used by mass market industries to ship their products around the world (Google, Amazon, etc.), has donated $1.1B to Stanford University to fund a new program focused on policy and technology responding to the climate crisis. It was the second largest gift to an academic institution in US history. While many people question whether this was a good use of funds given the imminence of the crisis, I think that if Stanford students hold up their end of the bargain and come through with networked contributions to projects at scale early in their careers, it could look like a great investment in our future.

China scaling nuclear & hydro: Chinese officials have approved the construction of four nuclear reactors, two in coastal Zhejiang Province and two on the southeastern island of Hainan, at an estimated cost of $10.2B. Princeton prof Jesse Jenkins on Tuesday pointed out the dismal timelines and cost performance of other nuclear projects around the world but on Thursday pointed to this news from China as hopeful: “If China can deliver reactors for sub-$3/W that is very good news for humanity.” See also the newly announced plan to use AI and autonomous vehicles to 3D print a giant hydroelectric dam (unfortunately in Tibet), which it’s claimed will be the tallest structure ever built by additive manufacturing. Keep in mind the expansion of energy derived from burning coal in China hit its fastest growth rate in a decade last year, too.

More broken records: United States solar powered energy passed the 100GW milestone in 2021, reaching 121.4GW with 23.6GW newly installed, up 19% on 2020 and 77% up on 2019.  Portugal will soon turn on the largest floating solar farm in all of Europe; the 12,000 solar panels on the Alqueva reservoir will generate 7.5 gigawatt-hours annually.

Now let’s defuse those Carbon Bombs.

Short morsels to appear smart while reconsidering parenting decisions

🔥 Political analyst Arieh Kovler on the consequences of Musk’s Twitter deal. See also, an international study looking at the impact of amplification algorithms on political discourse shows that mainstream right-wing parties benefit as much, and often more, from algorithmic personalisation than the left-wing parties.

🙌 The negative correlation between women’s education, country wealth, labour force participation and reproductive choices no longer holds. Technology, involved fathers / partners, and marketisation of childcare are ushering in a new era of fertility economics.

🧨 Employees don’t want to come back to the office.

Healthy lifestyle and longevity, a new study looks at eight factors.

🤔 A survey of what parenting decisions (really) matter. (Location, Location, Location.)

🏥 A multimodal view of human disease.

👍 Volkswagen expects its EVs to be as profitable as ICE prior to their initial 2025 forecast.

🎛️ The White House calls for a shift to quantum-proof encryption.

😬 Maths of weapon’s destruction: the Russians have used a bad ratio in planning their war.

End note

Some thoughts on this week’s dramatic implosion and failure of the Luna/Terra ecosystem, including the collapse of the UST algorithmic stablecoin. Readers may remember that I spoke to Do Kwon on the podcast some months ago as I tried to understand that ecosystem.

In any technology revolution there will be experiments and missteps - and perhaps even cavalier approaches to what is possible - which will end up in failure. In the case of Luna, many people really losing money. That is one of the dangerous combinations of Web3 (interesting but often unproven innovations) which anyone can speculate on.

It’s too early to say exactly what triggered the collapse of Luna. There are theories. What certainly happened was that the key risk of the stablecoin - using algorithmic methods rather than tons of collateral to ensure the peg - was a huge risk. That emphasis on efficiency and maths has been shown to be brutally fragile. Other stablecoins need to be inefficient in their use of capital - that is they have to be over collateralized. For those stablecoins, lunch isn’t free. UST proved, in stark fashion for its holders, the same point.

For good perspectives on this I recommend reading:

It’ll be interesting to watch what lessons are drawn from this.


What you’re up to – notes from EV readers

Claudia Chwalisz published “A Movement That’s Quietly Reshaping Democracy For The Better”, an analysis of how citizens’ assemblies can help address societal challenges, overcome polarisation and strengthen trust.

Gianni Giacomelli published “Why some quit, why some stay” which applies network science to the Great Resignation.

Daniel Smith became the Commercial Lead for Digital Renewable Energy at Royal HaskoningDHV Digital, where his mission is to take existing software products to the renewable energy sector. Congrats!

Charles Yang recently started a new YouTube series, "CDR Horizons", where he interviews academics and researchers working on carbon removal to highlight its future impact.

Josh Berson is organising Refugium (Sept 8–11, 2022, in Orturano, Italy) a weekend long seminar with 10-15 people to read experimental fiction, watch slow cinema, listen to audio art, and figure out how to make sense of the senseless. Apply for this one of a kind experience by May 31, 2022.

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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