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.
The near future
🕳️ Apple cars
Apple’s flubbing its car. The eight-year project is struggling to meet its own expectations, suffering a lack of senior support and executive departures. The technology is proving too difficult to get to work in all situations – Apple’s car is meant to have no steering wheel.
The car is so unlike anything Apple has done in a long time. Devices like the iPod, iPhone, Watches and headphones have the benefit of some sense of adjacency. With a car, even the hardware/software package for autonomy is a complete leap for the firm. I wonder how seriously they take it anyway; the project only costs about $1bn a year, less than 5% of Apple’s annual R&D budget and less than 0.25% of the stock buybacks of the past eight years. So perhaps it’s more of an insurance policy.
⚕️ In the meantime...
A more natural segue for Apple is the firm’s move towards health applications. After all, Apple is a personal computing firm. Its personal devices (like laptops and headphones) are great. Its multi-user devices (like the AppleTV and its godawful remote) suck. And health is pretty personal. The company released an impressive report/assessment/manifesto on its commitment to health and fitness. By this year, devices will measure more than 150 types of data in 17 areas of health, all secured for a user's privacy. The report is a bit of a puff piece but worth reading.
Health is promising to be something of a battleground between the major tech firms. Amazon made its third largest acquisition: OneMedical, an operator of primary care services in person and via app, for $3.9bn. Amazon bought a drug distribution business, Pillpack, three years ago and actually has a telemedicine business called Amazon Care. My hunch would be that OneMedical will accelerate the Care business while giving the firm a physical footprint to add to its WholeFoods and AmazonGo stores. Real-world clinics make some sense because it is hard to offer end-to-end care without (or, frankly, even travel vaccinations).
🤳 Meta’s TikTok problem is ours
Ten days ago, I was speaking to 100 or so 17-year-old school pupils. I asked them how many used Facebook. They looked disgusted and no hands went up. When I asked how many used TikTok, nearly every hand went up (except for a couple of kids who were taking a well-timed nap.)
Meta knows this in spades. The firm is throwing in the towel and TikTokifying its main apps, Instagram and Facebook. In the near future, the home tab on Facebook will show algorithmically selected loops of videos and status updates. They probably need to: TikTok engagement is whooping all of Facebook’s properties in aggregate.
The power of data, and the hidden structures of preferences that recommendation algorithms can unearth is critical to this change. The explicit, expressed knowledge of our “friends” is trumped by the signals across the network. (Although Facebook will reintroduce a “Friends” tab as well for old-skool surfing that may be algorithm free.)
So Meta has a serious TikTok problem - and it isn’t clear whether this move will be sufficient.
Those of us who aren’t members of the Chinese Communist Party also have a TikTok problem. American authorities have been concerned with user data flowing over to China and through the porous wall between the state and the tech industry. But of equal (or perhaps greater concern) might be the ability to shape the beliefs and narratives of Americans (or Brits) through TikTok. More than 80m Americans and 17m Brits use TikTok. Deepfakenews, anyone?
🧠 What causes depression?
A major meta-study has suggested that the long-held theory that low serotonin levels are associated with major depression is not supported by scientific evidence. Many psychiatrists would, no doubt, agree. (The scientific paper is here.) Should this bring into question the use of serotonergic antidepressants to treat depression? Not so fast. Such drugs do have some measurable impact in alleviating depressive symptoms above placebo effects, although they aren’t the miracle pills Prozac was made out to be when it first appeared on the market in the late 1980s. Antidepressants are more effective than many widely prescribed medications, such as statins or some antihypertensive. And they remain widely popular: about 1 in 7 Americans were using antidepressants in 2017 (and about 1 in 10 Brits).
My take: It’s clearly more pressing than ever to characterise the biology behind mental health disorders so we can rely on objective markers (rather than subjective questionnaires). We also need to evaluate other interventions for dealing with depression, anxiety and trauma. Psilocybin and other alternative treatments have had some success in small studies (see EV#63, EV#348 and COTW#53) and even some positive results in Phase 2 trials. Talking therapy matters, and perhaps technology can help. As EV member and health tech investor, Vishal Gulati told me “We are entering therapy 2.0, assisted with psychedelics, smartphones and AI.”
We have a Sunday Commentary on this result from psilocybin investor and EV member, Josh Hardman, below.
⛔ Not leaving it to the market
The UK government published a “Critical Minerals Strategy” to ensure stable supplies of these core substances, such as rare earths, niodium and indium: all the juicy nuggets needed for the exponential transition. As the report points out, China is the dominant supplier of many of these. The strategy calls for policies to improve domestic capabilities as well as greater international partnerships. The key is that this strategy calls for a panoply of government intervention, from direction setting, convening, funding of projects, research and training. It’s basically industrial policy with a natsec wrapping.
And that’s important: governments are abandoning the “leave it to the market mantra”. Because it turns out – even for right-wing governments – that there are some things too important to be left to the invisible hand.
Sunday Commentary: Critical Psychiatry’s Serotonin Problem
Today’s commentary was penned by EV member Josh Hardman, Founder & Editor at Psychedelic Alpha.
A new paper published in Molecular Psychiatry has caused quite a stir among researchers, practitioners, and reporters alike: according to Altmetric, it’s been cited in nearly 170 news articles and over 4,000 tweets since its publication on Wednesday.
The systematic review claims to debunk the serotonin theory of depression which holds that depression is caused by low levels of serotonin; a ‘chemical imbalance’. Instead, the authors argue that depression is caused by difficult life events.
Space does not allow us to delve into some of the methodological issues and more substantive debates around this paper, but it does afford us the chance to briefly explore the implications of its ‘findings’ and their largely uncritical depiction by media outlets.
The authors’ ‘finding’ that low serotonin does not cause depression is, prima facie, a pretty uncontroversial argument. While the first sentence of the publication claims that such a theory of depression “is still influential,” it’s not clear that this is the case among experts: you would be hard pressed to find a psychiatrist, for example, that subscribed to the notion. While it may remain undeniably salient among the public and perhaps even general practitioners, it is certainly not accepted among experts - most of whom subscribe to the biopsychosocial model knowing that depression is a heterogeneous disorder with several potential underlying causes.
It appears the authors are hoping that by debunking the chemical imbalance theory of depression they might restore agency to individuals who may otherwise be pessimistic about their ability to self-regulate their mood, perhaps believing that their mental health is biologically predestined.
Journalists, meanwhile, appear to have taken the high-level ‘finding’ that the serotonin theory of depression is unfounded and, by some leap, concluded that this undercuts the efficacy of SSRI antidepressants (given that their mechanism of action is thought to involve acting on the serotonin system). It’s not surprising that journalists came to this conclusion, as the authors of the paper invoke significant doubt around SSRIs by implying that they may work “via an amplified placebo effect or through their ability to restrict or blunt emotions in general.”
Many journalists leapt at the double whammy this narrative presents: an on-trend ‘gotcha’ piece pointed toward the undeniably concerning levels of antidepressant prescriptions, which are presumably welcomed by the big pharma companies that market them; and the ability to push a kind of mental health Brexit where readers feel empowered to take back control of their mental health, now that they know it’s not their biological destiny to be depressed.
But, this logical leap from discrediting the serotonin theory of depression to implying that serotonergic antidepressants are, by extension, ineffective is entirely unfounded. In order to arrive at such a conclusion, one has to conflate the clinical effects of a drug on a disease with its mechanism of action: and that is certainly not a wise thing to do, given that we have many drugs that ‘work’ without us understanding why.
The rest of Josh’s commentary was sent to you separately, so make sure to check your inbox. 👀
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 a view of our current climate status in this segment every week, and you can read Marshall’s curation below. Here’s Marshall: “As heat waves roll over the planet, in rough alignment with scientists’ long-voiced but too-little-heard warnings, and the President of the United States signals he may declare it an emergency, I think we could all use some good news. There’s a lot! $19 billion was invested in 500 climate tech venture deals in the last 6 months. The first climate agreement focusing on Indigenous perspectives continues to build international support at the UN. But from this week specifically, the following are some fascinating stories of pragmatic optimism on climate that we’d like to highlight.”
Alarms Being Heard: Science fiction author turned global climate leader Kim Stanley Robinson tells NYT podcaster Ezra Klein that there may finally be enough bad news to motivate good action. “We might be actually in a zone of potential possible good actions,” he explains. “You see this across the board, governments and private capital wanting to invest greenly because they would like the world to survive so they can stay in business. So, we might have fallen into a good pace of change which partially means the emergency has begun but it hasn’t yet overwhelmed us and so we can still do something about it.” See also, Kim Stanley was on the Exponential View podcast a year ago.
Exponential View conversations regularly compare the rapid speed of action on COVID-19 to the much slower pace of reaction across society to global warming. EV team member Chantal Smith says, “COVID felt like an emergency, so it was easy to act. Climate change hasn’t felt like an emergency, so people don't act like it. The result? Bad risk governance. Perhaps this period of catastrophes is the beginning of driving the action we really need.”
Facts, though, are rarely enough to motivate action; the importance of storytelling (like Kim Stanley Robinson’s work itself), combining logic and emotion to create narrative context, cannot be underestimated.
It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s alternative protein: Boston Consulting Group has updated its research and found that the decarbonisation potential for alternative proteins could be even larger than previously estimated. In 2021, the global consulting firm forecasted that alternative proteins will represent 11% of all global protein consumption by 2035. The firm says that market shift would drive “a reduction of 0.85 gigatons of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) worldwide by 2030—equal to decarbonising 95% of the aviation industry.” Now BCG believes that 11% could become 22% if venture and corporate investment, regulation, and new technology continue in their current trajectories.
Speaking of the aviation industry, the journal Joule has published a paper from Swiss public research university ETH Zurich on what researchers say is the first demonstrated process for creating net carbon neutral jet fuel: “the entire thermochemical process chain from water and CO2 to kerosene in a fully-integrated solar tower system.”
Speaking of transportation, shipping giant Maersk has announced it will leave the board of the International Chamber of Shipping because of that group’s weak climate plans, which critics have called “an empty shell” of “low ambition” with potentially disastrous consequences.
Recycling Solar Panels: Leading energy analysts Rystad Energy have published estimates that “recyclable materials from photovoltaic panels at the end of their lifespan will be worth more than $2.7 billion in 2030, up from only $170 million this year. This trend will only accelerate in the coming decades and the value of recyclable materials is projected to approach $80 billion by 2050.” Unfortunately in January, Rystad published research estimating that just investment, much less return, in oil and gas industries will increase by $26B this year to $628B. So the firm estimates that in nearly 30 years, the solar panel recycling industry will be worth 1/8th of what oil and gas firms invest each year today. That’s no solution, but a multi-billion dollar PV recycling industry should be meaningfully motivating.
Short morsels to appear smart while collapsing the wave function
🔬Structural and historical elements are standing in the way of China becoming a science superpower.
🧠 This startup has implanted its first brain-computer interface device into an ALS patient.
⌚A new phase of matter seems to have been created in a quantum computer, as if there were two time dimensions. This could help with error correction, one of the trickiest challenges in building a functional quantum computer. h/t EV member James Flint. When confused by the quantum universe, it’s good to remember what Feynman said: “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics”.
🚙 How the UK government could replace £35 billion in lost tax revenue from phasing out petrol and diesel cars.
🕳️ Cubic boron arsenide crystal offers high carrier mobility for electrons and holes. This could revolutionise how we make semiconductors.
🥕 How did Mendel arrive at his discoveries? Hint: vegetable-breeding programs.
🛣️ How to redesign American roads to avoid the absurdly high number of pedestrian deaths. (Also, smaller cars kill less people.)
I have a favour to ask: I’m just shy of 400 reviews on Amazon UK for the book. If you’ve read it and fancy giving a five-star review, I’d really appreciate it. The link is here. If you haven’t, you can pick it up here.
What you’re up to – notes from EV readers
Nell Watson’s entrepreneurial life simulation game to help founders tackle burnout is out on Steam, gratis as a pro bono.
Michael Luciani was a guest on a podcast episode about synbio as a high leverage climate solution.
Eliot Peper interviewed Blake Crouch about writing Upgrade, his new science-fiction thriller set in a near-future where personal and public life has been revolutionised by genetic engineering.
Michael Hoole published an article about the pitfalls of surveys, and what the role of a researcher in a survey-free world would look like.
Kyle Samani and his team at Multicoin Capital just launched their third venture fund.
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