🔮 Protein zoo; rebounds; the Kardashians vs Instagram; exponential health; reversing aging, games, space travel ++ #383

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.

I am on holiday this weekend so we have a special issue for you with guest commentary. Enjoy!

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And as a special holiday gift, my book is available from the UK Amazon Kindle store for 99p - for one day only. Sunday 31st. July!!

The near future


👏 To boldly fold
DeepMind’s AlphaFold has been enlisted by researchers to “predict the structures of some 200 million proteins from 1 million species, covering nearly every known protein on the planet.” The multi-terabyte dataset will be freely available as a kind of public good for researchers anywhere. We should expect to see complementary tools springing up on this data set to make its use and exploration easier—and more breakthroughs in key areas of biology following soon.

I love that this dataset is freely accessible. It is an approach to science that will benefit human welfare much more than the enclosure mentality that pervaded earlier generations of digital biologists who attempted to patent human genes (and the genome itself!)

The DeepMind announcement, also worth reading, is here.

See also: Ginkgo Bioworks has acquired synthetic biology rival, Zymergen, for $300m (about a third of the capital Zymergen had raised). Gingko is after Zymergen’s strain engineering technologies. Many of the promises of synthetic biology (that it might deliver large-scale industrial products) are foundering on the difficulties of producing industrial amounts of these outputs. The tinkered organisms are productive at lab volumes, but getting a million tons of something is currently proving too difficult. This might be solved by figuring out different strategies to scale the bioreactors used to ferment the goodies we want. Or it might be that the choice of host organisms (often a particularly well-understood yeast) has led us down a blind alley. Such organisms may be too fussy to produce useful yields at ever larger volumes in progressively more gigantic bioreactors.

🔥 Mo’ Meta Blues
As Meta reels from changes in Apple’s privacy settings, the firm registered its first quarterly decline in revenue. And this wasn’t the only poor news for the Zuck regime. The company reversed last’s week’s decision to Tiktokify Instagram, where it would prioritise algorithmic ranking over friends and influencers (see last week’s EV). And here we have a classic case of how hard it is for incumbents to innovate. Moving to an algorithmic feed (which is why TikTok is smashing Instagram in the attention game) means angering existing partners: influencers like the Kardashians. By satisfying the present, they may give up on the future.

Ed Zitron is firmer in his assessment, calling this “the fall of Facebook”:

“what is killing Meta, Facebook, and Instagram – a constant focus on trying to find ways to trick users into engaging with products rather than giving them a reason to.”

🌡️ Rewind the rebound
Sustainability may demand increased energy efficiencies, but rebound effects may result in higher overall consumption — and that could include our resource utilisation, such as our carbon budget. This overshoot, the Jevon’s Paradox, is a major problem in environmental economics. Most recently, this paper by Freire-Gonzalez and others examines the impact of different policies to attenuate the rebound. The conclusion is that energy efficiency isn’t a sufficient policy goal. Rather, “more complex policy strategy, including several coordinated measures” can reverse negative rebound effects. One interesting assessment that policies which require longer-term changes in behaviours (in particular, household consumption) have better economic outcomes. I’m on the hunt for more analyses or approaches to tackle rebound effects. Ping me on Twitter.

See also: Governments continue to set the direction of their economies. Biden’s climate policies largely seem to be on their way to law. A useful summary of key initiatives is in this document (via EV member Stephen Meyer).

Sunday Commentary: Can we escape healthcare’s scarcity traps using exponential technologies?


Today’s commentary is written by EV member Vishal Gulati, a specialist VC investor focusing on companies transforming healthcare using exponential technologies.

Throughout the pandemic we have just lived through, one of the running themes has been scarcity. From PPE to ventilators to beds and then vaccines, antibodies and antivirals. This is not to mention all the scarcity generated by diversion of resources towards Covid-19. In the UK, we now have a massive backlog of elective surgeries and even cancer patients struggling to get access to scarce resources. But healthcare scarcity is not just a Covid-19 phenomenon; if you look deeply enough, you’ll find a scarcity of doctors, hospitals, beds, and drugs in every country and every society—whether they spend less than $1000 per person per year (🇲🇽) or $12,000 per patient per year (🇺🇸).

Meanwhile, in many industries, exponential technologies have virtually eliminated scarcity. Even when people complain about not being able to find something to watch, both in terms of actual amount of content and its wide distribution, it is hard to say that there is scarcity of media entertainment. Will exponential technologies lead to such abundance of healthcare? The most common answer to this question is ‘No, healthcare is special’. This sounds like the familiar ‘Hollywood is special’, ‘Bookshops are special', ‘Travel booking is a relationship business’ type special pleading but there is, indeed, a stronger case for exceptionalism in healthcare than in many other industries. Not because healthcare can never follow the exponential abundance model, but because the current model of healthcare can not and should not be scaled exponentially to abundance. Much of our existing health system consists of intervention that if merely scaled will not be very beneficial (because these interventions are not very effective or are too expensive). Further, having too much healthcare can be directly damaging (because the side effects of some interventions are too significant).

This makes the challenge for health systems to incorporate exponential technologies even harder. What we need in healthcare is not just a system capable of exponential abundance, but also novel interventions which are able to be scaled without harming people. Invariably, these innovations don’t originate from the centre of existing healthcare systems but from the periphery, and some of them are almost accidental. (Large parts of the Human Genome Project was funded out of the ‘peace dividend’ accrued in US Department of Energy budget following the unexpected end of the Cold War).

One good example of an exponential technology which is now rapidly moving from the outside to the centre of healthcare is genomics. In the early days, when I worked at the Wellcome Trust in 1999, most people either ignored genomics as a crazy idea or derided it as not ‘real science’ because it did not have a hypothesis. Over the last two decades, several medical applications of genomics have emerged and are now making their way into adoption. DNA sequencing is proving to be a base exponential technology which has a wide range of applications across many domains. During the pandemic, one of the technologies that came to everyone’s attention was detection of viral variants. However on a day-to-day basis in clinics around the world, genomics is used to achieve better health outcomes for patients in many different ways. Some of these are shown in a non-MECE table below.

Tech Platform

Application

Health Impact

Level of Evidence

Stage of Adoption

Example Players

SNIP Arrays

Variant Detection and risk prediction

Cancer and other diseases including rare diseases

++ (largely in White European population)

++

23&Me

Congenica


SNIP Arrays

Polygenic Risk Score

Cancer and other diseases including rare disease

++ (largely in White European population)

+

Genomics Plc

Whole Genome Sequencing

As above, higher density and detection of unknown variants

Cancer, neonatal screening, rare diseases

+ (largely in White European population)


+

Nebula Genomics

Pathogen Sequencing

Infectious disease diagnosis and monitoring

Viral infections, pandemics, wastewater screening, antibiotic resistance

++++

+++

Ilumina

Oxford Nanopore

Circulating Tumour DNA

Screening

Cancer diagnosis, recurrence detection

+++

+

Grail

Guardant

Freenome

CRiSPR 

Ex Vivo

Rare disease, sickle cell, haemophilia

+++ (positive human trials data)

+

Intellia

CRISPR Therapeutics


CRiSPR

In Vivo

Rare disease, cardiovascular

++ (positive human trials, non human primate data)

+/-

Intellia

Verve

📥
The rest of today’s Commentary was delivered separately, keep an eye out for it!

Short morsels to appear smart while exploring space


🚀 Seventy countries now have space agencies.

📉 The population of China is shrinking faster than previously predicted by the UN and Chinese officials.

⛓️ Axie Infinity promised to get Filipinos out of poverty. It didn’t.

🎮 Oxford University researchers find no link between poor mental health and videogame playing.

🔌 To avoid blackouts in July's heatwave, Britain’s national grid bought electricity at 50 times the usual price.

💼 Job switchers are seeing wages rise faster than loyal workers.

🔒 Privacy risks of the metaverse.

💉Hyperbaric oxygen therapy reverses two key biomarkers of aging.

End note


I’m off for a few days so I didn’t get a chance to talk reflect deeply on the impact of the CHIPS Act.

I want you to contextualise this piece of law: $52bn of industrial oomph and about $200bn for scientific research (!!). This comes alongside the Inflation Reduction Act which earmarks $369bn for climate solutions, including energy security and environmental justice. So we’re looking at about $700bn+ of investment in supporting the exponential transition (advanced technologies + addressing climate change). It’s a big win.

Also notice how governments have acknowledged they have a role to play in shaping the outcomes of their states beyond the 1980s creed of stripping back intervention (except in military and security domains). The times they are a-changin’.

Cheers,

A


What you’re up to – notes from EV readers

Azeem’s book has been shortlisted for Best Management Book of the Year by the UK’s CMI!

David Tarbox produces the Founder & Chief podcast, talking to CEOs and founders of UK companies.

Daniel Strode’s book “The Culture Advantage: Empowering Your People to Drive Innovation” comes out next week!

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