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—and, of course, Covid-19.
To catch up on my previous writing on Covid-19, see:
- For startups, relevance matters
- Enthusiasm needs coordination too
- The three cleavages: shaping the post-pandemic order
- What Dr Doom told me about the coming recession
The near future
🧨 Algorithmic optimisation is driving exponential improvements in AI performance faster than Moore’s Law, argues AI research group, OpenAI. It now takes forty-four times less compute to build a neural net to the power of the breakthrough 2012 AlexNet. “Algorithmic progress has yielded more gains than classical hardware efficiency.” The critical point here is that we’re seeing performance improvements across four different axes in machine learning computation: increased algorithmic efficiency, improvements in hardware architecture (such as dedicated AI hardware from firms like Cerebras and Graphcore), improvements in systems architecture (such as federated learning, which is combined with enhancement in end-point silicon like Apple’s A13 chips or analogue chips for machine learning) and the vast resources available in the cloud. In terms of packing more components onto the same silicon wafer, Moore’s Law may be stuttering, the exponential improvement in processing capability is not.
🎨 “Computers don’t make art, people do” points out Aaron Schwarztmann: “[A]rt can only be created by people (or other independent actors) capable of [certain] kinds of social relationships. In contrast, while we can get emotionally attached to our computers and other possessions, we feel no real empathy for their emotions, no ethical duty toward them, and no need to demonstrate our feelings toward them. This means computers cannot be credited as artists until they have some kind of personhood, just as people do not give gifts to their coffeemakers or marry their cars. If there is ever such a thing as human-level AI, with thoughts, feelings, and moral status comparable to ours, then it would be able to create art. But “human-level AI” is pure science fiction right now”. (See also, the discussion on Ubuntu philosophy and what it might tell us about AI below.)
🚩 Levels of support for the introduction of universal basic income have suddenly seen a remarkable increase. 71% of Europeans want the state to pay a basic income. A two-year study on basic income in Finland delivered some interesting results, including a meaningful increase in mental health and feelings of well being, and a marginal employment effect. (I’ve had a number of discussions about basic income on the podcast including with Andrew Yang, and Scott Santens—see Dig Deeper below.
🧹 Facebook has launched its content oversight board. It is a limited-scope Ulysses contract with an independent board, led by an international group of accomplished people that includes at least one reader of this wondermissive. The board is diverse, international, successful, opinionated and not, historically, a group of pushovers. Funded through a $130m trust that is independent of Facebook, it is self-managed, and, importantly, “Facebook has committed to carrying out our decisions even though it may at times disagree, unless doing so would violate the law.” It is a fascinating experiment in governance. It doesn’t appear to extend to content on Instagram or WhatsApp. The board is limited to interpreting Facebook’s content policies and instructing removal of individual pieces of content. Hercules, after all, cleaned the Augean Stables not by picking up one stinky pat at a time, but by forcing the Alpheus through them. But this board doesn’t have the ability to compel the firm to tackle the real source of its feculence: the business design based on personal attention and monetisation of behaviour. This includes the ranking algorithms that determine what you see and when. Ultimately, the hygiene of this product is not simply about the behaviour in the extremes, but rather the underlying processes and incentives that determine what behaviours are enabled or encouraged across the network. (One simple gedankenexperiment: would this board have been able to act in such a way that might have mitigated the genocide of the Rohingya, which the firm admits it abetted? I don’t know!)
💯 I had a fascinating conversation with the CEO of Nasdaq, Adena Friedman, about the mechanisms behind digital markets, cooperative capitalism, and the technology stack driving the future of the financial industry.
The remainder of the newsletter is available to members only. Here I cover:
- the survey of technology maturing in response to Covid-19,
- what the “green coronavirus recovery” could mean for governments and economies,
- what real-time data is telling us about who shut down the US economy: government or citizens?
how the African knowledge system and Ubuntu ethics can reshape how we think about AI, personhood and community.
One of the surprising knock-on effects of coronavirus has been the impact on the meat industry. The most obvious has been the rise in the price of meat and looming shortages that have reduced the spread with plant-based alternatives. I also think the zoonotic nature of the virus will draw greater attention to the limits of feeding large urban populations animal protein. Awareness that disease risk doesn’t just spring from Chinese markets but also from large-scale intensive farming like US CAFOs (see this grim video, for example) can only spur a shift towards more plant-based protein. The science, as I discuss with David Sinclair here, also favours that shift.
I had a delicious Beyond Meat burger on Friday night, so if you haven’t tried one, you should give it a shot.
Have a great week!
What you are up to—notes from EV readers
Congratulations to Rumman Chowdhury whose group won the Kaggle Covid-19 competition to address the social and ethical dimensions of the pandemic.
Alan Rusbridger joins the recently formed Facebook overview board.
Jonathan Wolff and colleagues published a paper looking into the efficacy of a Covid-19 symptoms tracking app to offer scalable real-time epidemiological data collection and analysis.
Neil Watson’s new campaign aims to increase awareness of endocrine disrupting chemicals in products and introduce proper labeling.
Albert Wenger on Covid-19 and the decentralization of money.
James Crabtree on how Facebook’s deal with Indian giant Reliance could cement the country on the path of techno-nationalism.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to share your updates and projects with EV readers.
My discussion with Andrew Yang on American society and the UBI opportuntity.
My discussion with Scott Santens on the basic principles of UBI.
My discussion on AI and compute with Jürgen Schmidhuber,
My discussion on the state of AI with OpenAI’s Jack Clark.