🔮 Meet the FAAAM; big tech bigger; tiny sensors; fusion power and asteroids++ #272

The rich get richer.
🔮 Meet the FAAAM; big tech bigger; tiny sensors; fusion power and asteroids++ #272

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.

The near future

💸 The rich get richer. In the face of  increased regulatory scrutiny, big tech companies are acquiring and investing more at the moment. EV reader, Christopher Mims, coined the term FAAAM for Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Alphabet and Microsoft, the five biggest tech companies. Between them, they have nearly $500bn in cash and are spending it. Indeed, the rate of acquisitions is the fastest since 2015. My comment: These superstar firms have a huge opportunity to expand their footprints. They have long adopted a model of open innovation. Despite deep R&D spends (even Facebook spends c. $3bn a quarter), they depend on a flow of external innovation, secured via acquisitions to meet their product and market gaps. Courtesy of the pandemic, many startups have bleaker than usual prospects and investors are cautious. It creates a perfect buying opportunity. One example:  Amazon is looking to acquire Zoox, an autonomous vehicle startup.

🇨🇳 In China, too, Tencent wants to invest 500 billion yuan (US$70 billion) into digital infrastructure over the next five years. Disrupted supply chains, weak domestic and global demand, and the unprecedented state of the global economy, create the ideal conditions for an industrial upgrade and provide an urgency to increase consumer demand. Tencent’s cloud is a distant number two to Alibaba in China, and the firm is overly dependent on video games and social networks for its revenues. The scale of investment, $10-15bn per annum, is not far off the level of CAPEX investment of an oil supermajor. BP averaged $20bn in CAPEX investments annually in the five years to 2019, prior to slashing those investments to $12bn. (See also, as I cautioned inThe Three Cleavages, the temptation for governments to expand tracing and quarantine apps has been too great in some Chinese cities. Hangzhou, renowned for its Alibaba-powered City Brain, has announced plans to launch a health-tracking QR code for monitoring people’s health status at all times. For a more nuanced reading of China’s use of AI in the public space, I do recommend Nesta’s deep dive published this week.)

🌈 Good analysis of the growth of independent creatives building franchises around their talents. Paid newsletters, such as this wondermissive, are one example. Platforms such as Patreon and Substack create a tremendous opportunity to go direct to audiences with content relevant to their specific interests, unmediated by large organisations and their horrible cost structures. Kevin Kelly’s 1000 True Fans vision is coming to fruition. (Incidentally, I think this is different from the game of Instagram ‘influence’ chronicled here.)

💭 Over the past forty years, the decline in worker power has been a hallmark of the evolution of many Westernised economies, resulting in many of the societal issues we face today. I discuss the importance of unions with the former union leader and AI ethics expert Dr Christina Colclough. (See also, the ILO’s warning of how the young are bearing the economic brunt of the Covid-19 crisis.)

Dept of artificial intelligence

Look out for my special essay on the next industrial breakthrough in AI, what we can expect from it and why there are no big AI companies.

Members will receive it in the next 48 hours.

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🔥 Climate breakdown: 417.33ppm | 3,651 days

Each week, we’re going to remind you of the CO2 levels in the atmosphere and the number of days until we reach the 450ppm threshold.

The latest measurement (as of May 28): 417.33 ppm; May 28, 2019: 414.17 ppm; 25 years ago: 360ppm; 250 years ago, est: 250ppm. Share this reminder with your community by forwarding this email or tweeting this.

Commonwealth Fusion Systems raised $84m from a variety of investors, including Khosla Ventures, Eni, the Italian energy company, and Equinor, the Norwegian oil business. Boom time for magnet aficionados!

Watch the denominator. This year the overall share of global energy spending on renewables will jump from about one-third to nearly 40%. The sharp increase is in both absolute terms but also because of a dramatic decline in fossil fuel investment.

Short morsels to appear smart while staying home

Are there laws of history? “Deep history,” which combines quantitative and qualitative “approaches tend to assume that the natural sciences are capable of producing objective knowledge, and that mirroring their methodologies will produce ‘better’ knowledge for the rest of the academy,” argues Amanda Rees. Interesting read which I think understates the value of complexity approaches in trying to understand deep underlying themes in societal evolution. I think you can have those and accept the presence of structure, perspective and bias in the modellers’ eye.

☂️ How fintech’s darling Monzo is having to rethink its future.

🚲🗑️ After selling its Jump bike business to Lime, Uber’s old bike stock is being crushed. Literally.

India’s Jio is now raising money from Microsoft, having recently raised funding from Facebook, Silverlake and KKR in previous weeks. The firm has raised $10bn as American investors scramble for a piece of digital India. (Mubadala is also looking at investing.)

👏 A profile of the grad student who solved the long-standing Conway knot problem in a week.

❤️🐕 Dogs can smell Covid-19. This proves they are the best.

A simulation suggests that the asteroid which wiped out the dinosaurs hit Earth at an angle of about 60 degrees, which compounded the environmental damage it caused.

🤩 These sensors made of 11 atoms — ‘a mouse trap for magnetic waves’— could be helpful in green technology.

The video of the SpaceX Falcon returning to land is amazing.

End note

I haven’t written much on AI this year. I’ve spent a large part of the last few months doing some work on technologies for climate change and thinking about the design of  cities for the latter part of this century.

So I did enjoy the opportunity, spurred by a new paper, to look back at AI. I’ll be sending that essay out for members tomorrow.

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What you’re up to—notes from EV readers

Rodrigo Mendoza-Smith: Devs have eaten the world.

Stephanie Hare on contact tracing and surveillance for the BBC.

Paul Albertella wrote about the value of software in a pandemic.

Aimun Jamjoom is looking for volunteers for a study about legal responsibility and public attitudes towards robotic surgery.

John Havens at the IEEE shares his team’s first in a series of standards, which look at the impact of technology on well-being and sustainability.

Podimo, an app that Levin Bunz invested in, just announced their Series A (15 million euros) funding round.

If you’d like to share your projects or news, email marija@exponentialview.co

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