Hi, I’m Azeem Azhar. I’m exploring how our societies and political economy will change under the force of rapidly accelerating technologies and other trends.
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Dept of the near future
🏃🏼♂️ Google’s two founders step down from the company. Sundar Pichai will become the CEO of Alphabet and Google. There are two ways to look at this. One is well put by EV reader, Gregory Bufithis who argues that:
Brin and Page represented the childish, goofball, often feckless romance of tech. But Google, with Pichai at the helm, has finally and fully abandoned “Don’t Be Evil”. Because the person now taking over creates a different and probably more dangerous set of problems for the ecosystem, and Google’s standing in the world.
Pichai will have his hands full continuing to move Google forward, and taking a lead in negotiating the new social and regulatory contract it will make with governments around the world. As Steve Kovach suggests this is the ‘worst job in Silicon Valley.’
While this clarifies the complicated reporting lines at the top of this remarkable firm, this shift also cements Google’s data-ad businesses as the heart of the Alphabet structure. This represents 98 per cent of Google’s profits. The other bets, Verily, X, Google Ventures, CapitalG, and so on, are yet to move the needle for Google. The Alphabet problem is not simply that Google’s core business is too big, profitable and resilient. It is that any ancillary business that Google spins up (in life sciences or finance or security) can be easily enmeshed in the core data-ad nexus of Google, so why keep them separate? Even Waymo can be thought of as an instantiation of the mission to ‘organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’ — that is organising real-time actor-state information on public roads and make it accessible and useful to a self-driving vehicle.
So, my take is that this represents the beginning of the tend of the Alphabet structure. Expect to see ingestion or divestment of the little bets over the coming years.
Elsewhere, the tech sector remeains remarkable. Apple is now worth more than the entire US energy sector. And as Twitter’s part-time CEO decamps to Africa for up to six months, Scott Galloway has some powerful and stern words.
🛴 A fascinating analysis of micromobility in Munich by McKinsey suggests that by 2030, up to 40 percent of car trips would be replaced by micromobility services, such as shared bikes. The firm also reckons that it would offset the CO2 emissions of 15,000 Germans, and save four hours of travel time per person per year. See also, Lime, a micromobility company, reckons it might be EBIT positive sometime next year. That is remarkably fast for a firm approaching its third birthday, especially considering its growth rate. The company served around 10M rides in the year until September 2018 and hit 100m rides twelve months later.
🇨🇳 Chinese firms want to shape international facial recognition standards. Significant, even though this discussion is happening in an ancient organisation like the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Standards start to set expectations of what these systems should like. Buyers look to standards to validate vendors technical choices, shaping the market and the expectations of everyone around them. Standards may seem arcane but are a lever of influence.
Yuan Yang and Madhumita Murgia have put together a detailed overview of how Chinese firms have cornered the surveillance market.
Also, in China, the Huawei Mate 30, launched in September, has no US chips. This excellent graphic shows how Huawei has reduced its reliance on US silicon in its phones over time.
China’s national AI spending is significant but may be much lower than many have argued: researchers reckon than 2018’s spending on civilian research was between $1.7 and $5.7bn dollars, with military spending running between $2 and $8bn.
🔥 The Economist makes the case for negative carbon-dioxide emissions—and why the cost makes it hard. They miss two points here. The first is the imperative to buy expensively now in order to reap the gains of lower costs of the technology in the future. The second is that there could be paths to storing carbon, in the order of gigatons, by shifting towards regenerative agriculture. (We discuss this latter point here.)
💯 🎧 The size, speed and scope of the cybersecurity threat is rapidly moving beyond the ability of humans to respond. Nicole Eagan joined me on the podcast this week to share her experiences in defending some of the world’s largest organisations from savage cyberattacks.
🌡️ Climate catastrophe: 410.96ppm | 3,827 days
Each week, we’re going to remind you of the CO2 levels in the atmosphere and the number of days until reaching the 450ppm threshold.
The latest measurement (as of December 2): 410.96ppm; December, 2018: 408.44ppm; 25 years ago: 360ppm; 250 years ago, est: 250ppm. Share this reminder with your community by forwarding this email or tweeting this.
Solving the climate crisis requires global coordination, it is often argued. Here’s a nice story of a local county council blocking the expansion of Luton Airport on the grounds of increased carbon emissions. It seems that sometimes one can ‘act local but think global.’
China wants a quarter of all sales of cars to be electrified by 2025, a five-fold increase on this years sales. Car companies are moving full bore into electrification. More than 80,000 workers will lose their jobs as part of this shift, although it represents less than 1 percent of the entire industry’s workforce.
Chart of the week (out of beta!! 😍 )
Research shows that even long-term predictions about military technologies are surprisingly accurate, says Alexander Kott:
the maximum kinetic energy that the system can potentially direct at the target in unit time and per unit mass of the overall system. That measure of energy took about 60 years on average to double before the 1830s, and about 15 years after.
You’ll notice an inflexion point at around 1830. Why was that?
It probably results from unique and massive changes in the socio-technical history of mankind: the Industrial Revolution, the American and French Revolutions, and other developments.
The point is, disruptions are what keeps the trajectory of technology stable. Without each subsequent disruption, the curve would flatten out. Paradoxically, we need a continuous sequence of disruptions in order to stay on an approximately steady trajectory.
It is an explanation which captures a key thesis of this newsletter: that interactions between social and technical systems are key to understanding the nature of innovation.
Elsewhere, a fascinating discussion of the US Navy’s efforts to equip their destroyers with lasers to defend against the threat of drone swarms and hypersonic missiles.
Short morsels to appear smart at dinner parties
💣 A third of British Millennials now use a challenger bank as their primary account. While not a millenial, I’ve essentially transitioned my personal and business banking from Barclays to Monzo, Tide and Revolut.
Despite what meditation apps claim, the gateway to tranquility is not through your smartphone.
🤓 Physicists researching neutrinos stumbled on a discovery about basic math. Fascinating story about eigenvectors.
🙄 Most billionaires in advanced economies may have ‘fairly acquired’ their wealth, says The Economist.
Amazon has released a preview version of Braket, a development environment that will allow researchers to experiment with quantum computing without needing to run their own hardware.
🎊 Dating.com is buying its way into a new market: arranged marriages. Dil Mil, an arranged marriage platform recently acquired by the dating giant, has over a million users in India and the Indian diaspora around the world, and claims to average a marriage per day.
Magic Leap, the VR/AR startup which has raised a total of $2.6B in funding, has only sold 6,000 headsets.
A compelling argument that Ewoks have the best war fighting tactics of any force in the Star Wars pantheon.
🗯️ AI dungeon is an infinitely-regressing text-based dungeon game built using the GPT2 language model. (Best played on a computer, not phone.)
Reddit’s most upvoted posts of 2019 actually reflect the nature of (most) of the platform pretty well: defiant, silly, supportive, with a side of toilet humour. (At 450M users, Reddit has more users than Twitter.)
Not much to be said about the creepy Peloton advert. Except for this witty rejoinder.
🍌💲Artist Maurizio Cattelan duct-taped a banana to the wall. Sold for $120,000. (1am update… the banana has been eaten.)
We’re going to adjust the wondermissive a little starting this week.
On Sundays, you’ll receive this newsletter. It has a couple of new sections. Chart of the week, which is officially out of beta, and Dig Deeper (see at the bottom). Dig Deeper will link you back to previous podcast transcripts, essays or issues which are relevant to this week’s ideas.
EV will be a little shorter on Sundays. There will normally be two editions, one for members who support us through the Premium tier; and one for free readers.
Mid-week on most weeks, I’ll deliver an essay or analysis for Premium members. If you enjoy these mid-week analyses, please feel free occasionally to share them with a few friends. (We sent out our first one, open to all, a discussion of population-wide genome sequencing this week.)
Premium members will still have access the exclusive State of The Exponential briefings, transcripts of podcasts, and other goodies.
What you’re up to—notes from EV readers
Sameh Wabeh writes about smarter cities for a resilient and inclusive future.
Jeff Sachs: Getting to a carbon-free economy.
Alexandra Mousavizadeh launches the AI Index.
Rory Cellan-Jones: Artificial Intelligence Apps, Parkinson’s and Me.
Liz Broderick created a parental leave policy for Kindred Capital.
Peter Hammond Schwartz shared his new newsletter The Creation Project.
Kris Oestergaard and his colleagues at SingularityU Nordic are working on an anthology called ‘Ethics at Work’ and are looking for great contributors. If you think you’re the one, email Kris directly at email@example.com.
A number of readers are behind this analysis and call to ban facial recognition in Serbia— summary in English.
EV’s Marija Gavrilov will be in Madrid next week. Let her know if you’re in the city and have time to meet up (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Digging deeper—from Exponential View’s library
On deep learning, its possibilities and limits listen to Azeem’s chats with:
- Gary Marcus, who makes the case that deep learning is fundamentally insufficient;
- Jürgen Schmidhuber, who pioneered recurrent neural networks and makes the point that time brings with it exponential improvements in computational power;
- Joanna Bryson, on what we mean by AI.
On China’s AI and power:
On climate change modelling:
- State of the Exponential with Myles Allen, the head of the Climate Dynamics group at the University of Oxford's Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics Department; the Principal Investigator of the distributed computing project Climateprediction.net. Myles gave us a briefing on climate modelling earlier in the year.
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