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
💯 What will it take for our civilization to move away from fossil fuel dependency? Vaclav Smil, one of Bill Gates’ favourite authors, cautions against ‘easy’ solutions in our recent conversation. Vaclav brings a dose of realism to the discussion about energy transitions, and he and I have a good spar on some topics. Must listen
🤖Bad robot. Researchers from the St Louis Fed have dug into how the growth in robots is likely to affect local labor markets. They found that automation could drive an increasing polarisation, with high and low-skill workers hanging on even as the middle of the labor market is hollowed out. This polarisation is already beginning to manifest in ‘the decline of middle-skill occupations, like manufacturing and production jobs, and the growth in both high- and low-skill occupations, like managerial jobs on one end and jobs that assist or care for others on the other,’ they write.
🚕 Nation-states are in trouble, but global cities are thriving. Branko Milanović wonders how the growing divide between metropolitan cities and the nations they’re embedded in will play out — ‘Will there be a redistribution of political power within countries, endless friction between the ‘globalists’ and ‘nativists’ or, in extremis, secession by the antifragile villes-monde?’ My friend David Galbraith cautions against simple narratives that argue for the return of the city-state. (Consider this in the context of the robo-polarisation described above. The Brookings Institute also tackles this question, pointing to the challenges faced by legacy communities; the smaller and midsized older industrial cities are too often overlooked according to the Brookings Institute’s Alan Berube. Helping legacy communities to share in overall national prosperity requires targeted policies that engage all sectors of the community, leverage anchor institutions and partner to help underserved groups. Or pitchforks may result.)
📋 The current AI wave was kicked off by breakthrough in machine vision around 2010 and 2012. EV reader, James Wang, argues we may face a similar spring in text processing and natural language understanding. For a flavour for how good text generation is getting, look at this conversation between EV reader Tom Standage and the GPT2 network on the future of AI. But good as the replies are, don’t think the GPT2 is getting out of as getting out of Searle’s Chinese room. As Tom tells me, “this should only be taken as a bit of fun!”
👣The concepts of category creation and first-mover advantage are often conflated, but they are not the same thing. Being the first to market doesn’t necessarily mean coming to dominate that category: ‘The emphasis should be on creating the first high functioning flywheel, which is the combination of 1) a radical product/service innovation, combined with 2) a breakthrough business model innovation, and finally greased by 3) a breakthrough big data about future category demand.’
🐄 Livestock farming is the single largest human land use on the planet, more than double crop agriculture. But for the first time in millennia, the amount of land dedicated to livestock is actually shrinking due to increased productivity, and targeted government policies could help to accelerate this process even further.
Dept of global decoupling
This section is available to Premium members only.
Here, you can read about:
- What space the UN Secretary General is watching with concern about the next major global conflict;
- What the new law enacted in Russia banning the sale of devices without pre-installed Russian apps means for Western tech giants;
- Should governments shift power into the hands of individual users rather than tech companies?
🧨 Climate catastrophe: 410.86ppm | 3,834 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 November 28): 410.86ppm; November, 2017: 405.14ppm; 25 years ago: 360ppm; 250 years ago, est: 250ppm. Share this reminder with your community by forwarding this email or tweeting this.
Carbon offset programs are this century’s papal indulgences, allowing the rich to buy their way out of moral responsibility for their actions. This gold rush conceals a dangerous delusion, says Camilla Cavendish. (I’m struggling to find decent carbon offsetting schemes for my own path to net-zero this year.)
Startups working on doing good for the planet have raised over $1.5 billion in the past six months alone, according to Stefano Bernardi. Great survey.
New battery technology could help UK households save up to £40bn by 2050, according to the government regulator. Storage, of course, is more than just batteries. There is also fantastic innovation in gravitational storage, such as EnergyVault (we discussed it at the State of the Exponential briefing with Bill Gross here), molten salt and hydrogen.
Chart of the week (beta)
Against the trend in most of the rest of the world, American life expectancy is falling. The drop is due in part to an increase in deaths of young and middle-aged people from causes like drug overdoses, suicides and organ system diseases.
Short morsels to appear smart at dinner parties
💰 Reality has burned about $100 million off Silicon Valley’s most precious darlings like WeWork, Uber and Lime. The dream of limitless cash is fading fast, and the startup industry is waking up to a new, tougher investment climate.
🙉 Briefly liberated from the bottom of the trust index, politicians are now back in the lowest spot below advertising executives. Trust in civil servants however, has slightly improved.
Failure is crucial for success; the important thing is how well you learn from your mistakes.
Here’s a primer on blockchain after the ‘blockchain winter’ (if that was a blockchain winter, it was a remarkably short and mild one—more of a blockchain day when you might think about possibly putting on a jumper because the breeze is a little chilly).
💡 How polymath geniuses approach learning.
Researchers argue that the Gini coefficient should be reformulated as a measure of experienced difference.
🤕 Audi’s switching to electric vehicles, and cutting 9,500 jobs in Germany in the process.
One of the first studies to measure the impact of the Russian disinformation campaign on American voters has found that it actually may have had little or no effect. The researchers acknowledge that there are a number of significant caveats to the research methodology, however.
🤷 Apparently, 536 was the very worst year to be alive.
I love this story from the New York Times of 25 March 1907.
London’s horse-drawn cabbies protested against motorised taxis in vast numbers. At these times of change, lurking not far from the surface, are lessons we can draw on from the recent, documented past.
Have a great week!
This week’s edition is supported by our partner, Toptal
What you are up to—notes from EV readers
Emily Shuckburgh launched the Cambridge Zero initiative.
Sougwen Chung explores what happens when robots and humans work together to create art.
Henry Mason’s team at Digital Watch published the top five consumer trends for 2020.
Congrats to EV readers at Rossum on a $4.5m round!
Charlie Beckett’s led a global survey of 71 newsrooms on the use of AI in journalism.
Anil Seth co-authored a paper tackling active inference at scale, building on the work of Karl Friston.
Sean West writes about the lessons professional services industry can learn from the Superhuman onboarding experience.
Matt Rudnitsky’s 281 tips on writing better.
Congrats to Peter Scott who opened Suffolk’s first innovation center in Stowmarket.
If you have something exciting to share, email firstname.lastname@example.org. No PR promo please.