🔮 The anthropocene realised; Stripe’s banking platform & Sequoia’s Black Swan predictions; Dollar longevity; talking trees & bionic soldiers ++ #300
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.
This Friday, I asked members for their thoughts on the actions taken against Facebook in the US.
🇸🇪 Finally, I had a fantastic conversation with the CEO of IKEA, Jesper Brodin, about the company’s plans to transform into a climate positive enterprise by 2030. IKEA currently emits 0.1% of annual global greenhouse emissions, and Jesper is open about the challenges ahead, but he also emphasizes that this is the only way they - or any other company - can stay relevant.
The near future
🌍 New evidence indicates that the Anthropocene has truly arrived. The combined mass of human-made objects now exceeds the mass of natural objects on Earth, according to Emily Elhacham and colleagues. The mass of plastic, at 8Gt, is double that of animals.
👍 Matt Stoller says the antitrust cases against Facebook and Google show that we’re entering a new era of policymakers’ approach to big tech: “America is learning to govern again.” When I spoke to Matt a couple of months ago, we went into the history of this tangled relationship, and looked at the approaches to governance which would lead to more innovation and healthy digital infrastructure. (Azeem’s comment: Should Facebook be forced to divest WhatsApp and Instagram, the only person who stands to lose is Mark Zuckerberg. He’ll be able to retain his dictatorial control of whichever firm he chooses to lead, but different governance will no doubt be mandated for Insta and WhatsApp. I very much doubt shareholders will lose out, rather, Insta, in particular, could turn out quite nicely.)
🦢 Sequoia Capital is having an incredible year despite the firm’s vociferous “black swan” predictions at the beginning of the pandemic. A top-quartile venture capital firm might report four-fold returns over the fund’s life. Sequoia’s eleven-fold returns reflect smart investments – made nearly a decade ago – in startups that have helped people cope with the pandemic. Airbnb and DoorDash’s major IPOs will also add to Sequoia’s returns.
💳 Stripe launched a ‘banking-as-a-service’ platform called Stripe Treasury. This is an abstraction layer sitting over financial services providers (link banks) so they can access new types of customers. It’s part of the trend of ‘embedded finance’, about which I have written too little (sorry!), which unbundles financial services offerings so they can be accessed at the point where they are needed. Stripe will become a central aggregation point through which such services run. It’s quite a massive deal, in reality, as it creates a new channel for customer-centric innovation which is currently stymied by banks’ bureaucratic thinking and legacy technology.
💵 Financial crises prompt questions about reserve currencies, and that’s especially true when it comes to the dominance of the dollar this year. Despite some seemingly obvious warning signs (chronic fiscal and trade deficits in the US, along with the rise of China), the dollar’s position as the global reserve currency seems to be holding. Bryne Hobart argues that the US remains overrepresented as a destination for exports (thanks to the voracious US consumer), which keeps the dollar’s network effect firm, and America’s history of militarism means that few are willing to threaten the country’s economic interests. Hobart’s argument is a complex, long, and nuanced one.
🦠 Will the pandemic unleash a wave of productivity growth? The core concept is the productivity J-curve: “As new technologies are first adopted, firms shift resources towards investment in intangibles: developing new business processes. This shift in resources means that firm output suffers in a way that cannot be fully explained by shifts in the measured use of labour and tangible capital, and which is thus interpreted as a decline in productivity growth.” The pandemic has accelerated our reliance on those intangibles – digital working, collaboration tools, knowhow – which could now bear significant fruit. (My take: we see this type of behaviour with new platforms regularly. The process of preparing for adaptation is expensive and relatively unproductive during the adaptation period. When they are in place, magic may happen.)
🔋 Dept of decarbonisation: 413.46ppm | 3,456 days
Each week, I’m 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 December 8): 413.46 ppm; December 2019: 411.13 ppm; 25 years ago: 360 ppm; 250 years ago, est: 250 ppm. Share this reminder with your community by forwarding this email or tweeting this.
🚙 The UK’s first electric-only car charging station opened earlier this week in Essex, and is the first in over 100 that the company Gridserve wants to open.
Short morsels to appear smart during the Anthropocene
The controversy over Timnit Gebru’s departure from Google has unfortunately overshadowed her numerous impactful contributions, from circuit design at Apple to computer vision research at Stanford.
👞 The extent to which new machines replaced workers in the wake of the British Industrial Revolution has never been quantified. A study focused on the boot-making industry hints at what might happen with our current wave of automation. Binders and cordwainers lost their jobs, but complementary roles, like machinists and finishers, were created. Unfortunately, the new jobs often emerged in tight urban clusters, forcing workers to migrate.
🌲Trees communicate and cooperate with each other through a subterranean network of fungi. The New York Times investigated what they might be sharing with each other. A stunning piece.
🚙 After spending hundreds of millions of dollars, Uber is throwing in the towel on its self-driving car project. Yet the sector is making clear progress forward. The team at Cruise revealed its first self-driving vehicle this week.
🏃♀️The relationship between exercise and our blood is the subject of serious new research. Even a short workout can rapidly change the levels of 9,815 molecules in the bloodstream.
❄️ For a less scientific approach to the above material, look at the skyrocketing popularity of the Wim Hof Method.
👩💻Long overdue: an AI database designed to make past failures visible.
🧑⚖️Why the above databases are critical firewalls: some lawyers are growing concerned that algorithmically driven systems are denying the poor housing, jobs, and basic services.
🦐 Humans have long domesticated other species but, in what might be a first, a non-human vertebrate has domesticated another animal.
👮♂️ Inching closer to a science fiction reality: France green-lights bionic soldiers resistant to pain and stress.
💬 As per our Friday discussion on the FTC’s moves against Facebook, Bloomberg published an in-depth view of the company’s efforts to make WhatsApp profitable. It’s hard to understate just how powerful WhatsApp is across the Global South. For many, WhatsApp is the internet. The question is whether US lawmakers grasp this.
Three hundred issues! Quite the milestone. Thanks for reading. And please take a special moment to share Exponential View on social networks or via an email.
What you’re up to – notes from EV readers
Together with other EV readers, I participated in the UNDP Future of Development High Level Strategy Lab.
Jacomo Corbo and colleagues presented “Making boats fly by scaling reinforcement learning” at NeurIPS.
Claudia Chwalisz is featured in the latest overview of ‘How to restore trust in politics’ by The Economist.
Max Tegmark and Anika Saigal share the recording of the latest The Future of Life Award ceremony, which honours Dr William Foege and Dr Viktor Zhdanov for their critical efforts to eradicate smallpox. Speakers include Bill Gates, Anthony Fauci and Jennifer Doudna.
Aaron Frank published How a Software Map of the Entire Planet Could Change the World Forever in the Oxford Business Review.
Justin Nogarede is organising an event to assess the big platform governance proposals the European Commission will publish next week. Read more and join here.
Vladimir Lukic is part of the CodeCarbon project, which aims to tackle the carbon footprint of computing.
Andrew Grant and his team at Imagination Technologies launched the IMG Series4 NNA (Neural Network Accelerator), a new chip design for self-driving vehicles and ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems).
Bill Dobie’s SEDNA raised its Series A round, led by EV reader Mike Chalfen and Harry Stebbings.
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