🎉 Politics in the anthropocene; NFTs; Uber’s retreat; The next pandemic & Oumuama ++ #314
We are six
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.
Exponential View is officially six today! The first issue was released this Sunday in 2015. So please take a moment to celebrate by sharing this wondermissive with a friend by email or via the socials. Press the button below.
🎧 Veteran technology reporter, Cade Metz, joins me in the latest episode of our podcast to explore the legacies of AI giants who brought the technology from the lab into our homes. Many who were previously on our podcast: Fei-Fei Li, Demis Hassabis Jürgen Schmidhuber & Andrew Ng feature in Cade’s book.
Dept of the near future
Future political economies
🌍 The challenges we’re facing due to climate change and the breakdown in social cohesion require new approaches to economics and politics. One approach to the problem, captured in a delicate essay by Duncan Kelly, is to recognise the profound impact the Anthropocene is having on our political structures and where opportunities exist for change:
Rethinking the history and the ideas that shaped our politics into the present, we might be able to conceive of new and alternative forms of community. We might also, at the very least, go back to a more historically sensitive tradition of thinking about political economy about how to proceed to a politics beyond neoliberalism… [and] find ways of seeing the interconnections between politics, economics, history, and the environment that are more capacious and synthetic than anything modern neoliberalism and mainstream economics have to offer. All, as well, value complexity over predictive simplification.
A markedly different approach comes from OpenAi’s Sam Altman. Altman foresees a period of “Moore’s Law” for everything a dramatic deflation in the products and services we need. Instead of dramatically reforming capitalism, he proposes a more sensible tax structure (that focuses on capital and not labour).
This revolution will create phenomenal wealth. The price of many kinds of labor (which drives the costs of goods and services) will fall toward zero once sufficiently powerful AI “joins the workforce”.
The world will change so rapidly and drastically that an equally drastic change in policy will be needed to distribute this wealth and enable more people to pursue the life they want.
My hunch is that tax reform is not sufficient to adjust for the next 30-50 years. Rather, a new political economy, as Kelly suggests, is in the offing. The problems of neoclassical economics (and the political economy it sprung up) relate not to the relative cost of products, but rather to some fundamental misunderstandings of the purpose of the economy, how humans behave, the moral and practical limits of markets, what we measure (and don’t), how we resolve issues of power and agency, and how to manage within planetary boundaries. (See also, my discussion with Sam Altman on OpenAi’s breakthrough research.)
Uber turns the page
🚕 A remarkable turn of events for Uber. This week, the ride-hailing company said it would begin treating all 70,000 UK drivers as “workers” with provisions such as a minimum wage, holiday pay, and pension plans. This will cost the company a not-insignificant $7,000 per driver annually and have other effects on its UK market share. Uber was forced to make these concessions but the shift does raise some crucial questions about its company DNA. Will Uber really “turn a page on driver rights”, as its CEO suggests? Does this mean extending similar provisions to other markets?What does this mean for the thousands of Uber employees who happily worked in the firm before this new chapter was opened? Are they updating their beliefs as well? (See also: What you are up to, below.)
NFTS: naughty or nice?
🔐 There are a lot of questions about the environmental effects of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) which are booming in the cross-over world of experimental art and cryptocurrencies.
While they do use ample computing power and resources, NFTs might not carry nearly the same environmental impact as traditional forms of art, suggests Sterling Crispin. Traditional art imposes carbon costs too.
Twenty years ago, I went inside the stunning Roden Crater, a hollowed-out volcano, turned into the most remarkable artwork. I’m musing today about what the carbon-load of that activity must have been with trucks and excavators working for four decades.
Or consider the carbon-load of the Venice Biennale (600,000 attendees) or ArtBasel (100,000 visitors), flying in collectors and their hangers-on. The debate around the environmental consequences of NFTs, I think, is probably wrapping a hidden value judgement. Critics think crypto is dirty or pointless, and thus NFT more so. Or that NFT isn’t real art but the bananas at ArtBasel Miami are. That value judgement is not that carbon cannot be expended (because we do with other activities, like a Carnival Cruise or the World Cup Final). Rather that this activity, digital artists minting NFTs, isn’t valuable, at least compared to other activities. It might be too early to tell.
The critique of cryptocurrency’s energy use—and carbon load—is well known. Terawatt hours per year and, like most electricity produced, mostly fossil fuel-based. Cambridge University estimates put the carbon intensity of blockchain mining at roughly the same level as the global electricity mix.
EV reader, Albert Wenger, who runs a $162m climate tech fund and is an active investor in blockchain technologies, like Coinbase, tackles the broader topic of climate and crypto this week:
I believe strongly that it would be a huge mistake to shut down a fundamental innovation that has the potential to decentralize power because we are temporarily concerned about its electricity consumption. Instead, we need to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, pass a carbon tax, and decarbonize our grid aggressively.
The crypto community would do well to join the bitcoin bashers to lobby governments to impose global carbon pricing at a sensible level, in excess of $150 per ton. Perhaps some of those juicy profits from selling cryptoart NFTs could be liquidated and spent on lobbying for just such an outcome.
See also: a16z continues its moves into the NFT space with an investment in OpenSea.
How Washington fumbled the bigtech ball
🇺🇸 The US government doesn’t have a sufficient understanding of how tech giants like Google conduct their business. That’s the picture that emerged from an explosive investigation outlining how regulators appointed by Obama effectively blew an opportunity to sue Google in 2013. The evidence reveals significant misunderstandings inside the FTC over how Google conducts itself and what the company was doing to carve out a dominant slice of the market. We can only imagine how things changed (or stayed the same) inside Trump’s FTC but this new insight doesn’t inspire confidence that sensible tech policy is coming down the pike any time soon in the US. (See also: States are fighting Apple and Google’s app monopolies by themselves).
This pandemic, and the next one
🦠 The Covid-19 pandemic is approaching a new phase of containment but there’s still ample work to be done. With global vaccination efforts underway, herd immunity appears within reach. But scientists are warning that the unevenness of the vaccine rollout and a threat of new variants could render herd immunity impossible. This points to the necessity of strengthening global governance standards to prepare (and possibly prevent) the next pandemic. (See also: EV’s senior editor Joseph Dana wrote about the global challenges facing the vaccine rollout for members this week.)
🔋 Dept of decarbonisation
CO2 level 416.94 ppm | 3,370 days
The latest measurement of atmospheric CO2 (as of March 17, 2021): 416.94 ppm; March 2020: 413.5 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 historian Helen Thompson has written a tour de force essay detailing how much of a Herculean task it will be to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. Not only are fossil fuels ingrained in our politics and economics but the resulting green geopolitical struggles in the renewable age come with a host of challenges in their own right. Her analysis throws cold water on any misplaced hopes we might have about the ethical and social benefits of a revolution in green energy.
🏭 The carbon credit market is having a moment but that hasn’t impressed everyone. Fossil fuel companies purchasing carbon credits as a clever way to offset their dirty emissions has long been viewed with caution. Renewed interest in the carbon credit market is kindling fresh debate over whether it’s time to reform the space to force companies to focus on their own emissions output.
🇮🇳 It’s no coincidence that Kim Stanley Robinson chose India as the site of a major climate change disaster in his excellent The Ministry for the Future. The world’s largest democracy has its work cut out if it’s to achieve carbon neutrality targets set forth by the Paris Climate Agreement. Perhaps the best way forward is targeted reforms that will attract investment in the country’s sustainable energy sector.
Short morsels to appear smart during the next world sleep day
👩💻 What does working from home really look like in Mexico or South Korea? A great series from Rest of the World has the answer. It pairs nicely with a piece forecasting the coming cascade of remote workers seeping out of the US.
🤷♂️ A peek behind the curtain. Ever wondered how to create those amazing TikTok videos?
👛 Kering, which owns Gucci and Balenciaga, has taken a stake in second-hand fashion reseller, Vestiare Collective. Meaningful because luxury brands have been snooty about resale until now.
🌟 Creating an option plan for a startup can take months. This website can sort it out in a couple of minutes. (Excellent, btw.)
🦀 Logic gates and a swarm of soldier crabs. Fantastic.
Who doesn’t love a bit of Ryan Gosling? Gigapixel, a neural-net based image enhancer, accidentally added the face of the Hollywood heartthrob to one photographer’s cityscapes.
🤖 Another harrowing chapter in the long-simmering controversy surrounding Google’s artificial intelligence research.
🔭 The debate continues! A new research paper into the extrasolar object “Oumuamua” argues that it is just a piece of a Pluto-like planet. The jury is still out.
📺 The Simpsons have been around forever and thanks to deep fakes, they might be immortal.
📱Looking at your phone while walking down the street? You are an agent of chaos, according to a new Japanese study.
If you’ve had lunch with me in London, it’s possible we ate at the Portland restaurant. It is one of my favourites, quite minimal, with a strong bias towards fresh, directly-sources produce.
With the various lockdowns, the restaurant had been shut. I discovered they were doing home deliveries: pre-packaged boxes of food and wine, proper menus, and clear instructions on how to prepare. It made an amazing change from a Beyond burger on a Friday night.
If you are in London and fancy a treat, I can recommend it.
P.S. Don’t forget to give us a birthday present by sharing this with a few friends.
What you’re up to – notes from EV readers
To share your projects and updates, fill out your details here. Because of space constraints, we prioritize updates from paying members and startups I have invested in. (You can become the former by subscribing, if you have not already, and the latter by getting an intro to me via a trusted contact.)
Lucy Hooberman reflects on the year of grief and invites us all to come together on March 23 to remember those we have lost to Covid-19.
Vishal Gulati has created a new Clubhouse club on computational biology.
Tom Raftery’s Climate 21 podcast has a new episode with the Head of Impact Strategy at Impossible Foods.
Tom Gray and FocalPoint just closed a series B funding round with Draper Esprit and are set to integrate their first commercial chipset.
Congratulations to Jacob Turner, who was representing drivers, against Uber and OlaCabs in a landmark case: the first in the world on the right to an explanation of automated decision-making under the GDPR.
Craig Cohon is now the chief strategy officer of ApiJect, which makes a new type of pre-filled injector for deliver medicines.