🔮The Merge; social capital grows; the cost of decarbonisation; AI & discovery++ #390
Americans’ level of cooperation has increased over the past 60 years - challenging many "low social capital" theories
Hi, I’m Azeem Azhar, a technologist, entrepreneur and investor. I convene Exponential View to help us understand how our societies and political economy will change under the force of rapidly accelerating technologies. The Sunday edition of Exponential View is a thoughtful curation of evolving thinking across business, technology, economy and culture. Sign up for the weekly insights here.
The near future
Ξ Crypto merger mania
The Ethereum development community pulled it off. This week they completed the “Merge” which shifted Ethereum’s consensus mechanism from an energy-guzzling proof-of-work to a much more efficient proof-of-stake. (Simple explanation on PoW vs. PoS here.) The current estimate is that proof-of-stake will consume 99.95% less energy than proof-of-work. This will dispense with environmental criticisms of Ethereum, but it’s bad news for miners. They have made substantial investments in mining hardware, and now they’ll need to find other currencies to mine.
I find the apparent success of the Merge remarkable. As computer science legend Grady Booch puts it “the Ethereum foundation is to be commended for making such a significant architectural change to a complex operational system.”
The greener Ethereum should become more appealing to institutional investors who want crypto exposure, but have to mind their carbon footprint because of ESG reporting.
The Merge won’t impact scalability or transaction (gas) fees just yet but with this major effort out the way, it may lay the groundwork for developments that tackle both of those issues.
(See also: Biden’s administration proposals on regulating crypto seem to have struck a decent balance between fostering some of the benefits of the technology as well as managing the risks of a totally deregulated sector. The recommendations include exploring a Central Bank Digital Currency in the US. Some industry insides are cross that the recommendations are not specific enough, but at my reading, I felt that provide reasonable direction. Will explore more.)
🎳 Bowling together
Far from declining, Americans’ level of cooperation has increased over the past 60 years. (Full paper.)
These findings challenge many “low social capital” theories like Robert Putnam’s influential theory laid out in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Those ideas posited a future where interactions were mediated by the market and cooperation on joint goals (think climate change) would become harder.
This new research, a meta-analysis of 511 studies, identified an increase of nearly 20% in the cooperation rate in certain social dilemmas between 1957 and 2017. How is this possible? The scientists suggest that growing personal freedom and autonomy could be a precondition for increasing trust, or that improved education could make it harder for people to shirk or cheat, disincentivising defective behaviours. It may also be that growing urbanisation and technically-mediated communication forces people into more unfamiliar social ecologies where trust in strangers yields greater benefits. This is an important narrative violation, whose ramifications could be widespread.
(See also: Carlo Rovelli on why relationships are the key to existence. For bookworms among you, members of our Exponential Do community just finished reading Finding the Mother Tree by Professor Suzanne Simard, in which she summarises decades of her research on collaboration and relationship-building among trees and plants.)
Weekly commentary: Working with AI tools 🔐
The weekly commentary will be sent out to members of Exponential View tomorrow. In the commentary, I tackle the experience of creating amidst the emergence of powerful AI generating systems. Here’s an excerpt:
Text-to-image AI systems are all the rage. A month ago, Open AI announced the beta of Dall-E, its image-generating system. These sophisticated pieces of software are interesting, powerful tools. It’s not intelligence per se, naturally, but it is a useful tool that could help people involved in some kind of process that needs a block of text or an image.
The downsides, of course, are that these tools flood us with large amounts of identikit material. Athena posters rather than art. While it’s becoming cheaper to create, it is still as cognitively expensive for us mere humans to consume.
The volume of output might be accompanied (surprisingly) by a narrowing of creative range. Dall-E is very versatile - more so than so many other tools of the past - but the temptation to churn out what “works” rather than what challenges might be too great.
The weekly commentary will be sent to paying members of Exponential View tomorrow.
Dept of our climate future
In every Sunday edition, we track key metrics that tell us a little about our shared climate future. Our member, Marshall Kirkpatrick, takes the time to curate a view of our current climate status in this segment every week, and you can read Marshall’s curation below. Here’s Marshall:
This week saw another crush of good climate news, investments, and lessons learned. As Angus Hervey wrote in an excellent Future Crunch essay, ‘Ultimately, there’s no way of judging whether we’re living through Collapse or Renewal. Future generations will decide that for us. The only thing that matters is the part we play. We can choose which strand of the rope we belong to. We can add to its grand weave, in the way we treat other people, in the daily work we do, in the decisions we make about where to put our energy, in the leaders we vote for and in the words that come out of our mouths.’ And for those to whom it applies, any readers responsible for billion dollar companies are encouraged to donate their entire firms to climate survival efforts.
The faster, the cheaper: A new study from Oxford and Monash University in Australia, published this week in the energy journal Joule, says that “transitioning to a decarbonised energy system by around 2050 is expected to save the world at least $18 trillion compared to continuing our current levels of fossil fuel use.” The faster the transition occurs, the bigger the savings, the study says, based on historical and newly expected cost declines in solar, wind, and energy storage resources. While inflation-adjusted costs of fossil fuels have remained steady for 140 years, costs of wind, solar, and batteries have dropped approximately 10% every year. The study uses a probabilistic analysis that incorporates both Moore’s law and Wright’s law, which predicts that costs drop as a power law of cumulative production. In other words, the faster more renewables are built, the faster their costs will drop. Last month we highlighted a new meta study by 15 academic institutions that found it is now firmly mainstream scientific thinking that 100% of the world’s energy needs can be filled with renewable sources.
Safer, simpler sustainability: This week the Sandia National Laboratory in the US unveiled a new system that can capture wind energy with large-scale turbines without the use of rare earth magnets, instead using “a pure-rolling-contact device to transmit electrical current along an ultra-low-resistance path.” Replacing rare earth magnets in wind turbines (and EVs) would reduce a need for materials the SIRGE Coalition says are tied to armed conflict that’s killed millions of people in Africa this century. In other promising work for renewables, the US Department of Energy is highlighting research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on safer, simpler, lab-grown crystal alternatives to traditional solar panel materials that require the addition of lead in order to convert energy from the sun into usable electricity. (See also, EV#389 on the role of sulphur in renewables production — and predicted sulphur famine.)
Big cuts become law: Australia, one of the key global players in both coal emissions and renewable power, saw its parliament this week enshrine in law the government’s elevated target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 43% below 2005 levels by 2030. Green legislators wanted bigger cuts, faster. Conservatives wanted smaller cuts, slower.
Large scale renewables projects: The world’s largest hydrogen electrolyzer has arrived at its test facility in Herøya, Norway, according to Hydrogen Pro, a 20-year old company providing sustainable power to heavy industry. Germany’s second largest electrolyzer will produce hydrogen power primarily with wind and solar energy, says Siemens in a newly unveiled plan. And Sweden’s H2 Green Steel has raised a $189M B-round less than 18 months after closing its A round. The company, whose financial backers include Spotify CEO Daniel Ek, says of its system: “Scheduled to start production as early as 2025, the fully integrated, digitalised and circular plant is expected to reduce 95% of CO₂ emissions compared to traditional steelmaking.”
Let’s go, team earth!
Short morsels to appear smart while turning plastics into diamonds
🍎Former Apple exec and long-time analyst of the firm, Jean-Louise Gassée analyses the Apple’s transition to a services model.
🧬More details on experiments to use ML to coming up with new proteins.
👃A new ML model can predict smells based on molecular structure.
🧠New research from Meta demonstrates a system which can predict what you are thinking by reading your brainwaves non-invasively. The “top-ten accuracy” is 72.5%.
💎Scientists have found a way to turn plastic into diamonds, which could mean big things for recycling and our understanding of the cosmos.
📊Musings on how to build a GPT-3 for scientific research.
😥The science of public grief.
I’ve been away for a few weeks, so it is good to be back. Thanks to Marija and Chantal for holding the fort.
What you’re up to – notes from EV readers
Annalee Bloomfield is hosting a fireside chat on sustainable brand-building next Wednesday as part of Climate Week NYC.
Adam Oskwarek’s 14-day email course on climate change and CDR starts on Monday 19th, registrations are open to everyone.
Jacob Taylor has proposed 3 ingredients of collective intelligence - action, bonding, and ritual, to rescue the world’s SDGs.
Adrien Hobt and his team at PCH Innovations unveiled B.I.L.L, a sneaker-repair robot designed for Nike.
Ylli Bajraktari has released the first publication of the Special Competitive Studies Project: Mid-Decade Challenges to National Competitiveness. (This is the Eric Schmidt backed think tank whose findings have been all over the US press this week.)
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