🔮 Energy & democracy; CRISPR; exponential workers; space, AI music ++ #381
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. (To level up on my thesis rapidly, pick up my book. It is now available in paperback.)
The near future
🌞 (Solar) power and new democracy
One beauty of solar power is that it allows energy generators of all scales (from industrial to residential) to participate in the market. As I’ve previously discussed, bottom-up investments in rooftop solar have transformed South Australia’s renewable credentials. Such home solar was responsible for the first gigawatt-scale negative demand events in the world.
Decentralised renewables also allow for a change in the structure of power delivery, giving way to localised capacity, generation and storage, which is where we run into bottlenecks. This is particularly important in most of the non-Western world. (Take South Africa, for example.)
Of course, if such investments are being made to build local or regional infrastructure, it should raise questions of governance and participation. It is this matter that former EV researcher, Emily Judson, and colleagues explore in this academic paper. Emily points out that digitalisation creates new, complicated spaces for citizens to participate in governance throughout arenas that had been the ambit of national policymakers. It’s pretty technical but my rough summary is that new technologies enable a kind of participatory energy democracy. We can’t assume that this necessarily leads to greater participatory governance, because there are systems (such as predictive models) which push authority back to central gatekeepers.
My perspective is that this is rather an open question: the exponential decline in price of decentralised generation and storage could enable new models of participation and governance. Would such greater participation be desirable? Or not? (Happy to hear thoughts.)
👩💻 The exponential worker
In my book, I argue that some of the systemic instability arising from the exponential gap emerged out of shifting power from workers to firms. The trend continues to play out–in a single year, Amazon issued 13,000 disciplinary notices to the 5,300 workers at one warehouse! Henry Ford, introducing new style factory work more than a century ago, faced similar challenges in understanding how to cut a deal with workers–fights, strikes and appalling turnover were not uncommon–until he finally upped salaries and paid heed to their efforts to unionise.
One approach employees could take is to move towards worker-owned platforms. Such platform cooperativism has seen the arrival of worker-owned ridesharing platforms. The declining cost of technology and the broadening of relevant skill sets should make such cooperatives easier, not harder, to set up.
See also: work-from-home calls for new roles including a new kind of manager: the synchroniser.
🧬 RNA therapy revolution
Someone in New Zealand has become the first human to have had a very special surgery done to their liver, thus curing their heart disease. EV member Vishal Gulati, a specialist VC investor focusing on companies at the intersection of data and health sciences, shares why this matters: “This surgery was conducted by a molecular machine made of RNA which was injected into their blood. This is not the sequel to the 1987 film Innerspace, this is a new CRISPR-based drug made by Verve Therapeutics Inc in Boston, and it uses CRISPR 2.0 (base editing) for the first time in humans. If it is as successful as it was in monkeys, this person’s LDL (bad cholesterol) levels and a lifelong risk of heart attack and stroke will be diminished significantly and quite remarkably. This may be a ‘once and done’ procedure. This is a big deal for many reasons. If successful, this may well be the first ‘mass market’ gene editing therapy. Initially, it will be given to people suffering from familial hypercholesterolemia (a scientific term for your parents giving you bad heart attack genes). If found to be safe, it is likely to be rolled out to anyone with high risk of heart attack. How this is paid for will be the next big challenge, because insurance providers are not as good at dealing with people being cured of chronic disease as they are at carrying long-term, ongoing risk.”
See also, losing Y chromosomes may be the reason men have shorter lifespans.
We’ve invited Vishal to contribute to the newsletter every week by sharing insights about how exponential technologies are shaping biology. We’re experimenting with how to knit his expertise in.
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 his curation below. Here’s Marshall: “If your Plan A was for the US federal government to make substantial progress toward sustainability, those ahistorical expectations took a big hit this week thanks to Joe Manchin and US campaign finance law. Fortunately that’s not the only game in town. Below are some of our favourite reasons for pragmatic optimism on climate this week. They’re being driven by exponential changes in technology throughout society, whether policymakers are able to keep up and help or not.”
US EV tipping point: EV sales in the US have hit a key 5% tipping point. Bloomberg’s analysis of 18 countries found that when EVs make up 5% of new car sales, they enter an S-curve that rapidly accelerates market share. Bloomberg now predicts that a quarter of all new cars sold in America will be electric by 2025, several years earlier than previously expected. Transportation is the sector most-responsible for greenhouse gas emissions in the US. (Though that EPA breakdown probably doesn’t properly account for the transportation impacts of non-local agriculture.) The story linked above is to CleanTechnica coverage of this news, which includes all kinds of caveats but ultimately a positive conclusion. Meanwhile in Norway, last month’s new auto registrations were 89.9% full battery electric or 11.2% plug-in hybrid.
UK breaks cheap wind records: Bill McKibben wrote this week: “Every two years the UK government conducts an auction for new clean energy providers—and the numbers that they revealed last week were truly remarkable.” Carbonbrief explains: “A UK government auction has secured a record 11 gigawatts (GW) of additional renewable energy capacity that will generate electricity four times more cheaply than current gas prices…analysts said they would also save consumers an estimated £1.5bn per year in the late 2020s, and cut annual average bills by £58, with most of the projects effectively subsidy-free.” 11 GW is enough to cover 13% of the country’s demand, from a single auction. Globally, the pipeline of wind power capacity, from planned to operational, was reported last month to have already doubled in the past year.
Underground water batteries: “A group of researchers at Michigan Technological University argues that a fully renewable energy grid could be achieved if the US converted mines into hydro-powered batteries,” Carolyn Fortuna wrote in CleanTechnica this week. “Such mines could clear the path for the ‘most ambitious’ renewable energy goals in much of the country.” The researchers found 968 mines which they argue could drive local economic revitalisation by being transformed into pumped storage hydropower facilities. This is already a widely-popular two-reservoir system that uses solar power to pump water to higher elevation storage while the sun shines and lets it flow down through turbines to capture power when the clouds come out. A 900 MW pumped hydro facility buried in a cave in Switzerland came online just three weeks ago. If old mines could be used for this, instead of damming rivers with all the ecosystem damage that incurs, that’s really exciting.
Virtually Powerful: Californian utility Pacific Gas and Electric Company and Tesla have agreed to build a Virtual Power Plant by networking together the Tesla Powerwall home batteries of up to 25,000 people. The organisations say this would be the largest virtual power plant in the world. The home Powerwalls would help stabilise the grid by discharging energy back into the network at times of high demand. “Customers participating in the VPP will receive $2 for every incremental kilowatt-hour of electricity that their Powerwall discharges back into the grid during a load management event,” reports the publication One Step Off the Grid. Last month Tesla announced that a virtual power plant will be used to retire the last remaining coal power plant in Hawaii. For an even broader perspective on these types of strategies, see this March editorial from grid virtualisation vendor Camus Energy about why virtual power plants are not enough and grid virtualisation is important as well.
Short morsels to appear smart while ogling space photos
🔭 The fascinating challenge of communicating data from the James Webb Space Telescope.
🔑 The US National Institute of Science and Technology has finally endorsed a set of quantum-proof encryption algorithms.
♾️ Imaginary numbers are key in describing the invisible side of nature.
🎹 AI music.
⛓️Alan Howard, one of the most shrewd hedge fund managers of the past decades, has been accumulating positions and building teams in crypto for several years. (See also: Satoshi Wept: on the Great Crypto Unwind.)
📉 Global heatwave, crypto winter: the crypto lending platform Celsius has finally declared bankruptcy.
🏏 An Indian village set up a fake cricket team to scam Russian punters.
🚼 What Wuhu’s extremely low birth rate tells us about China’s demographic crisis.
I’ve been investing in tech startups for a while – since 1998 in fact.
For the past couple of years, I’ve been making investments in founders backing some of the core themes of the Exponential Age, including artificial intelligence, climate change, future of work, the data economy, education, and agtech, with more in the pipe. Some of the teams I’ve backed recently include Pachama, Ocean Protocol, 80 Acres Farms, AnyType, 5Mins and Equilibrium World.
I do share my thinking – and look for fellow travellers – in the Exponential Do community as well. (Members with annual membership can apply for access to the community.) Happy to see you there.
If you are in Europe (or anywhere else with extreme heat), stay safe in the current temperatures.
P.S. Need a good read for the summer? Exponential is now out in paperback.
What you’re up to – notes from EV readers
Eric Topol wrote an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times about why new COVID variants are dominating us, and what to do about them.
Peter Scott wrote “Artificial Intelligence and You”, a book to guide broad audiences about the future of AI in society.
George Darrah wrote about why scaling biodiversity monitoring technology will play a key role in unlocking private finance for the protection of ecosystems.
Roger Dennis published an article about how firms can overcome the paradox of preparedness.
Tim Sowula is putting together a major summit of global university leadership and the firms/governments that invest in them, this Oct. 10-12 hosted by NYU. Register here.
To share your projects and updates, fill out your details here. Because of space constraints, we prioritise 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.)
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