🔮 War & energy; the genomic wave; modularity, spacetech, AI coders ++ #411
Friday marked one year since the start of the war in Ukraine.
Hi, I’m Azeem Azhar. I convene Exponential View to help us understand how our societies and political economy are changing under the force of rapidly accelerating technologies.
In today’s edition:
1 year on: surprising consequences of the war in Ukraine;
How SpaceX’s modular approach is accelerating space tech;
How covid created a genomic wave.
Sunday chart: Black Swans and Grey Rhinos
Friday marked one year since the start of the war in Ukraine. Its consequences have been far-reaching, dreadful and somewhat surprising. One of the biggest impacts has been on energy. High prices, concerns about energy security, and the continuing drive to decarbonise our economies have snowballed into momentum for energy efficiency and a sizable advantage for renewables. The Economist estimates that the global decarbonisation of the energy system could have been fast-tracked multiple years by the war and all that ensued. Although it remains to be seen what the emissions created by the war are.
Decarbonisation is one of the very few possible silver linings of this conflict.
Google recently published its report about how the war has changed the cyberthreat landscape. They found that Russia had engaged in a “multi-pronged” effort to gain a cyberspace advantage, including wide misinformation campaigns to shape public perception of the war. These efforts produced mixed results and created a restructuring of Eastern Europe’s cybercrime ecosystem. Most surprising, however, was the distinct lack of attacks against critical infrastructure outside of Ukraine.
See the bottom of the email for my analyses of the Russian war on Ukraine.
Legos for the future. Modularity is at the core of steep learning curves. One case in point is SpaceX, whose modular approach to space tech is bringing the cost of space flights down, and could accelerate NASA’s missions by years. In How Big Things Get Done, Professor Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner show how modular projects are more likely to succeed and accelerate progress than long-duration, mega projects such as nuclear power stations. Solar panels and wind farms are modular, and this trait is one of the inputs towards their unprecedented price decline.
Towards the Keynesian dream. 92% of UK companies that participated in a 4-day workweek trial plan to continue. As you may expect, employee well-being increased. The unexpected? Revenue levels also increased (on average by 1.4%). We are seeing significant changes in the way we work, without a doubt. AI — and ChatGPT in particular — has shown the promise of democratising access to cognitive tasks.
Genomic revolution. Karthikeyan et al. show a new method for genome sequencing wastewater to improve - and better scale - the tracking of emerging covid-19 variants. It is amazing to see how in just two years, kickstarted by the pandemic, genomic sequencing of water has become the norm. AI, increasingly revealing itself as a general-purpose technology, is helping fuel the genomic revolution. For example, deep neural networks can reduce long-read DNA sequencing error rates by 59%.
14% of adult Gen Z use TikTok as the starting point for researching major news events compared to 2% of adults in general.
61% of 18-24-year-olds in the UK watch “TV” with subtitles on. Do you? I do too (although am somewhat older).
Sci-fi magazine Clarkesworld has paused its short-story submissions due to an influx of AI-generated content, with 38% of recent submissions resulting in a ban.
Dollar investment in Chinese startups fell by 75% compared to last year.
Social subscriptions. Facebook has introduced $12/month verified subscriptions, following in Twitter’s footsteps.
Short morsels to appear smart at dinner parties
🤖 Stephen Wolfram: How LLMs actually work. In detail. See also, ChatGPT and Bing’s AI gave each other assignments. They then graded each other’s work.
🤔 Meta released an open-source LLM which rivals some of the best models - but can run on a single GPU.
🧑💻 AI-assisted coders make more mistakes (via EV member Catherine Luckoff).
🏀 This 3-D printed basketball is made of holes, but won’t go flat.
💰 More than 40 countries are moving towards applying a 15% minimum tax, following a 2021 OECD-led global deal.
👋 Movement fingerprint. AI can identify VR users from their head and hand motion with 94% accuracy.
🕸️ The new classification of social networks (via EV member Gianni Giacomelli).
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We are one year since Russia invaded Ukraine. Ukraine has performed exceptionally well, despite the brutality, hostility and overwhelming advantages of the aggressor.
Russia has, without doubt, established how it will behave in the coming decades. One of the best things I have read on how we contend with this was in the Financial Times this week: How to contain a recalcitrant Russia.
I’m surprised by the overall level of support Western nations have provided Ukraine, far lower than they spent liberating Kuwait according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy. Perhaps Kuwait was more important, but that much more?
European countries have spent $800bn protecting their citizens from high energy costs. This is roughly four years of defence spending by those nations. This points to historical short-termism and an under-investment in energy and security resilience. Had defence budgets been marginally higher, Western Europe could have provided more support for Ukraine more rapidly. And Putin’s calculus for the initial invasion might have been different. Perhaps there is a lesson to learn.
War is contingent on many things, but I expect Ukraine will, ultimately, prevail.