Hi, I’m Azeem Azhar. I explore how our societies and political economy will change under the force of rapidly accelerating technologies and other trends.
Over the past five years, I’ve invested many thousands of hours and read tens of millions of words, as I’ve built up my thesis and exposed part of it in these emails. In addition to my time, more than $50,000 a year goes into making Exponential View worth your time. This is made possible by very many readers who have already become paying subscribers.
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The near future
🔮 I had a wonderful conversation with the CEO of one of Silicon Valley’s fastest-growing companies, Airtable, Howie Liu. Airtable has a bold mission—I thought it was just about reinventing the spreadsheet, but Howie has much bigger ideas.
🎶 Programmers claim to have generated “every possible melody” with an algorithm, copyrighted them and released them to the public in an attempt to protect musicians from being sued. Their algorithm generates 300,000 melodies a second, all of which are released under a Creative Commons Zero license. Existing IP laws are not fit for the exponential age, endeavours like this help raise the issue.
📖 The dream of the open knowledge commons was a mistake which rested on naive assumptions and wrong ideologies, according to the piracy researcher, Balázs Bodo. Bodo writes that
the commons and the peer production logic was so attractive because we thought we didn’t need to worry about the tragedy of commons... and this proved to be the fundamental error we made... One of the key questions that we very consciously did not address was the question of value, of value extraction and value redistribution. We failed to conceptualize the relationship between individuals, their motivations, the value of their labor with which they produced, and maintained the commons, the aggregate value of the shared resource pool, and the necessity of material resources to maintain that pool.
It is a good critique of the ideas of Commons-based Peer Production, the influential 2006 paper, by Yochai Benkler of a third alternative to the market or bureaucratic control for the logic of production. (Leisurely read.)
🔒 Automated management systems are increasingly being implemented in workplaces around the world. One system allowed workers thirty minutes per month for bathroom breaks, whilst another would use the employee’s computer webcam to take photographs at random intervals to ensure they were always at their desk. Such algorithmic management is likely to have negative effects on workers in a shorter time frame than widespread technological unemployment. Protests in Amazon facilities have seen workers walk off the job in response to the accelerating, inhumane demands which they say are causing injuries: “To satisfy the machine, workers felt they were forced to become machines themselves.” At Google, Lyft and Uber, workers are organising to advocate for their rights at work and against unethical practices by their own companies.
🚨 Autonomous vehicles drove a collective 2,880,612 miles around California in 2019, with 9,338 driver interventions, referred to as disengagements. Those topline numbers are hiding some big variations. Baidu reported that its autonomous cars only required intervention every 18,050 miles, while Toyota’s reportedly managed just 0.4 miles without an intervention. You have to wonder whether it was results like these which drove (all puns intended) Toyota’s recent $462 million investment in autonomous driving start-up Pony.ai, which managed a much more respectable 6,475.8 miles per driver intervention. (The car industry needs to reskill rapidly. It’s interesting that German engineering giant Bosch is rolling out an AI education program for 20,000 employees (5 per cent of its global workforce). The course will include Bosch’s code of ethics for AI, which emphasises the need for “safe, robust and explainable AI”.)
💯 The distinction between information and knowledge is becoming increasingly obvious when it comes to neuroscience research. We have a lot more information today about the brain—but we still don’t really understand what it means or what we should be looking for next. One thing that is clear: the metaphor of brains as computers is a bad one.
🚉 The gravitational pull of the tech giants in Silicon Valley distorts everything around them from the housing market to public transport. The industry operates a massive $250 million private transit system to shuttle roughly 52,000 employees to and from the tech campuses. This solves a problem for the tech companies in the short-term, but in the long run, it undermines the push to reform San Francisco’s inadequate public transport system and contributes to inequality.
🧬 Beijing Genomics Institute claims that it can sequence a genome for $100. If true (and some are sceptical), the claim could confirm earlier concerns about BGI’s acquisition of US company Complete Genomics in 2012. The dramatic reduction in cost is said to be linked to the use of a “Frisbee-size chip”. The large surface area can get twice as much DNA on the surface and uses less reagent due to its dipping process. As a reminder, the price of genome sequencing has reduced by a factor of 100,000 since 2001, much faster even than a Moore’s Law improvement. However, as Illumina started to maintain market power, we had seen few improvements from the $1,000 or so level in the past couple of years (see chart below). This $100 claim, if correct, is a step-change.
💥 Climate catastrophe: 413.54ppm | 3,742 days
Each week, we’re going to remind you of the CO2 levels in the atmosphere and the number of days until reaching the 450ppm threshold.
The latest measurement (as of February 27): 413.54ppm; February, 2018: 411.37ppm; 25 years ago: 360ppm; 250 years ago, est: 250ppm. Share this reminder with your community by forwarding this email or tweeting this.
Reducing emissions is vital, but it’s not enough to keep climate change below 2°C. To do that, we’ll also have to find a way to remove 10-15 gigatons of CO2 per year from the atmosphere by 2050. Ryan Orbuch, who leads Stripe’s work on climate change, has a fantastic explainer for non-scientists about what that means and how we might do it.
Dept of corona
I’ve got a special note on coronavirus coming out later on Sunday.
Graph of the week
Correlation is not causation. But excessive video gaming is up, boozing and other vices are down.
Short morsels to appear smart at dinner parties
🙈 What’s it like being Lady Gaga’s boyfriend’s ex in the age of Instagram. Great read.
😮 A salmon parasite which doesn’t need oxygen is reshaping our definition of what an animal is.
Allstate’s algorithm for car insurance is creating a “suckers list” by over-charging people who are already paying more.
We’re hitting the limits of Moore’s Law, and we’re not ready for it.
😏 For everyone who woke up this morning wanting a machine learning generated archive of Mark Zuckerberg’s haircuts, you’re welcome.
How biomanufacturing R&D got turned into a digital experience. Interesting interview.
🏅 Teens try to confuse Instagram into protecting their data privacy.
🤓 Individuals with smartphone addictions have lower grey matter and lower activity in some regions of the brain, according to new study.
This story about the lengths Rajeev Misra allegedly went to in order to defeat his co-workers at the SoftBank Vision Fund is wild. More seriously, it may leave Softbank’s startups vulnerable.
💌 A woman plays a violin during a brain surgery.
Please remember, if you want to continue to support my work and this newsletter, you can subscribe today at a special rate.
From our fifth anniversary, weekly deliveries will be for subscribers only. Although I will continue to send out an occasional update even if you aren’t a subscriber.
What EV readers are up to—remember to share your news with email@example.com
Congrats to Bryan Walsh for taking over Axios Future.
James Vaughan’s game Plague has been blocked by the Chinese authorities.
Mustafa Suleyman co-published a paper on the key challenges for delivering clinical impact with artificial intelligence.
Cathy Ma published a survey on the impact of coronavirus on North American manufacturing.
Michael Szul’s analysis of Facebook’s future.
Jennifer Beckman of the International Monetary Fund and INET’s has organised a panel on Artificial Intelligence and Macroeconomics on March 6 at 3:45 p.m. EST. You can join the webcast on imf.org.
Niamh McKenna: “Health must put its mouth where its AI mouth is.”
Patricia Wyllie on how technology is shaping carbon offsetting.
Tom Greenwood on how to better design web services for people living in data poverty.
Hugh Knowles and his team at Friends of the Earth win a major battle against Heathrow’s expansion.
Anders Wijkman: “The oil giants’ greed is a huge betrayal of the future.”