Azeem Azhar’s Weekly Wondermissive: Future, Tech & Society
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One of the most loved subscriber perks are our regular online State of the Exponential Briefings with some of the most thoughtful experts out there. Coming up:
- April 18, 6pm GMT, 1pm ET, 10am PT — Bill Gross, the founder of Idealab and lifelong inventor, among whose creations is the cost-per-click model which became the backbone of internet monetisation. Bill will be discussing his current focus area and solutions to one of the largest challenges to renewable energy—energy storage.
- April 26, 2pm GMT, 8am ET, 5am PT — Dr Emily Shuckburgh, a climate scientist and mathematician based at the British Antarctic Survey. Emily leads the UK’s research programme on the Southern Ocean and its role in climate, is deputy head of the Polar Oceans Team and leads the Data Science Group at the British Antarctic Survey.
Dept of the near future
🗺️ Christian Reus-Smit: “International relations doesn’t understand culture”, yet culture explains how civilizations work. This is an excellent piece, particularly:
if we take seriously the insight that… that all culture is complex and contradictory? We would have to assume, first of all, that the modern order arose under conditions of cultural diversity, not unity. And we would then have to ask how these heterogeneous conditions shaped the order’s evolution and, in turn, how the order’s institutions were constructed to govern and order that diversity. Doing so would bring the conquest of the Americas, the Protestant Reformation, the post-Versailles division of Europe into ethnically defined nation-states, and decolonization into new focus. Most importantly, it would lead us to ask not whether sudden onset diversity will destroy a formerly Western order, but whether post-decolonization practices for governing global diversity can accommodate new arrangements of power and expressions of cultural difference.
Important trends: non-Western powers grow in stature, scale and confidence. All the while, technology platforms allow us to identify and accentuate differences in culture and values. We’ve touched on this process many times in EV but in a nutshell, globally addressable networks encourage assortativity or homophilous behaviour. Suggests a trend of communities, nations and poles flocking towards each other, rather than to a universal norm.
🦅 Global governance of technology platforms will need to respond to these new norms. Dipayan Ghosh argues that the US needs to step into the conversation for how such firms are regulated, or allow nations like Germany or Malaysia to lead. Of course, there is a question about the extent to which Facebook or Apple, with their complex international corporate structure and more of their users outside of the US than inside, can solely view themselves as American national firms any more. (The chairman of the (American) Joint Chiefs of Staff, has criticised Google & other Silicon Valley companies for aiding the Chinese, and the American government has also questioned Chinese-ownership of Grindr, the dating app for gay, bi, trans and queer users.)
🌏 The Asian Century will begin next year, when Asia’s share of world GDP will, once again, exceed fifty percent, argues Valentina Romei in the FT. (I discuss the Asian century in my conversation with Parag Khanna on the EV podcast.)
☁️ The State of the Cloud, 2019. A handy overview of the state of cloud-based SAAS-businesses from a venture capitalist, Byron Deeter, and collaborators. Cloud-based businesses are growing fast; there are more than one hundred worth $1bn or more, and large firms spent $90bn buying smaller cloud companies in 2018. (For an excellent example, Zoom, a cloud-based video-conferencing app, filed to go public. Its numbers are quite amazing. Eight years old, it has $330m in revenue in 2018, growing 118% annually. Nearly three-quarters of its revenue is from annual or longer contracts, and more than half of their large accounts started with a single free user. What a story.)
🤖 Robots are increasingly walking, running and grasping with grace. A breakthrough appears to have come from moving away from classical control theory (whereby roboticists need to engineer how a robot moves) to using machine-learning approaches and learning from data collected from the ‘robot’s real-world environment.’ (I’m happy to dig into this deeper with an EV reader with deep expertise in robotics, or who might be applying such an approach.)
🧱 There is a growing privacy divide in the US, a new digital fault-line built by surveillance and data. Low-income families regularly have to surrender data access to get access to welfare services. See also, Nellie Bowles: the wealthy increasingly shun screens, especially for their children, as “human contact looks more like a luxury.”
🔥🌏 Climate catastrophe: 410.58ppm
Each week, I’m going to remind us of our level of the CO2 in the atmosphere. We must avoid a level of 450 parts per million for a chance to keep global warming below 2°C.
This week’s level: 410.58ppm (12 months ago: 408ppm; 250 years ago, est: 250ppm; likely to exceed the target in 10-15 years.)
The latest technology cost analysis shows that battery storage costs have fallen by more than one third since the first half of 2018, and even wind and solar have fallen by another 10 and 18 percent respectively over that time. Offshore wind is down 24 percent over the last year. (Azeem’s note: it is great news that grid-scale LiIon storage has dropped to 1.87c/kWh, which puts this solution at a point where it can compete with natural gas for peaking demand, even in the US. However, it remains an expensive asset to invest in for relatively low utilisation, possibly a couple of hours a day, so I think lower-latency, lower-cost storage will still be important. Members can learn more about this in our members-only briefing about gravity storage from Bill Gross in a couple of weeks.)
Moo! An Impossible faux-meat burger, made of plant protein, has a carbon footprint 89 percent smaller than that of dead cow meat. (Not clear if this is an independent report or paid for by the firm.)
Dept of advanced technologies
Google announced an advisory council for ethical use of its advanced technologies. More ethical oversight has to be a good thing, right? It isn’t clear what the remit of this group is and what power, if any, they will really have, especially given the complexity of Google’s business and just a few meetings a year. Whenever you see something like this launch, it is so important to ask “Why has the firm chosen who they have chosen? Who isn’t in the room? And why not? Who really represents a diverse, global public interest?”
A technology ethics board grapples with impacts of advanced technologies that are often not technological. As Sheila Jasanoff argues in The Ethics of Invention, “technological risks are those that arise specifically from the use of human-made instruments and systems… that distinction is hard to sustain in an interdependent world.”
In other words, the framing of how we use those technologies, and the risks they unearth, are almost never exclusively technological. Often, the most obvious impacts are business or political decisions which are implemented using the technology. And those decisions have some implicit trade-off. Trades-off like time-to-market vs. usability testing; or power consumption vs. factory-gate price; or consent vs. profits. (As an example, Facebook’s Live product prioritised ease-of-use, cost-to-implement and broad access. Following the Christchurch massacre, Sheryl Sandberg has announced that the company will not restrict who can use Facebook Live based on various internal trust metrics.)
Now the scale of Google means that its technological prowess has the force of law. We could be tempted to become fatalistic about this. We shouldn’t. Jasanoff goes further “[these bargains] do not need to be Faustian, ratified between unequal bargaining partners under conditions of blind ignorance or irreducible uncertainty.” In this case, between Google on one hand, and a public subject to its technologies on the other.
One reflection, my take, without this being a comment on the capability or intentions of the members of the board, is that this is a diversion. It is a case of ethics washing by a large company, a substitute for real laws. It is also the least that a company can do and get some retweets—goodish optics, after all. But it isn’t a bold approach to ethical questions over the future direction of this technology... A bold approach could be participatory, wide-ranging, and transparent. For a company so proud of its big thinking, moonshots and disruption, this approach is rather incremental.
Sam Levin’s critique of this and other Silicon Valley ethics programmes points to deep structural issues.
👏 Geoff Hinton, Yann Lecun and Yoshua Bengio received the Turing Award, for their breakthrough work on Deep Learning.
Russia is planning to cut itself off from the Internet in a test in the next week or so. The goal is to explore a type of Internet-sovereignty. It’s a complicated, but fascinating one to watch.
Nice analysis on the Lyft IPO, which popped on Friday. Lyft is still lossmaking (close to $1bn). It won’t trim its costs by using autonomous vehicles any time soon.
Profile of Nuro, a robot-delivery company which raised $940m from Softbank last month. Plans include robots that carry smaller robots which can manage the last 10-feet of a delivery.
🍔 AIs with what? Burger-peddler, McDonald’s, acquired a big data analytics firm for $300m.
Pity the bankers! They can’t find good data scientists. Dice estimates that 80 percent of PhD-level AI talent works at Google or Facebook.
An overview of the business applications of affective computing, which applies machine learning to interpret and respond to human emotion.
Good overview of robotic farming. 🚜
Short morsels to appear smart at dinner parties
📹 YouTube is responsible for 37 percent of all mobile internet traffic, with Facebook in 2nd place at around 10.9 percent.
😮 Americans spent more on AirBnb than Hilton last year. (Digital landlord, WeWork, doubled both its revenues and losses last year, losing $2.43bn in 2018.)
Naspers is the $100bn Internet giant you probably hadn’t heard of.
C is the most energy-efficient language, Perl the worst.
㊗️ Human beings store about 1.5 MB of information to acquire one language. (Incredibly efficient.)
💔 Nearly 30 percent of American men between 18-30 did not have sex last year, a record number. Women of the same age have not fared as poorly. (Americans, in general, are having less sex than ever. Fewer than 40 percent manage once a week, driven mostly by the under 30s.)
Fascinating research on how pain is processed (in mice), including some evidence of sex differences.
🚴 Good bike and pedestrian infrastructure makes for healthier neighbourhoods.
Quite a smörgåsbord this week. Work can get distracted if your country is undergoing an ugly mitosis, while attempting to simultaneously kick itself in the head. Brexit is, was or wasn’t. I’ve lost track. But, seriously, if you want to understand how we got here, this forensic unpicking of the UK’s negotiation strategy is a must-read.
I have also been heads down prepping for the new podcast season for Exponential View. This rolls out next week, so if you haven’t dived into previous episodes, you can find them here.
And finally, I’ve been working on more members-only insights, which will be rolling out shortly.
P.S. You might recall that Exponential View ran the Cutting Edge stage at last year’s CogX AI Festival in London. We’ll be there again this year, and I’d like to see you there, too. As my reader, you get 25 percent off two-day tickets for the largest European AI event — a deal you won’t find anywhere else! Get your ticket here.
P.P.S. Scroll down for some amazing news from your fellow readers.
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What you are up to — notes from EV readers:
Michael Froomkin’s interdisciplinary conference on the legal and policy questions surrounding robots at the University of Miami is coming up on April 11. If you can’t make it, see all the papers included in the program.
Abigail Hunter-Syed and Evan Nisselson invite you to join for the sixth annual LDV Vision Summit, a global gathering in visual technologies. Exponential View community gets 20 percent off tickets with code EV.
Marius Paltanea shares his app which uses computer vision and machine learning to count items in photos.
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