Azeem Azhar’s Weekly Wondermissive: Future, Tech & Society
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🎨 This issue has been supported by our partner, Masterworks
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Dept of the near future
🕯️The hard truths of climate change by the numbers. Sobering view from Nature.
💯 Jerry Neuman: A taxonomy of moats. Wonderfully clear analysis of different ways of creating an economic moat.
👀 China’s Megvii has filed for IPO on the Hong Kong stock exchange. Jeffrey Ding has the top takeaways: Megvii is an AI unicorn known for its facial recognition technology, which also does hardware; it has a close relationship with Alibaba, and the company is touchy around the issue of ethics, partially as a result of lingering questions over its involvement in Xinjiang, where up to a million Uyghur Muslims are believed to be detained by the Chinese government.
⛔ China’s internet regulator has released draft regulations on ‘managing the cyberspace ecosystem’. The regulations, which are expected to come into force later this year include requiring Chinese internet companies to use recommendation algorithms to promote government-approved values and content, and to crack down on content the government does not approve of. ‘Online information providers that use algorithms to push customised information [to users] should build recommendation systems that promote mainstream values, and establish mechanisms for manual intervention and override,’ the draft reportedly states. It’s a well-understood point. Recommendation algorithms on American platforms push us to extremes. That approach drives audience attention and segmentation with its catnip for advertisers. In China, the guidance is to push users to the median. Elsewhere in the world of algorithmic control, Amazon has altered its recommendation algorithms to boost its profits. The search algorithm was tweaked to prioritise profitable products for Amazon over relevant results for the user.
🌀 Neo-Luddism is rearing its head. In this essay, Ben Tarnoff argues in favour of decomputerisation and a Luddite revolution to reduce our carbon footprint. It’s nice to see radical ideas, but this one is particularly muddle-headed. Future approaches towards sustainability will be supported by computerisation unless we want to reduce the human population to pre-Malthus levels, of say half-a-billion people. While a tremendous amount of computing power is being wasted on Snapchat filters and Netflix binges, that waste is not a function of the compute. Rather, it reflects the values upon which we’ve decided (by commission or omission). Given eight billion souls, we’ll need computing and more of it to figure out how to live within planetary boundaries. More, not less computing power ought to be the mantra. But we need to spend it wisely, through better architectures and more thoughtful end-user behaviour. And, of course, we must account for its environmental footprint much more comprehensively.
Dept of future work
The world is full of brilliant minds which will never receive the education, the resources, or the opportunities they need to shine, argues Max Roser, who runs the amazing Our World In Data project. Lovely essay.
A delivery startup is defying the trend of ever more precarious employment. In July, Deliv made its drivers employees rather than contractors. Alison Griswold thinks the startup can learn some useful lessons from companies which have walked this road before: ‘Ask people at these companies and they will tell you: hiring employees works in delivery, but it requires much more rigor, efficiency, and, yes, control by the company than if those workers were contractors.’
Chinese restaurants may start turning to robot waiters to fill a labour shortfall as young people set their ambitions higher than waiting tables forever. Service workers still make up a stunning 46.3 percent of the working population.
At the other end of the spectrum, elderly people are often overlooked when it comes to educational opportunities. But in Singapore, the rapidly ageing population is leading the government to encourage older workers to pick up new skills, like these 65-year-olds who are learning to code.
New research on the gig economy in Kenya, which comprises about a quarter of the whole economy, found that it provides important alternatives to the stagnant traditional labour market, especially for young people. Over a quarter of would-be workers in Kenya are unemployed, and 84 percent of those are under 34. The researchers estimate that the gig economy in Kenya accounts for $19.7 billion and employs 5.13 million workers. The online gig economy is currently tiny, about a hundredth of the size of the sector as a whole. (Super interesting report, African countries face particularly acute challenges in dealing with the future of work.)
Research has found that raising awareness about the risks which automation poses for job losses doesn’t alter workers’ opinions on key policy issues like globalisation, nor does it increase support for policies which would help prepare the labour force for technological disruption. (Long paper, haven’t made my way through it all).
⌛ Climate breakdown: 408.67ppm | 3,897 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 September 17): 408.67ppm; 12 months ago: 405.66ppm; 25 years ago: 360ppm; 250 years ago, est: 250ppm. Share this reminder with your community by forwarding this email or tweeting this.
🍃 Some good news. New record low prices in the UK for offshore wind; around $0.05 per kWh make the economic case increasingly unimpeachable.
Daimler will not develop any new internal combustion engines. (It was Gottlieb Daimler’s partner, Nikolaus Otto, who developed the four-stroke engine in 1876.)
More than seven million people have been forced to flee their homes due to extreme weather in the first six months of 2019 alone.
Short morsels to appear smart at dinner parties
🙄 Getting high on his G650: a profile of the absurdities of Adam Neumann of WeWork.
Payments startup Stripe is now valued at $35bn. It began life as seven lines of code.
🏬 The number of brick and mortar retail stores is actually rising in the US.
👛 The 50p coin is 50 years old. Here’s how living costs and spending have changed in Britain over that time. (Interestingly, long-haul flights have got 84 percent cheaper.)
The private sector is increasingly building—and selling—surveillance capabilities which were once only accessible to nation states.
Storied VC firm, A16Z’s performance numbers were leaked. Nice analysis of what they mean.
🐱 Do you need a database of 100,000 AI-generated faces? Me neither, but here it is (and probably coming soon to a Twitter bot near you).
💭 Yann LeCun argues that theory tends to follow invention rather than the other way around. (The heart of this argument is about whether we can build true artificial intelligence without having a working theory of intelligence.)
😅 A study often cited as evidence against the existence of free will may have been based on a research error.
Transport authorities in France want to subsidise citizens to buy e-bikes. 👌
💳 Credit cards have a fascinating history.
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💌 This edition has been supported by our partner, Masterworks
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What you’re up to — notes from EV readers
Geoff Mulgan on the five ways AI ethics needs to be reshaped.
Diane Coyle: Something is Seriously Wrong in the World of Work.
Congrats to Eze Vidra for securing $35 million in funding for his fund Reimagine Ventures. EV reader Mike Butcher covered it on TechCrunch.
A number of readers behind Micromobility Europe are inviting you to join the world’s largest event devoted to the unbundling of the car and the future of urban mobility. From now until September 29, Exponential View readers can claim a 50% discount to attend (a savings of €400).
Dan Colceriu: Goodbye corporations, welcome-tech enabled networks. See also: Ben Robinson for Dan’s newsletter Aperture writes about digital era banking systems.
Elise Thomas for Wired about the new surveillance technology.
Jamie Bartlett’s story about Dr Ruja Ignatova, the missing cryptoqueen.
Charles Yang reviews applications of deep learning in science and engineering.
Venture capital opportunities, a review of 2019 by Max Niederhofer.
John Henderson writes about the change in transition-of-economy narrative to one of job creation.
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