Azeem Azhar’s Weekly Wondermissive: Future, Tech & Society
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Dept of the near future
⚔️ In leaked recordings, Mark Zuckerberg reassured Facebook employees that he’s prepared to ‘go to the mat’ against antitrust efforts to break up the company. Breaking up big tech ‘doesn't make election interference less likely. It makes it more likely because now the companies can’t coordinate and work together,’ Zuckerberg said. (I really don’t get why employees would care about whether Facebook is broken up. The businesses would continue and they would still have jobs—just as the Baby Bells did when AT&T was rent asunder.) Elsewhere, Facebook’s counter-terrorism team is 350 strong. (Good read.)
🛋️ Amazon and Apple want a map of your home, including everything and everyone in it. Both companies are developing precise, low-power indoor positioning systems, described by Apple as ‘GPS at the scale of your living room.’
🧠 The downside of brain enhancement.
👾 China’s ByteDance, owner of TikTok, booked over $7 billion in revenue in the first half of 2019. The company’s revenue in 2018 was $7.2 billion for the entire year, most of which was generated in China. While still in the early days of monetising TikTok, ByteDance has plans to continue its aggressive outwards push into international markets. Despite recent reports of censorship on TikTok (covered in last week’s newsletter), it still provides the occasional glimpse of things which the Chinese government does not want the world to see. Isobel Cockerell writes how Uyghur Muslims are gaming TikTok’s algorithm to smuggle out fragments of information about life in the repressive region of Xinjiang.
🎲 Branko Milanovic: US-China competition isn’t about capitalism vs. communism, it’s about two different types of capitalism. (Excellent excerpt from his forthcoming book.)
🌀 An analysis by Nature found that private funding for quantum startups more than quadrupled in 2017-18 compared to the previous two years, reaching at least $450 million. In absolute, these numbers are tiny but they may presage a rapid rise. (Take AI startups. In 2011, VC firms put $300 million into such firms, by 2012 that had risen to $589 million and by 2016 passed $5 billion. The venture industry can quickly vector capital into promising—and unpromising—trends.)
💯 🎧 Governing in the exponential age: I spoke to the former UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, about how the power of the technology industry has become its greatest liability, and why this requires a partnership with governments. Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or Google Podcast. Members of Exponential View will get access to unedited transcript of this conversation in due course.
💥 Climate breakdown: 407.72 ppm | 3,883 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 October 2): 407.72ppm; October 3, 2018: 405.62ppm; 25 years ago: 360ppm; 250 years ago, est: 250ppm. Share this reminder with your community by forwarding this email or tweeting this.
Goldman Sachs: Urban adaptation to climate change could drive one of the largest infrastructure build-outs in history.
Dept of robots vs. workers
Lessons from how offshoring and globalisation reordered the job market could be useful for anticipating the changes which will be brought by increasing automation. In 2007, it was predicted that more than a quarter of American jobs could be vulnerable to offshoring. The reality turned out to be more nuanced: jobs did move, but often to cheaper parts of the US rather than internationally. According to Susan Lund of the McKinsey Global Institute, ‘The lesson is, change is evolutionary, not revolutionary. There’s no mass movement of jobs anywhere. And because it’s a slow change, it gives people and companies a chance to adjust so we never saw the mass exodus of jobs to India.’
Sylvain Leduc and Zhen Liu for the San Francisco Fed provide a case that automation has been an important driving factor in suppressing wages, that is reducing the portion of national income that goes to workers. The analysis is worth a read as it also provides some explanation as to why wages seem to stagnate even as unemployment hits historically low levels in advanced markets. (See also my discussion on that from EV#234)
The financial sector is spending more on tech than any other industry; but what they spend on robots, they plan to make up for in saved wages. Two hundred thousand bank jobs in the US are expected to be lost in the next decade, with back office, bank branch, call centre and corporate employees hit the hardest.
- EV reader, Albert Wenger, argues that excessive inequality created by strong positive feedback loops is bad for society as a whole, whether it’s wealth or followers on Twitter.
- Before the haves and have-nots, it was have-nots and have-ox. Research examining the archaeological records of 150 ancient societies has tied the domestication of oxen to the birth of meaningful inequality. Oxen were the first force multiplier: owning an ox allowed farmers to till much larger plots of land, and therefore grow and harvest a much bigger crop than their ox-less neighbour.
- ‘Pizza as a service’ may be coming soon to a restaurant near you. A Seattle-based startup is developing a robot that will partially automate the pizza-making process. Unlike the robots currently used to make frozen pizzas, this one is small enough to fit in a restaurant kitchen, uses fresh ingredients and allows for customised recipes. Restaurants don’t buy the robot. Instead, they pay a per-pizza fee which is intentionally pitched below the labour and wastage costs associated with human-made pizza.
- The trolley problem has been endlessly cited as a parable for the challenges of autonomous driving. According to Simon Beard, who studies existential risk, there’s just one problem: it’s not actually relevant because ‘the trolley problem specifically disregards just about every aspect of ethical behaviour that is relevant to self-driving cars.’
- Robocar shocker. Morgan Stanley has cut Waymo’s valuation by a whopping 40 percent. It’s a blow not just for Alphabet but for the entire self-driving market, with analysts writing that they had ‘underestimated how long safety drivers are likely to be present within cars and the timing of the rollout of autonomous ride-sharing services.’ I talked about the reality and hype of self-driving with the brilliant Missy Cummings.
Dept of dematerialization and trade 💭
I found this particular tale about Pix Moving, a Chinese startup, which is routing around Trump’s trade war by sending blueprints for components to 3-d printers in the United States, particularly intriguing.
The full analysis is available for EV members here. I discuss:
- How dematerialization is affecting the economy,
- How (decentralised) 3-d printing will impact the world trade, and
- How product regulation has to change to accommodate the shift.
Short morsel to appear smart at dinner parties
The US is ramping up its efforts to break Chinese dominance over supplies of critical minerals by boosting mining by other nations, including key US allies like Canada and Australia.
📈 AI acquisitions increased by over 600 percent between 2013 and 2018, with 140 acquisitions in 2019 so far.
🙄 Analysis of 11 biliion words from more than 3.5 million English language books showed us how writers typify men and women.
China has a new 500-megapixel camera system which they claim can identify individuals in a crowd of thousands.
🖐️ People are getting really fast at typing on their phones.
🔧 The EU has passed ‘right to repair’ rules for home appliances (although consumer advocates say it doesn't go far enough). See also, one of the least repairable computer on the market gets a re-do in a major win for consumers.
📱🦀😅 Peak China 2019. The comments on this tweet are almost as good as the tweet itself.
Interesting overview of the current micromobility landscape. 🚴
Rats may have been unjustly vilified. Contrary to the phrase ‘like rats from a sinking ship’, a new experiment found that they will save their friends from drowning.
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What you are up to—notes from EV readers
Chrys Chrysanthou at Kindred led a $1.4 million seed round in Beit, to speed the development of quantum algorithms.
Congratulations to several readers at Cxense for their acquisition by Piano Software. (Disclosure: until the closing of this deal, I was a board director at Cxense.)
Congratulations to Dave Palmer for being one of London’s 1,000 people building the future, according to the Evening Standard.
Jonathan Miranda: teach your children how to learn, unlearn, relearn.
Rafael Kaufmann on the new paradigm of business, management and strategy.
Jonathan Fildes shares DeepMind’s podcast.
Farhan Lalji on why Anthemis invested in Cledara.
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