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2023.36: time to build an ark?🌧️balls of fruity deliciousness🍇project drawdown💨rockstars of cement🎸🪨Metaphor AI search🗨️robots making precision medicines🦾🧪HyperCinema📽️🪄
Welcome to another Memia weekly scan across the latest emerging tech and exponentially accelerating future(s). Thanks for being here!
Memia is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Forcing myself off grid and out of mobile coverage (while I still can…) is my best medicine for mind and body. Thanks to my friend Mike P for great company along the trail…!
(Of interest from a Human+AI augmentation angle: my brain really unfurled along the trail, not being constantly bombarded by work / tech news feeds / social media / emails / messages as it usually is. Got a lot of head clearing done. But crucially all of my feeds, messaging channels, apps and a few basic AI agents I have been experimenting with kept working while I was away… coming back online and getting back in sync took only about 2 hours in total. Honestly the experience felt like a massive git merge between wet brain and exocortex - lots of endorphins😅. Going forward, with the exponential pace of change that we’re all now familiar with, I wonder whether it will still be possible to dip out of the torrent for more than just a few days … and let the AI agents summarize everything that happened while you were gone… or will it be the opposite and you have to stay connected 24/7 or risk completely losing touch with what’s happening…?)
Anyway…a few holiday snaps - stunning scenery every direction you look and in particular the sunsets looking West over the Tasman Sea were amazing!
⏩Fast Forward Aotearoa progress check-in
TLDR; The final editing and publishing process is taking quite a bit longer than I expected… the ambitious ETA of “Mid-2023” has become “2023”.😮💨 But it’s nearly there and coming together well. Thanks to all subscribers and supporters for your patience! Watch this space…
AGAIN my non-tech feeds are dominated by extreme weather events presaging ever more climate change and polycrisis doom. Sorry. (Feel free to scroll right down to the funnies…)
🕰️Time moves on
First, US President Biden visited Vietnam last weekend. Who would have ever anticipated this photo 50 years ago:
The NY Times take:
“the latest step in Washington’s efforts to enhance its strategic links with Southeast Asian nations that act as a bulwark against rising Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific region.“
🌧️Time to build an ark?
A truly apocalyptic week with major flooding events all around the world causing devastation and many fatalities, in particular from Storm Daniel striking countries in the Mediterranean region.
Libya: at least 2,000 are dead and over 10,000 are missing after heavy rainfall caused dams to burst and completely devastate the Eastern city of Derna and elsewhere. (Video below via @WxNB). Horrendous, details are still emerging but I can’t imagine what it is like to be there right now.🫂
(If events like this in the developing world are scientifically attributable to man-made climate change from developed world emissions… will there ever be a legal framework for compensation!? See COP28 below.)
Greece: over a year’s rainfall dumped in 18 hours. Greek agricultural region Larissa lost over 25% of of its crop production.
Also major flooding events in Turkiye, Bulgaria, Brazil, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Spain, Guatemala and Nevada in the US… this thread links to footage / news coverage of each.
Another story chronicles more of the this week’s extreme flooding events… and also how major US insurers are now cutting natural disasters out of their policy coverage after handing out a staggering US$300 billion in natural disaster claims in the last three years. (In the first six months of 2023 alone, climate-related claims amounted to US$40 billion.)
On the one hand, there are people who see this as just a “free market” working, with insurance companies passing on the real costs of living in storm-vulnerable regions to property owners. But on a bigger scale there’s an acute market failure at play here… the world’s largest insurance companies *could* have leaned more heavily on policy makers to reduce fossil fuel emissions decades earlier in the play… but clearly didn’t. And now they are just abdicating responsibility… so governments now become the natural disaster insurer of last resort? Or is it everyone for themselves?
With this week’s disastrous events just the latest in a relentlessly extreme Northern hemisphere summer, November’s COP28 conference in UAE is going to be even more tense and heated affair than usual. Although there are noises that a global push for a commitment to phase out fossil fuels globally is gathering momentum - but as usual we can expect stiff opposition from oil-producing countries, including the hosts.
Also the question of climate change equity will surely become more acute, given that it’s the richest countries who are ultimately responsible: Poorer countries must be compensated for climate damage. But how exactly do we crunch the numbers?
If the COP process fails to deliver (surely a reasonable assumption)… then what? Will targeted direct action on the largest emissions sources start to happen? Or will the world just burn and flood…?
A recent report on whether “Green Growth” is *actually* happening in high-income countries comes to a quite damning conclusion (my emphasis):
Over the past decade, some countries have reduced their CO2 emissions while increasing their gross domestic product (absolute decoupling). Politicians and media have hailed this as green growth…[BUT] the emission reductions that high-income countries achieved through absolute decoupling fall far short of Paris-compliant rates. At the achieved rates, these countries would on average take more than 220 years to reduce their emissions by 95%, emitting 27 times their remaining 1·5°C fair-shares in the process. To meet their 1·5°C fair-shares alongside continued economic growth, decoupling rates would on average need to increase by a factor of ten by 2025…the decoupling rates achieved in high-income countries are inadequate for meeting the climate and equity commitments of the Paris Agreement and cannot legitimately be considered green.
The degrowthers are right (until proven wrong).
Last week I noted that Norway is one of the first countries to start stocking up on grain in response to growing food insecurity.
Research from Climate Analytics published back in July showed that Climate models underestimate food security risk from ‘compound’ extreme weather. The Greek experience this week is probably just one example.
Foreign Policy magazine reports that Climate Change Could Drown China’s Food Security — China has one fifth of the world’s population but just 9 percent of its arable land — and that bit is increasingly underwater.
I really don’t want to put a total downer on your week but a new study found that globally, rates of new cancer cases and associated deaths in under-50s increased alarmingly between 1990 and 2019, rising by 79% in 30 years.
Finally, this tweet caught my eye: (from the UK but applies pretty much universally) distils the fundamental bug at the heart of the global monetary system for me:
My perpetual solutionist question is: can *money* as a technology be re-engineered with more sophisticated functionality and different incentive structures to drive different behaviours at a micro-level to achieve targeted outcomes at a macro- level…? Or will major change always require centralised political/legislative intervention…?
📈Climate tech roundup
So amidst the climate doom, time for some optimism.
“Drawdown is the point in time when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and start to steadily decline.”
Project Drawdown is the best resource I’ve found so far bringing science-based climate solutions and strategies together into one place online.
For example, the catalogue of transportation solutions proven and available today:
It’s also a readily accessible source of data - here’s a breakdown of global GHG sources by sector:
(Not strictly tech, but…) one year ago the city of Brussels started implementing its controversial “Good Move” plan to stop cars from crossing the city centre and divert them onto a ring road instead. This involved turning major thoroughfares into one-way streets, restricting some access for public transport and priority vehicles only, and fully pedestrianising some boulevards.
The results are astonishing:
"In a little over a year we've seen a 27 percent drop in transit traffic in the city centre and an astonishing 36 percent jump in the number of cyclists on our streets,"
— Bart Dhondt, Brussels alderman for mobility.
Imagine if EVERY city on the planet did this within the next year?
🎸🪨Rockstars of cement
Globally, cement production contributes to around 8-10% of global CO2 emissions.
Brimstone is a California-based startup developing a way to make cement that not only releases zero greenhouse gasses, but actually helps to remove them from the atmosphere.
Investors DCVC profile them here: Brimstone: Rock Stars of the Cement Industry.
“Brimstone has invented a new way to make OPC (“Ordinary Portland Cement” that cuts carbon out of the equation. The trick is to avoid limestone and start instead with basalt and other calcium-bearing silicate rocks. Basalt is rich in native calcium oxide, and Brimstone’s kilns extract it without releasing carbon as a harmful by-product. Calcium silicate is also widely available. ’The good news is that limestone is about one quarter of one percent of the rock in the Earth’s crust, and calcium silicate is about 50 percent’”
(This approach is similar to research from University of Canterbury in my home town of Ōtautahi, where Allan Scott and Chris Oze were pondering what materials were available on Mars to make concrete or ‘Marscrete’ - which also proposed using basalt rocks. (Not a lot of limestone on Mars!)
Australian concentrated solar
An interesting report from Renew Economy on the Australian solar tech that may have found a low cost solution to deep storage: Raygen is a concentrated solar PV technology company building high-efficiency modular solar panels which also stores the heat generated when “1,000 suns” are focused on a single hand-sized solar module at the top of a 45m tower by rows and rows of heliostats (effectively big mirrors) that track and reflect the sunlight on to the receiver.
Very interesting tech - each tower and heliostat array can generate up to 1MW of power.
(Meanwhile the solar industry is getting *really* competitive: on the other side of the world, the European solar sector is calling for €100M EU bailout as China’s rapidly improving technology and lower pricing pushes it to the brink).
Singapore ocean CO2 removal
Singapore is planning to expand a pilot ocean carbon dioxide removal (OCDR) project which currently extracts 100 kilograms of CO2 a day from the sea using technology designed by U.S. firm Equatic.
Scientists are calling for more research before scaling much more…
📈The week in AI
AI agents burst onto the scene earlier this year (see Memia 2023.14 Infinite TODO List) and have been bubbling away ever since. In particular, Aomni is a research agent tool which continues to impress and improve for me, writing passable research reports on any topic with only minutes spent exploring.
A new report from e2b.dev out this week, State of AI Agents gives a more detailed overview of the technology, its potential and the current ecosystem of open source projects and startups:
Briefly, some interviews with industry leaders in the US which deliver more colour on the direction of AI:
Phlegmatic as ever, Meta’s Yann Lecun doubles down on his optimistic posture on AGI: Why Meta’s Yann LeCun isn’t buying the AI doomer narrative:
LeCun believes giving more people access to this technology will also help rapidly improve it—something that LeCun says we should all want.
He likens it to a car: “You can have a car that rides three miles an hour and crashes often, which is what we currently have,” he says, describing the latest generation of large language models. “Or you can have a car that goes faster, so it’s scarier . . . but it’s got brakes and seatbelts and airbags and an emergency braking system that detects obstacles, so in many ways, it’s safer.”
A rare interview with Midjourney founder David Holz in The Information — recounting the story of how the company has generated over US$200 million in revenues so far with just 40 employees—*without* raising any funding from outside investors.
“His goal is to remain a bootstrapped company that stands the test of time -"kind of like Craigslist,"....He wants MidJourney to be "this weird thing that no one knows how to compete with that just sort of stands alone"“
Another AI founder interview, this time with Stability AI’s Emad Mostaque. Not short on confidence, he has some deep insights into what’s coming as AI continues to accelerate (ignore the “how to get ahead while others lose their jobs” clickbait title). (🎩 Dougie B for sharing).
🗨️AI and search
I’ve been doing some exploration of using different AI search UXes recently. Standard Google search still works but… meh, it’s straining, eh? And Bing’s not much better.
The mainstream AI chat search experiences with Bing or Bard are still very imperfect… in particular now that Bard has stopped providing references entirely. There are two standout alternative options for me:
Perplexity.ai I’ve mentioned a few times before, provides well considered answers with easily clickable reference links - and also has a “Copilot” feature which enables you to delve deeper into any particular query.
Discovery of the week was Metaphor - this is a completely novel AI model-based search interface, seemingly trained on the entirety of the up-to-date web / social media / wiki content:
”Imagine being able to search the entire repository of humanity's knowledge (the internet) with queries of any complexity (think multiple sentences!) and find exactly the results that match your query. AI has gotten so good that this is now possible. Metaphor's current model is a step in that direction.”
It’s still pretty early but I’m very impressed with the speed and relevance of the search results
🆕New research and releases
Scanning across the new releases this week:
Rest Of World tested ChatGPT in Bengali, Kurdish, and Tamil. It failed:
“Outside of English, ChatGPT makes up words, fails logic tests, and can't do basic information retrieval.”
OpenAI’s shared a paper on Generative Social Choice, which:
"fuses the rigor of social choice theory with the flexibility and power of generative AI."
Apparently OpenAI plans to put this approach into action soon as part of their Democratic Inputs to AI program. Hmmm….!
Google Duet is an AI-powered collaborator for Google Cloud and a coding assistant inside your IDE if you’re developing for GCP. Currently running a waitlist. (May be an early implementation on top of Gemini….?)
gpt-author an open source project by Matt Schumer:
“utilizes a chain of GPT-4, Stable Diffusion, and Anthropic API calls to generate an original fantasy novel. Users can provide an initial prompt and enter how many chapters they'd like it to be, and the AI then generates an entire novel, outputting an EPUB file compatible with e-book readers.
A 15-chapter novel can cost as little as $4 to produce, and is written in just a few minutes.”
Large scale automatic audiobook creation: researchers published a method to use AI text-to-speech models and created the “Project Gutenberg Open Audiobook Collection”: over five thousand high-quality audiobooks generated from the open access book collection and available for free download and open use.
WithDelphi is an “AI Cloning” tool for content creators:
“Interact with your audience 1-1 at scale. Creators, Coaches, & Experts use Delphi to create a digital copy of themselves to talk with their fans 24/7/365 on any platform“
(Needless to say, I’m on the waitlist!)
(Mostly tech) signals from near and far futures...
🚀Getting into space
SpaceX’s massive Starship rocket is now fully assembled on the launchpad for its next test flight…
… but there’s the small matter of dealing with, er, regulators after last flight caused concrete to fly for kilometer in every direction: FAA concludes Starship mishap investigation, 63 corrective actions needed before second flight. It may be some time before the next mission takes off…
Meanwhile RocketLab CEO Peter Beck shared a new video of their rocket stages separating:
Going walkabout on Luna? Australia is planning to launch its moon rover on a NASA Artemis mission as soon as 2026:
“Ethics” is a term often used in the tech sector to “wash” a company and give the impression that they actually have governance aligned with societal values …but is pretty meaningless in practice. (I recently riffed at a conference about “the data science of ethics” being the only way to get towards a truly meaningful ethical compass at a societal level…otherwise it’s just one person’s values vs. another… augmented by who’s got the most capital).
Case in point:
Axon's Ethics Board resigned over Taser-armed drones…. then the company went and bought a military drone maker anyway. (🎩 spotting Andrew L.)
The concept of individual privacy online continues to morph rapidly, particularly as generative AI models start to get trained on more and more personally identifiable information (PII). (cf: Delphi, above) This week:
Google launched their “Privacy Sandbox” (there’s a euphemism if ever there was one) with a widespread rollout in their Chrome browser. (Previously known as "FLoC" and then the "Topics API"). The feature built directly into the Chrome browser tracks the web pages you visit and generates a list of advertising topics that it will share with web pages whenever they ask. Ron Amadeo in ArsTechnica writes:
“…despite widespread opposition from just about every non-advertiser in the world, Google owns Chrome and is one of the world's biggest advertising companies, so this is being railroaded into the production builds.”
As someone else mentioned online, this is the web browser that is used most widely — and in particular often required for children using school web systems. Do we *really* want targeted advertising, however badly functioning, to be part of our default internet experience for millions of people without explicit consent? (So far I’ve managed to keep the setting to “off” in my Chrome - but that won’t be the default setting, no doubt?)
Mozilla Foundation reviewed 25 car companies and their privacy practices and found Cars Are the Worst Product Category We Have Ever Reviewed for Privacy.
(This one expanded my horizons…) TechCrunch reports that a company that makes a “smart chastity” device for people with a penis that can be controlled by a partner over the internet exposed users’ email addresses, plaintext passwords, home addresses and IP addresses, and — in some cases — GPS coordinates, due to exceptionally poor security practices. Yikes. (Even more amazing, there is actually a stock image for this…:)
🦾🧪Robots making precision medicines
This is pretty cool: Multiply Labs - is about launch a new kind of robot that can create individualized cellular therapies - for example for cancer treatment. This will automate and scale what is currently an “artisan” process and make it available to far more people.
As lithium demand continues to soar worldwide, a new 20 to 40 million tonnes deposit of the metal has been found in the US. The deposit is located in a volcanic crater formed around 16 million years ago along the Nevada–Oregon border and may be the biggest ever found.
Rice University physicists have discovered a titanium-gold alloy that is four times harder than most steels - and potentially a replacement for titanium replacement joints.
🍇Balls of fruity deliciousness
Scientists at Rangahau Ahumāra Kai Plant & Food Research in Aotearoa are progressing towards cellular horticulture: using lab-grown plant cells to create “balls of fruity deliciousness” without a tree, bush or vine in sight.
A less bountiful week than usual week on the meme scene… but nonetheless some diverting nuggets, if not gems:
A photosynthesising slug… is real apparently.
👩🔬Brevity is everything
The shortest physics paper ever published:
🎻Day of Judgement
In the Netherlands, climate protesters closed a major road for the third time in protest against fossil fuel subsidies- and were joined by a full orchestra playing Dies Irae - Day of Judgment. Goosebumps.
A new exhibition coming soon to Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland is billed as the "world's first live AI experience". HyperCinema combines cinema and art, with AI and uses a series of photographs and answers from a short questionnaire to generate a personalised film, art gallery portraits and large scale projections. Generative AI for the, er, cultured masses?
Screenshot from TV1 news story :
Might have to pop along…
That’s another week done!
🙏🙏🙏 Thanks as always to everyone who takes the time to get in touch with links and feedback.
Memia is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.