Memia 2021.08: Disintermediating digital✂️// when Tom met Mikhail🤯// zero revenue unicorns🦄// robots in space🦾🚀// nano-origami⚛️// meet the swirlon🌌

Yeah right #makeabandnz

Kia ora / Hi

Welcome to this week’s Memia newsletter, thinking about tech and the future as it unfolds, viewed from my corner of the world here in Aotearoa New Zealand.

  • The most clicked links in the last issue (~8% of openers) was the wryly accurate Tamaki Makaurau Hoodmap. (Hang in there in Level 3 Auckland!)👏

  • The first MAMA (Monthly Ask Memia Anything) call went off with a bang on Monday - a mind expanding live discussion with an awesome group of Memia community members (thank you all). Writeup pending for participants and Memia subscribers, we covered a lot of ground in 1 hour, including:

    • What’s the best contact tracing solution?

    • What do you think will be the biggest surprises of the next 2 years around IoT? (A: Robot swarms)

    • Views on tech regulation – i.e. AI/network-effect-monopoly/etc regulation for tech companies…? National vs international?

    • Transhumanism: Would you choose eternal life, given the option and technology…say, snap-frozen at your age right now? (A: Yes, but no to the last bit!).

  • Please join again for the next MAMA event on Monday 12 April at 12pm NZT (1 week later than usual due to Easter holiday). Get the link here.

  • Slightly shorter newsletter than usual this week…have been under the pump with consulting work. But lots below nonetheless!

Disintermediating digital✂️

Last week I covered the Facebook “climbdown”🤣 over the *innovative* Australian “media bargaining law”. The absolutely fantastic Juice Media explain what really happened better than anyone else could:

(Incidentally, I didn’t realise The Juice Media are actually a small family business supported on Patreon… recommend checking out their Behind The Scenes 2020 video when you have a moment.) A vital public service.😇

Over on this side of the ditch, the agenda-setting Bernard Hickey posted yesterday in Reclaiming our information:

“Why NZ Inc must strengthen its own information networks and rely less on Facebook, Google, Youtube and Twitter in its fight against both an infodemic and pandemic”

Bernard noticed that the Government appeared not to use Facebook advertising this week to get information out to the public about the latest Covid-19 lockdown news and requirements. “Good” yes? Hmmm, not if you want to reach people:

Bernard asks the critical question:

“Should the Government have to rely on or pay to use Facebook (and by extension Youtube and Google) to reach all our citizens with accurate information to fight the pandemic? Has our previous failure to invest in information networks and enabling of Facebook and Google by paying tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to advertise on them worsened the pandemic?”

Recap: FB and Google aggregate content from multiple news sources into their sites and apps, relying on a (very lucrative) advertising business model to fund their oligopoly. The alternative user experience would be to download 10+ different apps for Stuff, NZ Herald, TVNZ, The Spinoff, Newsroom…. and all the Substacks too! Unworkable for almost everyone, so FB and Google just keep consolidating their market share.

I’ve attempted to illustrate the key challenge below: in order for a citizen to access, say, urgent public health messaging from the Government through a digital channel (unless they explicitly type in the beehive.govt.nz URL into their browser…), they have to go through 3 layers of intermediation, driven by the hamster wheel of capitalism:

[Whether this is a completely new challenge for governments is debatable…newspaper barons have always played a mediating role purveying government spin or going for the political jugular... Zuckerberg or Murdoch, take your pick…?]

But I think there may be a relatively simple technical fix to this problem and potentially others associated with advertising-driven social networks and content aggregators.

I was inspired by Azeem Azhar’s Exponential View podcast with MIT professor Sinan Aral last week: Fixing the Social Media Crisi‪s‬. They discuss Sinan’s new book: The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health--and How We Must Adapt. One of the most valuable conversations I’ve listened to recently… 51 minutes well spent!

My main takeaway from the discussion: the algo(rithm)s which drive modern social media and content platforms fall into two main categories:

  • Friend recommendation algorithms

  • Content curation algorithms

AND, currently on all platforms there is a lack of transparency as to what the algos are optimised for (hint: it’s not the user’s wellbeing), AND no choice for users to switch algos either.

Sinan’s solution to these challenges is regulation:

So, I got to reimagining what the local landscape could look like with a bit of public sector initiative:

  • Fund a capable public agency (NZ On Air?) to develop a simple *open source* software platform which enables local content publishers, of all shapes and sizes, who are happy to be lightly regulated in Aotearoa, to share links to their content.

  • The same agency publishes a website and a mobile app to the Apple / Android app stores which citizens can anonymously configure with their own *transparent* feed algorithm of choice. (Perhaps an ecosystem of “curator” algo publishers may grow out of this too…)

  • Since the government would fund it, the quid pro quo is that they get to put their *really important* (= public health and safety only) content on there, irrespective of the feed algorithms.

  • Intended outcomes:

    1. Users get access to a full range of Aotearoa digital content without needing to view targeted advertising or provide their private data, curated by a transparent algorithm of their choice.

    2. Govt gets a direct, non-intermediated1 digital channel to citizens for important announcements.

    3. Content publishers gets readers and can keep their website paywalls up behind the aggregator app, if they want to.

      • (Content publishers may even get some ad revenue share back once aggregation is no longer controlled by Facebook and Google).

    4. Making the whole exercise open source and tying it in with international standards should mean that other countries around the world may also contribute to the codebase and build out features if it works.

    5. *Controversial*: Content publishers are lightly regulated to reduce misinformation risk =>public trust in online content goes up => infodemic risk goes down => political resilience increases.

Quite a few bugs in there still…why would anyone download a govt-sponsored news app, for one…. But am I onto something here? As a digitally-literate, progressive small country with a compact media industry, this could get POC’d in <6 months couldn’t it?

When Tom met Mikhail

As previously trailed in Memia 2020.21, Deepfakes just got REAL:

(Two more examples: here and here).

Without synthetic media detection and labelling built into the main video platforms (Youtube, Tiktok, Snapchat, Instagram…) very soon, this near-commodity technology may be about to unleash a DDOS tsunami of misinformation on the world…

(Reminder: if you haven’t read Tom Barraclough and Curtis Barnes’ Perception Inception report on the social and legal issues relating to deepfakes, now’s a good time to do so…).

[Weak] signals

From the future this week:

Commercial space:

Commercial AI:

  • I’ve been working with a number of customers recently to explore how they could leverage generative AI text models, in particular GPT-3, within their business. Here’s a good overview of the main business data points from Ben Dickson in VentureBeat: What it takes to create a GPT-3 product.

Commercial holograms:

  • These PORTL hologram machines are incredible:

Earth’s twin:

⚛️Nano-Origami:

By wrinkling a sheet of graphene, they were able to get it to behave like a transistor without adding any additional materials. “We’re mechanically creating kinks in a layer of graphene. It’s a bit like nano-origami,”

Mind expanding

  • As an undergraduate studying for a Maths and Philosophy degree over 25 years ago, I remember the aha! moment of clarity when I first grasped how Gödel's incompleteness theorems worked. An incredible piece of mathematical and logical proof - but the man himself led a troubled life. This in-depth profile of Kurt Gödel by Norwegian writer Jørgen Veisdal is fascinating.

  • 🌌Similar to how fish school, insects swarm and birds fly in murmurations, new research by Russian mathematician Nikolai Brilliantov (name!) has found that such group behaviour forms a new kind of “active matter”, called a “swirlonic state”:

Rollcall

Around Aotearoa:

  • Amazing initiative from the MAUI63 team and supporters, rigging up a long-distance drone with a hi-res camera and using AI machine vision detection to accurately monitor and protect the remaining Maui dolphin population.

“…make New Zealand the first country to achieve economic prosperity by fully regenerating our environment…creating a platform for environmental impact to be funded, measured, valued, and traded.”

Their first investment is in Regenerative Ag firm CalmTheFarm.

  • Finally, journalist Laura Walters makes a strong and coherent case towards rebalancing the intergenerational wealth divide and cancelling student debt (article paywalled).

Hidden gems

  • The problem with Kiwi accents:

Thanks for reading, and as always to everyone who takes time to get in touch with links and feedback each week - appreciated every time!

Ngā mihi / Cheers

Ben

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