Memia 2021.22: Neuroglancer🧠🔬// everyone's talking about govcoins (except RBNZ)🏛️🪙// supersonic boom💥is back🛫// sea spreading🌊// infosec’s advisory🔪// my model’s bigger than your model📊
🦄Decicorns, 🦄decicorns everywhere!
Welcome to this week’s Memia scan across the latest emerging tech and thinking about the future. Thanks for being here!
The most clicked link in last week’s newsletter (13% of openers) was the video of the Ashburton river in flood…the previous link from TVNZ is now taken down but here is the original on Mountain Bike Ashburton’s Facebook page.
I’ve been working on uploading all Memia newsletters to date into a single Roam Research knowledge graph to enable more rapid and contextual search across the archive…it’s a pretty rewarding process going back and marking up all the key topics from previous issues and starting to see new connections…looking forward to sharing soon, here’s a sneak peak:
Oh, Canada: Covid-19 vaccinations continue apace around the developed world:
…although Aotearoa not so much up there sitting around 10% (arguably quite rightly since vaccines are more needed in other parts of the world…)
Here’s the Ministry of Health’s projected vaccination model, actually tracking just above plan right now:
(So, optimistically all done by the end of the year if people turn up…at least Aotearoa won’t be following West Virginia by giving away guns as a vaccination incentive…🤯) .
…and breaking news… could a simple pill beat COVID-19? Apparently Pfizer may have a “cure” by the end of the year.
The tiny connectome, freely available online in the “Neuroglancer” viewer, includes 50,000 cells, all rendered in three dimensions, connected by 130 million synapses. The data set measures 1.4 petabytes (eg 1400 GB):
“A whole mouse brain is only 1000 times bigger than this, an exabyte instead of a petabyte…It’s on a scale where we probably will be able to do that within a decade, I suspect…Mapping an entire human brain would need a data set that is a further 1000 times larger, a zettabyte” - Prof. Jeff Lichtman, part of the research team
This really is a stunning leap forward in being able to model the brain and the imagery is amazing to look at… but scientific consensus is still far from understanding how this nanoscopic complexity translates to intelligence and consciousness…
Earlier this year I mentioned Jeff Hawkins’ new book A Thousand Brains - his updated theory of intelligence is probably the most compelling I’ve come across so far: basically he proposes that the ~16 billion neurons in the human neocortex are arranged into ~150,000 relatively uniform cortical columns. And each column is running many sensory-motor models of objects and concepts in the world around us, predicting what to expect next… and all columns “vote” to reach consensus on what an object being perceived is.
It’s a truly compelling theory if it turns out to be true (still a lot of science to go…) For me it’s provided a profound new lens to self-reflect on the experience of thinking (…and consciousness, although Hawkins distinguishes this from intelligence).
Tiernan Ray does a good job summarising the main points from the book in this article: A love letter to the brain: in his new book on AI, Jeff Hawkins is enamored of though.
🏛️🪙Everyone’s talking about Govcoins (except RBNZ)
There seems to be exponentially increasing coverage of Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs / “GovCoins”) around the world, - but very little happening out in the open in Aotearoa.
Bernard Hickey put out a barnstormer summary on the issues facing New Zealand citizens, government and central bank: A clash of the titans is coming over the future of money, covering the advances of sovereign- and decentralised- cryptocurrencies:
“What even is money? Is it just a bunch of ones and zeros that could be erased or created with the swipe of a mouse and a click on a spreadsheet or one of those “Do you really want to delete that fortune” buttons? Could it be removed or created by a bureaucrat? Or an actual robot? Is there a call centre to go on hold for to ask if your money is still there? Who could I complain to if something went wrong? How would “they” (whoever they is) know that I am who I say I am and that I “own” the money? Is it a currency? Or just a belief with a terms and conditions page that no one has ever read, even if everyone has ticked the box.”
[Even Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin on last week’s Lex Friedman podcast confessed to getting really stressed moving US$3.5Bn of Ether from one wallet to another…”what if the money didn’t arrive?". Fantastic 3-hour conversation if you have the time.]
Central banks everywhere are doing the work:
As previously covered, China’s digital yuan (DCEP) is way out in front with 11 pilot regions now operational, although getting consumers to switch from AliPay and WePay is proving a challenge.
Coindesk reports that the former head of China’s Digital Yuan effort thinks CBDCs could execute smart contracts, perhaps even operating on Ethereum:
In theory, via a “two-tier” approach, a digital yuan or digital dollar could sit on Ethereum’s network, or that of the Facebook-backed Diem (formerly Libra). That would mean central banks could provide CBDCs directly to users without needing intermediaries.
The Bank of Thailand has hired German technology company Giesecke+Devrient to develop a CBDC prototype.
The Bank of England released a digital currency discussion paper which covers the “run on the banks” scenario explicitly:
“During a system-wide banking stress, the availability of new forms of digital money could increase the proportion of banks’ deposits that are withdrawn...By offering an additional, and potentially more attractive, way to withdraw money from the banking system, new forms of digital money could increase the volume of deposits involved.”
Previously you could only move your money to another bank or withdraw it to physical cash… now you could move it all to Bitcoin (or even Doge!🐕) in seconds and a central bank would be hard pressed to stop you…
So whither AoNZ? Thanks Ryan Jennings (@businesskiwi) for helpfully pointing me to this talk by esteemed US tech investor Naval Ravikant from the 2019 EHF New Frontiers conference. Naval riffs on how Aotearoa could acquire 50% of tokens in an already minted cryptocoin rather than developing its own digital currency…then announcing it is our official currency to the world: effectively the first nation-state mover to endorse native cryptocurrency transactions. The opportunity is still sitting there…
A weekly collection of signals from near and far futures…
The low-lying city of Miami, fresh from appointing a “Chief Heat Officer” to deal with recent sweltering summers, is contemplating spending US$6Bn on sea walls up to 6 metres high to provide storm surge protection in response to climate change. Think about that next time you feel like complaining about rates rises in Aotearoa!
They could well look across to the Indian Ocean for an alternative: The Maldives are constructing a floating city to combat rising sea levels, sheltered within an artificial coral reef lagoon.
[Hopefully the construction project - in partnership with Netherlands firm Dutch Docklands will make have more success than Dubai’s notorious $13Bn “World” artificial islands project - still mostly empty 13 years after the GFC!]
Even SpaceX is getting in on the action, building their first floating ocean spaceport, aiming to be ready for launches and landings from next year.
🛦Things “the Military is funding”
A common clickbait trope to being an article title with:
💥🛫Supersonic Boom is back
Nearly 18 years since the last flight of [the] Concorde, supersonic startup planemaker Boom has announced a deal with United Airlines for a fleet of up to 50 airliners, aiming to (once again…) cut long haul flight times in half. First passenger flights are targeted for 2029. And the claim is that all planes will run on “100% sustainable” aviation fuels…hmmmm.
🐭Long live the mice
Israeli scientists have extended the lifespan of mice by 23% by increasing the supply of the protein SIRT6 - exploring how to transfer this to work in humans
📊My model’s bigger than your model
Chinese AI researchers announced the WuDao 2.0 natural language processing model - with 1.75 trillion parameters, even more than the 1.6 trillion Switch Transformer model that Google unveiled in January and an order of magnitude more than OpenAI’s GPT-3 (175 billion parameters).
Forget ransomware, the future of infosec is way darker…
Economics blogger Noah Smith (Noahpinion) compiles a handy list of Science fiction novels for economists. Some real gems in here…
…but one major omission: Frank Herbert’s Dune. The interplanetary geopolitics driven by trading in the spice Melange is the backdrop to his epic book written over 50 years ago. Aotearoa-based writer Kara Kennedy (@dunescholar) goes deeply into another dimension of Dune in her essay exploring the similarities and differences with the story of T.E. Lawrence:
🦄Decicorns, 🦄decicorns everywhere!
One Decicorn = 1/10th of a Unicorn*.
(*I made that up.)
Michael Andrew in The Spinoff profiles the Four NZ tech startups that sold for billions this year: Vend, Seequent, NinjaKiwi and Timely…
…and no sooner had he clicked “publish” than they were joined by yet another: veterinary practice management software platform Ezyvet sold to US NASDAQ listed IDEXX for an undisclosed sum, Chris Keall in the NZ Herald claiming yet another over NZ$100M.
Just two moments to share this week:
🛑Tech industry analyst Benedict Evans (based in the UK) is right on the money here, you know:
(…In today’s privacy-first regulatory environment, it’s mindblowing that telephone directories can still exist in 2021. I did a quick search online and although I’m not listed in Aotearoa’s “White Pages”, several other “B Reid” entries in Ōtautahi are…presumably without giving informed consent? The site’s “privacy” policy still references the privacy act from 1993, not 2020!).😬
🪶And finally, I enjoyed a quick break over the long weekend walking between downpours near Franz Josef Glacier on the West Coast. We were accompanied everywhere by cheeky pīwakawaka flitting alongside us on the path… this image by El Pedro captures the birds’ personality perfectly:
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with links and feedback, it’s appreciated!
And if you enjoy Memia, please take the time to share with a friend in Aotearoa or around the 🌎🌍🌏:
Ngā mihi / Cheers