Memia 2021.32: Not enough (market) power🔌// surveillance by stealth👁️// biometrics gone wrong👇// jumbo jurassic🦕// code writing code🤯// neurotheology🧠// the discontinuity🔥
From Mahia to the Moon🌕
Welcome to this week’s 🦠Level 4 Lockdown Special Memia newsletter - as usual scanning across tech, new ideas and thinking about the future from Aotearoa New Zealand. Hang in there people.😬
(And thanks for the positive comments about my Old Ghost Road photos last week… when you see a rainbow, always point and click!)🌈
🔌Not enough (market) power
Ominously last week thousands of households on Te Ika-a-Māui saw electricity blackouts as, essentially, demand exceeded supply on one of the coldest nights of the year.
The country’s electricity generating capacity, transmission infrastructure and market system appear to be close to breaking point. (Just yesterday Transpower issued *another* emergency notice - this time due to a damaged line in Canterbury).
Two graphs to illustrate:
Generating capacity over the last 12 years has actually declined a little, despite the population growing 20% in that time (overall electricity demand stayed flat over the period).
Now look how much (and what type of) generating capacity will need to be added to reach the reference scenario currently being modelled by the government to achieve Carbon-zero by 2050, including powering a whole nation’s EVs:
Bernard Hickey summarises the problem:
“the market structure’s major flaw — its inability to build enough affordable new supply soon enough to achieve carbon zero — was rudely exposed with blackouts for thousands of households on the coldest night of the year…there has been virtually no net renewable generation capacity created in 25 years”
(Another example of it becoming clear that existing financial and market doctrines are fundamentally not fit for purpose approaching the forthcoming Climate Discontinuity - see below.)
👁️Surveillance by stealth
Apple announced controversial new features for September’s upcoming iOS15 release - adding “digital fingerprint”-based scanning for Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) on the devices themselves:
“iOS and iPadOS will use new applications of cryptography to help limit the spread of CSAM online, while designing for user privacy. CSAM detection will help Apple provide valuable information to law enforcement on collections of CSAM in iCloud Photos.”
(See also the Economist ($wall) which goes deeper into where Apple will source the CSAM hash data from.)
While Apple has since been at pains to try and reassure that they will still support privacy of information stored on a user’s device, this is a vexing development for internet privacy experts. Keith Teare explains simply in Apple's Very Bad Week, Why Privacy Matters:
“Here is the problem. This [digital] fingerprinting technology could be used for images or videos for entirely different purposes. If a government wanted to find political activists accused of being dissidents for example. All it would need to do would be to open its image database to Apple and make a law forcing Apple to scan the images and find any instance of that person on any iPhone under the Government’s jurisdiction.”
Balaji Srivinasan and Max Hodak distil the fundamental issue:
Max Hodak @max_hodakApple's new end-user handset scanning is likely the most powerful tool for surveillance authoritarianism ever conceived by humans. The most we can do for our children is to not go down this road. https://t.co/pJwuod3SPT
I’m not an Apple user but phones or computers with security backdoors of any kind are off my shopping list. Mystifying why Apple seems to have chosen to completely wipe out their previously pristine reputation for user privacy in one media release.
Meanwhile…while researching this post, I came across the privacy-focused Librem 5 smartphone from Purism - this runs PureOS, an OS not based on Android or iOS, with fully auditable open source code. Expect to see more developments like these.
👇😞Biometrics gone wrong
Staying on the surveillance theme…for the most terrifying scenario of how government identity and biometric systems can go wrong when they get into the wrong hands, we need only look at the apocalyptic events happening right now in Afghanistan.
As far back as 2010, “local and NATO forces were amassing biometric dossiers on hundreds of thousands of cops, crooks, soldiers, insurgents and ordinary citizens…” — indeed the FBI bragged about it in 2011:
“The biometric program answers two basic questions…: Who are you, and are you a bad guy? The ability of the Afghans to collect, store, and match this data against other sources of information is an invaluable tool as the government strives to prevent fraud and corruption.”
(“A bad guy”.)😖
Now it appears that the Taliban have obtained and are using those very same biometric systems:
"I managed to get out, but it is shocking. On the highway from Bamyan [to Kabul], for 5 to 10km, you could see Taliban everywhere. If they stop you, search you, they put your finger on a biometric machine – they have that now - and they will find everything on you. And what will happen to you and your family? Your head will be cut off."
Hellscape, 2021 edition. It makes the case for every government-use biometric identity system needing to be deeply encrypted, strictly permissioned and even decentralised to explicitly design against hostile use situations such as these - however unimaginable they may seem from our seemingly safe South Pacific bubble.
Pulling back up, an eclectic mix of geopolitical and technological developments hitting my feed this week:
Just out of reach (for now)
Speaking of safe South Pacific bubbles…Australian foreign policy think tank the Lowy Institute published an article Australia and the growing reach of China’s military, examining the rapid growth of Beijing’s maritime and aerospace capabilities - and the long term defence implications across the Indo-Pacific.
🍩Ich bin ein Berliner
Keeping an eye on this: as reported by Cory Doctorow in Housing, money laundry, speculation and precarity, Berliners will soon vote in a referendum to force Germany's largest private landlords to sell 240,000 homes to the state, to become publicly owned and operated housing. This in response to rents in Berlin have risen by 43% over the past five years (only 43%!?). Berlin has some unique property laws which would enable this forced purchase - but this would set a worldwide precedent for cities to wrest back some control of over-financialised, rent-taking housing assets in their midst…?
Related (previously covered in Memia 2020.45) Finland is the only EU country where homelessness is falling due its policy of free housing for all.
Two more major advances in generative AI models last week:
AI21 launched their new *enormous* Jurassic language model and accompanying studio application (the “Jumbo” Jurassic-1 model, at 178Bn parameters, claims to be the “largest and most sophisticated language model ever released for general use by developers”. A clip of the AI21 Studio in use below - potentially a massive productivity booster for all kinds of creator roles.
🤯Code writing code
A day earlier, OpenAI launched Codex, built upon last year’s (*only*) 175Bn parameter) GPT-3, which takes “AI writes code” to whole other level again:
(Here’s the full live demo)
AI researchers at Alphabet-owned AI pioneers DeepMind unveiled Ponder Net - essentially a way for a machine learning algorithm to calculate whether or not to give up calculating.
Smarter fiscal policy?
Does perishable e-money represent the future of fiscal stimulus? Hong Kongers are being issued with digital consumption vouchers - with an expiry date. An example use case of how CBDCs could provide precision fiscal policy in the future rather than just printing money at scale.
Global trust imperative
BCG released a new research report The Global Trust Imperative which shows clear links between digital service quality and the overall trust and confidence that customers have government - however, governments worldwide are struggling to keep pace with rising citizen expectations. Some comparisons below, Aotearoa categorised as “steady performance” but still falling behind.
Three juxtaposed links about remote working. Go figure.
Google employees who work from home could lose money: Google has published an internal salary calculator for remote employees based upon where the employee lives. (I fundamentally don’t get the logic here. Particularly if CO2 emissions from commuting are factored in).
🃏 Overemployed.com is a website dedicated to providing tips on how to “Work Two Remote Jobs, Reach Financial Freedom”.
I’ve managed quite a bit of longer-form reading this week, I particularly recommend Alex Steffen’s work on the [Climate] Discontinuity below.
Native Land is an interactive map which catalogues indigenous territories, languages and treaties across the world: a helpful reference.
🗺️A fourth globalisation?
Two stunning, if somewhat bleak, essays from veteran climate futurist Alex Steffen on his blog The Snap Forward:
“Discontinuity is best seen from above. The faster change is happening, the more important it is to try to see the big picture…
…We have a model for how change is supposed to happen—an orderly transition. It is no longer possible to achieve that orderly transition, to combine action at the scale and speed we need with a smooth transition and a minimum of disruption. We have already failed to create the future most advocacy still seeks to bring on.
Policy matters. Regulations matter. International agreements matter. Plans and procurement and budgets matter. We cannot build a better future without leveraging the power of governments—and we cannot leverage that power without exerting even greater democratic pressure through advocacy.
But no achievable political program is going to roll back the clock and put us in a position where continuity can be restored. Our actions cannot now be optimized, disruption cannot be avoided, and the world isn’t going to become predictable again. Democracy cannot undo discontinuity, just as King Canute sitting in his throne on the beach could not command the tides to halt.”
2. Discontinuity is the job - How climate change and the planetary crisis are changing what works:
“THE PLANETARY CRISIS IS NOT AN ISSUE, BUT A CHANGE IN ERA”
Also, this was an interesting piece on “neurotheology” — the study of how activities such as meditation and prayer affect the brain — How an intense spiritual retreat might change your brain:
“Insights from the field of neurotheology can help us better understand how intense spiritual experiences affect the brain and might ultimately help people figure out the best ways of having them. Over the past 25 years…a number of neurotheological research projects…have scanned people’s brains as they perform practices from diverse traditions, from various forms of meditation and prayer to speaking in tongues and entering trance states.”
Local links for local people:
🌕From Mahia to the Moon: Rocketlab will be launching their first moon mission from Aotearoa later this year.
For readers working in government, 2021/2022 applications for the NZ$5M Digital Government Partnership (DGP) Innovation Fund open on 26th August - looking to invest in cross-agency digital and data innovation, POCs and prototypes.
Finally, sharing two enjoyable links this week:
Icelandic musical genius Björk is a personal hero of mine. I just came across her eclectic “Top 11 albums” playlist from last year:
Captcha gotcha: After reading Clive Thompson’s zeitgeist piece Why CAPTCHA Pictures Are So Unbearably Depressing (A: they force you to look at the world the way an AI does), I thought this was rather well played by RAF Luton in the UK:
That’s all for this week…thanks as always for getting in touch with thoughts, feedback, links - appreciated!
See you next week. 🤞 for an early end to Level 4.