Memia 2021.44: Meme wars🗯️// getting spooky👁️// you shall [not] pass💉💉// Aotearoa’s strategic identity🌏// a captured state?👔// Deeppockets💰// drone wars💣// cetacean conversation🐋

12-letter DNA🧬

Kia ora,

Welcome to the Memia newsletter - your regular scan across emerging tech and the unfolding future from here in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Jam packed issue this week… and also testing changing the order of a few things…enjoy!


Weekly roundup

🐕🥽The most clicked link in the last issue (7% of openers) was Your dog while you’re in the Metaverse.😄

  • [Also apologies for the typo last week: “An NFT was seemingly purchased for over US$532 Million” (NOT Billion as originally written.) But still…🤯]

🦠Next normal

👨‍💻Tech bros are doing it for themselves

“If El Salvador’s path to adoption is any indication, nations who need Bitcoin are going to adopt it before the wealthier nations, who operate as if immune from the effects of endless money printing.”


[Weak] signals

First up for a change: a bagload of new tech this week…

💸Expensive algo

  • Cautionary tale: US real estate marketplace company Zillow quietly started using algorithms to automatically buy and sell houses on its own account, but “underestimated how unpredictable the housing market is”. End result: it is now trying to offload around US$2.8 billion worth of property, estimating over US$500M lost value on the houses it owns and needs to lay off about 25% of its employees.

⚛️Nuclear fusion…sooner?

  • TIL: Matt Ferrell’s excellent Undecided series covers a breakthrough in the elusive search for nuclear fusion energy. After decades of fusion being “30 years away”, a new MIT-designed magnet is able to generate the massive magnetic fields required for to generate the superheated plasma needed for the reactor - but with far lower power requirements, leading to a glimpse of net-power fusion reactors within as little as 5 years.

🔒Quantum Key Distribution++

  • As covered in Memia 2021.01, in 2020 Chinese scientists demonstrated quantum encryption (QKD) - the ability to share secret cryptographic keys using quantum entanglement - between the two locations >1000km apart. A step towards completely secret communications guaranteed by the laws of physics. I just came across this 2020 piece by Tom Stefanick from the Brookings Institute on the state of U.S.-China quantum data security competition which goes into more depth on the various QKD initiatives happening worldwide. Good read.

🥽Future unevenly distributed, etc

  • Check out this fanboy review of the latest XR headset from Finnish company Varjo. US$8000 each, you know you want to.

🌲Woodly

💰Deeppockets

  • Can Alphabet finally see a path to revenue for its Deepmind AI investment? Following the success of AI-powered AlphaFold protein folding system, new Alphabet subsidiary Isomorphic Labs, also headed by Deepmind CEO Demis Hassabis, will focus on “building a computational platform to understand biological systems from first principles to discover new ways to treat disease” - that is, using AI for drug discovery.

💨Southerly blast

The Economist ran a model which said that a massive offshore wind farm south of Bluff would pay its way:

🏘️Texas printed in 3D

🕴️Electric backpack helicopter

  • Australian startup CopterPack had its maiden flight a few months ago. This is the best personal aerial mobility form factor I’ve seen yet (just don’t put your arms up!).

🌊Ocean Cleaning

  • Nonprofit The Ocean Cleanup announced that it had reached viability of its ocean plastic-collecting System 002 technology and plans to begin removing plastic pollution in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch immediately… while beginning development of the even bigger System 003. The video below of the first load of plastic being dumped on board a ship is quite phenomenal - CEO Boyan Slat says that if they just collect the same amount 3,000 more times - then the Great Pacific Garbage Patch will be gone.

💣Drone wars

More serious developments in the field of drone weapons:

Holographic

  • New advances in electrically switchable nanoantennas provides the missing technology to enable holographic displays at video rate, which will enable virtual holo-conferences. (🎩 Andrew Leckie)

🧬12-letter DNA

  • From 2019: scientists working on synthetic biology are looking at expanding the basic vocabulary of life using 8-letter DNA… with the possibility of 10- or 12-letter DNA on the horizon.

🐋Cetacean conversation

  • A new project is attempting to interpret sperm whale clicks with artificial intelligence, then talk back to them.


Mind expanding

👔A Captured State?

Writer Danyl Mclauchlan’s weekend essay In A Captured State veers from modern Italian and US/Nigerian literature to crusading economist Thomas Piketty. Charting the rise of the “professional managerial class” (PMC) and the shift of left/right political axes from income to education - Piketty’s “Brahmin Left” vs. the “Merchant Right” - particularly accented in Aotearoa.

This is a great line:

"the university is the apex of a gigantic sorting mechanism to sift those who are economically productive from those who aren’t."

His overall thesis: that the PMC are running everything these days regardless of which political party is in power…in their own interests… and rather ineffectively:

“It says a lot that the unprecedentedly popular and powerful Ardern government still needs consensus with the other large party to make even moderate tweaks to housing. In the multi-elite party system all parties are deeply constrained by the managerial class. This new alignment isn’t anything that’s gone wrong with any one political party, leader or ideology: it’s a huge social shift happening across multiple democracies simultaneously.

(Hilariously lots of snarky chatter from Wellington directions about how the article “needed an edit”…)


Rollcall

A couple of shout outs around the motu:

  • 🛰️The Ōtautahi Christchurch Aerospace Challenge is seeking innovations in aerial imagery collection to help develop a digital twin of Ōtautahi, to be used for planning, and enable advanced analysis of data. Up to NZ$40,000 for the winner.

  • 🌳As previously reported a few weeks ago, startup RegenerateNZ is aiming to crowdfund regenerative forestry investments in Aotearoa. From a standing start they have made impressive progress… looking to purchase their first forest by April 2022. Details of how to support the team here. I’m in.


Now read on for this week’s featured commentaries:

🗯️Meme wars

David Farrier reports on festering anti-government sentiment on Telegram chat channels as the Auckland lockdown continues, with some discussion threads calling for a US-Capitol-like storming of Aotearoa’s Parliament.

Also hot off the press is a new working paper from Te Pūnaha Matatini / Aotearoa New Zealand National Centre of Research Excellence for Complexity: Mis- and disinformation in Aotearoa New Zealand from 17 August to 5 November 2021. This Disinformation Project paper makes for concerning reading, analysing the data under the social media cacophony we are currently experiencing day in day out:

“…posts and engagement have drastically increased since 17 August 2021 and show a trajectory of growth and spread that is increasing, widening, and deepening every week. Disinformation activity shows a high degree of coordination and collaboration within and between platforms…

“…Since mid-August, Telegram emerged as the platform of choice for the spread of mis- and disinformation in Aotearoa New Zealand. As a platform, Telegram does not feature oversight of, or policies around, mis- and disinformation.

“…The volume of content studied by The Disinformation Project since 17 August, across all platforms, is significant and cumulatively in the hundreds of millions of data points. Quantitative analysis around the mis- and disinformation volume (amount of content), vectors (platforms and apps content is produced and shared on) and velocity (speed at which content is produced) since mid-August, under the Delta Level 4 lockdowns, is unprecedented. We note that it is by order of magnitude more than the content speed and spread over 2020, and even in the first half of 2021…

“…A few accounts, increasingly, generate the most amount of mis- and disinformation, which is shared far more widely. These accounts are increasingly coordinated in the production of content, and the selection of frames, subjects, issues, topics and offline events…

“…Language and word/image choice have shifted during the period of our study. The last twelve weeks show increasingly violent language and other forms of expression, which has become normalised and justified within the groups and individuals who make up the disinformation community in-group. Language specifically targeting individuals and minority groups has become more violent and graphic.”

The paper’s conclusion hints at what many of us have been suspecting, that there are coordinating hands under the covers (my bold):

“The ecologies and spread of mis- and disinformation point to a broader threat: that Covid-19 and vaccination are being used as a kind of Trojan Horse for norm-setting and norm-entrenchment of far-right ideologies in Aotearoa New Zealand. Such ideologies include, but are not limited to, ideas about gun control, anti-Māori sentiment, anti-LGBTQIA+, conservative ideals around family and family structure, misogyny, and anti-immigration. Mis- and disinformation and ‘dangerous speech’ pose significant threats to social cohesion, freedom of expression, inclusion, and safety.”

Meme wars have arrived in Aotearoa.

(Time to unholster the GPT-3 and apply some DDOS to those Telegram channels…?)


👁️Getting spooky

Uncanny timing for Intelligence Agencies Minister Andrew Little to trail “an announcement that will 'test' spy agency critics”:

“Foreign states will continue to exploit the openness of our institutions and society, and use our freedoms against us.”

  • Fair point.

  • So…expect an announcement this week of new legislation which enable state intelligence agencies to carry out some degree of mass surveillance of Aotearoa citizens and residents, in the name of national security.

  • This would be a fundamental shift from the principles underpinning changes to the Privacy Act following the most recent intelligence services law from 2017.

  • And the Edward Snowden legacy shows how badly this can go wrong without the most rigorous oversight… who spies on the spies…?

  • (One recent development across the ditch is Australia’s recent “identify and disrupt” legislation which enables intelligence agencies to get at personal data and communications - enabling them to read, modify and delete data - and even take over accounts. Effectively any personal private data held in Google, Microsoft, Amazon clouds… potentially forfeit to spooks…with a low bar on who can sign the warrant. Is that what we want here?)

  • My suggestion is that any new mass surveillance legislation needs to counterbalance the infringements of individual privacy (in the name of national security) with far greater transparency of intelligence activities (also in the name of national security). In particular a legal right for any resident to know who (/which algorithm) has accessed their personal data, and for what purpose. (A real-time 2-way audit app like health, ACC or Police have should be simple to implement… just put this in the hands of citizens and watch the screenshots hit Twitter if it’s misused...)

  • *NOT* being naïve - the whole intelligence apparatus needs more decentralised governance to function resiliently and legitimately in a 21st century technology environment…and sunlight is the best disinfectant. More transparency around intelligence activities carried out on citizens implies greater accountability - and also wider public awareness of intelligence activities which would be no bad thing either.


💉💉You shall [not] pass

The looming traffic light system will be based upon the foundation that >90% of 5 million people have a valid Vaccine Pass to get into buildings and venues.

After the successful introduction of the Covid Tracer App and MyCovidRecord a few weeks ago, the Ministry of Health’s digital execution continues to impress - setting the standard for the rest of Government. This week they:

Also shout out to:

  • Raygun CTO Roger Nesbitt released some open source code for others to make a client Vaccine Pass app in Flutter or Ruby.💯

(I miss having the time to code😢.)


🌏Aotearoa’s strategic identity

The government is currently running [yet another] public consultation: this time to inform the first National Security Long-term Insights Briefing: Engaging an increasingly diverse Aotearoa New Zealand on national security risks, challenges and opportunities.

Excellent timing for independent defence consultant Simon Ewing-Jarvie to publish an expansive article covering Aotearoa’s strategic national security posture from 1840 through to the present day. From a military standpoint his is a blunt assessment:

“The oft-touted mantra that New Zealand pursues an ‘independent foreign policy’ is interpreted by some as being the rationalisation of an unreliable ally.  While Australia pursues a path as a regional super power, New Zealand seems intent on being the biggest Pacific Island nation in the region.  It is the country’s choice to make but the reality is that New Zealand’s security and prosperity only exists because of the combined deterrent effect of western forces and the ability to enforce the rules-based order.  Like it or not, New Zealand still lives under the protection of the nuclear umbrella that it eschews….

“…It’s not that New Zealand can’t defend itself.  It is simply that it chooses not to be able to, preferring instead to enjoy the security provided by others while making minor and sometimes purely symbolic contributions in military terms.”

Personally I’m not convinced - a few too many zero-sum assumptions underlying the “reality” analysis. There are strategic advantages of leaning towards non-alignment too. When elephants are stomping around, mice should keep well out of the way…

His conclusion is spot on though:

“The recent AUKUS announcement has, once again, put New Zealand in a very difficult position with both its traditional friends and major trading partner. The tone seems very similar to that when US President George W. Bush declared in 2001 “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.”

“New Zealand has no clear strategic identity nor strategy. This latest development, on the back of Covid-19 and climate change is an opportune time to remedy that. Wicked problems such as this require big thinking and alternative futures should form part of the planning process. There is no obvious choice for New Zealand, only hard ones. Successive governments have, unfortunately, elected to ignore or minimise the problem in the past.”

Bigger picture, when I think about reimagining Aotearoa’s strategic identity on the international stage, I keep returning to this clip of Climate Change Commission head Rod Carr asserting the country’s global leadership role on carbon emissions:

“We need to do the right thing and role model for 100 small countries that look like us: that being little does not get you out of jail free. But being little and taking action reassures others too that they too can take meaningful action. And those 100 little countries are one third of global emissions.”

(=”Stop playing with your guns and boats, boys. There are more important things to focus on now.”)


Hidden gems

Finally, three uplifting links to finish with:

〰️Pink noise

  • This week’s newsletter was written while listening to sounds at mynoise.net: “beautiful noises to mask the noises you don’t want to hear”. An amazing variety of background sounds and variable controls to help with concentrations. (I’ve used brown noise and white noise before, but never pink noise!). 🎩 Lyndon Burford for sharing.

🥼Retro-encabulator

🐦Walk like an American Woodcock

  • John Cleese has competition… at first I thought this video was doctored but apparently the American Woodcock really does bounce like that when it walks! Delightful.

That’s it for another week…as always 🙏🙏🙏 to everyone who reaches out and gets in touch with thoughts, feedback, links, always good to hear from you!

Favour to ask: if you enjoy Memia, please forward to a friend this week!

Ngā mihi

Ben