Memia 2022.43: More climate warnings🔥🔥🔥// technofeudalism🤴// hybrid drone swarm🛥️🛩️// NatSec LTIB👁️// end of narrative🔣// AI abandonment🤖// smelling in VR👃🥽// peak dystopia?😶🌫️
Head of Uncertainty
Welcome to another Memia weekly scan across emerging tech and the unfolding future… as viewed from the edge of the world, Aotearoa New Zealand. Thanks for being here!
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⚠️PSA: Another long one this week. These newsletters are *way* too long for most email clients…click on the title link above to read online or view in the Substack app on iOS and Android.
I took the weekend off writing (and Twitter)… just myself, my backpack, a howling norwester and William Gibson’s The Peripheral on my Kindle. Restorative.
Also in the last week…
🔥🔥🔥More climate warnings
Not good news.
The World Meteorological Organization released yet another ominous climate change warning, atmospheric levels of the three main greenhouse gases - carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide - all reached new record highs in 2021. Methane is even accelerating:
NASA’s new Earth Space Mission has been mapping the world’s Methane ‘Super-Emitters’:
🦠More Covid-19 origins
Following the preprint research paper Endonuclease fingerprint indicates a synthetic origin of SARS-CoV-2 covered in last week’s issue, ProPublica goes into forensic depth analysing documents relating to a “Complex and Grave Situation” inside the Wuhan Lab at the centre of suspicions about the pandemic’s onset. No unambiguously smoking gun, but…
drama distraction of Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter finally closed this week at the stratospherically overvalued price tag of US$44Bn. (Against a background of plummeting US tech company earnings and tanking valuations, particularly in the face of aggressive competition from Tiktok: Meta down yet another 27% after Zuck doubled down on the “Metaverse or bust” strategy, Alphabet down 12%. Amazon down 15%... only Apple bucked the trend, up 7% in the month. (Likely due to their extortionate new app store changes…).
Tiktok’s success has completely changed online advertising market competitive dynamics…and was largely responsible for this week’s repricing of Meta and Alphabet in particular.
But going forward, attracting advertisers requires a not only a compelling product which delivers eyeballs, but also a safe environment where advertisers want their messaging to appear. As the deal closed, Musk put out a tweet entitled “Dear Twitter Advertisers”:
“…Twitter cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences! In addition to adhering to the laws of the land, our platform must be warm and welcoming for all, where you can choose your desired experience according to your preferences”
(Which “land”, exactly?)…
Anyway, “free speech”, er…:
Overnight, things were just descending into farce…
Lots (too much) coverage of the deal this week. A few recommended takes:
Mike Solana, Pirate Wires Seizing the memes of production
Nilay Patel, The Verge... Welcome to Hell, Elon:
“You fucked up real good, kiddo.
Twitter is a disaster clown car company that is successful despite itself, and there is no possible way to grow users and revenue without making a series of enormous compromises that will ultimately destroy your reputation and possibly cause grievous damage to your other companies.
I say this with utter confidence because the problems with Twitter are not engineering problems. They are political problems. Twitter, the company, makes very little interesting technology; the tech stack is not the valuable asset. The asset is the user base: hopelessly addicted politicians, reporters, celebrities, and other people who should know better but keep posting anyway. You! You, Elon Musk, are addicted to Twitter. You’re the asset. You just bought yourself for $44 billion dollars.”
Noah Smith (Noahpinion)... Twitter's problems: a roundup
Comprehensive summary of all of the emergent political and mental health problems with Twitter and how they stem from product design decisions (and a longstanding inertia to change them)
Pivot podcast’s Scott Galloway is as usual scathing of Twitter’s historical (lack of) performance under Jack Dorsey, the product’s negative effect on users’ mental health … and expects a gradual Facebook-like attrition of users from here, together with the emergence of a new challenger in the next 6 months. He’s often right.
So… the deal is done and, except for a few users “flouncing off” in protest, most of us continue to compulsively scroll and tweet. The product is the same right now. (Nonetheless I took the precaution of downloading my Twitter archives... and then… what does one do with them now? (Roam Research graph integration would be my first feature!)
There are few alternatives to Twitter but none provide the compelling value proposition (to me) of keeping across / ahead of what’s going on … and also direct reach to the minds of thousands of leading edge thinkers / culture shapers around the world… (as well as squirrel videos, natch…)
What are the alternatives...? (Not Instagram, not Facebook, not LinkedIn, not Tiktok…)
Mastadon signups were up 70K last Friday. (You can cross-post to Twitter from there).
Covered last week: BlueSky looks like it has potential, currently in invite-only beta... @Jack potentially redeeming himself...
Perhaps as @profgalloway intimates, a new competitor will emerge from nowhere in the next few months. (But they’d need to spend a fortune on AI…)
ANYWAY… that’s the end of my commentary on this... let Musk get on with it and see what emerges over the next few months…. but the constant drama is a distraction.
A note on Meta:
Despite their stock price woes and massive R&D spend on XR / Metaverse, Meta is still a cash generating *machine*. Stratechery’s Ben Thompson goes across the underlying fundamentals of Meta’s continuing business model strength in Meta Myths. In particular, in order to respond to TikTok’s competitive threat, Meta is doubling down on AI. Ben quotes Meta CFO Dave Wehner:
“We are significantly expanding our AI capacity. These investments are driving substantially all of our capital expenditure growth in 2023. There is some increased capital intensity that comes with moving more of our infrastructure to AI. It requires more expensive servers and networking equipment, and we are building new data centers specifically equipped to support next generation AI-hardware. We expect these investments to provide us a technology advantage and unlock meaningful improvements across many of our key initiatives, including Feed, Reels and ads. We are carefully evaluating the return we achieve from these investments, which will inform the scale of our AI investment beyond 2023.”
So, despite this week’s US tech giant stock crash, the thesis that we are now living under a regime of “Technofeudalism” resonates more than ever:
“…the technofeudalism thesis…holds that 21st-century capitalism has been superseded by a new economic system overseen by Big Tech. At the core of the argument is the idea that today’s capitalists are not by and large reinvesting their profits to develop new capacities to expand output or increase labor productivity. Rather, an increasingly ludicrous share of growth comes in the form of surveillance platforms with tenuous relations to workers who make widgets for a profit.
The technofeudalist model involves establishing a monopoly position and using sophisticated data extraction to secure it.”
🛥️🛩️Hybrid drone swarm
Ukraine (one assumes…) attacked ships at the Russian naval base in Sevastopol, Crimea with a combined swarm of airborne and sea-going drones. Spectacular footage from the onboard camera on one:
Details are sketchy of how successful the attacks were (Ukraine’s government hasn’t commented) but a compilation of open source intelligence indicates damage (at least) to Russia’s Black Sea flagship vessel, Admiral Makarov. Russia responded with more missile attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure.
This is (to my knowledge) the first recorded incident involving a combined aerial / seaborne drone swarm. One can assume that they were being piloted remotely in real time (what are the comms networks being used?)… but it won’t be long until these devices will be able to operate autonomously, with the usual terrifying implications about AI safety.
👀🇧🇷 Eyes on Brazil
Closely watching the outcome of Brazil’s presidential election.
The official results after all votes were counted had Lula Da Silva with 50.9% of votes against incumbent Jair Bolsonaro's 49.1% - a margin of 2 million votes. However at the time of writing, Bolsanaro had yet to concede… and truckers started blocking major roads across the country in protest.
Bolsonaro is on record as saying that the e-voting machines used across Brazil are open to fraud… if he does not concede, what follows…and what international precedent would it set for the US Presidential election in 2024? (Or even Aotearoa’s relatively smaller election next year…)
Closer to home, a couple of significant policy developments I tracked this week at the progressive policy edge:
The Green Party released a discussion document proposing a one-off windfall tax on excess corporate profits in “sectors in Aotearoa … that have been making record profits during recent times and/or have significant issues with competitiveness, including”:
Building products suppliers
Energy generators/retailers (‘gentailers’)
The basically redistributive policy also states that some of the revenue raised would go towards forgiveness of MSD and Student debt. As I’ve previously written, THAT is surely a vote winner among low voter turnout demographics — and could tip the election result if enough young people get out the vote next year.
Also from the Greens, co-leader James Shaw, speaking at the O Tātou Ngahere conference on regenerative forestry appears to be making progress shaping up a biodiversity credits scheme, first mooted way back in 2020:Good to hear say biodiversity credits system is (finally) being looked at - and it will be linked to the NPS on Indigenous Biodiversity.
(From the same conference, can’t argue with this):
DPMC and MFAT released the first ever (draft) National Security Long Term Insights Briefing: “Engaging an increasingly diverse Aotearoa New Zealand on national security risks, challenges and opportunities”. Very broad in scope and worth a read end to end.
The briefing focuses on six main threats:
Hacking and cyber attacks
Transnational organised crime
Foreign interference and espionage
Terrorism and violent extremism
Pacific resilience challenges
A recent survey of 1,000 residents found that that “New Zealanders are more concerned on average than people in other countries about a wide range of threats”, with natural disaster and misinformation at the top of the list.
(Here’s my submission to the LTIB from last November — nearly 1 year ago — some key points made it in.)
Onwards to Memia’s weekly curation of tech signals from near and far futures…
🔣End of narrative
I came across this thread from Scott Stevenson (who works at the intersection of AI and law). TBH this is one of the most profound insights I’ve come across in a long time: basically, as the AI models which increasingly run the world get more and more complex, humans will not be able to explain or understand these models using written language:
Translation: Any company / government / NGO trying to explain their model of the world, their policies, their business plan using a linear narrative is essentially lying.
Corollary: humans will need to augment themselves with AI to stand any chance of understanding what’s going on…and stop thinking in stories.
Argo AI, an autonomous vehicle joint venture between Ford and Volkswagen is being shut down — Ford announced that was shifting its resources to developing advanced driver assistance systems, not autonomous vehicle technology that can be applied to robotaxis. Ford recording a pre-tax impairment of US$2.7 billion on its investment. (Lots of commentary around how fully self-driving cars is too hard a problem to solve and could take decades more…and industry consolidation is needed to untangle the web of relationships:
Amazon is abandoning its home delivery robots which it has been testing since 2019.
(Could it be because…?)
🛰️Project Kuiper scaling up
However, Amazon is scaling up manufacturing for its forthcoming Project Kuiper satellite internet network, announcing a dedicated, 16,000-square-metre satellite production facility in Kirkland, Washington State. Project Kuiper’s first two prototype satellites will launch in early 2023 on United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan Centaur rocket.
Starlink will soon have a vigorous competitor.
👃🥽Smelling in VR
Swedish university researchers have created a new technology that makes it possible to smell in a virtual reality environment. The new machine, called an “olfactometer”, can be printed on 3D printers. In the demo below, users mov about in a virtual wine cellar, picking up virtual wine glasses with different types of wine.
🔌New energy (1)
Wind power is about to get a whole lot more powerful: Siemens Gamesa’s new prototype turbine is a step-change in generation efficiency:
“To put this into context, the UK used 294.2 TWh of energy in 2021. So for the UK to be entirely powered by 14–222 DDs, it would need to install 4,414 of them. In an offshore wind farm, the turbines need to be five rotor blades apart, so our turbines need to be 555 m apart, making this UK-powering wind farm 36.9 square km, or 14 square miles. That’s about 2% the size of London or about 62% the size of Manhattan.”
The turbine enters full production in 2024… Aotearoa needs offshore wind farms, just sayin’.
🔋New energy (2)
Solid-state batteries could have three times the energy density of conventional lithium-ion batteries, which might allow things like electric flight:
News on the CBDC front has gone relatively quiet over the last year… this week Türkiye’s central bank announced plans to launch its own digital currency in 2023: The Digital Turkish Lira system will be integrated with digital identity and FAST a payments system operated by the Turkish central bank. (Eg sounds like centralised control and total financial surveillance…)
🌧️Circular water design
The design of Sneglehusene, a new modular housing development in Aarhus, Denmark, reduces local water grid usage by up to 40% by catching rainwater directly from gutters on the houses and nearby roads into a central wildlife pond. This water is then treated just enough to be pumped back into the homes for toilet flushing and washing machine use (not drinkable).
Putting the periscope up this week to do some big picture thinking… suggested links:
😶🌫️Mind control in the Metaverse
The UN Human Rights Council recently adopted a draft resolution entitled Neurotechnology and Human Rights aimed at protecting humanity from devices that can “record, interfere with, or modify brain activity.” (eg Mind Control). Louis Rosenberg: How the Metaverse will challenge our very notion of Free Will:
The end of the system of the world
Another excellent article from Noah Smith covering the rupture in globalisation we are living through:
☀️Wrong kind of sun?
A new theory on Fermi's Paradox: aliens haven’t visited because our sun is too short-lived:
“We suggest …that an expanding civilization will preferentially settle on low-mass K- or M-dwarf systems, avoiding higher-mass stars, in order to maximize their longevity in the galaxy”
This week I learned:
Synthetic biology — using computers to modify or rewrite genetic code — is advancing faster than most people are aware of and the implications will likely be profound for humanity. Futurist Amy Webb’s book The Genesis Machine (written with synbio expert Andrew Hessel) examines the future bioeconomy and provides “a foundation for thinking through the upcoming opportunities, risks and moral dilemmas posed by redesigning life”.
(Here’s a recording of their Talk At Google earlier this year discussing the book.
A couple of good news shoutouts around the motu this week:
Reasons to be optimistic in Aotearoa
Stuff’s Anna Fifield surveys a number of Aotearoa realistic optimists about their thoughts on the future. Contributions from a diverse range of thinkers including Roger Dennis, Wendy McGuinness, Jim Salinger, Kate Hannah and Holly Bennett. Put aside the grim. Here are lots of reasons to feel optimistic (and to make them happen).
Zinc recycling firm Zincovery is one of the most high-potential “deep-tech” startups coming out of Aotearoa for a long time, just raising NZ$3 million, solving major waste stream and CO2 emissions problems in the metals supply chain.
(Also listen to co-founder Jonathan Ring speak with Kathryn Ryan on RNZ).
Nuggets and gems
Phew, long one this week. Well done for making it this far… a few memes to lighten the load to the end!
Facebook Red Book
Head of uncertainty
Here’s my new favourite job title, apparently being hired by the UK Department for Transport. (This is essentially what I do on a fractional basis…)
Lauded British documentary maker Adam Curtis has a new series of films, TraumaZone about Russia in the 1990s after communism collapsed - how hyper-capitalism wrecked a nation. Available on BBC iPlayer if you know how to get it here…
I haven’t seen it yet buy thanks Geoff Devereux for this interview with Curtis, including mesmerising footage of post-Soviet era Moscow from the air ... so many huge buildings, so many trees, so empty. Curtis finishes up on an optimistic note for our times:
“Even though we are living in this strange time of chaos and uncertainty and no-one really knows what's going to happen tomorrow, I've got this funny optimism in me... autocracy in Russia is collapsing, radical Islamism in Iran is collapsing, that super-hyper-technocracy …surveillance state that China represents, that also seems to be collapsing with their vast debt problem…Maybe we have got past peak dystopia... at that very moment everything seems to be crumbling, maybe some light might come through the cracks"
Twitter deal well played X2
I enjoy @greg16676935420’s Twitter game. Just as the deal was going through last week and we were expecting the cheque to bounce… (I got played here briefly… clue: it’s an “I” not an “l”. And no bluecheck.)
Longest thread ever:
Trick or squeak
Halloween came and went this week…yikes.
That’s it for yet another week. Thanks to everyone who gets in touch each week with ideas, thoughts, feedback, links — always appreciated!
See you again next week.