New Week #105
Novelists try out Google's new AI-fuelled fiction writing tool. Europe eyes a future without gas. Plus more news and analysis from this week.
Welcome to the mid-week update from New World Same Humans, a newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.
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Hello from London! It’s the night before Guy Fawkes Night, and I’ve just hosted a back-garden fireworks display for a gaggle of over-excited nine-year-olds.
But that hasn’t prevented a bumper instalment of New Week. This week, Google’s new AI writing platform suggests new futures for the narrative arts.
Also, new research suggests that Europe will soon wean itself off its addiction to gas. And Elon Musk overturns the ancien régime at Twitter; what will it mean for him, and for the future of social media?
Let’s get into it.
📖 Story time
This week, Google offered a glimpse of the future of creative writing.
The company hosted a media event in Manhattan to showcase various AI research projects. Among them were a flood forecasting system, and further glimpses of the quest I’ve written about often — most recently in New Week #103 — to create everyday helper robots that can respond to ordinary (i.e complex and nuanced) spoken language.
But the project that most caught my eye? It’s a tool intended to supercharge fiction writers by marrying their creativity with the incredible power of Google’s large language model, LaMDA.
Wordcraft works just like a standard text editor, but with an AI fuelled twist. Writers can ask the platform to, for example, rewrite sentences to make them shorter or funnier. They can ask Wordcraft to write descriptions of objects or people that appear in their story. They can even ask the tool for new plot ideas by entering the prompt: what happens next?
As part of their research process Google ran workshops with 13 established writers, who used the tool to help them craft short stories. Those stories — and more on what was learned — are now publicly available. The verdict of these writers? Wordcraft isn’t perfect — and it’s far from a replacement for human creativity — but it does generate unexpected new story directions and ideas.
Wordcraft made, in short, for a great co-writer.
⚡ NWSH Take: There’s a longstanding principle adhered to by writers working together on a book or script. Never shoot down your co-writer’s suggestions with a no; instead always start with a yes, and. What Google are building here is an amazing yes, and machine: a writing partner that produces an endless stream of ideas, suggestions, and provocations. What’s more, this partner is always on hand, never tires, and doesn’t ask for a salary. There will be a large language model on the desktop of many novelists, and in the writing room for many Netflix scripted dramas, before long. // But writers (and readers) shouldn’t worry that these tools are about to strip human creativity out of the narrative arts. These experiments show, too, that we’re a long way from an AI that can generate a full novel or script. LaMDA, as with other large models, struggles to keep its story straight for any length of time; it will kill off a character and then have that character walk into a room a few hundred words later. // Still, we’re at the outset of something new. It’s perhaps best thought of as the emergence of the writer as creative director, able to generate new ideas, scenes, and characters and deploy them at will. What new narrative forms will emerge out of the generative AI revolution? NWSH will keep watching; it may even run a few experiments of its own.
💥 Step on the gas
Here in the UK we’re preparing for a tricky few months on the energy front. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the destruction of the Nord Stream gas pipelines means there is a tiny chance the UK will run out of gas this winter. That, in turn, would impact electricity production; 17 gas-fired power plants in the UK generate 42% of our electricity.
Similar gas woes currently afflict much of Europe. This week, though, new research offered a glimpse of the energy transformation that is imminent.
A note from the research firm Rystad Energy outlined their forecast that by 2030 solar energy could be so much more cost-efficient than gas that it will spell the end of gas-fired power in Europe. That depends, say Rystad, on European governments taking funds earmarked for the development of gas-fired generation, and instead spending that money on solar.
‘By 2028, new renewable generation capacity installed using money that would otherwise have been spent on gas generation would reach 333 GW, which would be enough to generate 663 TWh of electricity. Renewable power generation would be enough to replace forecast gas-fired generation by this year.’
With gas prices now around €125 per MWh — in 2021 they averaged around €40 — electricity generation via gas is currently hugely expensive. Rystad reckon prices will drop to around €30 per MWh by 2030. But to be competitive with solar, they say, prices would have to fall further, to €17 per MWh, and that isn’t going to happen.
⚡ NWSH Take: Energy price forecasts are not typical NWSH territory. What interests me here are the implications of Rystad’s claim that the end of gas is coming to Europe, and sooner than we might think. // First, the climate implications; it’s a sliver of good news amid a welter of bad. This newsletter writes often on the way the 1.5C warming target has drifted beyond reach. Here is a reminder that while we can expect a 2C+ world, it can also be a world of super-abundant clean energy. What kind of economy can we build on top of that energy platform? // Second, geopolitics. Right now, European dependance on Russian gas — before the war, Germany took around 55% of its gas from Russia — gives Putin a lever. Forecasts such as this one present Putin with a stark truth: the force generated by that lever is waning fast. On first hearing that sounds good news, and longterm it is. But a question for now: if one of Putin’s key strategic advantages is fading away, what extra impetus does that give him to settle matters definitively now, and how might he respond?
📢 Crowd control
If you haven’t heard: Elon Musk owns Twitter now.
You have, of course, heard; the fallout was impossible to avoid this week. Mainly, that meant the sound of a massive and summary cull of staff.
Musk has already fired the board, including former CEO Parag Agrawal. Now he’s reportedly set to fire around half of all Twitter workers; in the US and UK staff have been waking up today (Friday) to find themselves severed from the company Slack and unable to login to their laptops.
Meanwhile, Musk says he plans to end Twitter’s infamous blue tick verification as we know it — he calls it a ‘lords and peasants system’ — and allow anyone a blue tick for $8 a month. The price seems to have been thrashed out in a back-and-forth with horror writer Stephen King:
And the world waits to find out how, if at all, Musk will act on his promise (or threat, depending on where you stand) to bring ‘free speech’ back to the platform. Is Trump about to be reinstated? Musk says nothing will happen without ‘a proper process’ in place, which means not for ‘at least a few weeks’.
The fallout from this fallout is only just beginning. That will include a wave of revelation as insiders speak their truth on The First Seven Days of Elon. Expect more of this:
⚡ NWSH Take: Two truths. First, whatever you think of Elon Musk, it’s impossible to write a newsletter about our shared without his name coming up all the time. Second, whatever you think of Twitter, it is the closest thing we have to a global town square. The coming together of these two forces is consequential. // Musk, of course, knows that. By acquiring Twitter he gains a degree of control over our collective conversation. Musk wants attention. More than any other billionaire he understands that, today, eyeballs mean power. // So far, so good; Musk will relish this week’s controversy. But he’s about to find out that he’s also purchased a set of problems that don’t lend themselves to the kind of engineering solutions that get batteries to charge or rockets to fly. That’s because free speech, hate speech, and content moderation are not technical but essentially political questions; questions, that is, that see legitimate but opposing human values clash in ways that can never be finally resolved. Should Twitter prioritise freedom, and let anyone say anything? Or prioritise safety, and police the tweets? There’s no right answer. It’s a judgement call, and wherever you land millions of users will be unhappy. Living at the centre of that storm might be energising, and profitable, for now. But after a while even Musk may come to regret his decision to become a species of person he seems to despise: a politician.
🗓️ Also this week
📱 A Federal Communications Commissioner said the US should ban TikTok. Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr said the app, which is owned by Chinese parent company ByteDance, represents a security risk. ByteDance is currently in negotiations with the FCC about the way it handles US user data. Meanwhile, TikTok this week told European users that Chinese staff can access data generated by European accounts.
👨💻 New data from LinkedIn suggests more workers are heading back to the office. New postings for remote jobs are declining; in the US they have fallen 5% since their April peak of 20%. Still, it’s clear the pandemic has had a lasting impact; that’s still far above the pre-pandemic average of just 2%
🚗 Chinese electric automaker Xpeng debuted a prototype flying car. The X3 is a car with drone-like copter blades stuck on top and is designed to ‘fly over traffic congestion, obstacles, and rivers to meet a new host of short-distance mobility needs.’
🍭 The makers of online game Candy Crush sent 500 drones into the sky over NYC. The glowing drones flew in formation to spell out Candy Crush; the stunt was an ‘aerial ad’ to celebrate the game’s tenth anniversary.
🌱 New research says carbon-storing peatlands in the Congo are a ‘time bomb’ that is about to go off. The peatlands cover 17 million hectares and store billions of tonnes of carbon; the equivalent of three years of global emissions. Now, scientists at the University of Leeds in the UK say the peatlands are close to a tipping point that will see them release those carbon stores.
🌔 NASA is planning for international conflict situations on the Moon. The Agency says that more than 20 crewed missions to the Moon are planned between now and 2026, including its own, those conducted by other governmental space agencies, and those by private industry. Many of these missions will land near the lunar south pole; NASA is planning for conflict situations that may arise due to astronauts and equipment operating in close proximity.
🌍 Humans of Earth
Key metrics to help you keep track of Project Human.
🙋 Global population: 7,985,768,581
🌊 Earths currently needed: 1.7919034127
💉 Global population vaccinated: 62.7%
🗓️ 2022 progress bar: 84% complete
📖 On this day: On 4 November 1922 the British archaeologist Howard Carter finds the entrance to Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of Kings.
Thanks for reading this week.
The generative AI revolution means the marriage of human creativity and the alien force that is machine intelligence. It’s a powerful example of the phenomenon our community unites around: new world, same humans.
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I’ll be back next week. Until then, be well,
P.S Huge thanks to Nikki Ritmeijer for the illustration at the top of this email. And to Monique van Dusseldorp for additional research and analysis.