New Week #109
Getty Images goes to war with text-to-image platform Stable Diffusion. A Harvard scientist says he has unravelled the secret of human life extension. 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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After an extended break, it’s the first New Week update of 2023!
This week, media giants are waking up to the IP implications of generative AI. The TL;DR? They’re not happy, and a mighty legal battle is brewing.
Meanwhile, a US startup is planning to become the first private organisation to mine asteroids and bring the minerals back to Earth. And a Harvard longevity doctor says he has uncovered one of the key mechanisms that governs human ageing.
Let’s get into it.
🤖 Politics chat
Generative AI is an earthquake with implications we’ll be forced to contend with in the years ahead. This week saw powerful signals of what is coming.
Getty Images announced that they will sue Stability AI, the company behind text-to-image platform Stable Diffusion. The media giant, which owns more than 135 million copyrighted images, says Stability AI unlawfully scraped their IP in order to help train its model.
The company isn’t seeking financial damages, says CEO Craig Peters. Instead, Peters talks about the establishment of a new business models; by way of comparison he cites the wave of illegal music streaming sites that enjoyed huge popularity in the early 2000s, but that eventually gave way to legal streaming services:
‘I think there are ways of building generative models that respect intellectual property. I equate this to Napster and Spotify. Spotify negotiated with intellectual property rights holders — labels and artists — to create a service…And that’s what we’re looking for, rather than a singular entity benefiting off the backs of others.’
Getty is bringing its action in the UK. A spokesperson for Stability AI said the company will defend itself, and that the suit is based on ‘a misunderstanding of how generative AI technology works and the law surrounding copyright’.
This move comes in the wake of news that three visual artists will sue both Stability AI and Midjourney. Their class action lawsuit claims the platforms ‘violated the rights of millions of artists’ by using their work as training data.
Puerto Rican artist Karla Ortiz is one among the three bringing the case:
Meanwhile, artists are developing tools that enable them to check whether their work was used to train a popular text-to-image model.
⚡ NWSH Take: Generative AI is about to smash into a complex mesh of social systems that are woven though the economy, the world of work, creative practises, and more. And as if to underline that truth, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman was in Washington DC this week to talk to policymakers. // What they made of his message — which reportedly included explanations that OpenAI is working towards AGI — remains unclear. After all, policymakers across the Global North are still struggling to come to terms with web 2.0, almost 20 years after its emergence. Analysts will watch the Getty lawsuit closely for hints on how the IP question is set to play out. But that’s just the start. What about generative AI’s impact on disinformation? Or employee displacement? Or our education systems: news broke this week that ChatGPT passed law exams in four courses at the University of Minnesota. How do we legislate for that? // The fundamental problem: AI and other technologies are evolving at a speed that our societies can’t adapt around. We’ve been talking about an online wild west for years, but the current dispensation will come to seem quaint given what is coming. One potential answer? In time, we may have no choice but to turn to AI to help us devise new laws and norms that enable us to cope with this technological disruption. The rise of AI, then, may necessitate governance by AI. That’s a mind-bending idea that NWSH will come back to soon.
Update: just as I’m hitting send comes news that Google have released an insanely good text-to-music model. See Also this week, below, for further details. But clearly the IP questions currently swirling around generative AI and the visual arts will soon becoming to music, too.
🌌 Space drills
A US startup, AstroForge, this week announced that it will launch two space mining missions in 2023:
AstroForge say they want to become the world’s first commercial company to mine an asteroid and bring the minerals back to Earth.
The first mission of 2023, planned for April, will see AstroForge refining technology tested aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 spacecraft.
And the second, later in the year, will see the startup piggyback on another Falcon 9 — this one headed for the Moon. An AstroForge probe will travel to lunar orbit along with the spacecraft, before heading out into deep space on its own to take hi-res images of the asteroid that AstroForge eventually wants to mine.
⚡ NWSH Take: Space mining has been a mainstay of science-fiction for decades, and was the subject of a wave of hype a few years back. Now, via the maturation of the private space startup ecosystem, it’s coming. // And it’s going to be wild. Want a glimpse of the prizes in play? NASA say that this year they’ll launch a mission to the asteroid 16 Psyche; the 140 mile wide object is believed to contain a core of iron, nickel and gold worth $10,000 quadrillion. That’s around 70,000 times the size of the global economy. // Of course, we’d need to get all that nickel and gold back to Earth to sell it. And that’s where startups such as AstroForge come in. On the other hand, though, do we have to get it back to Earth? I can’t help wondering: if people come to believe that these minerals will one day be recoverable, will that fuel the financialisation of these asteroids? Will people start selling shares in them, or taking huge loans against them? What will that do to the global financial system? NWSH will keep watching.
🧒 Department of youth
Developments this week in our eternal quest for the secrets of immortality.
Scientists at the University of Bristol say they’ve used gene therapy to ‘rewind’ the biological age of the heart in elderly mice.
The research, published in the journal Cardiovascular Health, studied the impacts of a gene mutation often found in centenarians, and believed to help protect against heart disease. Researchers in the UK and Italy found that when the gene was administered to elderly mice, it fuelled processes of repair that resulted in the heart health of a younger mouse — equivalent to a decade younger in human terms.
The paper comes after news last week of a major ageing breakthrough. A 13-year study conducted by Harvard genetics professor David Sinclair seems to confirm Sinclair’s information theory of ageing.
Currently, mainstream scientific opinion is that the accumulation of mutations in DNA is the primary driver of ageing. Sinclair, though, has long believed that the real culprits are errors that appear over time in the information carried in the epigenome. This information is used to instruct cells on which genes to activate and which to keep silent; but over time, says Sinclair, the instructions get jumbled, and the result is the cell dysfunction we call ageing.
Sinclair’s new study suggests he is (at least in part) right. And that’s huge, because it raises the possibility that we can repair the epigenetic instructions — Sinclair likens this to ‘rebooting the epigenome’ — and so literally unspool the ageing process. When Sinclair and his team gave gene therapy to mice that repaired the information in their epigenome, the result was the production of far more youthful cells. Sinclair says:
‘Now, when I see an older person, I don’t look at them as old, I just look at them as someone whose system needs to be rebooted. It’s no longer a question of if rejuvenation is possible, but a question of when.’
⚡ NWSH Take: This week it was impossible to avoid headlines about Bryan Johnson, a 45-year-old Silicon Valley founder and Very Rich Person who spends $2 million a year on a regime — including constant blood tests and thousands of whole-body MRIs — intended to rewind his biological age to 18. Sure, that’s extreme. But Johnson is questing at the outer edges of a pursuit — extended youthfulness — that interests almost all of us. // In 2023, we’re going to hear a lot more about it. Sinclair’s research offers a whole new angle on anti-ageing therapies. Meanwhile, work that targets ageing is becoming increasingly mainstream and well-funded. I’ve written before on Jeff Bezos-funded Altos Labs, which now has a $3 billion war chest. Pharma giant Pfizer this month announced a drug discovery partnership with longevity startup Gero. And scientists at New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine are planning a huge study on the hypothesis that the common (and cheap) diabetes drug metformin can safely extended human lifespan by years. // Exciting advances; huge unanswered questions. Not least: what will extended lifespan to do already strained social and welfare systems in the Global North?
🗓️ Also this week
🚀 NASA says it will partner with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a nuclear thermal rocket engine. The Agency says the engine could one day enable humans to journey deep into space. They are aiming to have a prototype ready no later than 2027.
🤖 An Amazon engineer asked ChatGPT a series of standard interview questions for a coding job at the company, and it got them all right. The machine learning engineer revealed details of the experiment in the company Slack. Meanwhile, Amazon has warned employees not to share commercially sensitive information with the chatbot.
🌳 A new study says human activity may have degraded far more of the Amazon rainforest than previously believed. Scientists at Lancaster University in the UK say logging, land conversion and more has weakened more than 2.5 million square kilometres of the rainforest; that’s around one third of its area, and double the area previously thought to have been affected.
🐟 US scientists used CRISPR to put an alligator gene inside catfish. The gene makes the catfish more resistant to infection, which is a major problem during catfish farming. US farms produce 307 million tonnes of catfish each year.
🛰 SpaceX has agreed to work with the US National Science Foundation to mitigate the impacts of its satellites on our view of the night sky. Astronomers have long complained that SpaceX satellites — the company plans to launch tens of thousands — will impair their work. Regular readers already know that this subject is a longterm NWSH obsession.
😱 The World Economic Forum says a ‘catastrophic cyber event’ is likely some time within the next two years. Speaking at Davos, WEF managing director Jeremy Jurgens said that 93% of cyber leaders surveyed by the organisation believe a cyber catastrophe is coming soon; that’s a far higher proportion, said Jurgens, than seen in previous years.
🤯 And just as I’m hitting send…Google have announced a new text-to-music model that blows away previous attempts at generative music. The model, called MusicLM, can generate long and complex compositions based on only a text description. Go here and listen to, among others: Epic soundtrack using orchestral instruments. The piece builds tension, creates a sense of urgency. An a cappella chorus sing in unison, it creates a sense of power and strength.
🌍 Humans of Earth
Key metrics to help you keep track of Project Human.
🙋 Global population: 8,013,469,158
🌊 Earths currently needed: 1.7971267236
💉 Global population vaccinated: 63.8%
🗓️ 2023 progress bar: 7% complete
📖 On this day: On 27 January 1820 a Russian expedition led by naval officer Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen discovers the Antarctic continent.
Thanks for reading this week.
The generative AI revolution is unfolding at what feels like breakneck speed. Google’s new music model is, at first listen, amazing. I’ll write more on it next week, or maybe sooner in the Slack group.
We’re all going to have to figure out the consequences of these new technologies and how we propose to live with them. It’s another case of new world, same humans.
This newsletter will keep watching. And there’s one thing you can do to help: share!
Now you’ve reached the end of this week’s instalment, why not forward the email to someone who’d also enjoy it? Or share it across one of your social networks, with a note on why you found it valuable. Remember: the larger and more diverse the NWSH community becomes, the better for all of us.
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.