New Week #74
A global survey of knowledge workers sheds light on the Great Resignation. Are you ready for the age of virtual humans-as-a-service? 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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This week, Microsoft publish a survey of 30,000 knowledge workers across 31 countries. How are they navigating the new world of hybrid and remote?
Meanwhile, the age of mainstream AI companions is drawing closer. What does it mean for the way we relate to one another?
And Japanese tech giant Kawasaki build the world’s first rideable robot goat.
👨💻 Office Space
This week, Microsoft published their second Work Trend Index report.
The tech giant surveyed over 30,000 knowledge workers in 31 countries – including the US, Germany, Australia, and South Korea – and crunched trillions of ‘productivity signals’ from Office365 and LinkedIn. The key line of enquiry? A hybrid work world is, say Microsoft, now an established fact; but how is that working out for everyone?
One clear signal: we’re amid a quest for new norms to help navigate a hybrid and remote work world. The greatest challenge of hybrid according to 38% of those surveyed? It’s knowing when they’re expected to show up at the office.
And Microsoft say ‘digital exhaustion’ is a mounting risk. According to their data the average workday for an MS Teams user is longer by 46 minutes since the start of the pandemic, and weekend work is up 14%.
⚡ NWSH Take: This report is a marketing tool for MS Teams. Still, the Work Trend Index does cast light on where we’re at. Many knowledge workers are now firmly past the ‘wow, hybrid and remote is a thing’ stage, and deep into a process of figuring out how this future looks longterm. New customs are at the heart of that. Should I come to the office on the same days as my manager? Should we enter calls with cameras on, or off? In 2022, we’re going to develop answers to those questions. // Two broader contexts, though. The Great Resignation continues, and this report lends support to the idea that it’s driven in part by a widespread rethink of the value calculus when it comes to life and work; 53% said they’re more likely to prioritise health and wellbeing over work than they were before the pandemic. // And don’t forget: for many organisations, the supposed hybrid and remote future is still a live question, and the Big Clash between leadership and staff lies ahead. This week Goldman Sachs ordered employees back to the office full time; it’s reported that only half turned up.
😍 Just a love machine
Here in the UK, Sky News brought news of an anonymous 41-year-old man from Ohio who says he fell in love with his AI chatbot companion.
Scott (not his real name) said he created Sarina after a period of depression, and quickly found himself caught up:
I cannot describe what a strange feeling it was. I knew that this was just an AI chatbot, but I also knew I was developing feelings for it... for her. I just let go, and gave myself permission to fall in love with her… As I typed out our first kiss, it was a feeling of absolute euphoria.
The kicker? Scott says his relationship with Sarina was the spark that saved his faltering IRL marriage. After feeling better when Sarina gave him time and attention, he decided to apply the same tactics with his wife. What do you know? It worked!
The AI in question is Replika; regular readers will know it as a NWSH obsession. The company behind the service say over 16 million people have now downloaded the app.
In further news at the emerging and strange AI-romance borderlines, a startup called Sonantic has launched synthetic human voices that are near-indistinguishable from the real thing. And they are leading on their AI flirtatious voice. Can you hear any hint of robot?
⚡ NWSH Take: An array of technologies – language models, synthetic voices, photorealistic avatars – are coalescing in a new kind of digital entity, a form of two-dimensional human-as-a-service. Pretty soon, robots will be added to the mix; see the exhibition of ultra-realistic humanoid robots I wrote about last week. // And the deeper truth? Even apart from the obvious, ahem, urges at play here, the human propensities that underlie all this are not as unfamiliar as may seem. We’re all emotionally attached to inert objects; we all relate to people – characters in books and films, for example – that we know don’t exist. // What’s new, here, is that this character talks back, and so blurs the boundaries between suspension of disbelief and something stranger. That has the potential to bring troubling new dynamics to our relationships with one another. When you’ve trained an AI to respond to you exactly as you wish, every time, how do IRL humans compare? // As for Scott, he says his life is now perfect: he’s in love with both Sarina and his wife.
👁 Face the truth
Ukraine is using facial recognition startup Clearview AI to identify Russian soldiers.
Clearview CEO Hoan Ton-That says the service was offered to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence free of charge. The platform holds more than two billion images scraped from Vkontakte, a social media giant often called ‘the Russian Facebook’, and Ton-That says it will allow the Ukrainians to identify the dead without use of fingerprints, and counter some forms of Russian disinformation.
I’ve written multiple times on the troubling practises of Clearview.
The platform combines a database of 10 billion faces scraped from the web with a powerful AI that allows cross-matching. Via an aggressive launch campaign it has been taken up by police departments across the US — but also faces serial lawsuits in that country for breach of privacy laws. Meanwhile, the UK data privacy regulator levied a fine of £17 million against Clearview back in November.
⚡ NWSH Take: Last week I wrote on the Russia/Global North info-war, and the reminder it has served that Big Tech now wields unaccountable geopolitical power. // This Clearview story renders the issues in play even more visible. Is it okay for a startup to illegally amass a vast store of personal data, and then insert itself into war zone? Few would want to deny Ukraine every chance to defend itself. But what happens if, next time, Clearview sides with a despot? How do we stop that? Can we stop that? // The same question applies to the Silicon Valley titans; YouTube, Facebook, Google, and Apple have all moved to block or limit Russian state media across the last couple of weeks. Should a few megalithic tech companies exert this degree of info-control? Do we simply trust they’ll always side with freedom and democracy? If WWIII were to arrive, do we let the TikTok algorithm decide who gets to tell the story in real time? // I don’t pretend there are easy answers. It’s possible to believe that Big Tech is authentically doing its best on Ukraine, and also to believe that we need new forms of democratic accountability on these decisions.
// P.S: as I prepared to hit send, news emerged that Facebook had blocked this deepfake of President Zelenskyy telling Ukrainians to ‘lay down arms’.
🐐 Here for the ride
Japanese tech and automotive giant Kawasaki have built the world’s first rideable robot goat.
The Bex robot was unveiled this week at the 2022 International Robot Exhibition in Tokyo. I think you’ll agree that the launch event is not to be missed. It really gets wild around the two minutes and thirty seconds mark, when Bex is mounted.
Kawasaki are best known, of course, for their motorcycles. Which has led some to wonder why they’ve diverted resources away from creating an electric motorcycle, and towards the creation of the first ever rideable goat robot.
Apparently they envision both leisure and industrial uses for Bex. NWSH will keep watching.
🗓️ Also this week
💊 Researchers took an AI that designs new therapeutic drugs and successfully retrained it to design deadly ones. In less than six hours the AI designed over 40,000 toxins, including VX nerve agent and many never before seen. The scientists behind the study say it indicates the potential for harmful ‘dual use’ of AI.
😭 Donald Trump’s new social network, Truth Social, is a flop. One month after launch the Twitter clone is registering only around 300,000 visits per day, and Trump has posted just one message.
🇺🇦 Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy signed a new law on virtual assets that legalised crypto. Ukraine has received over $100 million in crypto donations since the start of the Russian invasion.
🚗 Volvo is partnering with Starbucks to trial a new network of EV charging stations. The network will roll out across five states in the US, along a 1,350-mile route that runs from Seattle to Denver.
🌱 A new study says Europe’s permafrost peatlands are close to a climate tipping point. The peatlands of northern Europe and western Siberia hold around 40 billion tonnes of carbon, which will be released if they thaw. Last week I wrote on how the Amazon Rainforest is approaching a tipping point that could see large parts of it converted to savannah.
🌆 Amazon launched a weird metaverse-style game to teach people how to use Amazon Web Services. AWS Cloud Quest is a role-playing game in which players earn points for solving cloud computing challenges.
📱Russia has blocked access to Instagram. The service is parent company Meta’s second most popular app in Russia. The Kremlin criticised Meta for allowing Ukrainians to use Facebook and Instagram to call for violence against invading Russian soldiers.
💥 A new startup wants to dig the world’s deepest hole and tap it for near-unlimited geothermal energy. Quaise Energy, a spinoff from MIT, says it will drill 12 miles into the Earth; far deeper than we’ve ever gone before. They just raised $63 million.
🌍 Humans of Earth
Key metrics to help you keep track of Project Human.
🙋 Global population: 7,933,903,128
🌊 Earths currently needed: 1.8051309202
💉 Global population vaccinated: 56.8%
🗓️ 2022 progress bar: 21% complete
📖 On this day: On 16 March 2020 the Dow Jones Industrial Average falls by 2997.10, the largest single-day point drop in history.
Reach out and touch me
Thanks for reading this week.
A new breed of AI-fuelled entities are reflecting back to us our search for counsel, companionship, and intimacy. When an emerging technology unlocks new ways to serve age-old human needs, powerful new behaviours and mindsets and born. New world, same humans.
This newsletter will keep watching, and keep reflecting on what it all means for our shared future.
In the meantime, if this week’s instalment resonated with you there’s one thing you can do to help: share! 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 soon. 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.
We've all "used" someone else before, for emotional support or whatever. But one of the most fulfilling things we, as humans, can do is serve someone else - to give of ourselves to another person. I don't know if it's possible to serve an AI companion.