New Week #82
New research says the average global temperature is about to spike above our 1.5C warming threshold. The price of CryptoPunks is plummeting. 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, new climate research offers some hard truths when it comes to the quest to limit warming to 1.5C.
Meanwhile, CryptoPunks are being sold at a massive loss. Were NFTs nothing more than a pandemic-induced communal breakdown?
And a US lawsuit catches up with controversial facial recognition startup Clearview AI.
Let’s get into it.
💥 Carbon bombs
This week, a new study by researchers at the UK Meteorological Office.
To clarify, this refers to a temporary break past 1.5C, while the internationally agreed 1.5C target refers to a sustained passing of that threshold. Still, it’s yet another indicator of just how fast we’re moving in the wrong direction.
The average global temperature spiked above 1C over pre-industrial levels for the first time just seven years ago. Now, an imminent spike past 1.5C is already as likely as not.
Meanwhile, there is a 93% chance that at least one year in the next five will be hotter than 2016, the hottest year on record.
⚡ NWSH Take: Okay, there’s a 50% chance that we temporarily move over 1.5C. But the target is still alive, right? I’m not so sure. See this Met Office update in the context of an explosive investigation just published by the Guardian; the piece takes a magnifying glass to the short-term plans of the energy industry, including 195 ‘carbon bomb’ oil and gas projects that taken together will produce 646 gigatonnes of CO2. Most assessments conclude we must keep total future emissions under 500 gigatonnes if we’re to have a chance of staying under 1.5C. // In other words, despite their fine words the energy giants and our national governments continue to chart a course towards a ruined Earth. Who can seriously believe that 1.5C remains alive? I’ve argued before that in such circumstances, organised resistance is justified. That argument is already raging: here in the UK the government is moving to ban the protest tactics most associated with Extinction Rebellion, such as blocking major roads. But as the reality on climate sinks in, expect the resistance to go mainstream. And expect the debate on climate to shift away from prevention and towards adaptation to a permanently heated planet.
🌊 The coming storm
I’ve never before led an instalment of New Week with two climate stories.
But given everything above, I couldn’t resist sharing this tweet. It’s hard to imagine a more powerful visual metaphor for where we’re at.
Rising sea levels and increased storm frequency are causing coastal erosion across the northeastern United States. And in Rodanthe, North Carolina, where this house and others fell into the sea this week, high tides have been raised due to strong wind.
Coming soon to your timeline: much more of this.
🤑 After the bubble
Does the tale of CryptoPunk #273 offer a glimpse of the near-term future for web3?
Back in October, the Punk sold for $1.03 million. This week, it changed hands at a massive loss to the owner:
This comes weeks after a failed attempt to sell an NFT of the first ever tweet, by former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
Crypto entrepreneur Sina Estavi paid $2.9 million for the NFT last year. In April he listed it on trading platform OpenSea with an asking price of $48 million; at the time of writing the highest bid is 10.3 ETH, valued at $21,314.
⚡ NWSH Take: Some observers have already reached their conclusion: NFTs were a bubble, and now that bubble has burst. The reality is more complex. Sure, lockdown boredom and vast crypto fortunes fuelled a tulpenmanie, and a correction is now upon us. But the underlying principle here — that is, a technology that allows for uniquely identifiable ownership of a digital asset — has power that reaches far beyond these headline examples. // This isn’t about CryptoPunks, or vanity-ownership of a famous tweet. It’s about the emergence of the online space, and soon the metaverse, as a new domain of meaningful human experience. That’s a story we’re immersed in; it’s easy to forget that we’re still only at the beginning of it. In these virtual domains people will want to transact, and to own, for the reasons they always have: to gain utility, to signal status, to get entry to certain communities, and more. NFTs make that possible. In other word, NFTs unlock new ways to serve age-old, fundamental human needs: that’s their real power. // You’re about to hear a constant stream of bad NFT news. But don’t count them out just yet. Almost certainly, the incarnations of this technology that will come to dominate are yet to be invented.
👁 All eyes on you
The facial recognition startup Clearview AI has been banned from selling its services to private companies in the US.
The ban comes as part of a settlement in a lawsuit brought in 2020 by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Under the terms of the agreement, Clearview can still work with federal agencies and local police.
I’ve written extensively about Clearview AI in this newsletter. The platform combines a database of 10 billion faces scraped (some say stolen) from the web with a powerful AI that allows cross-matching of images. It’s currently being used by thousands of US police departments. Back in New Week #74 we saw how the Ukrainian army is using the platform to identify Russian soldiers.
⚡ NWSH Take: We’re still at the beginning of the facial recognition revolution. One signal? This week, Getty Images announced an ‘enhanced model release form’ that asks models to sign away rights to facial and other biometric data. Essentially, every picture of a human face on the internet is now fuel for machine intelligence and its work in two key domains. The first is surveillance. The second is the creation of virtual faces that look utterly convincing, but have never belonged to a real person. // How do we manage these transformations? China has already decided; it’s putting facial recognition at the heart of its social credit rating system and the unprecedented technostate that is emerging around it. As for the Global North? The ACLU lawsuit was brought in Illinois, which back in 2008 passed a trailblazing biometric privacy act that regulates the capture and storage of biometric identifiers. Lawmakers at the US federal level, and in the EU, would do well to take a closer look.
🗓️ Also this week
📱 The CCP says it will ban children from tipping livestreamers and watching them after 10pm. Livestreaming platforms, including the massive Taobao Live, will be responsible for enforcing the new rules. Taobao Live generated over $60 billion in sales in 2020. Back in New Week #43 I wrote on how Chinese video game makers are using facial verification systems to prevent children gaming late into the night.
🏭 Amazon has fired six managers who were involved in a New York warehouse union. Last month, Amazon workers at the Staten Island warehouse voted to form a union; the first successful unionisation in the company’s history.
🎾 Tennis legend John McEnroe is to play a match against a virtual version of himself. The virtual McEnroe will take the form of an AI-fuelled avatar and a ball machine trained to emulate McEnroe’s style of play. McEnroe vs McEnroe will air on ESPN+
🌊 China says it will automate the construction of a massive hydropower dam using AI, robots, and 3D printing. Almost no human workers will be needed, according to the engineers behind the project. Once complete, the Yangqu dam on the Tibetan plateau will stand over 180 metres tall.
🎧 Twenty years after its release, Apple is discontinuing the iPod. Steve Jobs launched the first incarnation of the device in October 2001, telling the assembled crowd that it could ‘put one thousand songs in your pocket’.
💸 New research suggests that hedge funds managed by AI outperform those managed by people. The researchers looked at data from 826 funds from between 2006 and 2021, and found that those with the highest level of automated management generated the best returns.
👨💻 A top Apple executive has quit because he doesn’t want to return to the office. In a goodbye note to colleagues, Director of Machine Learning Ian Goodfellow cited the company’s push to get staff back at HQ. Apple wants staff to work in the office on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays.
🍄 Europe’s first commercial firm for psychedelic drug trials will open in London. Clerkenwell Health wants to run trials of psilocybin to treat the anxiety and distress associated with diagnosis of a terminal illness. Psilocybin was found to help alleviate depression in a large clinical trial, published last year.
🌍 Humans of Earth
Key metrics to help you keep track of Project Human.
🙋 Global population: 7,946,354,601
🌊 Earths currently needed: 1.8089583637
💉 Global population vaccinated: 59.5%
🗓️ 2022 progress bar: 36% complete
📖 On this day: On 12 May 1941 the German engineer Konrad Zuse presents the Z3, the world’s first programmable, fully automatic digital computer.
That Popping Sound
Thanks for reading this week.
Don’t let the bubble associated with CryptoPunks obscure a deeper truth: lasting trends emerge when a novel technology unlocks new ways to serve age-old, fundamental human needs.
By allowing for a new form of ownership, NFTs do just that. It’s yet another case of new world, same humans.
This newsletter will keep watching, and thinking about what it all means for our shared future. And there’s one thing you can do to help: share!
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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.