New Week #84
Virtual humans are having the time of their lives thanks to Abba. Can drones transform sub-Saharan Africa? 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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In this week’s bumper edition, London gets ready for Abba’s revolutionary virtual concert.
Also, a US startup wants to build a network of 12,000 drones across sub-Saharan Africa. And California lawmakers say parents of children who are addicted to social media should have the right to sue.
Let’s get into it.
🕺 Knowing me, knowing you
This week here in London, the city is preparing for the arrival of Abba’s live virtual concert, Voyage.
Taking place in a custom-built arena in a London park, the show will feature life-sized digital avatars (ABBAtars!). The organisers are keen to stress that these avatars are not based on the hologram technology famously used to reincarnate Tupac at Coachella in 2012 and, more recently, Whitney Houston. The exact nature of the ABBAtars remains a secret, but we’re clearly in the territory of the virtual human.
That territory brought further news this week.
Marvel announced a 20 year deal that will allow it to feature a CGI Stan Lee in future films and TV shows. Lee died in 2018; his habitual cameo appearances in Marvel films were much loved by fans.
Meanwhile, Dutch police used deepfake technology to reanimate a young murder victim. A new video sees a deepfake version of Sedar Soares — who was shot dead aged 13 in Rotterdam in 2003 — ask viewers for help to find his killers.
⚡ NWSH Take: Three fragments, one emerging and powerful trend. Virtual humans will reshape our culture across the coming decade. // Regular readers will know that the Abba concert taps into a longstanding NWSH obsession. I’ve written before on how the convergence of AI and virtual humans will make for a new kind of creative afterlife; expect much-loved and now departed singers to sing new songs, dead actors to appear in new films, and more. Abba, being very much alive, have moved the conversation one step further; can living artists deploy virtual humans to make live appearances in their stead? No doubt the Rolling Stones are watching closely. // Meanwhile, Rotterdam authorities are leveraging deepfakes to reimagine the traditional police appeal for information. If this move proves useful, expect deepfake police reconstructions to become commonplace. // Where is all this heading? For now, virtual human avatars are largely the preserve of famous musicians and Hollywood stars. Eventually, as with so much else, everyone will want one. For more on all that, read Kim Kardashian, Virtual Humans, and How Niche Becomes Mainstream.
🗺 Drone continent
A German startup, Wingcopter, this week announced plans to launch a massive drone network in sub-Saharan Africa.
Wingcopter will partner with Continental Drones to put 12,000 delivery drones in 49 countries on the continent across the next five years. The plans, say the startup, amount to the largest ever commercial drone deployment, and will ‘transform African supply chains and logistics from the ground up’.
Wingcopter was founded in 2017, and last year announced a $22 million Series A investment led by Silicon Valley VC firms.
The startup isn’t the only company with their eyes on this space. Self-styled ‘instant logistics provider’ Zipline last year raised $250 million to accelerate their deployment of drone networks across Africa.
⚡ NWSH Take: It’s not so long ago that Amazon and others were promising to bring drones to city skies across the Global North. That proved a non-starter: too much regulation, too many other delivery options. Increasingly, though, it’s becoming clear that drones can prove transformational for underserved, low-infrastructure rural areas in Africa. Back in 2015 the futurist Jonathan Ledgard, widely credited with inventing the idea of blood delivery by drone, worked with architect Norman Foster on plans to cover Rwanda with a network of drones and droneports; This Wingcopter news can be seen as the next step in a journey they helped to start. // What’s fuelling this advance now? Partly, it’s about advancing drone tech; the Wingcopter 198 can carry packages weighing up to 13 pounds for 47 miles on a single battery charge. Covid also helped prove the usefulness of this new delivery mode; last year Zipline partnered with both Pfizer and BioNTech to delivery Covid vaccines in Ghana. // All this is encouraging, but the next step? True community ownership and control of these networks. Drones for the people.
🎨 Imagine that
Google announced a new AI text-to-image generator, Imagen, this week.
The research team behind the AI say it delivers ‘an unprecedented degree of photorealism and a deep level of language understanding’, and outperforms other AIs in the space, including OpenAI’s DALL-E 2.
Admittedly, that’s according to a benchmarking process that they devised themselves.
Still, there’s no denying the outputs are impressive:
Just last week I wrote about the pace of AI advance right now, and how it’s exceeding our ability to process the implications. Count this as yet another signal of that unfolding story.
⚖️ So sue me
This week, one glimpse of a possible future accommodation with Big Tech.
California lawmakers are working on a bill that will allow parents to sue social media companies if their children become addicted. The bill this week passed the state Assembly; it must also pass a vote in the Senate before it becomes law.
The bill refers to users under 18 who are being ‘physically, mentally, or emotionally’ harmed by their social media use, and want to stop but find they can’t. It will apply to platforms with an annual revenue over $100 million, and will allow parents to sue for up to $25,000.
There is a get-out clause for the platforms, though. Under the bill’s proposals, those that remove features deemed addictive to young people will not be held liable for damages.
⚡ NWSH Take: This bill is a long way from becoming law; it will be the subject of weeks of debate in the California senate before being put to a decisive vote. If it does become law, though, we face the spectre of Instagram et al withdrawing support for under 18s in California and deploying stringent age-checks on users in the state. Good luck telling Californian teens they can no longer use TikTok. // Is this a legislative model others should emulate? I’m all for a new accommodation with Big Tech, but I can’t help but feel this one gets the balance of responsibility wrong. If a child becomes addicted to social media, how much responsibility should the parents take? Indeed, given how much damage ill brought up children wreak on our societies once they are grown up, a mischievous critic of this bill might wonder whether its logic dictates that we should be able to sue the parents of such children. // We do need to regulate big social media, which is causing active harms to children. And my guess is that this bill won’t pass in anything like its current form. But the underlying lesson from this move? Any such move to deal with the big platforms must be grounded in a realistic assessment of the balance of responsibilities and harms. Big Tech must be held responsible for what it does, but it can’t be held solely responsible for everything that happens to us.
🗓️ Also this week
🌳 WeWork founder Adam Neumann is back, and this time he’s selling tokenized carbon credits on a blockchain. Neumann’s startup, Flowcarbon, just raised $70 million in an investment round led by Andreessen Horowitz. In 2019 and following a failed attempt at IPO and collapse in the company’s value, Neumann was paid $1.7 billion by investors SoftBank to step down as WeWork CEO.
🍅 UK scientists created CRISPR-edited tomatoes that contain more vitamin D. Researchers at the John Innes Centre in Norwich say the tomatoes could help address dietary deficiencies in the vitamin, currently experienced by around 1 billion people worldwide. The UK are set to change the law to allow ‘precision bred’ foods to be sold in supermarkets.
☎️ The last public pay phone booth was removed from Manhattan. The booth, which stood in the iconic Times Square, will go on display at Museum of the City of New York. But there’s some dispute over whether it was really the last.
🏡 Airbnb says it is pulling out of China. A company spokesman said operations in the country had become too difficult in light of the ‘zero Covid’ policy and ongoing lockdowns. Shanghai, a city of 25 million, has been under lockdown for almost two months.
👀 UK lawmakers fined controversial facial recognition startup Clearview AI. Clearview must pay £7.5 million for illegally storing images, and delete all data associated with residents of the UK.
🤖 New York state says it will give robots to hundreds of elderly citizens to help keep them company. The New York State Office for the Aging is giving EllieQ robots to 800 older people; the AI-fuelled robots engage their users in conversation, and provide reminders about medication and physical activity. Last year I wrote about Our Coming Robot Utopia.
☀️ NASA is investing in solar sail technology that it says could put satellites in orbit around the Sun’s poles. The technique, called diffractive lightsailing, uses the pressure exerted by sunlight as a means of propulsion.
🌐 Niantic announced a new 3D map of the physical world that can underpin shared AR experiences. The Lightship Visual Positioning will allow devices to establish their location with ‘centimetre precision’. Essentially, it’s a step closer to a truly shared, immersive AR metaverse.
🌔 A US startup wants to backup all of humanity’s knowledge on the Moon. Lonestar Data Holdings wants to put data servers on the Moon that will allow data traffic to and from Earth at 15 Gigabits per second. ‘It's inconceivable to me that we are keeping our most precious assets, our knowledge and our data, on Earth, where we're setting off bombs and burning things,’ says founder Christopher Stott.
🌍 Humans of Earth
Key metrics to help you keep track of Project Human.
🙋 Global population: 7,949,446,065
🌊 Earths currently needed: 1.8099086412
💉 Global population vaccinated: 59.9%
🗓️ 2022 progress bar: 40% complete
📖 On this day: On 25 May 1977 Star Wars is released in cinemas across the United States.
All Too Human
Thanks for reading this week.
The emergence of virtual humans is a testimony to our endless quest to fashion automatons in our own likeness. In other words, it’s yet another case of new world, same humans.
Across the coming decade, the cultural, creative, and interpersonal implications will intensify. This newsletter will keep watching. And there’s one thing you can do to help: share!
If this week’s instalment resonated with you, 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. All you have to do is hit the button below. 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.