New Week #85
The founder of Ethereum is coming for your soul. Climate change is hitting the Global South harder than we thought. 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, crypto pioneer Vitalik Buterin imagines a world transformed by decentralization.
Also, new research suggests climate change is happening even faster than we thought. And Japanese toymakers Tomy reimagine the bedtime story, with a little help from AI.
Let’s get into it.
😇 Soul chain
This week, Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin laid out a bold new vision for web3. One that, he says, can allow us to enact the dream that is a truly decentralised society.
That vision is put forward in Decentralized Society: Finding Web3’s Soul, a new paper co-authored by Buterin and two colleagues.
The paper begins with a concession. Web3, say the authors, aims at dencentralisation. But because it lacks a mechanism to represent each person’s identity, it has become dependant on Web 2.0 dynamics and centralised platforms including OpenSea and Twitter.
The answer, they say, is the establishment of soulbound tokens (SBTs): publicly visible, non-transferrable cryptotokens stored in wallets called souls. Those souls become a secure, shared personal history for each human:
Imagine a world where most participants have Souls that store SBTs corresponding to a series of affiliations, memberships, and credentials. For example, a person might have a Soul that stores SBTs representing educational credentials, employment history, or hashes of their writings or works of art.
Once social identity can stored on a blockchain in this way, says Buterin, the result will be a radically decentralized society in which ‘souls and communities convene bottom-up, as emergent properties of each other, to produce plural network goods across different scales’.
The paper is long, dense, and worth reading in full. Meanwhile, some valuable context: yesterday Buterin published a broader Twitter thread on the dream that is decentralization, and the schism he seems emerging between the crypto movement and the ‘tech-left’:
⚡ NWSH Take: This paper leaves huge questions, both practical and philosophical, unanswered. Are soulbound tokens essentially a form of social credit rating system? What prevents toxic, crowd-driven behaviour that marginalises those considered undesirable? What happens to those who don’t want to participate? // Nevertheless, Decentralizing Society is a fascinating articulation of a nascent techno-ideology. Speaking to the Financial Times about this paper, co-author Eric Glen Weyl explained his view that radical decentralization can save us from the ‘the Peter Thiel-inspired anarcho-capitalist dystopia or Chinese government-style top-down surveillance system’ that he believes we’re heading for. // It’s hard not to admire Buterin and Weyl’s commitment. And they’re right when they say we urgently need new visions of a better future. But the deeper truth here? Society evades all top-down, theoretical attempts at redesign such as this. When we attempt to put such theoretical constructs into practice, the results tend to be catastrophic. Decentralisation may be the answer. But its proponents should be the first to understand that it must arrive via organic social practice — that means not via billionaires, but from the bottom up.
🌩 Climate justice
A major new study published this week says climate change is happening faster than previously believed.
Published in Nature Climate Change, the paper says winter storms in the Southern Hemisphere are already at levels of intensity not predicted to occur until 2080. Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science arrived at the findings by analysing data generated by the 30 leading computational climate models.
Southern Hemisphere winter storms play a significant role in the transfer of heat between regions of Earth. In particular, they push heat away from the tropics and towards the poles. Intensification at this level, then, raises the spectre of more rapid warming at the Arctic and Antarctic, with all that this entails for sea levels.
Meanwhile, these storms pose a clear threat to homes, infrastructure, and people in the Southern Hemisphere across the coming decades.
⚡ NWSH Take: This paper has received little attention. But the implications of its findings are vast. It presents compelling evidence that climate change is happening faster than we thought, and that the most severe consequences will play out in the Global South. // NASA scientist James Hansen estimates that between 1751 and 2006, the Global North was responsible for 77% of all carbon emissions. Put it all together and you have a recipe for a rising movement: one for climate reparations. At COP26, rich nations reiterated their longstanding — and so far never kept — promise to transfer $100 billion a year to poor nations to help climate adaptation. But they refused demands to establish a separate reparations, or ‘loss and damages’ fund to compensate for irreparable losses. // That caused much anger. Now, a coalition of island nations are about to sue the Global North for the money. In light of this new research, and much else besides, expect the reparations movement to grow. To go deeper on all this, read The Great Migration is Coming.
🤖 A robot at bedtime
This week, a startling look at the future of parenting — at least, according to Japanese toy giant Tomy.
Every parent knows the magic that is reading a bedtime story to their child. But what if you’re too busy? No problem, Tomy’s new Coemo smart speaker will create an AI-fuelled clone of your voice, and then use it to read one of 60 pre-loaded stories to your children.
Parents train the voice clone by reading aloud a 15-minute script via an iOS app. After that, the bedtime magic begins.
⚡ NWSH Take: Wait, why do you look sad? I mean, this is great, isn’t it? A little AI parent that reads a bedtime story to a lonely child. That’s still a bonding experience, right? That’s still parenting, right? Right? // Obviously, no. // Relatedly, entertainment media reported this week that actor Val Kilmer’s voice was cloned via AI for the just-released Top Gun: Maverick. Kilmer’s voice was irreparably damaged by an operation for throat cancer in 2014. // We’re back on familiar NWSH terrain: AI emulations of the human, and the ways AI clones will allow artists to pursue a strange new kind of creativity at scale, during illness, or even after death. I’ve made the point before: these kinds of AI clones will start with artists and celebrities, but eventually everyone will be encouraged to want one (and many will do just that). This new device feels a push in that direction. To be fair, I’m sure no one at Tomy is suggesting it’s a replacement for a proper bedtime story. But the question that comes after that: so what, exactly, is it?
🗓️ Also this week
🙌 Before we dive in to this week’s snippets, a shout out to The Tonic: a free weekly newsletter that improves the lives of its readers through thoughtful lessons, challenges, and journaling prompts. Stay informed, entertained, and inspired — sign up for free today!
👨💻 Elon Musk says Tesla staff are free to work remotely as long as they first put in 40 hours each week at the office. In an all-hands email Musk said workers who failed to turn up would be assumed to have resigned. On Twitter, he said Tesla workers who don’t like the policy should ‘pretend to work somewhere else’.
📦 Walmart are launching drone delivery to six states across the US, including Florida and Texas. Last week, in a story on the potential for drones to transform sub-Saharan Africa, I called metropolitan drone delivery in the Global North a ‘non-starter’. Was I wrong? Let’s see how long this Walmart initiative lasts.
👀 Schematics for Meta’s new Cambria VR headset have been leaked. The headset will feature a higher-resolution colour camera for its mixed reality pass through effect, and eye tracking. It’s set to be released later this year.
🛰 Chinese military scientists want to develop ways to destroy Starlink satellites. In a new paper they raise the possibility that Elon Musk’s satellites may be used for military purposes, and argue that China must be able to neutralise that threat. There was no indication that they’ve read my essay on the risk Starlink poses to our view of the night sky.
🤔 The AI Minister of the UAE says ‘murder inside the metaverse’ should be treated as a real crime. Omar Sultan Al Olama was speaking at the WEF in Davos, which was no doubt host to much specious metaverse talk.
🧮 A new supercomputer became the first to break the exascale barrier. In a benchmark test, the Frontier supercomputer at the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory hit 1.1 exaflops, or more than one quintillion calculations per second.
🦾 New figures show that US industrial orders for robots increased by 40% in the first three months of 2022. The surge is being fuelled by an ongoing labour shortage; US job openings reaching a record high of 11.5 million in March.
👴 New research suggests that changes in the composition of blood drive the ageing process. Researchers at Cambridge University discovered that as humans age we endure a ‘catastrophic’ degradation in the quality of our blood, caused by changes in stem cell activity. The finding raises the possibility of new therapeutics to slow ageing.
🌍 Humans of Earth
Key metrics to help you keep track of Project Human.
🙋 Global population: 7,951,248,601
🌊 Earths currently needed: 1.8104627193
💉 Global population vaccinated: 60.1%
🗓️ 2022 progress bar: 42% complete
📖 On this day: On 3 June 1965 NASA launch Gemini 4, the first multi-day space mission by a NASA crew.
Thanks for reading this week.
Vitalik Buterin’s vision of a radically decentralized society underpinned by soulbound tokens is riveting. Not because it’s likely to come to pass; it’s not. But for what it reveals about we inhabitants of 2022 — our hopes, fears, and aspirations for the future.
New World Same Humans will keep watching the nascent techno-ideology that is decentralization. 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.