New Week #86
The robots are coming — and Elon Musk wants to ride them. New research reveals the truth about bitcoin and decentralization. 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, a cluster of happenings combine to tell a single story: the robot revolution is coming.
Also, the UK embarks on the world’s largest ever trial of the four day work week. And new research excavates the mythology that underpins bitcoin.
Let’s get into it.
🤖 Robots assemble
This week, a glimpse of the coming transformation set to be enacted by robots.
This intriguing snippet set Twitter alight:
Musk first showcased plans for Optimus, an AI-fuelled humanoid robot, at Tesla’s AI Day last year. He says the device is ‘the most important product development Tesla is doing’, and that it can help solve the US labour shortage.
How seriously should we take this tweet? Well, the centrepiece of Musk’s Optimus announcement in 2021 was a literal man dressed in a white spandex suit and doing a robot dance. And conveniently enough, this week’s update helped obscure news that Tesla is set to lay off 10% of staff.
Meanwhile, Miso Robotics — makers of the wildly successful Flippy 2 fast food kitchen robot — announced a partnership with Amazon Web Services. Miso will use AWS to run Flippy 2 simulations in the cloud, enabling them to rapidly test novel configurations and roll out new products. I wrote about Flippy and the coming Great Automation back in New Week #68.
All this comes just two weeks after technology giant Dyson revealed it has secretly been developing a range of household and industrial robots. Founder James Dyson says the company is placing a ‘big bet’ on robots that can perform ordinary household chores, such as loading a dishwasher, by 2030.
⚡ NWSH Take: The Optimus tweet is a classic Musk smokescreen; so why am I sharing it? Musk has an unerring instinct for stories that tap into the culture’s dreams, and fears, about the future. The fact that he’s now zeroing in on robots is telling. Optimus won’t arrive any time soon (happy to be proven wrong). But a robot-fuelled Great Automation is about to transform the economy. One example? The Flippy 2 makes for staffless fast food kitchens; those kitchens currently employ 5 million people in the US alone. See also this fascinating look at automation in South Korea. // Meanwhile, we stand on the verge of an even more impactful transformation. A robot that makes you dinner, does your laundry, and finds your lost EarPods: it will be a shift in our relationship with the physical world as significant as that produced by the car. Now, big Tech is spending billions to make that vision a reality. // Dyson’s household robots recalls Google’s Everyday Robots project; I wrote about that in Our Coming Robot Utopia. Soon, we’ll be asked to let these robots into our homes. Before we do, we should ask not only about the ways they’ll liberate us, but also about the ways they’ll keep us prisoner.
🔮 Dark scenario
Iconic sci-fi writer William Gibson this week shared an article from an old copy of Wired magazine (click on the tweet to see it in full).
The clipping is taken from the July 1997 issue, and outlines ten dark scenarios for the coming 25 years.
They include the possibility that ‘Russia develops into a kleptocracy run by a mafia’, the risk of a ‘major ecological crises that disrupt the food supply chain’ and the spectre of ‘a modern-day influenza epidemic that kills over 200 million’.
If you’re thinking scarily prescient, then you’re in alignment with Gibson.
Sure, many predictions will come true if allowed enough time. But given the spooky accuracy of this list, there’s more than that going on here. It’s a reminder of the value of scenarios thinking — a reminder that it is possible to explore meaningful potential futures. Every one of these ten possibilities has come to pass in some form. If we’d paid more attention back in 1997, could we have averted some of them?
A more pressing question: what ten dark future scenarios should feature on such a list in 2022?
🙋 The leisure society
This week, an array of UK businesses embarked upon the world’s largest ever trial of the four day work week.
The trial is being run by the campaign group 4 Day Week Global and UK think tank Autonomy, in association with researchers at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. It will see 3,300 workers at over 70 companies — including video game studio Hutch and communications firm Yo Telecom — switch to a four day week while retaining 100% of their pay and attempting to maintain or improve on their current productivity.
Researchers will measure productivity changes, as well as the impact of the shift on worker sleep patterns, stress levels, and travel. In a statement, 4 Day Week Global CEO Joe O’Connor outlined his belief that the future for business must be worker wellness:
More and more companies are recognizing that the new frontier for competition is quality of life, and that reduced-hour, output-focused working is the vehicle to give them a competitive edge.
⚡ NWSH Take: Momentum around the four day work week is building fast; the results of this trial will be crucial if that is to be maintained. Going by previous experiments, we can expect positive findings. When Iceland ran a trial with 2,500 public sector workers starting in 2015, they found productivity was maintained or increased; Microsoft saw similar results in Japan in 2019. // If this trial proves a success, what next? In 2022 it remains the case that the mainstream left lacks any truly new, compelling vision of a brighter shared future. As public awareness of the four day work week grows, can it form the foundation of such a vision? Bundle a shorter work week together with a focused push towards automation (see the robots story above) and a universal guaranteed income paid for by the proceeds of automated productivity, and you have the makings of a new, 21st-century progressive project.
🌐 A brief history of crypto
A new paper this week dives into the early days of bitcoin, and the nascent techno-ideology that is decentralization.
Alyssa Blackburn, a data scientist at Rice University, has spent years painstakingly analysing leaks from the bitcoin blockchain. Now, she has pieced together a picture of the cryptocurrency’s early years.
It reveals that just 64 key community founders — the Bitcoin 64 — mined most of the coin that existed during the currency’s first two years. At any given moment during those years, just five or six miners were responsible for almost all output.
What’s more, says Blackburn, given this concentration of activity many members of the Bitcoin 64 could have enacted a ‘51% attack’ that would have enabled them to take control of the entire network. They simply chose not to exploit this vulnerability.
What does all this mean?
⚡ NWSH Take: This research paper is dense and technical. But it throws new light on bitcoin’s claim to be a truly decentralized currency. At the heart of its argument is the idea that this claim is founded in ideological attachment, rather than any technological or social reality. The Bitcoin 64 amounted to a highly centralized network, who carefully tended to their fragile creation while cultivating around it a mythology of radical decentralization. // Proponents of crypto point out that we’re talking, here, about bitcoin as it was more than a decade ago, and not today. True enough. But this revisionist history of the currency lends credence to the idea that web3 technologies rely, in the end, on centres of power; and that they tend to create new elites (same as the old elite?) rather than abolish elites altogether. // The nascent techno-religion that is dencetralization will only become more influential in the coming years. In helping reveal its roots, Blackburn has done a valuable service.
🗓️ Also this week
🌊 Japan successfully tested a giant deep-ocean turbine that could provide an endless supply of clean energy. The 330-ton turbine, created by IHI Corp, converts deep ocean currents into electricity, and has been tested in the waters surrounding the Tokara Islands in southwestern Japan.
🚢 An autonomous merchant ship sailed from Mexico, through the Panama Canal, and on to port in South Korea. The 20,000 kilometre journey of the PRISM Courage, an ultra-large carrier made by Hyundai, marks the first time a large carrier vessel has made a transoceanic autonomous voyage.
👨💻 Bali is launching a new ‘digital nomad’ visa that will allow non-citizens to live and work in the country tax-free. The visa will last for five years, and is part of a push to attract higher-spending visitors.
❄️ Microplastics were discovered for the first time in freshly fallen Antarctic snow. Researchers from New Zealand's University of Canterbury discovered tiny plastic particles in 19 samples taken from sites along the Ross Ice Shelf. They say the plastics may accelerate melting of snow and ice.
🔬 Saudi Arabia says it will spend $1 billion a year on research for treatments to slow ageing. The money will be channelled to the new Hevolution Foundation, and will make Saudi the largest single sponsor of anti-ageing research.
🐝 A Californian judge has ruled that bees are fish. The judge says bees must legally be considered fish in the state of California; the ruling makes bees eligible for greater legal and environmental protections.
🗽 New York is close to a ban on most bitcoin mining. Lawmakers passed a bill that bans all mining powered by carbon-based energy sources. It is yet to be signed into law by New York Governor Kathy Hochul, who says she’ll ‘look very closely at it’ across the coming months.
🐷 Chinese researchers cloned pigs using AI and robots. A team at the College of Artificial Intelligence at Nankai University say seven healthy cloned piglets were born via an automated method that required no human intervention.
👑 The Queen of the United Kingdom appeared as a hologram during celebrations for her Platinum Jubilee. The holo-Queen waved to crowds from a golden horse-drawn carriage; the hologram was based on archival footage of the Queen waving from the same carriage during her coronation ceremony 70 years ago.
🌍 Humans of Earth
Key metrics to help you keep track of Project Human.
🙋 Global population: 7,952,736,419
🌊 Earths currently needed: 1.8109200633
💉 Global population vaccinated: 59.2%
🗓️ 2022 progress bar: 44% complete
📖 On this day: On 9 June 1928 Charles Kingsford Smith completes the first trans-Pacific flight, travelling from California to Australia in three stages.
Thank for reading this week.
The emergence of home helper robots taps into deep human impulses towards ease, convenience, and mastery over the physical world.
New World Same Humans will keep watching, and working to make sense of 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.