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New Week #88
Amazon says its new robot won't take jobs from humans. DeepMind's AI decodes the mystery of human genetic inheritance. 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’s instalment comes a little late; I was away speaking at the brilliant Tweakers Developers Summit in Utrecht. But there’s lots to discuss.
This week, Amazon showcased the robots they hope will solve their biggest problem: a shortage of workers.
Also, a new floating city is taking shape in a nation threatened by rising sea levels. And DeepMind’s AlphaFold AI fuels another major advance in our understanding of genetics.
Let’s get into it.
🤖 Infinite labour pool
This week, a leaked internal memo exposed labour woes at Amazon.
The memo focuses on research conducted last year and finds: ‘If we continue business as usual, Amazon will deplete the available labor supply in the US network by 2024.’ Essentially, the company is churning through US workers so fast that it will soon run out of new people to hire.
The underlying truth? Amazon loses around 3% of its workers every week; that’s 150% every year. According to official US data, average annual staff turnover in warehousing in 2021 was 49%. The retail giant’s warehouse staff tend to leave fast, and once they’ve left they don’t want to come back.
What’s the answer? This week provided a glimpse of that, too. Amazon unveiled a raft of new warehouse automation and robotics technologies. They include the company’s ‘first fully autonomous mobile robot’. Proteus can safely self-drive around warehouses, manoeuvre past human workers, and push fully loaded carts:
The company also showcased Cardinal, a robot arm that lifts and sorts packages. The device uses AI-fuelled machine vision to read labels and place packages in the correct basket.
⚡ NWSH Take: Amazon is keen to stress that Proteus will work ‘alongside’ existing staff. But it’s not hard to see the direction of travel here. Amid ridiculous staff churn, high injury rates, and multiple worker drives for unionization, the retail giant is working to massively reduce its reliance on human labour. Amazon employs 1.1 million people in the US alone; most in its warehouses and distribution network. // All this, of course, is just one fragment of a far broader story. The dynamics of the labour market — and the wider economy — are set to be transformed by the convergence of AI and robotics. US companies are investing in robots at a record rate. No one in mainstream politics much wants to talk about what happens next. But we must talk about it. Automation is the reason Jeff Bezos can pay lip service to worker welfare while continuing to block unionization; it’s the reason Amazon’s leadership isn’t terrified by the longterm implications of its worker churn data. They don’t need to be; the robots are coming. // While Amazon develops its robots, then, we urgently need to develop new social settlements. In a highly productive economy that requires far less human labour than we’re used to, what do we owe each other? Regular readers will already know one of the key pillars of my answer to that question.
🌊 City waveforms
The first modules of a new floating city in the Maldives will be unveiled later this month.
The city was designed by architecture firm Waterstudio and is being built by property developer Dutch Docklands. It’s intended to help the Maldives deal with the existential challenge posed to it by rising sea levels.
The Maldives is an archipelago of 1,190 low-lying islands; more than 80% of its land is less than one metre above sea level. That makes it one of the most exposed nations on Earth when it comes to the projected 1 metre rise in sea levels expected this century.
Once complete, the city will consist of 5,000 floating units that host schools, shopping areas and homes for 20,000 residents, with canals in between.
Fuelled by those projections, floating cities are having a moment. Back in New Week #80 I wrote about the UN’s plan to build multiple floating cities around the world; that project is being enacted by superstar Danish architect Bjarke Ingels.
The UN is targeting, first, areas that are most at risk from rising seas. But as it becomes increasingly clear that we’re set to miss the 1.5C heating target, expect this technology of adaptation to come to a megacity near you.
🧬 Blood lines
This week, AI plunged deep into the mysteries of human genetic inheritance.
In December 2020 DeepMind announced that their AlphaFold AI had solved the iconic protein-folding problem. Now, a team of scientists at the University of Washington have used an AI model built on top of AlphaFold to decipher the complex structure of proteins that governs the way our genes act on us.
The nuclear pore complex (NPC) is a structure of around 1,000 proteins that sits around our DNA. It controls the transmission of genetic information to our cells, by regulating the passing of molecules to and from the DNA in the cell nucleus.
Essentially, the NPC is a highly complex organic fortress that acts as a gateway to our genes. For decades scientists have worked in vain to decode its structure. Now, thanks to the way AlphaFold was able to build on that work, it’s done.
The insight that allows will fuel advances in gene therapy, mRNA vaccines, and more.
⚡ NWSH Take: This story is a signal of two coming, and related, revolutions. Via CRISPR, AlphaFold, and other advances, we’re in the early stages of a transformation in our ability to understand and manipulate genetic information. In the near-term that will mean the ability to edit out genes that cause some serious inherited diseases. Science and public opinion is converging on that new reality; this week saw reports that more than half of people here in the UK support this use of genetic technology. // Meanwhile, this work on the NPC is a reminder of the possibility that, via AI, we’re about to embark on a new age of enlightenment. AIs are now transforming the life sciences, designing new computer chips, rewriting the rules of experimental quantum physics, and more. For all the practical and ethical risks involved, it’s impossible not to be excited by these advances; they will save lives, and change lives for the better. But amid all that, a question is becoming ever-more urgent. Vast new powers are falling into our hands. What framework of values should guide our use of them? In the end, the challenge posed to us by machine intelligence is one of values; it is what we once would have called a spiritual challenge.
🗓️ Also this week
🤯 Amazon showcased an experimental Alexa feature that sees the device mimic the voice of a dead loved one. At its annual re:MARS Conference, Alexa AI chief Rohit Prasad played a video in which Alexa reads a child a story using a voicefake of the child’s dead grandmother. The company didn’t say whether the feature will ever be made available to the public. I’ve written often — most recently in New Week #79 — on the rise of this kind of AI emulation. TL;DR? Pretty soon, everyone will (be told to) want their own AI replica.
🌔 NASA asked Lockheed Martin and two other firms to provide initial concept designs for nuclear power plants for the Moon. The Agency is partnering with the Department of Energy on a project to design nuclear plants that could power a permanent lunar base.
🚗 New research says Volkswagen is set to overtake Tesla as the leading global provider of EVs. This comes amid reports that Tesla broke US federal law when it fired 10% of its staff without warning and offered some of them just one week’s severance pay.
👨🔬 Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated four next-generation VR headsets that he says will allow for more convincing virtual worlds. Meta expects to spend at least $10 billion this year on VR and AR research and development.
🎤 Leaked audio from meetings suggest that ByteDance employees in China did have access to the data of US TikTok users. This contradicts repeated assurances from ByteDance that US user data was never shared to China. In 2020 President Trump threatened to ban TikTok from the US over fears that it could share user data with Chinese authorities.
👗 Fashion magazine Cosmopolitan went to press with a cover designed by an AI. The magazine claims to be the first major publication to hit stands with a machine-designed cover; it used Open AI’s DALLE 2 for the design, which depicts an astronaut walking on the Moon.
👀 Microsoft says it will stop selling its emotion-recognition technology and limit access to facial recognition, too. In a blog post, A Microsoft AI leader Sarah Bird said the decision was founded in research that suggests ‘an inability to generalize the linkage between facial expression and emotional state across use cases, regions, and demographics’. In other words, emotion recognition is tenuous at best.
🐠 Scientists unveiled a new self-propelled robo-fish that can eat microplastics out of the ocean. Researchers at Sichuan University say the tiny robots, just 13 millimetres in length, are made of materials that attract and absorb microplastics.
🌍 Humans of Earth
Key metrics to help you keep track of Project Human.
🙋 Global population: 7,956,100,134
🌊 Earths currently needed: 1.8119540285
💉 Global population vaccinated: 60.7%
🗓️ 2022 progress bar: 48% complete
📖 On this day: On 24 June 1916 the US actress Mary Pickford becomes the first female star to sign a million-dollar contract.
Automatic for the People
Thanks for reading this week.
Robot labour is set to transform advanced economies. In the end, that transformation will pose a powerful question: what is society for?
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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.