New Week #90
DeepMind's AI invents new tax and spending policies. The Bored Ape Yacht Club test their metaverse. 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 research from DeepMind offers a glimpse of our coming, AI-governed future.
Also, the Bored Ape Yacht Club test their new metaversal world. And a Finnish startup wants to revolutionise energy storage.
Let’s get into it.
🤖 Rule of the machines
We humans live in social collectives that must be governed. This week, three signals of the way AI is set to intersect with that eternal truth.
Researchers at DeepMind trained an AI to play a game intended to model the complex choices we face when it comes to tax and redistribution. The four-player game sees each player receive a different amount of money, and then vote on different mechanisms to pool those resources, invest them, and share the gains. After observing thousands of human games, the AI devised a tax and redistribution system that proved more popular with human players than any of the other systems they’d been using.
The underlying idea here: maybe AI can distribute our shared resources — and run our societies — better than we can.
Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Chicago say they’ve built an algorithm that can predict urban crimes before they happen. The system was tested on eight US cities, and it predicted the type, time, and place of criminal events with 90% accuracy. Addressing concerns over the emergence of a Minority Report future, the researchers say their algorithm could be used to monitor the quality and fairness of human policing.
Last, a hacker claims to have stolen the personal data of 1 billion Chinese citizens. The anonymous agent says the data is from the Shanghai National Police database; it’s being offered for sale for around $200,000.
⚡ NWSH Take: What’s special about this DeepMind work? The answer lies in the types of questions AI can help us to solve. In a game of chess we may disagree on means but we all agree on the end: to win the game. When it comes to politics, there is no such agreement. Different alliances are aiming at quite different ends. This new research is a signal that AI can be useful in these complex, unstructured, value-driven domains. It raises the possibility that AI can help us, for example, run a national health service, or devise new foreign policies. // It’s a long way from a four-player game to the complexities of government. But this DeepMind story and the research on crime prediction signals an inescapable truth: governance and AI are set to intersect. The nations of the Global North cannot afford to pass up the opportunities this will afford to make governance more effective, resilient, and even more in tune with public opinion. But that means they’ll need to build new systems of deliberation, and new forms of democratic oversight. Meanwhile, the Chinese are already deep into their pursuit of a different model: an unprecedented form of techno-authoritarianism in which surveillance fuels AI systems that allow total control. In the decades ahead, we’ll find out which of those two systems proves strongest.
🙌 Come together
Back in New Week #75 in March I wrote on the Bored Ape Yacht Club and its plans to launch a metaversal world. Yuga Labs, the people behind the BAYC, say they want the Otherside world to ‘make all other metaverses obsolete’.
That’s big talk. This week Yuga ran the first test of Otherside:
Holders of a Yuga-issued NFT known as an Otherdeed were able to jump into a beta version of the world, roam around, and speak to one another. Going by Twitter, most were mightily impressed.
Yuga say it’s the first time thousands of people have inhabited the same online virtual world in this way. Inside a Fortnite Battle Royale, for example, the number of players is capped at 100.
Otherside is powered by Improbable, the UK-based metaverse and gaming infrastructure giant.
⚡ NWSH Take: Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival this week, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt said: ‘there’s not an agreement on what the metaverse is, even though one company has changed its name in anticipation of defining it.’ Both the overt and underlying message — beware the hype train — are warranted. But Yuga’s Otherside offers a glimpse of the dream: massive, immersive, and truly social worlds in which millions can come together to play, talk, and transact. // And that’s the rub when it comes to the metaverse. Yes, there’s lots of hype. And no one can possibly know which incarnations will succeed. But the underlying principle — the emergence of virtual worlds as authentic domains of human experience — is powerful. Just look at Seed, another massive virtual world currently in development, and also powered by Improbable. The game will see players land on a virtual planet, and devise a new society from scratch. The idea — and it’s an entirely credible one — is that Seed teaches us powerful lessons about the nature of human collective life. Seed raised a $41 million funding round this week. It’s just one example of the way metaversal worlds unlock new ways to serve age-old human needs, including the quest for self-understanding. // We’ve come a long way from Space Invaders. The metaverse is ill-defined, over-hyped, and fraught with risk. But somewhere inside all that, there’s a dream worth fighting for.
🔋 More power
This week saw news of two consequential advances in energy storage.
A massive water battery built into a cavern in the Swiss canton of Valais will start operation next week. The battery consists of two pools of water, which sit at different heights. Energy is stored by pumping water to the raised pool; it is released by allowing the water to drop back into the lower pool, causing it to rotate a turbine.
Switzerland spent 14 years and €2 billion on the system, which can store up to 20 million kWh; that’s the equivalent of 400,000 electric vehicles. They say their creation will help secure European energy supplies during periods of high demand.
Meanwhile, Finish energy startup Polar Night Energy announced that the world’s first sand-based thermal energy storage plant is now operational. The plant stores energy from wind turbines and solar panels by using it to heat large amounts of sand — which is exceptionally good at retaining heat — to around 500C.
The researchers behind the new plant say the technique could help ensure energy stability as we transition to wind and solar.
⚡ NWSH Take: Both these innovations are attempts to deal with a crucial underlying reality. We need to transition to clean energy. But what happens when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow? The answer lies in new forms of energy storage. // By exposing Europe’s dependance on Russian gas, the war in Ukraine has made these questions even more urgent for governments across the continent. High oil and gas prices are driving inflation, and we shouldn’t forget the hardship they are causing. But there is a silver lining: if high prices are sustained — and many believe they will be — investment in this kind of energy investment will only become more attractive. And we desperately need that investment. // There’s no way around it: the next decade or so will play host to a volatile, risky, and at times brutal set of conditions when it comes to energy. We must ensure that we emerge out of the other side with sustainable generation and storage technologies that don’t leave us at the mercy of autocrats. The news this week from Switzerland and Finland is enough to make me believe that it might just be possible.
🗓️ Also this week
💸 The Central African Republic launched a national digital currency called Sango Coin. The coin forms part of a project, called Project Sango, to bring financial services to the unbanked. In April the CAR was the first African country to adopt bitcoin as legal tender.
😱 Chinese researchers have developed an AI that they say can test loyalty to the Communist Party. Researchers at the Hefei Comprehensive National Science Center says the AI can use facial expressions, EEG readings, and other data to generate a ‘loyalty score’ for party members. Read this in the context of the coming intersection of AI and government, covered in this week’s lead story.
♻️ India banned 19 types of single use plastic, including straws, disposable cutlery, and several kinds of packaging. Meanwhile, California became the first US state to restrict single use plastics. A new law, intended to see single use plastics phased out, requires that at least 30% of plastic items sold or bought in California are recyclable by 2028.
💑 Soul, a metaverse dating platform backed by Tencent, filed papers for an IPO on the Hong Kong stock exchange. The platform, popular with youth in China, allows users to create an avatar and meet others in a virtual world.
🗺 NATO established a new €1 billion innovation fund and defence accelerator. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance will invest in startups and deep-tech funds in an attempt to ‘maintains its technological edge’ on Russia and China.
🤖 Swedish researchers got GPT-3 to write an academic paper about itself and then submitted it for publication. The paper is currently being peer reviewed, and is hosted on a French pre-print server called HAL.
👨💻 The Dutch parliament approved legislation that gives citizens a legal right to work from home. The bill requires employers to consider work-from-home requests as long as the role in question allows it. The senate must approve the legislation before it passes into law.
🪐 NASA wants swarms of tiny swimming robots to search for life on other worlds. Researchers at the Agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory say the robots, about the size of a phone, could one day swim through the oceans on Jupiter’s moon Europa.
🌍 Humans of Earth
Key metrics to help you keep track of Project Human.
🙋 Global population: 7,939,037,642
🌊 Earths currently needed: 1.8128569853
💉 Global population vaccinated: 61.2%
🗓️ 2022 progress bar: 51.5% complete
📖 On this day: On 8 July 2011 the Space Shuttle Atlantis is launched as the final mission in the US Space Shuttle program.
Thanks for reading this week.
The problem of how to live together, and the conflicts that problem engenders, are eternal parts of the human story. Now, all that is intersecting with the rise of machine intelligence. It’s a classic case of new world, same humans.
This newsletter will keep working to make sense of what it all means for our shared future. And there’s one thing you can do to help: share!
Now you’ve reached the end of this week’s instalment, 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. 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.