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New Week #91
A billionaire-funded startup wants to simulate your life in the metaverse. The UN says China's population is set to crash. 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 US startup takes to Times Square with an intriguing vision of the metaverse.
Meanwhile, a new UN report says India will become the world’s most populous country later this year. And researchers at Columbia University’s Creative Machines Lab say they’ve taken a small step towards self-aware robots.
Let’s get into it.
👯♂️ Through the looking-glass
This week, further adventures in the metaverse.
Little-known AI and metaverse startup MeetKai launched their new virtual world in an extremely traditional way. They took out a massive billboard in Times Square.
Passersby could access the virtual world by scanning a QR code on the billboard. Those who did so were granted immediate access, via their phones, to a virtual Times Square that they could explore using an avatar.
MeetKai was founded by US AI researcher James Kaplan and tech billionaire Weili Dai, the founder of semiconductor company Marvell Technology. The pair are driven by a specific vision of the metaverse. Kaplan explains:
“The goal is really to just create an entire world that matches our own, and then allow us to experiment there and customise things.
Dai goes on:
“Once you have this super-fast experience where you apply what you learn to the physical world, you contribute to a better life.”
To that end, the startup is building a ‘real-world metaverse’ — a virtual mirror of the physical world — populated by conversational AI agents that will act as guides to the human inhabitants.
⚡ NWSH Take: MeetKai are just one among hundreds of startups keen to ride the metaverse hype train. But their vision taps into an ever-more pressing question. What, exactly, is the metaverse for? // Listen to Kaplan and Dai, and it’s clear that they want to build a mirrorworld that enhances our ability to grapple with the real world. There are echoes, here, of Porsche’s new service that will see every car sold with a digital twin that feeds a constant stream of data back to the owner. Or even Nvidia’s project to simulate planet Earth in search for new solutions to climate change. I wrote about both in New Week #62. // The broader point? There’s a tendency to think about the metaverse as a set of technicolour fantasylands: Roblox, Fortnite, and so on. But is it something altogether more practical — real-world simulation that produces actionable lifestyle guidance — that will draw in mainstream users? Under this view the metaverse becomes a virtual sandbox in which we get to experiment, test, and iterate, before bringing what we’ve learned back to real life. // There’s room, of course, for both fantasy and sandbox virtual worlds to prosper. After all, the internet has always done both. In the end, the metaverse startups that win will be those that understand two deep and contradictory human imperatives: to master this world, and to escape from it.
👨👩👧👦 People power
This week, the UN released an update of its World Population Prospects.
The global population is projected to exceed 8 billion this year. And it’s set to peak in 2086, at just over 10.4 billion.
That’s a lower and earlier peak than was given by the last projection, which said the global population would be 10.88 billion in 2100 and would peak some time after that. The UN says birth rates in developing countries are falling faster than expected.
The global picture is being driven, most of all, by two countries. Next year, India will overtake China as the world’s most populous nation. And via falling fertility rates, both countries will see significant population decline across this century:
⚡ NWSH Take: Notice one aspect of that second graph. India’s population is set to decline; China’s is set to crater, from a peak of 1.43 billion today to 775 million in 2099. Back in New Week #38 I wrote on how new census data had sent the CCP into a panic; this UN projection offers them no comfort. // Why is this such a big deal? The Chinese know that in their quest to be a global hegemon, demography shapes destiny. But the population is ageing fast, and population growth rate is at a 61-year low. An increasingly affluent and empowered middle class is heaving a giant shrug at the CCP’s new three child policy. // What does this mean geopolitically? It surely means a nation keen to assert itself as fast as possible, before its demographic advantage runs out. Will this have implications for Taiwan? For China’s neo-colonial project in Africa? // Meanwhile, the CCP’s best hope for transcending the logic that cleaves together demography, economic power, and geopolitical clout? They hope that massive ongoing investment in AI will enable them to automate productivity, and increase output, faster than the US or India.
🤖 How does it feel?
Researchers at Columbia University this week announced the creation of a robot that can teach itself body awareness.
The robotic arm used a deep neural network and feedback from five cameras to develop a full-body model of itself from scratch, without human intervention. Once it had created this model, the robot was then able to plan its movements and avoid obstacles in order to achieve goals in a wide range of situations.
Research lead Hod Lipson of Columbia’s Creative Machines Lab says the work brings us closer to robots that have some form of self-awareness. ‘To me,’ he says, ‘this is a first step towards sentient robotics’.
The researchers concede that their robot arm is simple; it can make only four kinds of movement. They’re now working on body-awareness in a robot that can make 12 kinds of movements.
⚡ NWSH Take: Sure, the arm is simple. But this is still a big deal. To function, robots are typically pre-programmed with an understanding of their physical being. That renders them inflexible: unable to navigate complex spaces or adapt to changing circumstances. If a robot can teach itself about its body from scratch, all that can change. // Pair this Columbia work with yet another research paper from DeepMind. Also published this week, the paper showcases an AI that can learn common sense physics — that is, the behaviour of ordinary objects under gravity — from visual data alone, just as a human child does. // Lipson’s ultimate aim may be sentient machines. But in the meantime all this is heading in direction of a NWSH obsession: robots that are able to traverse unstructured environments (such as our homes) and perform complex, useful physical tasks (such as loading the dishwasher). It feels a long time, now, since any innovation has transformed our lives the way the smartphone did back in the late 2000s. But the domestic helper robots are coming. One further signal? Chinese EV giant XPeng’s robotics arm just raised $100 million, and says it will have robots in homes within two years.
🗓️ Also this week
👮♂️ Amazon says it has been handing footage from its Ring doorbells to police without the permission of doorbell owners. In a letter sent to a US senator, the company admitted to sending footage to police at least 11 times this year. Amazon have repeatedly claimed that Ring footage is never viewable by police unless shared publicly or sent by the owner.
👨⚕️ A New Zealand patient became the first person to have their liver gene edited so that it produces less cholesterol. The US biotech startup behind the technique, Verve Therapeutics, say it could prove ‘the answer to heart attacks’.
🔍 Meta has created a new AI tool to detect disinformation. The tool, called Sphere, taps information from 134 million public web pages to check for the accuracy of content under review. Sphere is currently being used to check Wikipedia entries for factual accuracy.
🛰 Elon Musk’s satellite internet startup, Starlink, is launching internet for oil rigs and yachts. The service will cost $5,000 a month and require an upfront purchase of hardware that costs $10,000.
👀 Myanmar’s military junta is rolling out Chinese facial recognition technology across key metropolitan centres. According to Reuters the junta has started new camera surveillance projects in at least five cities since seizing power in a coup in February 2021.
📱 A senior Google executive says young people are turning to Instagram and TikTok for search. Speaking at Fortune's Brainstorm Tech conference, Google’s Prabhakar Raghavan said internal data shows that younger searchers tend to look for peer-created content to guide them, rather than using Google to search keywords.
🖼 The Italian government told national museums to stop signing contracts with NFT startups. The ministry involved cited concerns over high fees and ambiguous contracts that leave museums confused over who owns the digital rights to iconic masterpieces.
🪐 The James Webb telescope found water in the atmosphere of a planet 1,150 light years away. WASP-96 is a gas giant that orbits a sun-like star. NASA say the finding demonstrates Webb’s ability to analyse planetary atmospheres at great distances; they say the telescope will play a key role in the ongoing search for potential off-Earth homes for humanity.
🌍 Humans of Earth
Key metrics to help you keep track of Project Human.
🙋 Global population: 7,960,580,033
🌊 Earths currently needed: 1.8133310997
💉 Global population vaccinated: 61.2%
🗓️ 2022 progress bar: 53% complete
📖 On this day: On 15 June 1844 Charles Goodyear receives a patent for vulcanisation, a process to strengthen rubber.
Thanks for reading this week.
We humans have always been fascinated by the possibility of parallel worlds; dreamlike places in which we could, at last, be truly free. Now, we’re trying to build them.
But will they really set us free? Or only exert new forms of control over us? New World Same Humans will keep watching.
Thanks for joining me on that journey.
Now that you’ve made it to 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 on Sunday. 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.