New Week Same Humans #22

Epic Games want you to create a new breed of virtual human. Amazon has its eyes on delivery drivers. Plus more news and analysis from this week.

Welcome to the Wednesday update from New World Same Humans, a newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.

If you’re reading this and you haven’t yet subscribed, then join 14,000+ curious souls on a journey to build a better shared future 🚀🔮

💡 This week’s Sunday instalment looked at The Past, Present, and Future of the Eternal Human Quest for Status.💡

This week, Amazon installs AI-fuelled cameras in its delivery vans. Where is surveillance culture taking us?

Also, Epic Games announce the launch of their new MetaHumans tool. And Cambridge University researchers put the planetary impact of bitcoin mining into perspective (it’s not good news).

Also, an online mystery: why is a nondescript Wikimedia image of a purple flower getting 78 million hits a week from India?

Let’s go!

🔍 Watching me watching you

Two stories from the Chronicles of 21st-Century Surveillance.

Amazon plans to install AI-fuelled cameras in the driver cabs of its delivery vans. A new video on the scheme – which is product of a partnership with imaging startup Netradyne – says the cameras will improve safety and enhance driver behaviour.

Drivers are being assured that the cameras won’t send a rolling livestream back to HQ. But they will trigger a warning message and auto-upload footage to Amazon staff when drivers display a range of proscribed behaviours, including braking too hard, tailgating other vehicles, or looking at their phones.

Meanwhile, the controversial Clearview AI facial recognition system has been declared illegal in Canada. As previously discussed in NWSH, Clearview has scraped a creepy-as-hell database of over 3 billion faces from social media platforms; that database is now in use by law enforcement agencies across the US.

Canada’s privacy commissioner, Daniel Therrien, has concluded: ‘what Clearview does is mass surveillance and it is illegal…It is an affront to individual’s privacy rights.’

⚡ NWSH Take: Amazon is already under fire over surveillance inside its Fulfilment Centers; it’s trialled wearable devices that record data on the movements and productivity of staff. Meanwhile, the company is fighting Alabama warehouse workers who are trying to unionise; they’d be the first Amazon facility to do so. Sure, safer driving is great. But Amazon is not a business that gets to put AI-enabled cameras in front of 30,000 drivers and just tell the world it will be fine. // This is just one fragment of a far broader picture. Back in New Week #15 we discussed concerns over surveillance of knowledge workers via platforms including MS Teams. A reckoning – encompassing facial recognition, work, and privacy – is coming. Clearview’s technology helped US law enforcement identify the January Capitol rioters. But how much privacy do we want to trade for an enhanced security capability? That’s no longer a theoretical question: we need to decide.

🤖 The MetaHumans are coming

Epic Games, the people behind Fortnite, have announced a new tool called the MetaHuman Creator.

They say it will empower ordinary users to create and animate photorealistic virtual humans, complete with bespoke hairstyles and clothing, in a matter of minutes.

A new video offers a glimpse:

Right now, creating virtual humans that look this real takes many hours of expert work. If the MetaHuman Creator really does democratise that in the way Epic Games says it will, get ready for an outpouring of new video game characters, avatars, virtual presenters, and more.

Release is scheduled for later this year. Time for a NWSH MetaHuman evangelist? Let me know your thoughts.

👋 NWSH is back on Clubhouse this Friday!

I’m back on Clubhouse this week with my co-host Monique van Dusseldorp and trend watcher Henry Mason for a session inspired by last week’s Sunday essay.

We’ll be talking about the future of the eternal human quest for status. Find out why status seeking drives so much behaviour inside consumer societies, how emerging technologies are unlocking new ways to serve this fundamental human need, and what it all means for you.

The session is this Friday 12 February at 4pm CET; check out the details here.

I’m mindful that Clubhouse is still invite only; that should change soon, and I can’t wait until everyone can join in. In the meantime I have a few invites I can share; hit me up in the NWSH Slack if you’d like one.

🤑 Big bitcoin energy

Elon Musk’s Tesla bought $1.5 billion worth of bitcoin this week, causing the value of the cryptocurrency to soar to new highs. It’s at £32,500 at the time of writing, and up over 1,135% since March 2020 thanks mainly to increased activity by institutional investors.

But there’s a growing issue: energy. A study released this week by researchers at Cambridge University estimates that bitcoin mining is responsible for more electricity use than Argentina. Indeed, if bitcoin were a country it would be in the top 30 energy consumers worldwide:

⚡ NWSH Take: Tesla says they’ll soon start to accept payment in bitcoin. And rumour has it that Apple will soon allow bitcoin exchange inside Apple Wallet. The upshot? Even the most hardened crypto-sceptic must be softening on the long-term viability of the currency. // But the sustainability issue is not going away. Tesla received $1.5 billion in environmental subsidies in 2020, only to spend that sum on bitcoin: not a good look for a company meant to save the planet. So yes, maybe bitcoin really is decentralised, borderless, digital-first currency that changes everything. But if so the battle over its planetary impact, and who pays to clean up the mess, is only just beginning.

🗓️ Also this week

🕵️ Researchers at the University of California San Diego created deepfake videos that fooled the best deepfake detector AIs. They’ve kept their code secret so it can’t be exploited.

🍪 A Google Chrome update will transform online advertising next year. The update will see Chrome forbid third-party cookies, meaning advertisers will no longer be able to track a user’s online activity and chase them across the web. Instead, Google plans to use browser-based machine learning to segment users and serve relevant ads.

🔓 A Swiss company says encryption is not as secure as we thought. Terra Quantum AG says new quantum computing techniques may be able to crack codes previously believed to be undecipherable.

🏢 Salesforce says the 9-to-5 work day is dead. The company, which is San Francisco’s largest private employer, says staff should set their own schedule, and come to the office between one and three days per week.

🤬 Facebook is running trials to reduce the amount of political content shown on News Feeds. Executives say small tests will run in Canada, Brazil, and Indonesia this week, as they seek new ways to display and rank political stories on the platform.

🛰️ SpaceX is taking $99 pre-orders on its Starlink satellite internet service. Elon Musk says the service can bring fast internet to the entire Earth’s surface. Musk now controls over one quarter of all satellites in orbit.

📱 TikTok’s sale to Oracle and Walmart has been shelved. President Trump threatened a total ban on the app if it didn’t sell to a US entity. If you ask me, the Chinese parent company, ByteDance, never really intended to sell.

🇪🇺 The EU is considering new laws that will make Google and other big platforms pay for the news content they display. Australia has already announced a similar move; Google says it will withdraw from the country if those plans are enacted.

🪐 China’s Tianwen-1 probe fell into orbit around Mars. In May a rover will detach and attempt to land on the planet’s Utopia Planitia region. If successful, China will be only the second country to land and operate a rover on Mars.

🖼️ This mysterious Wikimedia picture of a purple flower gets 78 million hits a day from India and no one knows why. Observers say it’s likely a popular app hot links to the picture.

🌍 Humans of Earth

Key metrics to help you keep track of Project Human.

🙋‍♀️ Global population: 7,844,054,202
🌊 Earths currently needed: 1.7778197596

💉 Global population vaccinated: 0.24%

🗓️ 2021 progress bar: 11% complete

📖 On this day: On 10th February 1996 IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer beat Gary Kasparov at chess, becoming the first machine to win a game against a reigning world champion.

Same Humans are Go

I’m ready for an explosion of MetaHumans in 2021.

But even in a world of super-sophisticated virtual people, the mechanics of our shared future will stay the same: a changing world collides with fundamental human needs. The results are emerging behaviours, mindsets, and ways of life. It’s an old, endlessly new, endlessly fascinating story, and we’re lucky enough to get to see a tiny slice of it.

NWSH exists to watch, and offer a first draft account of what it all means for our shared future. And via the Slack group, every member of our community can have their say.

Right now, there’s one thing you can do to further our project: share!

Remember, our community becomes smarter, more creative, and more useful as it becomes larger and more diverse. To help, why not take a second to forward this email to one person – a friend, relative, or colleague – who’d also enjoy it? Or share New World Same Humans across one of your social networks, and let others know why you think it’s worth their time.

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Your membership of this community is valued. I’ll be back on Sunday. Until then, be well,


P.S Thanks to Monique van Dusseldorp for additional research and analysis.

David Mattin is the founder of the Strategy and Futures Research Unit. He sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.