New Week Same Humans #38

The UN says autonomous killer drones are being used in Libya. New census data shocks the Chinese government. 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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💡 On Sunday I wrote about a new constitution for a human settlement on Mars, and an idea that could save democracy. Go here to read Democracy Without Elections.💡

This week, a new UN report says killer drones are being used by forces in the Libyan civil war.

Also, China takes action on its looming demographic crisis. And the Biden administration eyes cryptocurrencies.

Let’s go!

🤖 Killer drones

News emerged this week of a UN report that says military drones autonomously attacked human soldiers for the first time ever last year.

In March 2020, soldiers fighting the civil war in Libya deployed Turkish-made Kargu-2 drones after coming under attack. The drones hunted down and engaged soldiers on the opposing side, and ‘were programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition’.

In other words: a fully independent weapons system, making life and death ‘decisions’ without human oversight. This is the Kargu-2:

It’s not known if any soldiers were killed, and some analysts have said that the truth about just how autonomous these drones were during the Libyan skirmish remains unclear.

But this is being widely accepted as a first. Even if it’s not, it’s still a powerful signal: when it comes to lethal autonomous weapons (LAWs), the international community is already playing catch up.

⚡ NWSH Take: In the middle of the 20th-century, the international community banned chemical and biological weapons. Now, a movement is building to do the same to LAWs. In a 2021 survey by pressure group Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, 62% of respondents across 28 countries said they oppose their use. // Still, no ban is imminent. Military analysts point out that the calculus here is not straightforward. Is it possible, for example, that autonomous weapons would save more lives than they take? Maybe they would reduce death rates among non-combatants and other fatal mistakes; after all, robots don’t get tired, stressed, or angry. Opponents, meanwhile, say AIs taking life or death decisions is a red line that must never be crossed. // The practical issue here? The US – typically reluctant to sign anything that constrains its military – is lukewarm on a ban. In the meantime, the military industrial complex will continue to sprint towards LAWs. Expect more videos – glossy and chilling in equal measure – like the one above.

👋 Let’s talk tech!

I’ll be back on Clubhouse this Friday for another great talk with technology leaders from Silicon Valley and beyond.

The room is in association with Faves, the new smart social media app where friends, peers, and experts curate the content they love.

The stellar panel features leaders from Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn; we go live on Friday at 9am PST, 12pm EST, 6pm CET, and you can go here to see more and add it to your calendar!

🏃 All the people

China announced on Monday that married couples will now be allowed to have up to three children.

The move comes amid a rising sense of panic inside the CCP that the country is heading towards demographic disaster. New census data shows a fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman in 2020, which puts China alongside rapidly ageing countries such as Japan and Italy.

The infamous one child policy was scrapped in 2016. But the expected fertility bump hasn’t emerged; instead, births have fallen for four consecutive years. Now, alongside this new policy the CCP has announced a package of support for parents that includes subsidies for the cost of education and housing.

Want to put all this in a global, and really long-term, perspective? Check out this graph, which made waves on Twitter this week:

⚡ NWSH Take: The CCP knows that if China is to be the mid 21st-century hegemon they want it to be, then it needs an army of workers. But now, they’re watching the same dynamics play out at home as are visible across the Global North: a prosperous, educated, increasingly urban population is losing interest in having children. // Demographics is the hidden engine of history, fuelling war, revolution, and innovation. And now, demographic realities are asserting themselves in China. The political friction they cause may turn out to be just as consequential as their economic implications. In April the Central Bank issued a strongly-worded report arguing that all limits on having children should be dropped. Meanwhile, China’s young, educated, tech-empowered middle class are increasingly unwilling to take any lectures from the CCP on family matters. // The irony here? The CCP’s one child policy, so long a symbol of its authoritarian grip, may just prove to be its undoing, via economic the political tension those pressures will generate.

👀 Biden administration eyes crypto

US and European regulators have signalled impending moves on cryptocurrencies.

Michael Hsu, the new US Acting Controller of the Currency, says he wants to set a ‘regulatory perimeter’ for crypto, and to do so before it gets ‘too big’ to deal with. LEft alone, says Hsu, crypto will give rise to ‘a large and less regulated shadow banking system’.

Meanwhile, the governor of Sweden’s central bank, Stefan Ingves, says issues such as ‘consumer interest and money laundering’ mean regulation must be on the horizon.

⚡ NWSH Take: China moved first to crack down on the crypto revolution. Now it seems they may have written the playbook for the Global North. // But don’t think that these moves spell doom for cryptocurrencies. Many analysts believe that regulation means mainstream acceptance: a necessary step on the road towards the fulfilment of the crypto-dream.

🗓️ Also this week

💬 A Chinese AI institute has created a language model more powerful than GPT-3 and Google’s Switch Transformer. WuDao 2.0 uses 1.75 trillion parameters, against Google’s 1.6 trillion and GPT-3’s 175 billion.

🏙️ A New York investor is building the world’s largest NFT museum. Todd Morley from Guggenheim Partners is installing the museum at the already-iconic new 111 West 57th Street Skyscraper.

🚗 Tesla pushed a software update that causes the in-car camera to monitor drivers when Autopilot is engaged. The automaker says no data leaves the car.

🏘️ Amazon connected devices will auto-enrol in its Sidewalk shared neighbourhood network programme next week. Users have seven days left to opt out of the system, which privacy campaigners say will constitute a massive civilian surveillance network.

🚚 A self-driving truck drove a shipment across the US ten hours faster than a human driver. The TuSimple truck was driving watermelons from Arizona to Oklahoma and took 14 hours; the average for human drivers is 24 hours. That’s mainly because self-driving trucks don’t have to sleep.

🌌 Nvidia have created the world’s fastest supercomputer for AI workloads, and they’re using it to build a 3D model of the universe. Researchers at the National Energy Research Scientific Computer Center in California will use the model to learn more about dark energy.

📱 Chinese tech giant Xiaomi says their new HyperCharge system can charge a phone in eight minutes. It’s not yet clear when the charger will be available to customers.

🐭 Israeli scientists extended the lifespan of mice by 23% with a technique they say may translate to humans. They boosted a protein, SIRT6, known to decline with age, and will now search for a drug that can elevate levels of SIRT6 in the human body.

🌍 Humans of Earth

Key metrics to help you keep track of Project Human.

🙋 Global population: 7,869,981,612
🌊 Earths currently needed: 1.7854821665

💉 Global population vaccinated: 5.6%

🗓️ 2021 progress bar: 42% complete

📖 On this day: On 2 June 1953 the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London becomes the first event of historic significance to be broadcast live on television.

Counting humans

Thanks for reading this week.

Demographic upheavals will shape the 21st-century, just as they have all those before it. And New World Same Humans will continue in its mission to make sense of where we’re at, and what comes next.

It means a lot that you’ve chosen to join 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.

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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.