New Week Same Humans #52
Remote work is bad for innovation according to a massive new study. A genetics startup says it will resurrect the woolly mammoth. 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, Microsoft publish the largest analysis yet of the impact remote work has on team communication. Spoiler: it’s not good news.
Also, virtual humans are heading to mainstream TV. And a new genetics startup with links to Harvard is planning to use CRISPR gene editing to bring back the woolly mammoth.
🧑💻 The chit chat report
This week, Microsoft published a major new study of the company-wide remote work policy it has run during the pandemic.
The Effects of Remote Work on Collaboration Among Information Workers is the largest study of its kind yet published. Researchers analysed ‘rich data on the emails, calendars, instant messages, video/audio calls and work hours’ of over 60,000 Microsoft staff in the US.
The conclusion? Remote work damaged communication across the company. In particular, it weakened cross-group communication between both informal communities and formal business units.
The study, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, reaches this conclusion based on an analysis that leverages the idea of a bridging tie: a social tie that spans different parts of an organisation. In short, remote work killed those ties.
Microsoft say that they’ll now take ‘proactive measures to help workers acquire and share new information across groups, so that productivity and innovation are not impacted.’
⚡ NWSH Take: Does remote work kill innovation? This study offers a troubling answer: it probably makes it more difficult. I’ve written before on the evidence that innovation depends on a constant flow of informal communication inside and between teams. That’s exactly the kind of communication that was damaged at Microsoft. // Critics point out that the data used here was drawn from mid-2020. Early lockdown, they say, was chaotic, and few had much experience with remote work. So maybe these results aren’t that useful? This verges on wishful thinking. Once bridging ties are broken, the safest assumption is that they won’t be repaired until people are thrown back together inside physical spaces. // That means Microsoft, and everyone else, should be worried. Now, they’ll want to act. Fuelling serendipitous meetings and informal conversations – creating what I’ve called a Chit Chat Economy – inside remote and hybrid work cultures is set to be one of the key business stories of the 2020s.
🦄 For the child who has everything
Introducing the ridable robot unicorn, from Chinese electric vehicle startup XPeng.
CEO He Xiaopeng says the machine is part of a wider move into robotics. But right now it exists only in the form of this gloriously bizarre video, released this week.
Remind you of a certain, You Tube-famous robot dog?
No release date or pricing yet. But personally I’m hoping I can one day ride on stage at a technology conference on the back of this Magnificent Beast, and deliver my talk while cantering back and forth.
📺 Avatar X Factor
US television network Fox is launching a reality TV singing contest with a difference. Alter Ego is due to start broadcast next week.
The new show will see contestants sing for a live audience and a celebrity judging panel including Alanis Morissette and the panel-ubiquitous Will.i.am. So far, so conventional. But instead of taking their physical form, contestants appear on stage as life-sized, humanoid digital avatars.
Yes, it’s The X Factor meets the rising trend for virtual humans.
I wrote about the rise of virtual humans in NWSH #41 back in November 2020, and again more recently in Avatars Are Go. In the latter I talked about the popular virtual Twitch streamer Miko (below); the avatars in Alter Ego will be fuelled by the same motion capture suit technology.
⚡ NWSH Take: When I wrote about virtual humans last year I acknowledged that they can seem, to the uninitiated, pretty weird. My conclusion was: weird can become mainstream, and fast. // Clearly, that’s now happening here. Back in May 2020 Miko and her 800K Twitch followers were a big deal; now Fox is about to broadcast virtual humans into the homes of millions. // This trend taps into a series of deep currents running through our culture. First among them, perhaps, is the new expectation that people should be able to exert a great deal of control, and ideally infinite control, over the identity they present to others. In a world of personal digital avatars, you really can be whoever you want. That’s powerful, and will fuel an explosion of creativity in the years ahead. // Meanwhile, some credible technologists believe that pretty soon we’ll all conduct our online lives under the cloak of a range of pseudo-identities, each made bespoke for a different purpose. Your own alter ego could be just around the corner.
🐘 Mammoth news
A genetics startup linked to Harvard University says it wants to resurrect the woolly mammoth.
Colossal was co-founded by George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School who helped pioneer the human genome project. Now, the company has raised $15 million to fund its mammoth project.
In phase one, Colossal scientists will create an elephant-mammoth hybrid by taking skin cells from an Asian elephant and using the CRISPR gene editing technique to insert specific mammoth genes: for hair, insulating fat layers, and more.
Church says he hopes to have his first set of elephant-mammoth calves in four to six years. Eventually, Colossal wants to introduce the creatures back into the wild.
⚡ NWSH Take: Colossal co-founder Ben Lamm says the company wants to build a biosciences brand that is ‘Harvard meets MTV’. But have none of these people seen Jurassic Park? // The deeper trend, here? In The Future that Never Came I outlined how, along with AI and nuclear fusion, novel genetic techniques are among the core technologies set to fuel a new era of real-world innovation. That means an end to the Great Stagnation, which has seen innovation in the world of bits apparently outpace that in the world of atoms. // More on all this soon via the first ever NWSH expert guest post, which I can’t wait to show you. Stay tuned!
🗓️ Also this week
🛰️ Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is building a new space junk clearance company. The launch video was comedically vague, but a recent press release called Privateer ‘a new satellite company focused on monitoring and cleaning up objects in space.’
💳 The CCP says it will break up Ja Ma’s hugely popular Alipay payments app. User data will be turned over to a new joint venture that will be co-owned by the state. In The People’s Republic of Tech, I wrote about the CCP’s push to take control of its domestic tech sector.
🐱 Google is partnering with Dapper Labs, the Canadian blockchain studio behind CryptoKitties and NBA Top Shot. Google Cloud will now be the network operator for the studio’s Flow blockchain, which powers its ecosystem of NFTs and games.
🚗 New York state will ban the sale of all gas-powered vehicles by 2035. The move follows similar legislation passed in California last year; the EU is also working on a ban to take effect in 2035.
👮 This giant prison contracting company wants to build a virtual reality platform for prisoners. Global Tel Link Corporation has filed a patent for a VR system that allows the prisoner to ‘imagine himself outside or away from the controlled environment.’
👓 Facebook has launched its first smart glasses, in partnership with Ray-Ban. Users will be able to capture pictures, audio, and video, and upload to their Facebook account.
⚖️ The California senate just told Amazon to stop penalising warehouse workers for going to the bathroom. The senate passed a bill that takes aim at new forms of algorithmic management practised by Amazon; it bans penalties for ‘time off-task’, including bathroom breaks.
🐕 Elon Musk caused the price of an obscure cryptocurrency to spike when he named his new dog after it. The Shiba Floki token rose by over 900% in 24 hours after Musk tweeted a picture of his dog with the caption ‘Floki has arrived’. Meanwhile, the price of Litecoin spiked after a fake press release claimed retail giant Walmart would now accept it as payment.
🌍 Humans of Earth
Key metrics to help you keep track of Project Human.
🙋 Global population: 7,893,354,969
🌊 Earths currently needed: 1.7926668773
💉 Global population vaccinated: 30.3%
🗓️ 2021 progress bar: 71% complete
📖 On this day: On 15 September 1835 the HMS Beagle, carrying Charles Darwin, reaches the Galápagos Islands.
The Golden Ticket
Thanks for reading this week.
Virtual humans will sweep their way across the culture in the 2020s. This is about a collision between new technologies and age-old human needs. In other words, just the kind of phenomenon NWSH was set up to track.
I’ll keep watching this trend, and a whole range of others, closely. And there’s one thing you can do to help with that mission: share!
So if you found this week’s instalment useful, 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 this 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.