Apocalyptic infrastructures ⊗ Computers won’t make themselves smarter ⊗ mRNA technology could change the world — No.167

This week → Apocalyptic infrastructures ⊗ Why computers won’t make themselves smarter ⊗ How mRNA technology could change the world ⊗ How to mass manufacture humanoid robots ⊗ Digital sovereignty and smart cities: what does the future hold?

A year ago → The most clicked article in issue No.120 was Premonition by Toby Shorin, Drew Austin, Kara Kittel, and Edouard Urcades.

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Apocalyptic infrastructures

“Apocalyptic” makes this article by Laleh Khalili at Noema magazine sound quite doom and gloom for the future but she’s actually casting an honest look at where we’re at with existing infrastructure, how they were built, why, and who has access. Khalili goes from some crumbling infra, the strain of the climate crisis, some what they make possible when constructed, how they were withheld from some populations, usually destroy some community or ecosystem even when bringing much needed services, and how they can be colonial but also revolutionary.

The last section deals with the dilemma of “how to provide a livable life and livelihood, health, education, basic utilities, clean air and clean water without hitching them to the zero-sum game of growth.” As for most things, a better balance (and future) is a question of looking away from market supremacy, consulting communities, putting people first, and always considering our stewardship of the planet.

For people who live in cities wrapped in smog, near hydraulic infrastructures whose aged concrete is degrading, along roads rumbling with traffic, abutting oil infrastructures heaving soot into the air and under flight paths zigzagged with vapor trails and jet engine fumes, infrastructures can be deadly — all the more so in an age of melting glaciers and permafrost. […]

Across political divides, all infrastructures share one common feature: their detrimental environmental effects. Dams destroy riverine ecosystems and leach the soil. Cement factories and coal-powered electricity spew out pollution across the globe. Sewer lines pour into sensitive riparian and coastal biospheres. Oil fields and pipelines contaminate vast swathes of land, leaking into fragile water tables. Data centers produce carbon dioxide and heat on a monumental scale. […]

Infrastructures that would emerge out of an ideology of degrowth would incorporate a more redistributive, participatory and egalitarian ethos. And a strategy of degrowth would include ecological wellbeing as an immutable principle in all planning and use. […]

For infrastructure to work, for it to serve the public and steward the world’s air, water and soil for future generations, it has to be planned through more open, egalitarian and environmentally militant processes.

Why computers won’t make themselves smarter

Prize-winning science fiction author Ted Chiang writing at The New Yorker presents a well thought-out and argued case against the idea of superintelligent AIs augmenting themselves and leading to the singularity.

Chiang considers multiple parallels, debunking the singularitarian thesis by showing that each of them are impossible, so why would we think AIs will be able to manage that trick? [Spoiler] It’s an excellent read if you’re interested in the topic but also worth considering alongside the next piece, since both end-up with a similar conclusion around collaboration, peers, how science work, and cognitive tools. You can also read it as addressing the brain aspect of the manufactured robots one more article down.

Humanity has developed thousands of such tools throughout history, ranging from double-entry bookkeeping to the Cartesian coördinate system. So, even though we aren’t more intelligent than we used to be, we have at our disposal a wider range of cognitive tools, which, in turn, enable us to invent even more powerful tools. […]

[Y]ou’re better off having a lot of people drawing inspiration from one another. They don’t have to be directly collaborating; any field of research will simply do better when it has many people working in it. […]

Some might call this phenomenon an intelligence explosion, but I think it’s more accurate to call it a technological explosion that includes cognitive technologies along with physical ones.

How mRNA technology could change the world

Over the last year, I haven’t looked much at the basic science around the pandemic, and usually when I feature biology it has more to do with plants or fungi, but in this one by Derek Thompson at The Atlantic you’ll see why I’m interested by mRNA, it’s such an elegant idea, teaching the body to do something it’s going to need (fight COVID or potentially malaria) or something that’s afflicting it, like cancer tumours (also potentially). And as I mentioned in my summary of Chiang’s writing above, Thompson closes with a really good encapsulation of how science works.

The malaria vaccine uses self-amplifying RNA, or saRNA, which is subtly distinct from the mRNA technology used by Moderna and Pfizer. The vaccines against COVID-19 work by injecting up front all of the messenger RNA that you’re going to get. But self-amplifying RNA is designed to replicate itself inside our cells. This copy-paste function means, in theory, that each person needs only a tiny dose of vaccine to have a large immune response. […]

Nearly 90 percent of COVID-19 vaccines that made it to clinical trials used technology that “could be traced back to prototypes tested in HIV vaccine trials.” […]

We can call our record-breaking vaccine-development process good luck. Or we can call it what it really is: a ringing endorsement for the essential role of science in the world.

How to mass manufacture humanoid robots

It’s really quite a shame that Ev Williams is, again, turning away from publications at Medium because OneZero was doing some excellent work, this piece by Ingrid Burrington being a great example.

What kind of supply chain and extractive environmental impact might the large-scale manufacturing of humanoid robots require and produce? None of Blade Runner, Westworld, Battlestar Galactica, or any scifi really, make those questions or answers part of the story, it “gets hand-waved away into a solved manufacturing problem.”

Of course, Westworld follows in a long sci-fi tradition of humanoid robots exhibiting total indifference to maintenance and supply chains except as short-lived McGuffins. In science fiction, a lot of attention goes to the software side of creating sentient A.I. — it’s a topic that lets otherwise-vacuous narratives pretend they’re really asking Smart Questions about “what it means to be human.” […]

While mass-manufacture of humanoid robots may not be a current or even near-future development, given the tendency of tech companies to treat dystopian literature as a VC pitch deck, it’s reasonable to assume someone will try to pull it off. […]

[U]ltimately most narratives around building a humanoid robot aren’t actually about making a machine — a thing — that’s exactly like a person; they’re about responding to a frustration that people can’t be — and can’t be treated — more like things.

Digital sovereignty and smart cities: what does the future hold?

Good interview with Francesca Bria on cities, real democratic processes, urbanism, data, commons, and a green digital transition. All things I’ve featured here before, good read nonetheless for the clear vision in her replies, the mention of “smart working,” a term I like, but I’m also noting it for a short passage. In it, Bria goes from “Italy, for instance, is mostly made of villages and inland areas,” to mentioning the 15 minutes city. I’d never considered the two together but it’s a glimpse at a variable density of connected villages. Some are metaphorical ones and close together, the re-invented neighbourhoods, some are better-served and more distanced “real” villages, both meshed together. Yes, that’s kind of what we have now in most places but framing them like this is a nice little shift in perspective, I think.

[I]ncluding fundamental points such as increasing the extension of cycle paths and green spaces, new spaces for culture, support for local production, shops and crafts according to a circular economy model, public management of water supplies, projects dealing with the reduction of environmental pollution. […]

The Declaration drafted by the coalition clearly states that foundations of human rights such as privacy, freedom of expression, democracy and active involvement of citizens must be part of the development of digital technologies and platforms, starting from those digital infrastructures and services that are managed at a local scale. […]

[D]ata become a common that cities can use to tackle environmental and social issues, preserving at the same time citizens’ privacy, security and fundamental rights. […]

In the words of Stefano Boeri, our cities might morph into a series of archipelagoes, made of self-sufficient neighborhoods and villages drastically reducing the movements. Such reduction would not reduce the circulation of culture, knowledge and information, though.


Header image: Glenfinnan, UK. Photo by Mathias P.R. Reding.