Donuts and Dyson spheres ⊗ Eight Google employees invented modern AI ⊗ Is $38 trillion a lot?

No.307 — Why the world cannot afford the rich ⊗ The information grey goo ⊗ AI “deathbots” are helping people in China grieve

Donuts and Dyson spheres ⊗ Eight Google employees invented modern AI ⊗ Is $38 trillion a lot?
Solarpunk scene inspired by Jack Kirby. Created with Midjourney.

Donuts and Dyson spheres

There probably should be—maybe there is, I haven’t checked—a way of mapping techno-optimism, maybe something like an Andreessen-Kaczynski scale? I’m definitely less optimistic than I used to be, but it also has more to do with who’s orienting and controlling tech than the existence of the tools. I mention this because here Matt Jones starts with his beliefs, tech, and degrowth, which he ‘believes in’ less than I do and transitions to his “Chobani Cinematic Universe” (coined after the MCU), doughnut economics and Kardashev Type-1 civilizations.

Basically, if energy was limitless, which it kind of is with solar, we ‘just’ don’t know how to collect it more effectively, the doughnut would look different. He discusses the idea with ChatGPT and comes up with an illustration for this new shape. Worth a read for the thought process and the load of links along the way.

Reminds me of Deb Chachra (and he mentions her too). In her book How Infrastructure Works, she proposes that with the proper infrastructure and systems. “It has now become possible, if you think about energy as being abundant instead of scarce, to rethink how we use stuff. We get to take that renewable energy and use it to extract those materials and reuse them. Every lithium battery, we can extract the lithium and reuse it. Every bit of steel, every bit of plastic, right? Instead of burning it or burying it, pull out those molecules and reuse them.” (From Deb’s interview with Brian Sholis at Frontier Magazine).

Of course Jones’ line of inquiry leads (is?) to thinking we can tech ourselves out of the climate predicament which, yes, but also, no. New technologies will certainly help has they become available, but the transition needs to be put into action using what we have now, not waiting for new stuff to arrive.

Ultimately, I’m a middle-aged, middle-class white man in the global north clinging on to the fictional technologically-advanced long term futures for humanity that he grew up with – whether they are The Federation, The Culture, The various KSR Mondragonian world-lines or Fully Automated Luxury Communism. […]

In essence, becoming a Kardashev Type I civilization while adhering to the principles of donut economics and respecting planetary boundaries means merging advanced technological capacities with deep ecological and social responsibility. It’s a future where we harness the full potential of our planet without harming it, ensuring prosperity and well-being for all. […]

It’s essential to differentiate between growth for the sake of growth (which can be detrimental) and genuine development that meets human needs without compromising the environment. Using more energy is acceptable if it’s channelled towards genuine development and not just consumption for consumption’s sake.


As I said, Jones mentions the “Chobani Cinematic Universe.” Earlier this week I was listening to his former colleague Matt Webb (the chalk stream links in the Asides come from a question he asked) and he said something that reminded me of B.A.S.A.A.P., another Jones invention. I’m afraid a lot of my thinking flows through various ideas that initially came from the BCU, the BRIG Cinematic Universe. Here’s how we described BRIG in the first The Alpine Review, back in 2012.

BRIG is based in London and is the combination of BERG, a design consultancy that invents products and works with companies to research and develop their technologies by finding opportunities in networks and physical things, and Really Interesting Group (RIG), a design partnership that builds tools that connect the world and the Web with an expertise in publishing and the Internet of Things. Together they share an office space in which they are able to collaborate and refine their craft, or even host the occasional transient creative to power-up their projects.

They’re all scattered around now, all still doing thought-provoking work, and I keep bumping into subplots and old references from the BCU. The robot readable world for example came up in a Discord and is still timely 13 years on.

Eight Google employees invented modern AI, here’s the inside story

Steven Levy at WIRED with a walk through a short memory lane, he retraces the eight people who wrote the momentous AI paper that brought transformers (the T in GPT) to the world and documents the various serendipitous moments that brought them together at Google. They’ve all left the company by now, have gone their separate ways, and founded a bunch of companies.

Shazeer began to work his sorcery right away. He decided to write his own version of the transformer team’s code. “I took the basic idea and made the thing up myself,” he says. Occasionally he asked Kaiser questions, but mostly, he says, he “just acted on it for a while and came back and said, ‘Look, it works.’” Using what team members would later describe with words like “magic” and “alchemy” and “bells and whistles,” he had taken the system to a new level. […]

Without that environment: no transformer. Not only were the authors all Google employees, they also worked out of the same offices. Hallway encounters and overheard lunch conversations led to big moments. The group is also culturally diverse. Six of the eight authors were born outside the United States; the other two are children of two green-card-carrying Germans who were temporarily in California and a first-generation American whose family had fled persecution, respectively.

Is $38 trillion a lot?

Bill McKibben writes about a new study in Nature which predicts $38 trillion in annual economic losses from the climate crisis by 2050. The authors warn of a 19% global income reduction by mid-century due to climate impacts, arguing that urgent action is needed to limit temperature rise and prevent escalating economic losses. Definitely not the kind of forced degrowth we’d like. “As climate scientists have repeatedly warned, there are plausible scenarios where some regions find it near impossible to adapt and development is thrown into reverse. Such outcomes would trigger huge geo-political risks that could impact the entire global economy.”

There’s also a part on American banks who have taken up the slack for fossil fuel financing after some European countries slowed loans to the industry. He also mentions this from the first version of the Carbon Bankroll, which blew my mind. “[The report] made it clear that for many companies—Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and on and on—the bulk of their carbon emissions came from the cash they kept in the bank, where it got lent out to build more fossil fuel infrastructure.”

One, some of you may remember the famous Limits to Growth report from the early 1970s. It predicted that without serious efforts to change our demands on the planet, economic growth would begin to suffer right about now. We thought about it as a society and then, with the election of Ronald Reagan, rejected it; we are now harvesting that bitter fruit. If we don’t act now then our children may wish they still had bitter fruit to harvest. […]

What that original Earth Day represented was not just norm change but a sociopolitical tipping point in environmental concern—the kind of positive tipping point we need to reach on climate change as well. And it will come. But it has to be our collective mission to make it come sooner.

Why the world cannot afford the rich

To pair with the previous, a comment article published in Nature where the authors show that inequality is harmful to society, affects health, social well-being, the environment, and (not new) that the rich emit more carbon dioxide and contribute to social stressors. They argue that urgent actions like progressive taxation, closing tax loopholes, and promoting fair business practices are crucial to address these crises and create a more equal and sustainable world. Not surprising to people paying attention, but a lot of telling numbers in there.

We combined our environmental performance index with another that we developed previously that considers ten health and social problems: infant mortality, life expectancy, mental illness, obesity, educational attainment, teenage births, homicides, imprisonment, social mobility and trust. There’s a clear trend, with more-unequal societies having worse scores. […]

Reducing economic inequality is not a panacea for health, social and environmental problems, but it is central to solving them all. Greater equality confers the same benefits on a society however it is achieved. Countries that adopt multifaceted approaches will go furthest and fastest.

§ If you remember the Habsburg AI from Are We Watching The Internet Die? in No.302, here’s an adjacent argument in The information grey goo. I wonder though, if firms creating AIs from internet-scale scraping are worried about corrupted data, wouldn’t they have old versions from pre-AI times they could use or compare against? In other words, the internet is being corrupted by LLM-generated content, no question, but will it really be insurmontable for the makers?

§ Seems that AI “deathbots” are helping people in China grieve. “Avatars of deceased relatives are increasingly popular for consoling those in mourning, or hiding the deaths of loved ones from children.” It reminded me of the haunting of modern China, in “Nanjing, Hong Kong and other Chinese cities, rapid urbanisation is multiplying a fear of death and belief in ghosts.” (From No.288.)

Futures, Fictions & Fabulations

Action Speaks Summit
Nice overview of some smart and gorgeous work by Superflux. “Our long term collaborator INGKA Group (IKEA) invited us to help conceive and create a large-scale immersive public installation for New York Climate Week 2023: Action Speaks Summit – a two storey multi-sensory experience and exhibition space highlighting action from over 30 companies and organisations acting now to create a better tomorrow.”

A thousand suns
Definitely in the ‘fictions’ side of this section, an original science fiction anthology series. “It’s the future. How far? Far enough that our modern society is little more than a ghost haunting humanity. Far enough that we’ve spread far beyond Earth, off onto many worlds.” (Via the RADAR Discord.)

Top 15 methods & frameworks — #1 CIPHER
Only skimmed through, but I like it. CIPHER is an acronym-based framework and tool that describes six indicators for identifying the early onset of emerging trends and weak future signals that swim away from the mainstream:”

Algorithms, Automations & Augmentations

Elections 2024: Tracking AI use in global elections
Nice! “As more than 2 billion people in 50 countries head to the polls this year, artificial intelligence-generated content is now widely being used to spread misinformation, as well as to confuse and entertain voters. Throughout 2024, Rest of World is tracking the most noteworthy incidents of AI-generated election content globally.”

AI Index: State of AI in 13 charts
The report is 500 pages, “tracking 2023’s worldwide trends in AI.” The link is to a quick overview of 13 charts from the report. A number of stats are concerning, like the number of notable models by country, and private investment by country. Spoiler: the US is eating everyone’s lunch.

Nvidia wants to replace nurses with AI for $9 an Hour
Yeah, right. “Nvidia announced a collaboration with Hippocratic AI on Monday, a healthcare company that offers generative AI nurses who work for just $9 an hour. Hippocratic promotes how it can undercut real human nurses, who can cost $90 an hour, with its cheap AI agents that offer medical advice to patients over video calls in real-time.”


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