Newsletter No.286 — Nov 05, 2023

Seawater’s Teeming Life May Change Our Own ⊗ The Youth Boom in Africa Will Change the World ⊗ How to Think Computationally About AI, the Universe and Everything

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Also this week → Prompting isn’t the most important skill ⊗ Parallel bets, Microsoft, and AI strategies ⊗ Companies inflating fears about the risks of AI

Seawater’s teeming life may change our own

Nathan Gardels interviews Craig Venter, the pioneering cartographer of the human genome, and they discuss synthetic biology and his new book The Voyage of Sorcerer II: The Expedition That Unlocked The Secrets of The Ocean’s Microbiome. Venter’s team found that every 200 miles of seawater contained unique sequences, revealing a diversity of organisms greater than the number of stars and planets in the universe. These discoveries highlight the importance of preserving the environmental resources provided by these organisms, as they produce 50% of the oxygen we breathe. They also talk about synthetic biology, “planet microbe,” viruses, generative AI in genetics and what it can’t do, and more.

It’s one of those interviews or articles which reminds us that as much as we have learned with science, there is still so much more to learn, unlearn, and relearn.

Today, that approach to science is put down by the establishment. If you don’t have a hypothesis, you can’t go out and just do “a fishing expedition.” But I decided to do just that: to take a barrel of seawater and filter it through several layers to collect everything from the tiniest viruses to microbes to diatoms. […]

Everybody’s worried about the sea level rise from climate change. That is certainly going to be important. But far worse will happen if we wipe out the producers of oxygen, as we see with these huge areas the size of the United States or Africa with no oxygen in them at all, dead zones in the ocean plus several-mile-wide islands of plastic that we sailed through.

More → If you want a shorter read, Gardels also wrote an editorial on the same topic, which also references and cites Jacques Cousteau (who died in 1997), including this one:

“As we are living it today, [it] is doing more damage to the planet than anything else because everything has a price but nothing has value. Since the long term has no price in today’s market, the fate of future generations is not considered in the economic equation. … Money is a wonderful tool of exchange, but it is a terrible danger for the planet. What the market today produces is retail sanity but wholesale madness.”

The Youth Boom in Africa will change the world

Great long read at The New York Times (superb pictures too) on the incredible coming demographic change in Africa, its rising importance in the world, and the opportunities and challenges of being the youngest continent in the world. “By 2050, one in four people on the planet will be African,” and 35% of the world’s young people will live on the continent.

It’s worth noting that Africa is ginormous and thus impossible to comprehend as one thing, even though we try to all the time, including overall in this piece, although the author does break it down a number of times. Africa is diverse and comprises 54 countries with different cultures, religions, histories, and development levels. The piece looks at a growing cultural influence, a jobs crisis, creative potential, and spreading militants. Most countries find themselves with young voters and old, sometimes entrenched, leaders which is likely going to be a recipe for tensions in some places.

The author writes about an industrialization gap, a problem for sure, but doesn’t really talk about the potential of once again jumping over eras of technologies, like skipping most of the wired telephone era and jumping to mobile quickly, or the example of parts of India that have gone from no electricity to local solar. Not saying that’s super likely to be reproduced or could solve everything, just that it’s a missing angle, to my mind.

African fashion had its own shows in Paris and Milan. In Venice, Africa is the focus of this year’s Architectural Biennale. Last year, an architect from Burkina Faso won the prestigious Pritzker Prize. In 2021, Tanzania-born Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Nobel Prize in Literature. […]

Adjusted for population size, Africa’s economy has grown by 1 percent annually since 1990, according to the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Over the same period, India’s grew 5 percent per year and China’s grew 9 percent. […]

Africa has 60 percent of the world’s solar energy potential and 70 percent of its cobalt, a key mineral for making electric vehicles. Its tropical rainforests pull more carbon from the atmosphere than the Amazon. Ambitious ventures are taking shape in numerous countries: a dazzling solar tower in Morocco; a $10 billion green hydrogen plant in Namibia; a Kenyan-made machine that extracts carbon from the air. […]

A youthful continent is run by old men. The average African leader is 63 years old; the oldest, President Paul Biya of Cameroon, is 90, a full 72 years older than the average Cameroonian. Under their grip, democracy has fallen to its lowest point in decades: Half of all Africans live in countries considered “not free” by Freedom House.

How to think computationally about AI, the universe and everything

If you feel like exploding your brain thoroughly today, read the transcript or this recent TED Talk (yes, TED) by Stephen Wolfram or watch the video. Or better yet, watch and read along, if you want any chance of starting to really grasp what he’s saying.

Wolfram believes that computation is the ultimate formalization for our universe, and shows how a computational approach can be used to understand space and time. He also talks about the potential of computational language, such as the Wolfram Language, to formalize knowledge about the world in computational terms, and how it can even be used by AIs to explore what he calls the ruliad. (“Think of it as the entangled limit of everything that is computationally possible: the result of following all possible computational rules in all possible ways.”)

We’ve seen the growth of computer science—CS. But computational language opens up something ultimately much bigger and broader: CX. For 70 years we’ve had programming languages—which are about telling computers in their terms what to do. But computational language is about something intellectually much bigger: it’s about taking everything we can think about and operationalizing it in computational terms. […]

In a sense, what’s happening is that Wolfram Language shifts from concentrating on mechanics to concentrating on conceptualization. And the key to that conceptualization is broad computational thinking. So how can one learn to do that? It’s not really a story of CS. It’s really a story of CX. And as a kind of education, it’s more like liberal arts than STEM. It’s part of a trend that when you automate technical execution, what becomes important is not figuring out how to do things—but what to do. And that’s more a story of broad knowledge and general thinking than any kind of narrow specialization.

§ Prompting isn’t the most important skill. “‘Wanting to know’ is exactly what it will take to write good prompts. In the long run, the will to learn something yourself will be much more important than a couple of hours training in effective prompting patterns. Using AI as a shortcut so that you don’t have to learn is a big step on the road to irrelevance. The ‘will to learn’ is what will keep you and your job relevant in an age of AI.”

§ Parallel bets, Microsoft, and AI strategies. I was going to feature this one but it’s perhaps a bit too inside business. Still, if you like the history of big tech and a high level take on current AI strategies, this one by Matthew Ball is worth a read. He goes back to DOS and looks at Microsoft’s history of making parallel bets, all the way to their strategic partnership and competition with OpenAI.

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation

Google Brain cofounder says Big Tech companies are inflating fears about the risks of AI wiping us out because they want to dominate the market
“There are definitely large tech companies that would rather not have to try to compete with open source, so they’re creating fear of AI leading to human extinction, It’s been a weapon for lobbyists to argue for legislation that would be very damaging to the open-source community.” (Andrew Ng)

Introducing the AI model trained with diversity and inclusivity in mind
“Latimer, named after African-American inventor Lewis Latimer, is a new platform trying to make generative AI more inclusive. Nicknamed the Black GPT, Latimer is a new large language model (LLM) built to reflect the experience, culture, and history of Black and brown people more accurately.”

GM’s Cruise loses its self-driving license in San Francisco after a robotaxi dragged a person
“The California DMV says the company’s autonomous taxis are ‘not safe’ and that Cruise ‘misrepresented’ safety information about its self-driving vehicle technology.”

Welcome to State of AI Report 2023
“The State of AI Report analyses the most interesting developments in AI. We aim to trigger an informed conversation about the state of AI and its implication for the future.”