Weekend Briefing No. 353

Weekend Briefing No. 353

Welcome to the weekend. Hello from Palm Springs! I’m spending some time out of the city for the last two months of the year and am enjoying the change of scenery, as well as Joshua Tree National Park. I’ve been wanting to visit Joshua Tree for more than two decades, and I finally made it. It definitely lives up to the hype. If you want to see some photos, follow me on instagram.

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Prime Numbers

1 B—During the first 10 months of 2020, Pokémon Go generated more than $1 billion in revenue, marking its best sales year yet.

28—Sales of all coffee makers, from espresso machines to Chemex Corp.’s pourover brewer, are up 28 percent since the start of the pandemic.

5.5—Chocolate sales have also spiked 5.5 percent between March and September, according to data from the National Confectioners Association conducted by 210 Analytics. Non-chocolate confectionery sales grew by 1.6 percent.

The Pope on AI

For his monthly intention in November, Pope Francis prayed that artificial intelligence (AI) will be beneficial for humanity. It’s up for debate whether the development of automation and AI will ultimately be good for humankind, and it can’t hurt to have a little divine intervention on our side. This isn’t the first time Francis has ventured into the fraught territory of AI ethics and alignment. In February, the Vatican hosted executives from IBM and Microsoft for a summit on “human-centered” ways of designing AI. They formulated the “Rome Call for AI Ethics,” which called for AI to be designed with a focus on the good of the environment and “our common and shared home and of its human inhabitants.” In his own comments after the summit, Francis warned accurately that AI could worsen economic inequalities, but he also put his hope in the “immense potential that new technologies offer.” The other side: While we may want AI to “serve humankind,” that servitude could get tricky should we ever develop fully conscious machines that can think, feel and perhaps even believe. If you create other things that think for themselves, it brings up a serious question of whether they have a soul. A serious theological disruption will occur. Axios (4 minutes)

Data is Fire

Early humans’ ability to tame fire, which took hundreds of thousands of years to develop, changed the course of history. Fire was and is pivotal. But fire is also dangerous. It kills people. It’s difficult to tame. It’s not easy to get. We see ourselves as far more advanced than our ancestors, but we face a strikingly similar situation today with a force just as powerful and mysterious. Our fire is called data. Today’s big moods are to be either fearful or possessive of data. (In the context of this essay, “data” means information about human activity that is collected, processed and used.) Activists see data as a dangerous tool for privacy invasion, manipulation and control. Companies treat data as a resource to be amassed, mined and exploited. Ideaspace (10 minutes)

Elon Musk’s 2020

Elon Musk is on a mission. He’s on a mission to Mars. He’s on a mission to save humanity from its reliance on fossil fuels, which could destroy the planet and kill us all. He’s on a mission to save us from artificial intelligence algorithms going rogue and machines ending human life as we know it. He’s on a mission to help save a group of boys trapped underground in Thailand. A mission to transport people from Los Angeles to San Francisco in giant air tubes. A mission to build ventilators for hamstrung hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic. He’s on a mission to prove the coronavirus fatality rate is greatly overstated. To dig tunnels underground to alleviate the fatuous cycle of traffic jams. To save journalism. To mitigate the effects of climate change. To transport people in earthbound rockets from one continent to the next in mere minutes. To inhabit other planets before the sun explodes and turns our oceans into boiling vats of water, our skies into steam-filled death, our lands into carbon crusts of darkness. He’s on a mission to inhabit other star systems. All of these missions are completely possible in the realm of physics and science, especially with Elon Musk’s brain working to solve these problems. In 2020, the COVID-doubting, media-hating Twitterholic CEO became the third-richest man alive. SpaceX launched two astronauts into orbit, and Tesla became the most valuable car company on the planet. Take a peek inside the mind of Silicon Valley’s most vainglorious villain. Vanity Fair (24 minutes)

Telegram’s Influence

Telegram, a messaging app created by the reclusive Russian exile Pavel Durov, is becoming the go-to for running protests for a number of reasons. It allows huge encrypted chat groups, making it easier to organize people, like a slicker version of WhatsApp. And its “channels” allow moderators to disseminate information quickly to large numbers of followers in a way that other messaging services do not; they combine the reach and immediacy of a Twitter feed, and the focus of an email newsletter. The combination of usability and privacy has made the app popular with protestors (it has been adopted by Extinction Rebellion) as well as people standing against authoritarian regimes (in Hong Kong and Iran, as well as Belarus); it is also used by terrorists and criminals. In the past five years, Telegram has grown at a remarkable speed, hitting 60 million users in 2015 and 400 million in April this year. Each day, another 1.5 million people sign up. One of the chief reasons Telegram is so beloved of protest movements is that it will run even if national regulators ban it. Used in conjunction with another app called Psiphon, it can circumvent most firewalls. Protesters in Iran used this approach to get around a government ban on Telegram in early 2018. But this loophole makes it just as useful for drug dealers, terrorists and other criminals. In Britain and many other places, one of the primary uses of Telegram is for buying drugs. In India, authorities have found Telegram has become a leading source of pirated music and film streams. Most notoriously, it also became known as the Isis app of choice. Former prime minister Theresa May singled out Telegram in 2018 when she warned about “smaller platforms” that “can quickly become home to criminals and terrorists.”The Guardian (14 minutes)

Bill Gates

Bill Gates gives brilliant 30-second answers to common job interview questions. For instance: Q: Why should I hire you? Bill Gates: You should look at the codes that I’ve written. I write software programs way beyond any classes that I’ve taken. I think I’ve gotten better over time, so take a look at how ambitious I’ve been there. I do think I can work well with people. I might criticize their code a little harshly, but overall, I like to be on a team. I like ambitious goals. I like thinking through how we can anticipate the future. Forbes (6 minutes)

Cyberpunk

Over the last few months, the term “cyberpunk” has unexpectedly gone mainstream in China’s post-COVID-19 fashion scene. Originally a science-fiction genre from the 1980s that described a futuristic and dystopian setting, Cyberpunk has reemerged as a total lifestyle aesthetic for Gen Zers in China. Dreadlocks, silver eyeshadow, shiny clothes, neon colors and high-tech-inspired photo filters have infiltrated the country’s magazine covers, luxury campaigns, trendy cafés and social media. While the West remains gripped by the fear of a second-wave epidemic, increasingly clinging to lowkey designs, China’s fashionistas have moved in the opposite direction through techno glamour. In this post-pandemic reality, the two cultures couldn’t be further apart. Jing Daily (6 minutes)

Song on the Open Road

In his poem Song on the Open Road, Walt Whitman reflects on what makes a great person and what wisdom really means:Here is the test of wisdom. Wisdom is not finally tested in schools. Wisdom cannot be pass’d [sic] from one having it to another not having it. Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof, applies to all stages and objects and qualities and is content, is the certainty of the reality and immortality of things, and the excellence of things; something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the soul. Now I re-examine philosophies and religions. They may prove well in lecture rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents. Here is realization. Here is a man tallied. He realizes here what he has in him, the past, the future, majesty, love. If they are vacant of you, you are vacant of them. BrainPickings (8 minutes)

Bookshelf

The End of History and The Last Man by Francis Fukuyama. History is directional, and its endpoint is capitalist liberal democracy, asserts Fukuyama, former U.S. State Department planner. In a broad, ambitious work of political philosophy, he identifies two prime forces that supposedly push all societies toward this evolutionary goal. The first is modern natural science (with its handmaiden, technology), which creates homogenous cultures. The second motor of history (which the author borrows from Hegel) is the desire for recognition, driving innovation and personal achievement. Fukuyama’s main worry seems to be whether, in the coming of what he considers a capitalist utopia, we will all become complacently self-absorbed “last men” or instead revert to “first men” engaged in bloody, pointless battles. Several of the countries that he christens capitalist liberal democraciesTurkey, the nations of South Americaare in fact either oligarchies or police states, and his contention that liberal democracies do not behave imperialistically flies in the face of world and U.S. history. Nevertheless, this self-congratulatory book will probably be popular and widely discussed, like Fukuyama’s 1989 National Interest essay, “The End of History?” Amazon

Most Read Last Week

Raising Capital in a Pandemic—This is my article with advice from entrepreneurs who have raised more than $300 million this year.

Management Rules—Lambda School’s Molly Graham has six counterintuitive management rules. Here’s a quick preview of what she had to share.

Leave No Trace—A nameless hiker is found dead on the trail, and the internet can’t crack the case.

About the Weekend Briefing

A Saturday morning briefing on innovation & society by Kyle Westaway—Managing Partner of Westaway and author of Profit & Purpose. Photo by me. I shot this week’s cover photo in Joshua Tree National Park.

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Weekend Wisdom

Let us pray that the progress of robotics and artificial intelligence may always serve humankind…we could say, may it ‘be human. Pope Francis

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