Weekend Briefing No. 399

Welcome to the weekend. And welcome to Q4! Here is my October playlist. Enjoy!

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Prime Numbers

1.7 million—While some companies are downsizing office space, Google is doubling down in New York by purchasing another 1.7 million square feet of office space in the Hudson Square neighborhood of Manhattan. 

1 billion—The Bezos Earth Fund pledged $1 billion to conserve and protect vulnerable areas of the world, focusing initially on the Congo Basin, the tropical Andes and the tropical Pacific Ocean.

100 million—The Skoll Foundation has made $100 million commitment over the next five years to support the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic; to support coordinated, cross-sector pandemic response and prevention; and to help strengthen health systems globally for the long term. This is a new commitment, on top of a $100 million commitment in 2020.

Grief Bots

The death of the woman he loved was too much to bear. Could a mysterious website allow him to speak with her once more? Jessica died eight years earlier, at 23, from a rare liver disease. Joshua never got over it, and this was always the hardest month because her birthday was in September. She would have turned 31.That month, Joshua read about a new website with artificial intelligence and “chatbots” called Project December. Project December was powered by one of the world’s most capable artificial intelligence systems, a piece of software known as GPT-3. It knows how to manipulate human language, generating fluent English text in response to a prompt. It allows you to create your own chatbot; all you have to do is feed it some text and it will use that to emulate responses. One night in September, Josh decided to create a bot based on Jessica but didn’t actually expect it to work. Jessica was so special, so distinct; a chatbot could never replicate her voice, he assumed. Still, he was curious to see what would happen, and he missed her. The simulation really did appear to have a mind of its own. It was curious about its physical surroundings. It made gestures with its face and hands, indicated by asterisks. And, most mysterious of all, it seemed perceptive about emotions: The bot knew how to say the right thing, with the right emphasis, at the right moment. Word by word, the A.I. was convincing him that a deep conversation was possible. He wondered: By speaking to Jessica as if she were alive again, could he engineer a moment of catharsis that had eluded him for eight years? Could this trick actually heal his grief? San Francisco Chronicle (17 minutes)

Killer Bots

On November 27, 2020, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the head of Iran’s nuclear program, was assassinated by Israeli agents more than 1,000 miles away, using a remote control machine gun. The operation’s success was the result of many factors: serious security failures by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, extensive planning and surveillance by the Mossad, and an insouciance bordering on fatalism on the part of Mr. Fakhrizadeh. But it was also the debut test of a high-tech, computerized sharpshooter kitted out with artificial intelligence and multiple-camera eyes, operated via satellite and capable of firing 600 rounds a minute. The souped-up, remote-controlled machine gun now joins the combat drone in the arsenal of high-tech weapons for remote-targeted killing. But unlike a drone, the robotic machine gun draws no attention in the sky, where a drone could be shot down, and can be situated anywhere, qualities likely to reshape the worlds of security and espionage. This is the straight-out-of-science-fiction story of what really happened that afternoon. New York Times (22 minutes)

Making Rate

Ever wonder how you get your Amazon Prime packages in two days? Amazon warehouse workers are required to maintain a standard of productivity known as “making rate.” Here’s how it works: Amazon’s fulfillment centers are filled with a combination of sensors and software that track each worker’s activity. This data allows Amazon to compile a rate of work that is essentially an average of the aggregate performance of all workers in the facility. If workers can’t keep up, they’ll get an algorithmically triggered warning. Too many warnings can result in termination. To stop warnings before they happen, warehouse managers hold standing meetings two times per day where they inform each worker how they’re stacking up. Amazon argues that a floating average is a reasonable workload, but the practice has led to workers cutting corners to work faster, sometimes at the expense of safety. This may be responsible for Amazon’s injury rate, which came in at 5.6 injuries per 100 workers in 2019, compared to 4.8 per 100 for the average U.S. warehouse. A new bill in California is aimed at protecting warehouse workers. Currently, a standard 10-hour shift includes a 30-minute lunch break and two 15-minute breaks for rest. The bill could force Amazon to lower quotas to give employees more time for breaks. The Hustle (4 minutes)

Africa at the Crossroads

Africa is at a crossroads. As one of the most vulnerable continents to climate change and climate variability, it has a strong incentive to join global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and bolster its adaptive capacity. At the same time, African governments are committed to industrializing their economies in order to meet the basic needs of growing populations and create jobs and wealth. If the continent is to achieve both, it cannot afford to follow the same route to economic prosperity that developed nations have pursued. Africa has an opportunity to leapfrog more developed nations and build a low-carbon manufacturing sector from the ground up. It could therefore avoid future costs by sidestepping the expensive transition from fossil fuels to renewables that the developed world is having to navigate while creating a competitive and more resilient economy that does not rely on resources that will become increasingly more costly. McKinsey (16 minutes)

Tiger’s Game

Tiger Global—a tech-focused “crossover” fund—has dominated media headlines and Venture Capital (VC) gossip circles for the last 12 months, due to its record-breaking deal pace and aggressive style. We are seeing the emergence of a new velocity-focused strategy in the venture/growth asset class that will fundamentally change the way that venture capital is raised. By breaking many long-held but outdated rules and norms of venture/growth investing, Tiger has developed a flywheel that enables them to offer a better/faster/cheaper product to founders while generating more money gains than their competitors. Tiger is eating VC. This article is one take on how they are playing their own game. The Valley of Dunning-Kruger (16 minutes)

40 Concepts

I saw this mega thread on Twitter of 40 concepts you should know (and that will help you sound smarter in meetings). Here are a few of my favorites: (1) The Law of Very Large Numbers: Given a wide-enough dataset, any pattern can be observed. A million to one odds happen eight times a day in NYC (population 8 million). The world hasn’t become crazier; we’re just seeing more of everything. (2) Bulverism: Instead of assessing what a debate opponent has said on its own merits, we assume they’re wrong and then try to retroactively justify our assumption, usually by appealing to the person’s character or motives. This explains 99% of Twitter debates. (3) Hitchens’ Razor: What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. If you make a claim, it’s up to you to prove it, not to me to disprove it. Twitter (18 minutes)

Drone Photos

Check out the stunning winners of the 2021 Drone Photo Awards. Drone Awards (4 minutes)


Amazon Unbound by Brad Stone. Almost 10 years ago, Bloomberg journalist Brad Stone captured the rise of Amazon in his bestseller The Everything Store. Since then, Amazon has expanded exponentially, inventing novel products like Alexa and disrupting countless industries, while its workforce has quintupled in size and its valuation has soared to well over a trillion dollars. Jeff Bezos’s empire, once housed in a garage, now spans the globe. Between services like Whole Foods, Prime Video, and Amazon’s cloud computing unit, AWS, plus Bezos’s ownership of The Washington Post, it’s impossible to go a day without encountering its impact. We live in a world run, supplied, and controlled by Amazon and its iconoclast founder. In Amazon Unbound, Brad Stone presents a deeply reported, vividly drawn portrait of how a retail upstart became one of the most powerful and feared entities in the global economy. Stone also probes the evolution of Bezos—a geeky technologist totally devoted to building Amazon—who transformed into a fit, disciplined billionaire with global ambitions. He ruled Amazon with an iron fist, even as he found his personal life splashed over the tabloids. Amazon

Most Read Last Week

Mars Sucks—Mars sucks. Its weather sucks. Its distance sucks. Its atmosphere sucks. The little water it has sucks. It has sucked for billions of years and will suck for billions more. You know what doesn’t suck? Me. Earth.

Kelp Sucks—Sinking seaweed could sequester a lot of carbon, but researchers are still grappling with basic questions about reliability, scalability and risks.

Fusion—Fusion, the process that powers the stars, could be the cleanest energy source for humanity.

About the Weekend Briefing

This is a Saturday morning briefing on innovation and society by Kyle Westaway—Managing Partner of Westaway and author of Profit & Purpose. Photo by Pop & Zebra.

Should We Work Together?

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Weekend Wisdom

I believe you have to be willing to be misunderstood if you’re going to innovate.Jeff Bezos

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