New Week #79
A metaverse startup says it can help you live forever. Will humanity make its way to the stars? Plus more news and analysis from this week.
Welcome to the mid-week update from New World Same Humans, a newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.
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This week, a bumper edition.
A European startup say AI can enable their users to ‘live forever’ inside the metaverse.
Also, a new research paper dives deep into humanity’s longterm prospects. And scientists warn that geoengineering the climate may have serious unintended public health consequences.
Let’s get into it.
😇 Live forever
This week, a new chapter in the story of our coming AI afterlives.
Speaking to VICE, a metaverse startup called Somnium Space announced plans to offer users a new ‘live forever’ mode. The service would collect massive amounts of data on a participating user, including their conversations, gestures, and travels inside the Somnium world. It would then create an AI-fuelled avatar of that user, intended to be a mirror image of the real person.
The idea is that any user can create such an avatar, and so achieve a strange new kind of immortality inside Somnium. CEO Artur Sychov explains:
Literally, if I die, people can come in or my kids can come in, and they can have a conversation with my avatar…You will meet the person. And you would maybe for the first ten minutes while talking to that person, you would not know that it's actually AI. That’s the goal.
In related news, this YouTuber used the language model GPT-3 to reincarnate his childhood imaginary friend:
Back when Lucas Rizzotto was a boy he cultivated an entire imagined world, including amazing adventures, around the family microwave. Fast forward to 2022: Rizzotto wrote a 100-page document recalling those adventures and fed it to GPT-3. Then, he started chatting to his old childhood microwave pal.
The pair had some great convos about old times. But microwave-friend also seemed to hold a grudge against Rizzotto for abandoning it (him?) for 20 years; pretty soon, things turned nasty. Watch the video for the full story.
⚡ NWSH Take: AI afterlives are a longstanding NWSH theme. It all started in New Week #21 when I wrote about the AI reincarnation of South Korean folk singer Kim Kwang-Seok. // Via examples such as Kwang-Seok, it’s clear AI is set to allow artists and creators a weird new kind of ghostly creative life after death. But eventually, building an AI-fuelled mirror-avatar will become something we can all do; as commonplace as curating an Instagram account. Somnium’s ‘live forever’ mode is just talk right now, but someone is going to do this; and tech giants, including Microsoft, are working on similar services. // Meanwhile, look past Lucas Rizzotto’s ker-ray-zee YouTuber shtick and you’ll find a fascinating experiment, which offers a glimpse of the way massive language models will make possible new forms of narrative art. Back in a previous life I made a living as a fiction reviewer for UK newspapers. Even then, people were forecasting the death of the novel. Here’s an idea for a reboot: the novel as conversation. Train an AI-fuelled chatbot on a set of original stories, and then let readers interact with that entity and uncover those stories for themselves. Someone will do it (maybe me?) — remember, you heard it here first.
🖼 Image rights
Two weeks ago I mentioned the launch of OpenAI’s DALL·E 2, which turns text prompts into images.
Twitter is awash with pictures that demonstrate the AI’s amazing capabilities. Someone asked it to create a medieval manuscript that explains the internet:
We’ve long believed that creative jobs, such as illustrator, would be those most resilient to automation via AI.
Scrolling through DALL·E 2 images, I’m starting to believe we had things upside down. Example: how long until most sneakers are designed by a machine learning model?
🌌 The long view
A research paper published this week attempts to quantify humanity’s current level of technological advancement using the Kardashev scale.
Created by Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev in 1964, the scale provides a framework against which to assess the ability of a civilisation to harness and use energy. Essentially, it’s about grading the maturity of a civilisation as seen from a cosmic standpoint.
Type I civilisations, also called ‘planetary civilisations’, can harness all the energy available on their home planet. Type II, ‘stellar civilisations’ are able to harness all the energy radiated by their parent star. And Type III, ‘galactic civilisations’ can make use of most or all of the available energy in their galaxy.
According to this new paper, Avoiding the Great Filter: Predicting the Timeline for Humanity to Reach Kardashev Type I Civilization, it will take we humans another 349 years to achieve Type I status. That would mean a power consumption of 10^16 Watts; current consumption is around 10^13 Watts. To get there, we need to massively increase use of nuclear and renewable energies.
The physicist Michio Kaku has estimated we’ll reach Type II in a few thousand years, and Type III in 0.1 — 1 million years. That’s if we don’t fall prey to the great filter referenced in the paper’s title; a catastrophic event that wipes us out. Such events are, some scientists fear, the reason we don’t see a universe teeming with alien civilisations: they all get erased by the great filter before they become visible to us.
⚡ NWSH Take: Typically NWSH focuses on our near future. But it doesn’t hurt, every now and again, to gaze into deep time and the long-term prospects for our species. After all, long-termism is becoming more prevalent. This week, NASA scientists announced plans to broadcast our DNA across the galaxy in the hope that it will be received and understood by intelligent aliens. Meanwhile Anders Sandberg, a fellow at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, warned that such a plan comes with risk of sparking an alien invasion. // Sandberg is one among those leading the emerging long-termist movement, which seeks to reframe our relationship to this historical moment via the question: what if all human history so far was only the beginning? That question has the power to challenge our thinking across a range of domains. For example, when we make an ethical assessment of our actions today, should we factor in the consequences of those actions for trillions of future humans? Should we invest heavily to mitigate existential risks such as meteor strike? // I’m speaking to some leading long-termist thinkers at the moment, for a project that I’ll soon be able to say more about (promises, promises).
🌦 Weather machines
I’ve written in this newsletter on projects to manipulate the Earth’s climate in order to ameliorate global heating.
This week, a new paper outlines a potential hitch: this kind of geoengineering could see millions more each year die from malaria.
The authors of the paper say that thanks to strange climate phenomena, engineering a lower global temperature is likely to cause the equatorial region to cool much more than the poles. This would shove vast swathes of central Africa in the malaria danger zone; mosquitos tend to thrive when ambient temperatures are around 25C, and die off when air becomes much cooler or hotter than that.
A worst case scenario would see an extra 1 billion people at increased risk of malaria, which is the sixth-highest cause of death in low income countries. It killed over 627,000 people in 2020.
⚡ NWSH Take: What do you know — poking the Earth’s delicate climate system with a big stick will have unintended consequences! Okay, that’s trite. And, as proponents of geoengineering point out, failing to engineer a lower global could also end up having serious or even fatal consequences for billions around the world. Still, this new paper is a reminder, if we needed it, that geoengineering is a high risk strategy. Our understanding of, and ability to model, the planet’s climate systems are still limited; what don’t we know about happens if we, say, try to cool the planet by firing reflective chalk dust into the atmosphere? // These questions are becoming urgent. The Harvard scientists behind the chalk dust project, which I wrote about last year, say they hope to run a first trial some time in 2022.
🗓️ Also this week
☀️ California authorities say the state briefly ran almost entirely on renewable energy last month. On Sunday 3 April the state’s main grid ran on over 97% renewables; power generation from the wind and sun typically peak in the spring in California.
👨🚀 NASA beamed a holographic doctor to the International Space Station. Dr. Josef Schmid was holoported to the ISS with the help of Microsoft’s HoloLens AR platform, and interacted with the astronauts on board.
🇨🇳 China’s online censorship systems are being overwhelmed by the volume of criticism from Shanghai citizens living under lockdown. On social platform Weibo, some users have been evading censors by sarcastically replacing the word ‘China’ with ‘US’.
🔌 Tesla workers in Shanghai will now eat and sleep at the factory according to leaked internal memos. The move comes in the wake of Shanghai’s Covid lockdown; city authorities are reportedly encouraging workplaces to reopen using ‘closed loop’ systems that ensure no one enters or leaves.
🎭 Businesses are using AI to monitor the emotion of clients and prospects during online sales calls. A range of startups are building software systems to support this, and Zoom say they plan to offer emotion recognition services in future.
💸 Amazon’s Europe division paid no taxes on $55 billion in sales in 2021. The business reported a $1.2 billion loss, which meant it paid no tax and was able to claim a €1 billion in tax credits.
🚗 The UK government is planning new legislation that will allow those in the driving seat of self-driving cars to watch TV. The new rules will also make insurance companies liable for collisions involving self-driving cars.
🐦 Elon Musk hit out at the Twitter board after they adopted a ‘poison pill’ strategy to repel his takeover bid. Musk said his proposal to take Twitter private would save the company $3 million a year in salary costs for board members, who are paid around $250,000 a year each in cash and stock.
🌍 Humans of Earth
Key metrics to help you keep track of Project Human.
🙋 Global population: 7,941,684,577
🌊 Earths currently needed: 1.8075228476
💉 Global population vaccinated: 58.7%
🗓️ 2022 progress bar: 30% complete
📖 On this day: On 21 April 1989 an estimated 100,000 students march on Tiananmen Square to call for a more open and democratic China.
One Step Beyond
Thanks for reading this week.
The emergence of AI afterlives has intriguing consequences for our relationship with art and those who make it. And, eventually, for our relationship with our own mortality. It’s a story that sees an age-old human impulse – to leave a legacy – collide with powerful new technologies. New world, same humans.
This newsletter will keep watching, and trying to make sense of it all. There’s one thing you can do to help: share!
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I’ll be back next week. Until then, be well,
P.S Huge thanks to Nikki Ritmeijer for the illustration at the top of this email. And to Monique van Dusseldorp for additional research and analysis.