Start Up No.1605: the bad bad not good metaverse, AI’s Covid failure, Bored Apes go NFT, teens v smartphones, and more


This is Burgess Park BMX park, where some of the newest British Olympians have come from. But how? CC-licensed photo by Matt Brown on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


The metaverse has always been a dystopian idea • Vice

Brian Merchant:

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It’s not just Microsoft and Facebook. A widening swath of Silicon Valley’s investor class, cheerleading pundits, and influential founders have been hyping the so-called metaverse, too. Tim Sweeney, the CEO of Epic Games, which runs Fortnite, has for years been promoting the metaverse as the fast-arriving future. The venture capitalist Matthew Ball attempted to chart its potential and explain why it is “likely to produce trillions in value.” David Baszucki, the founder of the gaming platform Roblox, sung its praises and underlined its import in a January piece for WIRED.

“The Metaverse is arguably as big a shift in online communication as the telephone or the internet,” he wrote.

“The metaverse is a vision that spans many companies—the whole industry,” as Zuckerberg put it. “You can think about it as the successor to the mobile internet.”

We’ve seen this movie before, of course: a host of Silicon Valley companies uniting to embrace a new and nebulous concept, a la the Internet of Things, that sounds both adequately future-y and freshly attractive to big picture-loving investors. This has not stopped those companies from fomenting a new air of inevitability within the industry, or its advocates from trumpeting its imminent arrival. “The metaverse is coming,” one futurist enthused in Forbes in a widely viewed story, “and it’s a very big deal.” In fact, a quick Google search reveals that everyone from WIRED to the Economist to TIME Magazine to InvestorPlace.com to Verizon’s “News Center” has published stories titled “The Metaverse Is Coming,” which helps to offer a snapshot of who has an interest in its arrival.

If it is coming, and if it is a big deal, then surprisingly few have paused to carefully consider the actual source of the metaverse, an undertaking which seems like a good idea, especially because that source is a deeply dystopian novel about a collapsed America that is overrun by violence and poverty. The metaverse was born in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 Snow Crash, where it serves as entertainment and an economic underbelly to a poor, desperate nation that is literally governed by corporate franchises.

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Always unsure whether this is the “old man yells at cloud” situation or the “corporations always make things worse not better” one.
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Hundreds of AI tools have been built to catch Covid. None of them helped • MIT Technology Review

Will Douglas Heaven:

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The AI community, in particular, rushed to develop software that many believed would allow hospitals to diagnose or triage patients faster, bringing much-needed support to the front lines—in theory.

In the end, many hundreds of predictive tools were developed. None of them made a real difference, and some were potentially harmful.

That’s the damning conclusion of multiple studies published in the last few months. In June, the Turing Institute, the UK’s national center for data science and AI, put out a report summing up discussions at a series of workshops it held in late 2020. The clear consensus was that AI tools had made little, if any, impact in the fight against Covid.

This echoes the results of two major studies that assessed hundreds of predictive tools developed last year. Wynants is lead author of one of them, a review in the British Medical Journal that is still being updated as new tools are released and existing ones tested. She and her colleagues have looked at 232 algorithms for diagnosing patients or predicting how sick those with the disease might get. They found that none of them were fit for clinical use. Just two have been singled out as being promising enough for future testing.

“It’s shocking,” says Wynants. “I went into it with some worries, but this exceeded my fears.”

Wynants’s study is backed up by another large review carried out by Derek Driggs, a machine-learning researcher at the University of Cambridge, and his colleagues, and published in Nature Machine Intelligence. This team zoomed in on deep-learning models for diagnosing Covid and predicting patient risk from medical images, such as chest x-rays and chest computer tomography (CT) scans. They looked at 415 published tools and, like Wynants and her colleagues, concluded that none were fit for clinical use.

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Oh. Oh dear.
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Why Bored Ape avatars are taking over Twitter • The New Yorker

Kyle Chayka:

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By the time Swenson decided that he wanted to buy one, on May 3rd, he paid around $1,700 on OpenSea, an NFT marketplace. His ape has a preppy look—sailor hat, gingham shirt, puffer vest—“similar to how I like to dress,” Swenson said. A few weeks later, he bought another. He had previously traded NBA Top Shots, basketball-game highlight videos in NFT form, but this felt more consequential. “It was fear of missing out,” he told me. “I was watching a lot of people whose opinions I valued on NBA Top Shots change their picture to an ape.” Matt Galligan, the co-founder and CEO of a messaging network for crypto called XMTP, who had managed to buy four Bored Apes during the launch, told me, “It became a status symbol of sorts, kind of like wearing a fancy watch or rare sneakers.”

More than previous NFT avatar projects, Bored Ape Yacht Club created rich and detailed iconography drawn from its founders’ personal tastes.Image courtesy Bored Ape Yacht Club
Bored Ape Yacht Club’s initial batch of NFTs brought in more than $2m. The collection has since seen almost $100m in trading, with the cheapest apes often going for almost $14,000.

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It’s exhausting to have to point this out, but you can just copy the bloody things. They’re digital. The NFT stuff is a way of wasting money that isn’t really money. But it also makes people feel good that they’re “rich” enough to spend this money on total fripperies. They’re a form of indulgence; almost a papal one, because who knows what they’re really worth, apart perhaps from nothing. It’s an ultimate capitalism: buying things with no value with a currency that has no value.
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This is our chance to pull teenagers out of the smartphone trap • The New York Times

Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge:

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As students return to school in the coming weeks, there will be close attention to their mental health. Many problems will be attributed to the Covid pandemic, but in fact we need to look back further, to 2012.

That’s when rates of teenage depression, loneliness, self-harm and suicide began to rise sharply. By 2019, just before the pandemic, rates of depression among adolescents had nearly doubled.

When we first started to see these trends in our work as psychologists studying Gen Z (those born after 1996), we were puzzled. The US economy was steadily improving over these years, so economic problems stemming from the 2008 Great Recession were not to blame. It was difficult to think of any other national event from the early 2010s that reverberated through the decade.

We both came to suspect the same culprits: smartphones in general and social media in particular. Jean discovered that 2012 was the first year that a majority of Americans owned a smartphone; by 2015, two-thirds of teens did too. This was also the period when social media use moved from optional to ubiquitous among adolescents.

Jonathan [Haidt] learned, while writing an essay with the technologist Tobias Rose-Stockwell, that the major social media platforms changed profoundly from 2009 to 2012. In 2009, Facebook added the like button, Twitter added the retweet button and, over the next few years, users’ feeds became algorithmicized based on “engagement,” which mostly meant a post’s ability to trigger emotions.

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“The authors are psychologists who have spent years studying the effect of smartphones and social media on our daily lives and mental health,” the article notes.

Well, this is interesting. When I drafted Social Warming, I wrote an entire chapter – 12,500 words – about what the data seemed to show about smartphones and children. There are plenty of psychologists who disagree (strongly) with Haidt and Twenge. So I looked at data from an international, quadrennial study called PISA which looks at children’s educational attainment and other measures. That seemed to me to show an absolutely clear correlation: the more smartphone penetration in a country, the less happy the children in PISA data. It showed over years, and across countries.

Unfortunately we had to cut the chapter due to pressure of space. Yes, it even happens with books.
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China’s Sputnik moment? • Foreign Affairs

Dan Wang:

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In the 1960s, integrated circuits were developed when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was willing to pay any price for technology that could send astronauts to the moon and bring them safely back. Today, the U.S. government is putting Huawei in NASA’s position: a cash-rich organization willing to pay for critical components on the basis of performance rather than cost. Smaller Chinese companies that previously never stood a chance of selling to Huawei are now sought after as vendors, and they receive infusions of cash and technical expertise that will accelerate their growth. Private and state-owned chip manufacturers are ramping up their operations. Once siloed industries now collaborate in the service of tech innovation: the Chinese Academy of Sciences, for example, has begun coordinating regular sessions that bring together math professors and private companies. China is now undertaking a whole-of-society effort to improve domestic technology, specifically around what Chinese leaders think will drive not only economic growth but also geopolitical power.

Is all of this enough to make Chinese industrial policy work this time around? It is likely that in a decade, China will have made greater technological advancements under the U.S. export-control regime than it would have had the United States not forced China’s leading companies to buy from weak domestic firms. Had the United States implemented necessary but measured reforms—strengthening the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States and prosecuting intellectual property theft—and stopped there, Made in China 2025 would have likely played out in the usual way, with inefficient state-owned enterprises and government ministries taking the lead rather than innovative tech firms.

But this time is different.

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Apparently Dominic Cummings thinks this is a Very Important Article, though I’d have to say that if you’ve been following along here they you’ll pretty much know it all already.
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SolarWinds: top US prosecutors hit by suspected Russian hack • BBC News

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Nearly 30 top US prosecutors had their office’s email accounts hacked during a major breach last year, the Justice Department says.

The attack on users of the software SolarWinds – which the US has blamed on Russia – was the worst-ever cyber-espionage attack on the US government.

The department says 27 US attorneys had at least one office computer hacked. That has raised fears the hackers may have accessed sensitive information, including the names of informants.

“It’s potentially very serious,” Gil Soffer, a former federal prosecutor, told the BBC. He said prosecutors’ emails contain “very sensitive, very confidential and often very secret information”.

If the hackers got hold of secret informants’ identities, they could use the information to “blow their cover,” he added. The hack, which gave cyber-criminals potential access to 18,000 government and private computer networks, was made public last December.

Those hit by the breach include 80% of Microsoft email accounts used by employees at the four New York’s attorney offices – which handle some of the most prominent prosecutions in the country.

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Notable inasmuch as hacking for information these days has become a thing that state actors do. Commercial gangs don’t mostly care.
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‘Like a mini Olympic programme’: the rise of Peckham BMX Club • The Guardian

Damien Gayle on the silver medal winner who came from the quite deprived southeast London district:

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Peckham BMX Club is an anomaly. British Olympians tend to be overwhelmingly suburbanites, with just 35% of the current team from the UK’s largest cities. BMX, a sport that requires costly equipment and space, is more associated with quiet and leafy middle-class districts than deprived urban areas such as Peckham.

And yet Peckham BMX has already contributed seven British Olympic team members: at one point four out of seven in the BMX team came from the club.

“Basically [the club is] like a mini Olympic programme,” says its founder, CK Flash. Just like British Cycling, which develops riders for the road and velodrome, Peckham BMX has its own nutritionist, its own weightlifting coach, alongside about 10 riding coaches. “We talk about diet, we talk about water, we talk about how much sleep you get, how should you stretch,” Flash says.

It has taken nearly two decades to build up to this. Flash started training riders in 2003, breaking off a successful career as a DJ. He started in Brixton, where he first met Tre Whyte, Kye’s older brother, who rose to British national champion and took bronze in the world championships in 2014. After building a stable of riders there, Flash moved to Peckham.

“Eventually the guys from Brixton came to Peckham and then, within three years of training them, they won every title in England, which was regional champions, youth games champions, national champions, European champions, and we got a world champion from it as well in 2012.”

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Whyte won silver; his female equivalent won gold. Making Olympic champions takes investment.
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A bizarre form of water may exist all over the universe • WIRED

Joshua Sokol:

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The findings, published this week in Nature, confirm the existence of “superionic ice,” a new phase of water with bizarre properties. Unlike the familiar ice found in your freezer or at the north pole, superionic ice is black and hot. A cube of it would weigh four times as much as a normal one. It was first theoretically predicted more than 30 years ago, and although it has never been seen until now, scientists think it might be among the most abundant forms of water in the universe.

Across the solar system, at least, more water probably exists as superionic ice—filling the interiors of Uranus and Neptune—than in any other phase, including the liquid form sloshing in oceans on Earth, Europa and Enceladus. The discovery of superionic ice potentially solves decades-old puzzles about the composition of these “ice giant” worlds.

Including the hexagonal arrangement of water molecules found in common ice, known as “ice Ih,” scientists had already discovered a bewildering 18 architectures of ice crystal. After ice I, which comes in two forms, Ih and Ic, the rest are numbered II through XVII in order of their discovery. (Yes, there is an ice IX, but it exists only under contrived conditions, unlike the fictional doomsday substance in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle.)

Superionic ice can now claim the mantle of ice XVIII. It’s a new crystal but with a twist. All the previously known water ices are made of intact water molecules, each with one oxygen atom linked to two hydrogen atoms. But superionic ice, the new measurements confirm, isn’t like that. It exists in a sort of surrealist limbo, part solid, part liquid.

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Don’t expect to buy it at your supermarket any time soon. It requires millions of atmospheres of pressure at thousands of degrees.
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The 50 best movie memes ever • Film School Rejects

Ciara Wardlow:

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Memes. You love them. I love them. They are the veritable lifeblood of social media as we know it. They come from everywhere — news stories, stock photos, classical art (here’s looking at you, Joseph Ducreux), and, of course, movies. Now, here at Film School Rejects, movies are kind of our thing, and we live on the internet, the land of memes. So, putting two and two together, I decided it was high time that we publish a definitive list of the best movie-sourced memes out there on the interwebs.

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You might think: only 50? And as it dates from August 2019, it doesn’t include the Anakin/Padme meme, which is one of the finest around. Which prompts me to observe:

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Facebook’s broken vows • The New Yorker

Jill Lepore reviews “An Ugly Truth”, the new book that (unlike mine) focuses solely on Facebook:

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“Our mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” is a statement to be found in Facebook’s Terms of Service; everyone who uses Facebook implicitly consents to this mission. During the years of the company’s ascent, the world has witnessed a loneliness epidemic, the growth of political extremism and political violence, widening political polarization, the rise of authoritarianism, the decline of democracy, a catastrophic crisis in journalism, and an unprecedented rise in propaganda, fake news, and misinformation. By no means is Facebook responsible for these calamities, but evidence implicates the company as a contributor to each of them. In July, President Biden said that misinformation about covid-19 on Facebook “is killing people.”

Collecting data and selling ads does not build community, and it turns out that bringing people closer together, at least in the way Facebook does it, makes it easier for them to hurt one another.

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Lepore gets plenty of room to review it (it is the New Yorker, after all) and one gets the very strong impression that she doesn’t like Facebook in the least.

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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Order Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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