Start Up No.1757: the AI bioweapon maker, slower Chipmunks, Instagram forced out of Russia, Sizewell C extends, and more

The wreckage of tanks among the ruins in Ukraine are symbolic of the problem that will follow any peace: rebuilding is going to be very, very expensive. CC-licensed photo by manhhai on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Three weeks already. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Dual use of artificial-intelligence-powered drug discovery • Nature Machine Intelligence

Fabio Urbina, Filippa Lentzos, Cédric Invernizzi and Sean Ekins:


Our drug discovery company received an invitation to contribute a presentation on how AI technologies for drug discovery could potentially be misused.

The thought had never previously struck us. We were vaguely aware of security concerns around work with pathogens or toxic chemicals, but that did not relate to us; we primarily operate in a virtual setting. Our work is rooted in building machine learning models for therapeutic and toxic targets to better assist in the design of new molecules for drug discovery. We have spent decades using computers and AI to improve human health—not to degrade it. We were naive in thinking about the potential misuse of our trade, as our aim had always been to avoid molecular features that could interfere with the many different classes of proteins essential to human life. Even our projects on Ebola and neurotoxins, which could have sparked thoughts about the potential negative implications of our machine learning models, had not set our alarm bells ringing.

Our company—Collaborations Pharmaceuticals, Inc.—had recently published computational machine learning models for toxicity prediction in different areas, and, in developing our presentation to the Spiez meeting, we opted to explore how AI could be used to design toxic molecules. It was a thought exercise we had not considered before that ultimately evolved into a computational proof of concept for making biochemical weapons.


Keep reading. It’s like the first act of an extremely worrying bioterror thriller:


In less than 6 hours after starting on our in-house server, our model generated 40,000 molecules that scored within our desired threshold. In the process, the AI designed not only [the very deadly nerve agent] VX, but also many other known chemical warfare agents that we identified through visual confirmation with structures in public chemistry databases. Many new molecules were also designed that looked equally plausible. These new molecules were predicted to be more toxic, based on the predicted LD50 [lethal dose for 50% exposed to it] values, than publicly known chemical warfare agents.

…Without being overly alarmist, this should serve as a wake-up call for our colleagues in the ‘AI in drug discovery’ community.


You can say that again.
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Alvin and the Chipmunks at 16 RPM • Doc Pop’s Weblog

“Doctor Popular” with something a little lighter (relatively):


I recently learned that Alvin and The Chipmunks albums sound great when played at 16 2/3 RPM. Basically, this is half speed, so the actors voices sound like normal people, but the music sounds super sludgy and heavy. Very reminiscent of The Melvins!


He embeds two songs – the covers of Blondie’s “Call Me” and The Bangles’ “Walk Like An Egyptian”. They do sound amazing. (Lovely detail in the Wikipedia entry about Walk Like An Egyptian on how the recording of the song led to tensions in the band.) Of course, the music was recorded at normal speed, and then the vocals added with the music at half speed and mixed back in at double speed. The singers are struggling to keep their notes (and maybe aren’t the greatest singers) over such a long period.
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Russians bid hasty farewell to Instagram • Financial Times

Polana Ivanova and Hannah Murphy:


Russian Instagram users woke up this week to an app that would not load and a feed empty of the content they had grown to love, after Moscow decided to ban the social media site over its parent company Meta’s policies on the war in Ukraine.

The photo-sharing app has 80mn users across Russia — around half of the country’s population. Many wrote farewell posts over the weekend and directed their followers to other social media platforms, as the clock ticked down on the 48 hours the government had given people to wind down their profiles before the app was officially blocked on Monday.

The loss of the beloved service for Russians is symbolic of the increasing isolation of their nation, as US internet companies join a western corporate exodus from the country. The war in Ukraine has placed Silicon Valley companies in the middle of a geopolitical battle for influence, given their position as gatekeepers to information seen by billions.

“I didn’t believe it until the last minute,” said Yulia Telnova, 36, who has run her baking business from her home kitchen in Novosibirsk since 2018, sharing photos of elaborate icing sculptures on Instagram and building her client base on the app. “Today, when my Instagram stopped working . . . then yes. Then I believed it.”

Telnova is one of many millions of Russians who rely on the app to make a living, using it to run small, at-home businesses, or to promote themselves as influencers with large numbers of followers.

Like others, Telnova has now opened a page on the Russian domestic platform VKontakte, a Facebook lookalike that recently came under state control. Though sad to see Instagram go, as it was the source of “99%” of her customers, Telnova said she was not panicked, adding that she would just “have to build up a client base once again”.


The essential fungibility of social networks, being demonstrated in real time.
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Possible outcomes of the Russo-Ukrainian war and China’s choice • US-China Perception Monitor

Hu Wei is the vice-chairman of the Public Policy Research Center of the Counselor’s Office of the State Council, the chairman of Shanghai Public Policy Research Association, the chairman of the Academic Committee of the Chahar Institute, a professor, and a doctoral supervisor:


China cannot be tied to Putin and needs to be cut off as soon as possible. In the sense that an escalation of conflict between Russia and the West helps divert US attention from China, China should rejoice with and even support Putin, but only if Russia does not fall. Being in the same boat with Putin will impact China should he lose power. Unless Putin can secure victory with China’s backing, a prospect which looks bleak at the moment, China does not have the clout to back Russia. The law of international politics says that there are “no eternal allies nor perpetual enemies,” but “our interests are eternal and perpetual.” Under current international circumstances, China can only proceed by safeguarding its own best interests, choosing the lesser of two evils, and unloading the burden of Russia as soon as possible. At present, it is estimated that there is still a window period of one or two weeks before China loses its wiggle room. China must act decisively.

2. China should avoid playing both sides in the same boat, give up being neutral, and choose the mainstream position in the world. At present, China has tried not to offend either side and walked a middle ground in its international statements and choices, including abstaining from the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly votes. However, this position does not meet Russia’s needs, and it has infuriated Ukraine and its supporters as well as sympathizers, putting China on the wrong side of much of the world. In some cases, apparent neutrality is a sensible choice, but it does not apply to this war, where China has nothing to gain. Given that China has always advocated respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity, it can avoid further isolation only by standing with the majority of the countries in the world. This position is also conducive to the settlement of the Taiwan issue.


Roughly 48 hours after this article was published, access to the site was blocked in China.
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Preparing for defeat

Francis Fukuyama:


I’ll stick my neck out and make several prognostications:

1. Russia is heading for an outright defeat in Ukraine. Russian planning was incompetent, based on a flawed assumption that Ukrainians were favorable to Russia and that their military would collapse immediately following an invasion. Russian soldiers were evidently carrying dress uniforms for their victory parade in Kyiv rather than extra ammo and rations. Putin at this point has committed the bulk of his entire military to this operation—there are no vast reserves of forces he can call up to add to the battle. Russian troops are stuck outside various Ukrainian cities where they face huge supply problems and constant Ukrainian attacks.

2. The collapse of their position could be sudden and catastrophic, rather than happening slowly through a war of attrition. The army in the field will reach a point where it can neither be supplied nor withdrawn, and morale will vaporize. This is at least true in the north; the Russians are doing better in the south, but those positions would be hard to maintain if the north collapses.

3. There is no diplomatic solution to the war possible prior to this happening. There is no conceivable compromise that would be acceptable to both Russia and Ukraine given the losses they have taken at this point.

4. The United Nations Security Council has proven once again to be useless. The only helpful thing was the General Assembly vote, which helps to identify the world’s bad or prevaricating actors.

5. The Biden administration’s decisions not to declare a no-fly zone or help transfer Polish MiGs were both good ones; they’ve kept their heads during a very emotional time. It is much better to have the Ukrainians defeat the Russians on their own, depriving Moscow of the excuse that NATO attacked them, as well as avoiding all the obvious escalatory possibilities. The Polish MiGs in particular would not add much to Ukrainian capabilities. Much more important is a continuing supply of Javelins, Stingers, TB2s, medical supplies, comms equipment, and intel sharing.


Mr End Of History predicting End Of War. It’s probably as good an analysis as any.
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The bankrupt colonialist • Comment is Freed

Lawrence Freedman:


The strains on the Russian war effort are already evident, from the army’s hesitation about trying to fight their way into cities and the recruitment of mercenaries, to the reported appeal to China for help with supplies of military equipment and Putin’s fury with his intelligence agencies for misleading assessments and wasting roubles on Ukrainian agents who turned out to be useless. He is now having to choose between a range of poor outcomes, which the US suggests may include escalation to chemical use (which would be both militarily pointless and test further Western determination not to get directly involved).

We are now beyond the point where Putin has much ‘face’ to be saved, even if it were a priority for the other major powers to save it. In launching this disastrous war he has revealed himself to be not only a vicious bully but also a deluded fool. 

War is rarely a good investment. Putin has acted for reasons of political and not economic opportunism. The prospects for any territory “liberated” by Russia is bleak. They will not prosper and will remain cut off from the international economy. To the extent that people stay they will have to be subsidised for all their needs while there will be little economic activity.  

Because of the destruction the short-term prospects will be bleak even if these territories are fully returned to Ukraine. But over the longer-term they will be much better off because of the amount of economic assistance Ukraine will receive and its integration into the international economy.

This support will be even more vital should Putin be inclined to follow a scorched earth policy, attempting to demolish Ukraine’s defence and industrial capacity, diminishing it as a modern economic power for the foreseeable future. This would be not so much a strategy and more of a temper tantrum, punishing the Ukrainians for refusing to be colonised.

…The question of the future of sanctions and how they might be unwound is not one to be discussed separately from any peace talks. They are a vital part of the negotiations. As there can be no Western-led peace talks without Ukraine, it should be made clear to Moscow that for now this is a card for Zelensky to play. The future of the Russian economy can then be in his, Zelensky’s, hands.


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Six months in, El Salvador’s bitcoin gamble is crumbling • Rest of World

Anna-Cat Brigida and Leo Schwartz:


[Software developer Mario] Gómez took an interest in the digital infrastructure the Salvadoran government was building for its transition to Bitcoin, including the Chivo Wallet, which is what is known as a custodial wallet. Custodial wallets address a common problem for cryptocurrency users. Bitcoin payments employ the blockchain, a process by which every financial transaction is logged in a digital ledger and then verified through a computational process. Users hold a public key, which assigns them to their Bitcoin holdings, and a private key, which allows them to access their funds. But this can cause problems. Users who lose their private key, for instance, can never recover their Bitcoin. With a custodial wallet, a third party holds the keys so that users don’t have to worry about losing them.

It made sense that the Chivo Wallet would be custodial — the administration had to build a wallet that would be functional for everyday people, the majority of whom had never even had a bank account. But it didn’t sit right with Gómez. Many Bitcoin purists criticize custodial wallets as contradictory to what they see as cryptocurrency’s fundamental ethos of decentralization. A famous adage in the crypto world goes, “Not your keys, not your coins.” In other words, if another entity has access to your private key, you don’t actually own your Bitcoin. Even though Chivo is technically a private company, it is 99% owned by a state-owned company and funded by a $150 million public trust. In effect, the government would control its citizens’ keys.

Gómez drafted long Twitter threads about his findings. The next day, a few days before the Chivo Wallet was set to launch, the police pulled him over for what they said was a problem with his car, took him to two stations, and confiscated his phones.


There’s not a huge amount of evidence that the gamble is crumbling, if we’re honest. The question becomes how you do evaluate its success. I think it would depend on having a view of monetary flows – but that’s something only the central government might have, through its view of Chivo. And you can bet that it won’t let on if things are going badly.
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UK looking to extend life of nuclear plant by 20 years amid energy crisis • Financial Times

Jim Pickard and Nathalie Thomas:


The UK is looking at a 20-year extension of the Sizewell B nuclear power plant on England’s east coast to 2055 as Boris Johnson aims to bolster domestic energy supplies following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The extension is one of several options under consideration as the prime minister draws up a new “energy supply strategy”, which will be published next week against the backdrop of highly volatile international gas prices and an escalating cost-of-living crisis.

Johnson’s new approach will not see him cut Britain’s carbon targets, including the plan to reach net zero by 2050, and will see an increase in targets for various renewable energy sources, according to officials.

However, it will also seek to improve security of supply of hydrocarbons by increasing North Sea oil and gas production and potentially keeping some of Britain’s few remaining coal-fired power plants open slightly longer than expected — rather than relying on imports.

Johnson held a meeting with executives from the oil and gas industry on Monday morning where he urged them to increase production. “We have been clear with energy companies and suppliers they have a vital role to play,” Downing Street said.

…EDF’s 1.2GW Sizewell B plant in Suffolk, which started operating in 1995 and can meet about 3% of the UK’s electricity demand, is the only one of Britain’s six remaining atomic power plants that will continue generating beyond the end of the decade. Only one new station, the 3.2GW Hinkley Point C in Somerset, is currently under construction. It is due to come on stream in 2026.


Notice there’s no mention of fracking (here or in the full story), so perhaps wiser heads are prevailing.
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The future is vast: Longtermism’s perspective on humanity’s past, present, and future • Our World in Data

Max Roser:


Before we look ahead, let’s look back. How many came before us? How many humans have ever lived?

It is not possible to answer this question precisely, but demographers Toshiko Kaneda and Carl Haub have tackled the question using the ​​historical knowledge that we do have.

There isn’t a particular moment in which humanity came into existence, as the transition from species to species is gradual. But if one wants to count all humans one has to make a decision about when the first humans lived. The two demographers used 200,000 years before today as this cutoff.1

The demographers estimate that in these 200,000 years about 109 billion people have lived and died.

It is these 109 billion people we have to thank for the civilization that we live in. The languages we speak, the food we cook, the music we enjoy, the tools we use – what we know we learned from them. The houses we live in, the infrastructure we rely on, the grand achievements of architecture – much of what we see around us was built by them.

In 2022 7.95 billion of us are alive. Taken together with those who have died, about 117 billion humans have been born since the dawn of modern humankind.

This means that those of us who are alive now represent about 6.8% of all people who ever lived.

These numbers are hard to grasp. I tried to bring it into a visualization to put them into perspective.

It’s a giant hourglass. But instead of measuring the passage of time, it measures the passage of people.

Each grain of sand here represents 10 million people: each year 140 million babies are born. So we add 14 grains of sand to the hourglass. Every year, 60 million people die; this means six grains pass through the hourglass and are added to the large number of people who have died.


It really is mindboggling (and the diagrams, on the post, are good). Though of course it is premised on not wiping ourselves out, and keeping things on an even footing that doesn’t lead to huge deaths.
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The Reg online standards converter


Welcome to the Reg online standards converter, which allows instant conversion of commonly-used metric and imperial standards into approved Vulture Central units, and vice-versa. To get started, simply make your selection from the list below and you’ll be offered three sets of fields: Imperial, Metric and Reg. Enter the desired figure into any one field, hit calculate and you’re in business.

Not all conversions will work perfectly. This is because here at the Reg Standards Bureau, our priority has to be preserving the accuracy of our own units. Accordingly, all our conversion factors are Reg standards.

To maintain our own high standards, we’ve had to shave a teensy bit of accuracy off everyone else’s. For instance: there are 8 furlongs to a mile, which means 25 miles should convert to 200 furlongs. But it actually converts to 199.something furlongs. As our technical wizard explains: “To turn a mile into anything else, it first needs to be converted into linguine”.

Area (nanoWales – nW)
Force (Norris – No)
Length (linguine – lg)
Temperature (Hilton – Hn)
Volume (grapefruit – gf)
Velocity – (Percentage of maximum velocity of sheep in a vacuum)
Money – (Pogba – Pg)


Areas are thus given in “Wales” (compared to the size of Wales, the country). And as you’d expect from a publication as on the ball as The Register, it now offers length conversion to giraffes. Though it should really be half-giraffes, the most inspired (for virality) measurement I think I’ve ever seen.
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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?

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

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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