Start Up No.1778: metaverse company offers (virtual) immortality, Dall•E 2 tested, AlphaFold gets big, NFTs on the slide?, and more

Apparently Mark Zuckerberg wants an “iPhone moment” for his new AR spectacles. But how many such moments has tech had, in a world where most fails? CC-licensed photo by Nobuyuki Hayashi 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.

Behind Mark Zuckerberg big plans for AR glasses • The Verge

Alex Heath:


MarkMark Zuckerberg has a grandiose vision for the metaverse, and he hopes that you’ll one day see the same thing, too — quite literally, through a pair of augmented reality glasses.

Zuckerberg calls AR goggles a “holy grail” device that will “redefine our relationship with technology,” akin to the introduction of smartphones. During the special effect-laden video announcing Facebook’s corporate rebrand to Meta last October, they acted as the connective tissue for his metaverse pitch, letting people play games and work with virtual humans Star Trek-style. At one point, Zuckerberg wore them while fencing with a hologram. “Don’t be scared to stab,” his virtual sparring partner quipped.

Zuckerberg may have big hopes for smart glasses, but the near-term reality of the technology is far less lofty. The demonstrations during Zuckerberg’s Meta presentation, such as playing virtual chess on a real table with someone’s avatar, weren’t based on any functioning hardware or software. And Meta doesn’t yet have a working, wearable prototype of its planned AR glasses but rather a stationary demonstration that sits on a table.

Still, Zuckerberg has ambitious goals for when his high-tech glasses will be a reality. Employees are racing to deliver the first generation by 2024 and are already working on a lighter, more advanced design for 2026, followed by a third version in 2028.​​ The details, which together give the first comprehensive look at Meta’s AR hardware ambitions, were shared with The Verge by people familiar with the roadmap who weren’t authorized to speak publicly.

…If the AR glasses and the other futuristic hardware Meta is building eventually catch on, they could cast the company, and by extension Zuckerberg, in a new light. “Zuck’s ego is intertwined with [the glasses],” a former employee who worked on the project tells me. “He wants it to be an iPhone moment.”


How many “iPhone moments” have there been? Real tech announcements that then swept the world through consumer adoption? The iPhone, iMac (affected PC design for a decade), iPod. Windows 95. What others? The list is actually not very long, I think.
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Metaverse company to offer immortality through ‘live forever’ mode • Vice

Maxwell Strachan:


Almost five years ago, Artur Sychov’s father was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, which would ultimately kill him within a few years. The news of his father’s illness devastated Sychov. “It kind of hit me that the time I had with him was limited,” he told me last week. At the time, Sychov’s children were just a few years old, and it pained him to think that they might grow up without a memory of their grandfather. 

In those moments, he started to wonder if there was some way in which his children might be able to have a conversation with their grandfather, even after he was gone. 

Sychov is the CEO and founder of Somnium Space, one of the many versions of the metaverse that have sprouted up in recent years. Unlike many of its competitors, Somnium Space is already compatible with virtual reality headsets, allowing for an immersive 3D experience.

The death of Sychov’s father served as the inspiration for an idea that he would come to call “Live Forever” mode, a forthcoming feature in Somnium Space that allows people to have their movements and conversations stored as data, then duplicated as an avatar that moves, talks, and sounds just like you—and can continue to do so long after you have died. In Sychov’s dream, people will be able to talk to their dead loved one whenever they wish.

“Literally, if I die—and I have this data collected—people can come or my kids, they can come in, and they can have a conversation with my avatar, with my movements, with my voice,” he told me. “You will meet the person. And you would maybe for the first 10 minutes while talking to that person, you would not know that it’s actually AI. That’s the goal.”


Black Mirror: just predicting the future, not exaggerating it.
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Playing with DALL·E 2 • LessWrong

Dave Orr:


I got access to Dall·E 2 yesterday. Here are some pretty pictures!

My goal was to try to understand what things DE2 could do well, and what things it had trouble understanding or generating. My general hypothesis is that it would do a better job with things that are easy to find on the internet (cute animals, digital scifi things, famous art) and less well with more abstract or more unusual things.

Here’s how it works: you put in a description of a picture, and it thinks for ~20 seconds and then produces 10 photos that are variations on that description. The diversity varies quite a bit depending on the prompt. 

…Anything involving people, small defined objects, and so on, looks much more like the previous systems in this area. You can tell that it has all the concepts, but can’t translate them into something realistic.

This could be deliberate, for safety reasons — realistic images of people are much more open to abuse than other things. Porn, deep fakes, violence, and so on are much more worrisome with people. They also mentioned that they scrubbed out lots of bad stuff from the training data; possibly one way they did that was removing most images with people.

Things look much better with animals, and better again with an artistic style.


It’s really quite weird, but this is also coming on quite rapidly. (Here’s another tryout.) Consider that the first Deep Dream stuff was back in 2015; in seven years you can prompt for anything and it gets sort-of close to it.

Maybe we need to start thinking about our role in a world where AI can write all the books we could ever want to read and generate all the pictures we could ever want to look at, write the screenplays we’d want to see acted, perhaps even create the films from them.
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What’s next for AlphaFold and the AI protein-folding revolution • Nature

Ewen Callaway:


For more than a decade, molecular biologist Martin Beck and his colleagues have been trying to piece together one of the world’s hardest jigsaw puzzles: a detailed model of the largest molecular machine in human cells.

This behemoth, called the nuclear pore complex, controls the flow of molecules in and out of the nucleus of the cell, where the genome sits. Hundreds of these complexes exist in every cell. Each is made up of more than 1,000 proteins that together form rings around a hole through the nuclear membrane. These 1,000 puzzle pieces are drawn from more than 30 protein building blocks that interlace in myriad ways.

…In 2016, a team led by Beck, who is based at the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics (MPIB) in Frankfurt, Germany, reported a model1 that covered about 30% of the nuclear pore complex and around half of the 30 building blocks, called Nup proteins.

Then, last July, London-based firm DeepMind, part of Alphabet — Google’s parent company — made public an artificial intelligence (AI) tool called AlphaFold. The software could predict the 3D shape of proteins from their genetic sequence with, for the most part, pinpoint accuracy. This transformed Beck’s task, and the studies of thousands of other biologists (see ‘AlphaFold mania’).

“AlphaFold changes the game,” says Beck. “This is like an earthquake. You can see it everywhere,” says Ora Schueler-Furman, a computational structural biologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel, who is using AlphaFold to model protein interactions. “There is before July and after.”

Using AlphaFold, Beck and others at the MPIB — molecular biologist Agnieszka Obarska-Kosinska and a group led by biochemist Gerhard Hummer — as well as a team led by structural modeller Jan Kosinski, at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Hamburg in Germany, could predict shapes for human versions of the Nup proteins more accurately. And by taking advantage of a tweak that helped AlphaFold to model how proteins interact, they managed to publish a model last October that covered 60% of the complex. It reveals how the complex stabilizes holes in the nucleus, as well as hinting at how the complex controls what gets in and out.

In the past half-year, AlphaFold mania has gripped the life sciences. “Every meeting I’m in, people are saying ‘why not use AlphaFold?’,” says Christine Orengo, a computational biologist at University College London.


AlphaGo had a similar effect on the game of Go – professionals are now measurably better. AlphaFold is probably going to change our lives a lot more, though.
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The most popular chess streamer on Twitch • The New Yorker

Jacob Sweet:


[American grandmaster Hikaru] Nakamura beat the crafty Hungarian grandmaster Richárd Rapport in the first of two semifinal matches. In the video detailing his second, he explained his philosophy. “Now, one of the big differences between now and two or three years ago when I was playing chess professionally—that’s all I was doing for the most part—is that I literally don’t care,” Nakamura said. “What that means is that, in a lot of these situations now, I’ll just pick a line and play it at the board. I will not worry about trying to pick the precise line or something that I’ve looked at most recently. I will just choose to show up and play the line that I want to play.”

Chess competition is stressful, and being one of the best players in the world doesn’t make it any less so. After a draw on day five of the tournament, Rapport—who won the second leg of the Grand Prix and clinched a spot in the Candidates weeks later—gave an unrelentingly brutal post-match interview, in which he called himself his toughest opponent and pondered what he could have done with his life had he not devoted it to an underfunded, unforgiving game. “I wish I had chosen something else,” Rapport said. “If I had put in a similar amount of time and energy over the years, I think I’d be a happier person as of now.”

It is only in this context that Nakamura’s “I don’t care” mantra approaches truth. Once hailed as the future of American chess, Nakamura has devoted his life to an ultracompetitive game, one that only two or three dozen people can make a comfortable living solely from playing. As he rose up the world ranks, he treated opponents like enemies and used criticism as fuel, becoming a highly disliked member of the chess scene. In online chess, where he was known for his blitz prowess since the 2000s, he often accused opponents of cheating and fired off nasty messages after losses. The “I literally don’t care” mantra itself is a reference to Nakamura’s bitter reaction to a fluke online loss in which he repeated the phrase many more times than one would expect from someone who literally did not care.


Nakamura became a chess master at 10, grandmaster at 15 – younger than Bobby Fischer in both cases. That makes him a complete phenomenon. Yet it sounds like he can only escape the burden of the game by telling himself, and everyone else, that he doesn’t care.

Interesting too that he eschews, or seems to, lengthy analysis. One wonders too what Bobby Fischer would be like in this modern age. What would his Twitch stream be like?
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‘Jack Dorsey’s first tweet’ NFT went on sale for $48m. It ended with a top bid of just $280 • Coindesk

Sandali Handagama:


A non-fungible token (NFT) of Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s first ever tweet could sell for just under $280. The current owner of the NFT listed it for $48m last week.

Iranian-born crypto entrepreneur Sina Estavi purchased the NFT for $2.9m in March 2021. Last Thursday, he announced on Twitter that he wished to sell the NFT, and pledged 50% of its proceeds (which he thought would exceed $25 million) to charity. The auction closed Wednesday, with just seven total offers ranging from 0.09 ETH ($277 at current prices) to 0.0019 ETH (almost $6).

“The deadline I set was over, but if I get a good offer, I might accept it, I might never sell it,” Estavi told CoinDesk via a WhatsApp message on Wednesday.

Estavi has two days to accept the bid, or it will expire.


1) On what planet has something that anyone can copy appreciated in value 16-fold in 13 months?
2) Related: anyone know how much an NFT of a burst bubble is selling for these days?

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Wikipedia community votes to stop accepting cryptocurrency donations • Ars Technica

Timothy Lee:


More than 200 long-time Wikipedia editors have requested that the Wikimedia Foundation stop accepting cryptocurrency donations. The foundation received crypto donations worth about $130,000 in the most recent fiscal year—less than 0.1% of the foundation’s revenue, which topped $150m last year.

Debate on the proposal has raged over the last three months.

“Cryptocurrencies are extremely risky investments that have only been gaining popularity among retail investors,” wrote Wikipedia user GorillaWarfare, the original author of the proposal, back in January. “I do not think we should be endorsing their use in this way.”

GorillaWarfare is Molly White, a Wikipedian who has become something of an anti-cryptocurrency activist. She also runs the Twitter account “web3 is going just great“, which highlights “some of the many disasters happening in crypto, defi, NFTs, and other web3 projects”, the account profile says.

In her proposal for the Wikimedia Foundation, GorillaWarfare added that “Bitcoin and Ethereum are the two most highly used cryptocurrencies, and are both proof-of-work, using an enormous amount of energy.”

According to one widely cited estimate, the bitcoin network consumes around 200 TWh of energy per year. That’s about as much energy as is consumed by 70 million people in Thailand. And it works out to around 2,000 kWh per bitcoin transaction.

Bitcoin defenders countered that bitcoin’s energy usage is driven by its mining process, which consumes about the same amount of energy regardless of the number of transactions. So accepting any given bitcoin donation won’t necessarily lead to more carbon emissions.


So the latter argument is: “It’s really bad no matter whether you use it or not, so why not take it? Please take it.”

Always fascinating how Wikipedia is the relatively sane oasis in the ocean of internet madness.
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Why the past ten years of American life have been uniquely stupid • The Atlantic

Jonathan Haidt:


Historically, civilizations have relied on shared blood, gods, and enemies to counteract the tendency to split apart as they grow. But what is it that holds together large and diverse secular democracies such as the United States and India, or, for that matter, modern Britain and France?

Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three. To see how, we must understand how social media changed over time—and especially in the several years following 2009.

In their early incarnations, platforms such as Myspace and Facebook were relatively harmless. They allowed users to create pages on which to post photos, family updates, and links to the mostly static pages of their friends and favorite bands. In this way, early social media can be seen as just another step in the long progression of technological improvements—from the Postal Service through the telephone to email and texting—that helped people achieve the eternal goal of maintaining their social ties.

But gradually, social-media users became more comfortable sharing intimate details of their lives with strangers and corporations. As I wrote in a 2019 Atlantic article with Tobias Rose-Stockwell, they became more adept at putting on performances and managing their personal brand—activities that might impress others but that do not deepen friendships in the way that a private phone conversation will.

Once social-media platforms had trained users to spend more time performing and less time connecting, the stage was set for the major transformation, which began in 2009: the intensification of viral dynamics [with Facebook’s Like button and Twitter’s Retweet button].


Fascinating piece, in which he likens what’s going on to the Tower of Babel – after things all went south for the inhabitants of Babel. Not a short piece, but absorbing. (I’d argue that what he’s describing is Social Warming: virality and undermining of institutions are core effects.)
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I liked the idea of carbon offsets, until I tried to explain it • Climateer



The idea behind offsets is simple: instead of halting your own carbon emissions, you pay someone else to reduce theirs. It’s attractive because the net reduction in CO2 is the same, but the cost can be much lower, meaning we can achieve faster reductions and/or minimize the impact on the economy. For instance, today there is no practical way for an airline to stop burning jet fuel, but JetBlue has been offsetting their emissions by helping to fund programs such as solar and wind farms, forest protection, and landfill gas capture1.

It’s a controversial topic. Some claimed “offsets” are fairly sketchy. It’s been argued that all offsets are a smoke screen that allows polluters to keep on polluting. Personally, until I sat down to write this piece, I felt that offsets were useful when evaluated rigorously. But it took me three or four tries to write a complete draft. Each time, I would get halfway through, only to realize that my concept of when offsets make sense was flawed. It’s just too difficult to frame a coherent story in which offsets help us on the path to net zero emissions.

In the end, I’ve come around to the view that most offset programs do not get us closer to a net zero world, and therefore are a dangerous distraction. There are some very well-intentioned and well-run organizations engaged in tracking and certifying offsets, but unfortunately I think they’re relying on a flawed premise.


His main focus is on “avoided emissions”, when you try to get someone not to emit carbon – eg paying to protect a forest, or insulate a building. That’s in contrast to “negative emissions” where you actually remove carbon (CO2 or CH4) from the atmosphere. Thus he argues that “preserving an acre of rainforest” doesn’t actually help at all. It leaves you worse off because carbon emission is still going on – you’re not growing the rainforest.

Unfortunately, he’s correct.
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As climate fears mount, some Americans are deciding to relocate • Yale E360

Jon Hurdle:


Like a growing number of Americans, the Brazil family realized they could no longer live in a place [Ashland, southern Oregon, hit by forest fires] where they faced soaring temperatures and worsening wildfires driven by climate change, and so decided it was time to move to a less vulnerable part of the country. They chose New England, where [wife] Mich, a psychologist, got a transfer from her employer, the US Veterans Administration, to its office in White River Junction, Vermont. After more than a year of living in a series of temporary accommodations near their former Oregon home, they moved last October to an apartment in Enfield, New Hampshire — close to the Vermont border — where they have begun to rebuild their lives.

“I can’t tell you how many times we looked at a map of the whole country and asked, ‘Where do we want to live?’” [husband] Forest said in the basement apartment where they now live with their children, ages 5, 3, and 1. “The West Coast was no longer an option. The Midwest didn’t appeal. And then looking out here, we don’t have to worry about drought and fires. We don’t have to worry about smoke and heat.”

After being forced out of their home, the Brazil family joined other Americans escaping the worsening impacts of climate change. These migrants include New Orleans residents who fled their city after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Houstonians who were driven out by flooding from Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Other communities have begun to disappear entirely. Residents of the coastal Louisiana community of Isle de Jean Charles, which sits just a foot or two above sea level, are being pushed out by rising seas. Inhabitants of coastal Native Alaskan villages such as Shishmaref and Newtok — where more intense storm surges caused by declining sea ice are eroding coasts weakened by melting permafrost — are being relocated.


Not quite climate refugees, but shows that population movement isn’t limited to far-off countries.
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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?

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

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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