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Dear Aventine Readers,
As ChatGPT has continued to occupy much of the world’s attention, another possible digital revolution has quietly been gaining steam: a transformative new way to build social networks. Known as federation, the model allows for cross-platform posting and gives users the ability to take their contacts from one network to another. It could, in short, upend the ways in which social networks have operated for over a decade. This month we look at why federation is suddenly in vogue and what growing interest in the model could mean going forward.
Also in this issue: a look at the controversy over deep-sea mining. To some, harvesting the seabed is the least harmful way to obtain the minerals we need to fuel a green energy transition. To others, disrupting the earth’s least-understood ecosystems could lead to unprecedented damage and possible extinction events.
Plus: The virgin voyage of a Maersk container ship fueled by so-called green methanol; a recycling plant in the United Kingdom that can recycle 96 percent of an old car; and the debut of Worldcoin, the identity and currency system that Sam Altman — one of its creators — believes will facilitate the distribution of universal basic income when artificial intelligence takes our jobs.
Thanks for reading,
Executive Director, Aventine
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Learn about the past, present and future of artificial intelligence on our latest podcast, Humans vs Machines with Gary Marcus.
A Better Way to Build a Social Network
When Elon Musk acquired Twitter on October 27, 2022, he set off existential panic among many of its users, kickstarting a migration to a little-known competitor network called Mastodon. The underdog’s count of active monthly users jumped from about 370,000 to 2.6 million over the course of just a month.
But beyond its moment in the sun as a Twitter alternative, Mastodon has come to represent something bigger and potentially far more profound: an entirely different way to build social networks, known as federation. Though the technology underpinning federated social networks isn't new — the protocol Mastodon uses has roots tracing back more than a decade — its potential to transform the way social networks operate has gained traction in recent months as the once-settled landscape of social media has become anything but.
Earlier this year, BlueSky — a company spun out from Twitter in 2021 after originally being developed there by its former CEO Jack Dorsey — launched as another federated social network; it is now so in demand that people are auctioning off early access invites on eBay. Meanwhile Threads, Meta’s new Twitter alternative, landed 100 million users within five days of its launch in early July. The company announced that it, too, will eventually become a federated social network — a strategy that Adam Mosseri, the head of Meta’s Instagram, hopes will help endear it to users who have come to distrust the parent company formerly known as Facebook. Increasingly for those in Silicon Valley, it is time to start planning for a future based on federation.
To understand what such a world would be like, let’s start by looking at what we have now. Most social networks are walled gardens: You can’t tweet to your Facebook friends; you can’t comment on Instagram posts from LinkedIn. Federation, which allows for otherwise siloed groups to operate within a single system while retaining their autonomy, tears down those walls. The most obvious example of a federated system is email: Regardless of what email server you use, you can send emails to anyone, and all users broadly experience email in the same way. A federated social network is much the same; users base their account on one server, but can interact with users on others.
Federation offers some compelling benefits. Perhaps the most significant is the direct upshot of removing those walls from the garden. “If I've got lots of friends on Facebook, it's very difficult for me to leave because they [Facebook] kind of hold me to ransom,” explained Gareth Tyson, an assistant professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who specializes in internet data science. “Because Facebook has vendor lock-in, I can't migrate my account elsewhere.” With federated social networks, he adds, “I can pick up my account and migrate over to another server and carry on my life. But, importantly, I can carry it on whilst continuing to interact with all those people I previously knew.” In effect, it separates a user’s network of contacts, often referred to as the social graph, from the platforms being used.
There’s also the prospect of a “plurality of service providers,” Tyson adds. That means users can choose servers based on all kinds of factors: shared interests with other users, belief in particular moderation policies, an affinity with the algorithm determining their content feed or something else altogether — all while still being able to interact with accounts on other servers. “We [can] realign the purpose of the technology more with our own goals and desires than the goals desires of the network providers,” explained Evan Prodromou, a co-author of the ActivityPub web standard built to enable federated social networks.
This plurality has its downsides, though. Many servers are small and run on tight or close to nonexistent budgets by volunteers, resulting in some frustrating side effects like unreliability. One particularly large problem, according to Ross Schulman, senior fellow of decentralization at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that supports civil liberties online, is that it can be difficult to effectively moderate content when a server is run by just a handful of people. When the number of users on servers remains small, it’s doable, but as the number of users grows, trying to moderate everything that goes on becomes increasingly problematic.
Mastodon is currently the largest federated social network by far, with now more than 7 million registered users. But there are plenty of others, including Pixelfed (an Instagram alternative), PeerTube (a federated YouTube), and Lemmy (which is like Reddit). These platforms all run on the ActivityPub protocol and collectively make up what users refer to as the fediverse. Within the fediverse, users can interact with content on PeerTube from Mastodon, or with PeerTube from PixelFeed.
To make matters more complex, however, not all platforms use ActivityPub. Most notable among them is BlueSky, which has its own protocol, called AT Protocol. Currently, BlueSky is the only platform that runs on AT Protocol, rendering most of the potential benefits described earlier null for its users. But in the longer term, the company hopes that the unique features offered by AT Protocol — most notably the ability for users to import all of their content from one server to another (not possible with ActivityPub) will enable it to become a true competitor. BlueSky did not respond to a request for an interview.
Whether or not competing standards are a net plus or minus for the future of a federated social media is difficult to gauge. On the one hand, “While we're in the earliest kind of stages of developing and deploying federated social media, I think it's probably OK to let 1,000 flowers bloom and see what works and what doesn't,” explained Schulman. On the other, “you don't want these models to all become siloed [such that] you have, like, a million different federated platforms not talking to each other,” said Tyson. Ultimately, it will depend on how much traction BlueSky achieves. While the current hype surrounding it is significant, it’s not clear that will translate into longer term success.
There are other scenarios in which a retrenchment might merely recreate a hierarchy of social networks — much like what we have today — but in the fediverse. Enter Threads, which was able to achieve almost instantaneous scale (those 100 million users) by piggybacking on Instagram's user base. While Threads is currently its own walled garden, its intention to join ActivityPub and become part of the fediverse caused consternation to users on platforms such as Mastodon — which it would instantly dwarf — many of whom moved away from traditional social networks precisely because they wanted to stay away from Meta. Moserri, the head of Instagram, seemed to acknowledge that problem — and how a federated social universe might offer a solution to it — in an interview with The Verge, saying, “I think we might be a more compelling platform . . . if we are a place where you don’t have to feel like you have to trust us forever.”
The arrival of Threads would certainly elevate the fediverse to the mainstream. “A whole host of people who probably have no idea what federated social media is are going to be exposed to it, and that's great,” said Schulman. But what happens next is less clear. “Some of them might say, ‘Hey, you know what, the grass is greener over there,’” he added, potentially abandoning Threads for smaller servers.
Yet the mere scale that Threads offers could undermine the federated model. “Critical mass and network effects push everything back towards centralization,” explained Tyson. “If you've got one server that's just particularly well managed, it's extremely reliable, there's a lot of interesting celebrities on it — it's going to start attracting people from other servers. And what you might find is that the fediverse reverts back to our hypergiant model where, yes, theoretically, you can have any number of servers that you want all interacting, but in practice 99 percent of all the users are [on] maybe one or two hyper platforms.”
The reality may be that a lot of this can all be true at the same time; it’s possible that a federated social networking system could allow very large, profit-making corporations to coexist with smaller, independent servers. “The way email works right now, we have a couple of really big nodes in the network — like Gmail and Outlook — but you can still stand up an email server and join the network,” said Prodromou. “Maybe that's open enough.”
Ultimately, users will vote on what they want the future of social networking to look like, whether that’s using a constellation of federated platforms or clustering together on larger platforms much as we do now. “It's up to the world to decide,” said Tyson.
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Advances That Matter
The superconductor that wasn’t. It’s been almost impossible to avoid chatter online about LK-99, a material that was claimed by a team of South Korean scientists to be the world’s first room-temperature superconductor. With standard conductors like copper, energy is lost through the transmission process. Superconductors, on the other hand, allow for the transmission of energy without any loss, which means they can be used to do things like build faster connections between computer chips or ultra-strong electromagnets. Some superconductors already exist, but only function at incredibly low temperatures. This means they need expensive and bulky cooling systems to operate, ruling them out for many applications where superconductivity would be desirable. The discovery of a true room-temperature superconductor could make exotic technologies like quantum computers and nuclear fusion reactors easier to produce and reduce power losses in electrical systems to zero. But was LK-99 — a compound of copper, lead, phosphorus and oxygen — the real deal? Scientists were skeptical and launched a race to replicate the findings of the South Korean research. At this point, the consensus seems to be that, no, LK-99 is not a superconductor. But the excitement surrounding the potential advance has renewed enthusiasm for the technology. Next month we’ll take a closer look at what the future holds for it.
Meta’s Llama-2 chatbot opens up generative AI. Despite the huge success of OpenAI’s GPT-4 large language model, one of the big rubs among developers and entrepreneurs looking to use the technology is that it’s proprietary, making it impossible to tinker with. Enter Llama-2, Meta’s second iteration of its own LLM, which is free for research and commercial use. It’s comparable to ChatGPT in terms of performance across a series of academic benchmarks but can be customized and used freely (as long as the person or company deploying it has fewer than 700 million monthly active users). The model is also small enough to run on portable devices such as a smartphone. Basically, if you’ve been impressed by the ways in which ChatGPT is being used, then, as Wired and IEEE Spectrum point out, just wait: Llama-2 opens the floodgates to far more experimentation and innovation.
The world’s first green methanol container ship set sail. In mid-July, the shipping giant Maersk saw its latest boat depart from Ulsan, South Korea, on a 13,400-mile trip to Copenhagen, Denmark. But unlike any container ship before it, the dual-fuel vessel can run on so-called green methanol — a fuel made from sustainable sources that Reuters reports can offer as much as a 90 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions throughout the fuel’s lifecycle. Maersk is betting heavily on the technology — it has 19 dual-fuel vessels on order — but, as The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year, it won’t all be smooth sailing for the technology. Green methanol is expensive, and infrastructure will need to be overhauled around the world to enable such ships to refuel.
At the end of July, an international body delayed a long-awaited decision to set rules for mining the deep ocean floor in international waters.
The decision by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) delays projects that seek to extract materials in high demand for electric car batteries and other technologies. Under pressure from a group of countries led by Costa Rica, Chile and France, the ISA ultimately decided to hold off on creating regulations for the first mines until 2025 or later to allow for a formal international discussion about the potentially profound environmental impact such unprecedented mining could have.
Those in favor of deep-sea mining — primarily China and a few companies with the rights for exploration of the mineral-rich nodules found in certain parts of the deepest oceans — argue that this untapped resource could meet the world’s increasing demand for nickel, manganese, cobalt and other minerals needed to fuel the green energy transition. They also argue that it avoids problems associated with terrestrial mining, which is notoriously polluting, environmentally disruptive and often responsible for a litany of human rights abuses.
Those opposed to the idea, or at least reluctant to allow its imminent approval, are stakeholders including countries, international environmental groups and research scientists. They believe that the potential destruction of unique, unexplored and barely understood habitats on the ocean floor could cause unprecedented damage, potential extinction events and destroy one of the few areas left on the planet with untapped research potential. Some scientists also argue that because the deep seafloor is almost completely unknown, it is difficult to predict the potential long-term damage mining could cause.
Aventine spoke with the researchers and advocates who caution restraint and skepticism, as well as with the leaders of the companies who are invested in the future of deep-sea mining. Their comments are edited for clarity and brevity.
In the 1970s, when the law of the sea was being negotiated, the prevailing general view seemed to be that there wasn’t much living down there in the Eastern Pacific where the nodules were. And so the negotiators didn’t think it would be damaging to the marine environment. But now nobody knows the full extent of the damage; we know the species would take millions of years to recover. Why would the collective members of nations agree to open up a whole new frontier of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation when it’s not necessary to do so?”
— Matthew Gianni, co-founder and political adviser for the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition
Really, it’s the unknown. We only know about 10 percent of the species [in these parts of the oceans], and of those, we have a very incomplete picture of what their life is like, their functional traits. This is like the tip of the iceberg of our knowledge of biodiversity, and to understand the impacts we really need to complete the picture. What is the wider value of biodiversity? Are we making a play to mine these nodules when actually we should be collecting samples to investigate their properties? Do they have an enzyme that could degrade plastics? Or an enzyme that could revolutionize an existing industrial process and help the green transition? Or a new medicine, an antibiotic? What do we potentially lose, if we mine?”
— Muriel Rabone, data and sample coordinator and ecologist at the Natural History Museum in London
“The green transition needs a lot of minerals and mining. And then we see that the huge part of the remaining resources of these critical minerals are actually loaded on the deep oceans or the seabed. Is it technically possible actually to produce these minerals at these deep water depths, at costs that are competitive with terrestrial mining? That we are quite certain we can do, based on our technological expertise. Can this be done in a sustainable way? Is this a better alternative than terrestrial mines? There I think we do not have the full answer yet. But with the technology that can be further developed from the oil and gas industry, we think that this looks like a better alternative than opening terrestrial mines. The rest of the world cannot make itself so dependent on a few countries that are controlling the mineral market, and the deep ocean can be a better alternative than that.”
— Walter Sognness, CEO of Norwegian metals startup Loke Marine Minerals, which holds two licenses to explore for minerals in the deep sea
“Vast amounts of additional primary metal will be required before there can be any prospect of a circular economy. All mining comes at a cost to the environment.There are good reasons to believe that collecting polymetallic nodules from the seafloor will come to be counted among the more responsible ways of meeting demand. Compared with expanding terrestrial mining, collecting nodules results in lower carbon emissions, less biodiversity impact, less waste, no deforestation and no social displacement. Further scientific research will provide the information required for rational, evidence-based decisions to be made.”
— Kris Van Nijen, managing director of Global Sea Mineral Resources, which holds exclusive rights to explore for minerals in an eastern section of the Clarion Clipperton Zone of the Central Pacific Ocean
“There are some mining proponents that say we need deep-sea mining for the clean energy transition, but if we do engage in and open up deep seabed mining, that would actually not alleviate terrestrial mining in any sort of way. It might actually intensify terrestrial mining because you are adding a new form of competition to the terrestrial market. We need to first consider and exhaust all sustainable options, including improving terrestrial mining and also especially to encourage innovation and promote ways to transition to a more circular economy.”
— Pradeep Singh, an ocean governance expert based at the Research Institute for Sustainability at the Helmholtz Centre Potsdam
Technology’s Impact Around the Globe
1. U.K. Gone are the days of junkyards piled high with old cars that could be plundered for the occasional spare part. Instead, as automotive regulations have tightened and cars have become more complex, junkyards are fast becoming large-scale recycling operations, The Economist reports. At Charles Trent, a vehicle recycling company based in Poole, U.K., a $13-million “deproduction” facility is under construction that strips a car of its constituent parts, cleans and tests the parts worth selling and recycles most of the rest. It will be able to process 100 vehicles a day when it’s up to speed, and should reuse or recycle 96 percent by weight of the vehicles it dismantles. The upshot: emissions savings in manufacturing, cost savings for consumers and a way to ease the supply chain delays in spare parts that continue to dog the automotive industry.
2. India. Chances are you don’t think of India as being blanketed in coniferous forest, but huge parts of the country abutting the Himalayan mountain range are covered by pine trees. And their fallen needles are a problem. During hot dry spells, the high oil content of the needles can contribute to catastrophic forest fires. Now, as SciDev.Net reports, researchers from India’s Central Institute of Agricultural Engineering have shown that those needles can be processed into bio-oil or briquettes to be used as a source of low-carbon fuel. And a program by the Indian Institute of Technology is helping encourage the collection and processing of the pine needles in the state of Himachal Pradesh, part of the Himalayas, to set the initiative in motion.
3. Everywhere. This month saw the international rollout of Worldcoin, which is, per Tools for Humanity, the company behind it, “intended to be the world’s largest identity and financial public network, open to everyone regardless of their country, background or economic status.” Users have their iris scanned to become part of a digital identification platform, which has an associated crypto token. Those who sign up get some free tokens, an enticement that has spurred interest in many parts of the world apart from the U.S., where regulatory concerns over crypto have ruled out that perk. Worldcoin cofounder Sam Altman — also the CEO of OpenAI — has argued that Worldcoin could serve as the basis for a universal basic income, which he argues will be essential in a future automated by AI systems (like the ones his other company builds). Needless to say, plenty of reasonable criticism abounds over issues of data privacy, security, and black-market sale of credentials.
Magazine and Journal Articles Worth Your Time
Should Farmers be Locking Carbon in the Soil? from Science
3,500 words, 14 minutes
Over the last 12,000 years, the disturbance to the ground caused by agriculture has released over 100 billion tons of carbon from the Earth’s soil into the atmosphere, making it a significant contributor to global warming. Startups and agricultural giants alike have in recent years embraced the idea of regenerative practices that are supposed to help soil trap carbon once more. Such approaches include minimizing tillage to reduce disturbance, planting crops in off seasons and allowing them to die to lock in carbon and taking more careful approaches to how animals graze so that grasses are allowed to develop more fully. Yet, as Science reports, the climate benefits of these techniques might not be as impressive as proponents argue. Some of the practices are already fairly widely used, so the impact won’t be huge, while others will simply take far too long to have any near-term advantage. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, some farmers have pushed back against startups and corporations telling them how to do their work.
The Uncertain Future of a Digital Dollar, from MIT Technology Review
2,300 words, 9 minutes
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, as cryptocurrencies were riding high and the world found itself relying more than ever on digital payments, there was apparently much chatter in policy circles about a central bank digital currency. A joint venture between the Boston branch of the U.S. Federal Reserve and MIT’s Digital Currency Initiative even looked into how such a vision could become a technical reality. Now, as this article illustrates, despite knowing more than ever about how such a digital currency could work, the arguments about whether it’s a good idea or not have become far more polarized and the prospect of digital dollar probably looks more remote than at any point in the last two years.
The Science of Forecasting Ever More Extreme Weather, by The Financial Times
3,100 words, 12 minutes
Back in 1997, the U.K.’s Meteorological Office predicted the weather over a grid of boxes with a resolution of 56 miles. Now some meteorologists claim to be able to forecast differences in weather between points that are just 33 feet from each other. Huge leaps like these, the FT reports, have been made possible by major advances in sensing technology — principally in satellites but also on aircraft, ships, weather balloons and beyond — and supercomputing. And now, along with advanced physics-based models, artificial intelligence increasingly offers meteorologists the chance to forecast weather more efficiently than ever. This fascinating piece explores how all of this fits together as a means of predicting extreme weather events. (And here’s a spoiler: AI on its own, which is necessarily trained on historic data, might not be a silver bullet when it comes to predicting outcomes in a changing climate.)