Facebook is coming for crypto, and other tales

Remember the hole in the ozone layer?

You don’t hear much about it anymore. But for a brief time in the late 1980s and early 90s this was headline news everywhere.

The reaction was similar to what we see today with global warming. Only back then “things were simpler”. Everyone agreed it was happening, agreed on what was causing it, and agreed on a way to stop it.

In 1989, 12 European Economic Community nations (we’re talking pre-EU here) voted to eradicate the chemicals that were causing it (CFCs). I remember in the early 90s, all the deodorant cans used to proudly proclaim themselves “CFC free”.

The reason why I’m writing about this today is, it actually worked. As Ars Technica reported last week, the hole in the ozone layer is repairing itself.

This is a massive achievement! I find it quite strange the climate change lobbies don’t make more of this achievement. Surely people are more likely to respond to climate change if they feel empowered to stop it.

The current rhetoric of these organisations is:

We’re doomed, there’s nothing we can do about it. Look how bad it’s going to be. If we make a change now, maybe we can make it slightly less bad. But make no mistake, it’s going to be very, very bad either way.

Surely it would be better to say:

This is looking bad. But we’re faced things like this in the past and fixed them. Look what we managed to do about the hole in the ozone layer. If we start making changes now, we can fix this too. But it’s not going to be easy.

Which message makes you feel like taking action? There’s no contest.

Okay, so now we’ve fixed the planet, let’s have a look at some of last week’s other big tech stories.

Just how bad are “meltdown” and “spectre”?

It’s not often a computer security flaw makes it onto Radio 4’s Today programme. But these are no ordinary security flaws.

They may sound like made-up titles of James Bond films, but they are very real, and potentially very bad. That’s why they’re making even mainstream headlines.

If you want a good analogy of how they work, you can find one on The Verge. But even the analogy involves parallel universes and quantum physics.

Basically they are vulnerabilities in almost every computer processor (CPU) made in the last 20 years. They potentially let a hacker get any information they want with a few simple lines of code. These lines could be programmed into a webpage. And there is no way to find out if you’ve been hacked or not. It doesn’t leave a trail.

These vulnerabilities have mostly been patched now, but these patches mean that your computer’s CPU will run between 5% and 30% slower. New CPUs with these vulnerabilities fixed will also run that much slower.

It’s also easy to think these patches will solve all the issues. But remember, they rely on people actually updating their computers so the patch installs. And as we know from the WannaCry hacks, many, many big institutions don’t do this.

This story is likely to be around for some time yet. It’s about as big as it gets in terms of cybersecurity.

“Alexa, you’re the only one who understands me”

About a year ago, Dan Denning bought an Amazon Echo for the office.

The voice recognition in it was very good. It could easily decipher my northern accent shouting, “Alexa! Volume ten. Alexa! Play some Slayer” across the office. Which surprised both me and Dan at first, and later came to annoy Dan and amuse me far too much.

But as good as Alexa’s voice recognition is, it’s still very far off what you see in sci-fi. Dan could never get Alexa to say goodbye to me, for example. No matter how clearly he spoke to her.

If you’ve ever seen the film Her, you can see where the potential of this voice technology is. In the film, people use their voices for almost every computer interaction. In fact, the main character ends up… well I won’t ruin it. But it’s worth watching.

One of the key things current voice recognition is missing is the ability to recognise not just what we say, but how we say it. However, according to this article by Wired, that time is fast approaching. And it’s going to entirely change the way we interact with our machines.

The world or Her could be coming sooner than we think.

Facebook is coming for crypto

Since last April, I’ve been wondering how long it will take Facebook to make a move on crypto.

The idea of decentralised data, putting users in control and doing away with the central authority goes against everything Facebook stands for.

Its business model is based on selling the details of your life to third parties. If you control your own data, that kind of kills its business model. So it was only a matter of time before it stood up and took notice.

This year Mark Zuckerberg is looking into how to leverage cryptos for Facebook. It will be very interesting to see what comes of this. Here’s what he had to say on it in his end of year post:

One of the most interesting questions in technology right now is about centralization vs decentralization. A lot of us got into technology because we believe it can be a decentralizing force that puts more power in people’s hands. (The first four words of Facebook’s mission have always been “give people the power”.) Back in the 1990s and 2000s, most people believed technology would be a decentralizing force.

But today, many people have lost faith in that promise. With the rise of a small number of big tech companies — and governments using technology to watch their citizens — many people now believe technology only centralizes power rather than decentralizes it.

There are important counter-trends to this –like encryption and cryptocurrency — that take power from centralized systems and put it back into people’s hands. But they come with the risk of being harder to control. I’m interested to go deeper and study the positive and negative aspects of these technologies, and how best to use them in our services.

If we’ve learned anything from the last ten years in tech, it’s that it’s probably foolish to bet against Zuckerberg.

Self-driving taxis are closer than you think

Last week I wrote about the rise of driverless cars and why I think they could bankrupt the railways.

In it I had a quote buy the chancellor that he wants to see fully driverless cars on our roads by 2021. Well, it’s looking like 2021 could be a big year in driverless cars, with both Volkswagen and Hyundai launching driverless fleets.

From TechCrunch:

On Thursday, automakers Hyundai and Volkswagen both announced a new partnership with Aurora, the autonomous driving startup with a killer pedigree and good momentum early on – but they also both revealed that each is planning to deploy self-driving cars by 2021 on roads in a commercial capacity.

Volkswagen wants to put autonomous cars on the road in as many as five cities worldwide by that year, with ride-hailing available to customers. Meanwhile, Hyundai told WSJ that it’s hoping to put a fleet in operation on “commercial scale” by the same year, again using a self-driving taxi model for the rollout.

Bill Gates says everything is going to be okay

Bill Gates has decided to edit an issue of TIME. Why? So show us how the world is getting better.

In this piece, he explains why he decided to do it and gives us some actual evidence about why the world is improving.

Here’s an extract:

On the whole, the world is getting better. This is not some naively optimistic view; it’s backed by data. Look at the number of children who die before their fifth birthday. Since 1990, that figure has been cut in half. That means 122 million children have been saved in a quarter- century, and countless families have been spared the heartbreak of losing a child.

And that’s just one measure. In 1990, more than a third of the global population lived in extreme poverty; today only about a tenth do. A century ago, it was legal to be gay in about 20 countries; today it’s legal in over 100 countries. Women are gaining political power and now make up more than a fifth of members of national parliaments—and the world is finally starting to listen when women speak up about sexual assault. More than 90% of all children in the world attend primary school. In the U.S., you are far less likely to die on the job or in a car than your grandparents were. And so on.

You can read the whole thing here. He also goes on to explain why, even though the world is actually getting better, many people feel and believe it’s getting worse. Definitely worth a read.

Until next time,

Harry Hamburg
Editor, Exponential Investor

PS If you’re into cryptos, I found a site you might find interesting recently. Instead of just listing prices, it claims to track “social sentiment” of every coin. I haven’t looked at it in enough detail yet to see if it’s actually any good or not. But it is interesting. Here’s the site: solume.io.

PPS As I’m writing this (on Monday) almost every crypto on coinmarketcap.com has dropped 10% to 20%. But, this drop isn’t all that it seems.

Coinmarketcap.com made the decision out of the blue to delist the Korean exchanges from its price calculations. Korean exchanges tend to trade about 10% to 20% more expensive than US ones. And that’s why there’s been a sudden dip.

If you check what your coins are worth on a Western exchange, they’ll be worth the same… although this kind of thing is infectious and it will probably trigger an actual dip by the time you’re reading this. I guess we’ll see how it plays out tomorrow.

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Category: Technology

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