Today’s podcast is devoted to an interview I did yesterday with Nick Eberstadt, who holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). The interview focuses on two of his essays; “Our Miserable 21st Century” and “America Hasn’t Lost Its Demographic Advantage.” The former was (and is) the most-read essay in the history of Commentary magazine. Podcast link is here.
1. On Tuesday, Microsoft and OpenAI shared plans to bring GPT-3, one of the world’s most advanced models for generating text, to programming based on natural language descriptions. This is the first commercial application of GPT-3 undertaken since Microsoft invested $1 billion in OpenAI last year and gained exclusive licensing rights to GPT-3. “If you can describe what you want to do in natural language, GPT-3 will generate a list of the most relevant formulas for you to choose from,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in a keynote address at the company’s Build developer conference. “The code writes itself.” (via Wired)
2. A military drone may have autonomously attacked humans for the first time ever last year, according to a United Nations report. While the full details of the incident, which took place in Libya, haven’t been released and it is unclear if there were any casualties, the event suggests that international efforts to ban lethal autonomous weapons before they are used may already be too late. The robot in question is a Kargu-2 quadcopter produced by STM, a Turkish firm. It is equipped with an explosive charge and can be flown manually, but in autonomous mode the drone uses on-board cameras with artificial intelligence to find and identify targets. It can then attack by flying into the target and detonating. STM claims the robot has sophisticated object and facial recognition capability. The firm didn’t respond to a request for comment. (via New Scientist)
3. President Biden has asked US intelligence agencies to “redouble” their efforts to investigate the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, amid renewed questions over the role a laboratory in China might have played. The US president said Wednesday that he had asked his officials to deliver within 90 days their conclusions on how the Sars-Cov-2 virus first spread to humans. Biden said in a statement: “As of today, the US intelligence community has coalesced around two likely scenarios, but has not reached a definitive conclusion on this question. “I have now asked the intelligence community to redouble their efforts to collect and analyse information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion and to report back to me in 90 days.”
4. An influential scientific panel yesterday cracked open the door to growing human embryos in the lab for longer periods of time than currently allowed, a step that could enable the plumbing of developmental mysteries but that also raises thorny questions about whether research that can be pursued should be. For decades, scientists around the world have followed the “14-day rule,” which stipulates that they should let human embryos develop in the lab for only up to two weeks after fertilization. The rule — which some countries (though not the United States) have codified into law — was meant to allow researchers to conduct inquiries into the early days of embryonic development, but not without limits. And for years, researchers didn’t push that boundary, not just for legal and ethical reasons, but for technical ones as well: They couldn’t keep the embryos growing in lab dishes that long. (via isscr.org, statnews.com)
5. Scientists in Sweden have developed a simple and reliable tool for diagnosing Alzheimer's disease in its earliest stages. The prototype analyzes the results of a single blood test and three cognitive exams, which take only ten minutes to complete. With just that information, the new algorithm was able to predict with 90 percent certainty which patients with mild cognitive impairment would go on to develop Alzheimer's within four years. Compared to current diagnostic methods, that's a big improvement. In early tests of the prototype, dementia experts - who use a person's medical history and brain scans to make their diagnosis - performed significantly worse than this new tool. Research paper here. (via ScienceAlert, nature.com)
6. For centuries, naturalists have mapped the world’s flora and fauna. They have assembled atlases of migratory birds and cold-water fishes, sketched out the geography of carnivorous animals and alpine plants. Now, an enormous international team of researchers has added a new volume to the collection: an atlas of microorganisms that can be found in the world’s subways. It contains data collected by more than 900 scientists and volunteers in 60 cities on six continents, from Stockholm to Shanghai, Sacramento to Sydney. Although each city had its own unique microbial profile, there was a “core urban microbiome” that all of the cities shared, they found. The scientists, members of the international MetaSUB consortium, also discovered more than 10,000 previously unidentified species of viruses and bacteria. They published the findings in the journal Cell yesterday. (via Cell, The New York Times)
7. The chance of global warming temporarily reaching the 1.5C mark in the next five years has risen to more than 40 per cent after new monitoring data from the Arctic, according to the World Meteorological Organization. The latest annual report, led by the UK Met office, predicted the rise in the average global temperature by 1.5C since pre-industrial times was likely in at least one of the next five years, and could rise by as much as 1.8C. The likelihood of global land and sea temperatures warming to those levels in the years to 2025 was “increasing with time”, it said. The forecast combined reports from Spain, Germany, Canada, China, USA, Japan, Australia, Sweden, Norway and Denmark. The prediction that would see the threshold, at which scientists warn there will be catastrophic consequences, touched follows a move last week by the G7 group of countries to narrow their target to limit global warming to 1.5C, from a previous 2C goal. (via Financial Times)
8. The U.S. is entering a period of intense competition with China as the government running the world’s second-biggest economy becomes ever more tightly controlled by President Xi Jinping, the White House’s top official for Asia said. “The period that was broadly described as engagement has come to an end,” Kurt Campbell, the U.S. coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on the National Security Council, said Wednesday at an event hosted by Stanford University. U.S. policy toward China will now operate under a “new set of strategic parameters,” Campbell said, adding that “the dominant paradigm is going to be competition.” (via Bloomberg News)
9. Evans-Pritchard: “What happens when torrid monetary and fiscal reflation in the West meets tighter credit and evaporating liquidity in China? We will find out soon enough who calls the shots for world inflation in a globalized economy dominated by cross-border capital flows. We will also find out whether these two colliding forces moderate each other, or set off the sort of wild ructions in currency, commodity, and bond markets that make hedge funds salivate. ‘We have an incredible situation where the US is throwing the kitchen sink at its economy but China is over the peak and hitting the brakes,’ said Mark Williams, chief Asia economist at Capital Economics. ‘They began to rein in the property sector last September and were very quick to pivot from worrying about growth to worrying about debt. The post-Covid investment boom has mostly run its course,’ he said.” (via The Daily Telegraph)
10. The European Parliament has voted overwhelmingly to freeze the ratification process of an investment pact with China -- a deal that Beijing six months ago considered a big strategic victory. It has sent shock waves throughout China, with only one month and change before arguably the most important event in President Xi Jinping's era, the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party's establishment, on July 1. Some party members are worried that the centenary's festive mood will be dampened by the harsh diplomatic reality. Not only are China's relations with the U.S. bad, but now EU relations are stuck in a ditch. (via Nikkei Asian Review)
11. Even with Beijing and Washington still trading barbs under U.S. President Joe Biden's administration, private equity giant Carlyle Group and its CEO Kewsong Lee see "massive opportunities" in the Chinese market and throughout Asia. The Washington-based company, which boasts $260 billion in assets under management worldwide, aims to raise another $130 billion-plus by 2024 for funds under its umbrella, with its sights set on growth investments in markets including China, India and Japan. (via Nikkei Asian Review)
12. Ant Group has abandoned its 18 billion yuan ($2.8 billion) sale of securities backed by online loans, apparently in response to China's mounting crackdown against the fintech heavyweight's lucrative consumer credit business. Plans for the float, which was to be conducted by two Ant subsidiaries, were approved by the Shanghai Stock Exchange last fall. The Shanghai exchange gave no reason for the suspension of the sale when it announced the news Tuesday. Asset-backed securities form a key part of the business model for Ant's smartphone microfinancing business, whose loan assets have grown to 2 trillion yuan. Though most of the funds are provided by partner banks, the Alibaba Group Holding affiliate foots a portion of the credit independently. Ant recoups its contribution by repackaging the debt into asset-backed securities that later are sold off. (via Nikkei Asian Review)
13. Mathew McDermott, who oversees digital assets at Goldman Sachs, reports the following: “There’s no doubt that “fear of missing out” (FOMO) is playing a role given how much bitcoin and other crypto assets have appreciated and how many interested parties of all flavors have jumped into this space. If you’re an asset manager or running a macro fund and your closest rivals are all investing and seeing material returns, your investors will naturally wonder why you are not investing. But I see investor interest in crypto enduring; we’ve crossed the Rubicon in terms of institutional buy-in, and there is much greater value in the space than there was three or four years ago. A survey from our Digital Asset team conducted in early March found that of the 280 clients that responded, 40% have exposure in some form to cryptocurrencies, with 61% expecting their holdings to increase over the next 12 months, and I suspect that would be more now. Another indicator of increased activity is the almost 900% year-over-year increase in CME bitcoin future daily activity in April.” (via Financial Times)
14. Iran banned the mining of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin after a series of blackouts across major cities, in the latest sign of growing unease over the digital asset’s energy usage. The ban is effective immediately and will last until Sept. 22, President Hassan Rouhani said on state TV on Wednesday. It follows a regional ban within top Bitcoin-mining country China, and electric car-maker Tesla Inc.’s decision to stop selling cars using the token. Both cited environmental concerns, triggering a drop in Bitcoin’s value from April’s record high. (via Bloomberg News)
15. Beijing was instrumental in preventing Taiwan signing a deal to buy from German firm BioNTech, the island’s President Tsai Ing-wen said on Wednesday. “Taiwan was close to sealing the deal with the German plant, but because of China’s intervention, we still can’t sign the contract,” she told a meeting of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. Taipei had previously “smoothly” ordered shots from AstraZeneca in Britain and Moderna in the United States, she said. This is the first time Taiwan has directly accused Beijing of blocking a deal with BioNTech. (via scmp.com)
16. Russia is increasingly pressuring Google, Twitter and Facebook to fall in line with Kremlin internet crackdown orders or risk restrictions inside the country, as more governments around the world challenge the companies’ principles on online freedom. Russia’s internet regulator, Roskomnadzor, recently ramped up its demands for the Silicon Valley companies to remove online content that it deems illegal or restore pro-Kremlin material that had been blocked. The warnings have come at least weekly since services from Facebook, Twitter and Google were used as tools for anti-Kremlin protests in January. If the companies do not comply, the regulator has said, they face fines or access to their products may be throttled. (via The New York Times)
17. Philip Stephens: “With Russia, the test for Merkel is the pipeline under the Baltic to bring Russian gas to Germany. Nord Stream 2 is nearing completion. It promises at once to undercut the EU’s joint energy policy, to offer strategic economic security to the Kremlin and to weaken Ukraine. Scrapping the project would show serious intent on the part of the west to uphold a law-based order. It would also impose significant cost on German businesses. By ignoring the entreaties of the US and many European governments to call a halt, Merkel is setting a clear limit on Europe’s response to Kremlin lawlessness. Putin can do as he pleases in the knowledge the EU’s reaction will be constrained by Berlin. Sanctions may sting, but they will not wound. Merkel cannot complain if others see her as the autocrats’ ally.” (via Financial Times)
18. Dominic Cummings has branded Boris Johnson unfit to be prime minister and accused him of being responsible for tens of thousands of needless deaths from coronavirus. The prime minister’s former senior adviser used a seven-hour session with MPs to savage Johnson and his government’s response to the pandemic, which he said fell “disastrously short” of what the public deserved. Cummings said that ministers were too slow to realize the danger of Covid and too willing to condemn thousands to death by refusing to challenge the assumption that the virus could not be stopped. He claimed that Johnson told him that he would rather “let the bodies pile high” than impose another lockdown in autumn last year. He called Johnson’s approach “completely mad.” More from The Economisthere. (via Times of London, The Economist)
19. The aforementioned Nick Eberstadt: “Mr. Biden’s and Mr. Moon’s approach to the North Korean nuclear crisis is doomed to failure because it effectively places Mr. Kim in charge of nonproliferation negotiations. Thirty years of dealing with the Kim family should have taught us that Pyongyang uses talks only for diplomatic cover in its race to build an ever more powerful arsenal. To reduce the North Korean threat, we will need a program we can undertake on our own, with like-minded international friends, that does not depend on Mr. Kim.” (via The New York Times)
20. One year after the movement to “defund” law enforcement began to upend municipal budgets, many American cities are restoring money to their police departments or proposing to spend more. In the nation’s 20 largest local law-enforcement agencies, city and county leaders want funding increases for nine of the 12 departments where next year’s budgets already have been proposed. The increases range from 1% to nearly 6%. (via The Wall Street Journal)
21. A broad coalition of Democrats from across the ideological spectrum plans on Thursday to begin what it promises will be a noisy and sustained campaign to pressure President Biden to include a major expansion of Medicare in his infrastructure package. More than 150 House Democrats — including Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, the leader of the progressive wing in the House, and Representative Jared Golden of Maine, one of the chamber’s most centrist Democrats — have teamed up on the effort, which is all but certain to draw Republican opposition but contains proposals that are popular with a wide segment of voters. (via The New York Times)
22. For a century, North American professional sports leagues blockaded themselves from gambling, fearful fans would lose trust in the integrity of their games. The barrier between teams and sports wagering has crumbled in recent years, never more viscerally than this week in Washington. On Wednesday morning, Capital One Arena became the first U.S. professional sports arena with a sportsbook inside its walls. Monumental Sports, the Leonsis-owned local sports empire that owns the Wizards, Mystics, Capitals and other teams, leased the space to sportsbook operator William Hill on a 10-year contract. (via The Washington Post)
23. The world has far fewer birds than previously thought, according to a study that has fused global birdwatchers’ observations with hard science to estimate population numbers for almost 10,000 species. The research, the first of its kind, calculated that there are about 50 billion wild birds, far short of previous estimates including that of James Fisher, the British ornithologist and writer, who speculated in the 1950s that the global bird population exceeded 100 billion. The study, led by scientists at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, is the first attempt to quantify the global wild bird population in a data-backed manner. (via Times of London)
Quick Links: Artificial Intelligence is learning how to create itself. Two books offer complementary insights into how artificial intelligence is shaping society. Startup Phantom Space wants to be the Henry Ford of rockets. Japan charges into green tech race, eyeing solid-state battery prize. Tesla set to pay for chips in advance in bid to overcome shortage. Climate activists hail breakthrough victories over Exxon and Shell. Elliott Management won’t force GlaxoSmithKline sale. Ford expects 40% of global vehicle volume to be fully electric by 2030. The super rich are choosing Singapore as the world’s safest haven. Taiwan’s falling birth rate sends population towards ‘super-aged’ status. South Korea's demographic crisis marks a warning to the world. South Korea upgrades GDP growth forecast to 4%, fastest in decade. Nothing succeeds like failure. The greatest movies ever made.
Political Links: U.S., China trade officials hold first virtual meeting.Renewed Iran nuclear deal ‘feasible’ as talks enter likely final round. A wave of Afghan surrenders to the Taliban picks up speed. Bashar Assad is having himself re-elected president. Defiant Lukashenko calls the west’s bluff. U.S. faces outbreak of anti-Semitic threats and violence. Is wokeness ‘Kryptonite for Democrats’?
Pandemic Links: Why a grand plan to vaccinate the world against Covid unraveled.Immunity to the coronavirus may persist for years, scientists find. FDA authorizes antibody treatment believed effective on variant found in India. Scientists claim to have solved Covid vaccine blood-clot puzzle. What a Wuhan lab leak would really mean. Corporate overlords at work: Facebook to allow posts saying Covid ‘man-made.’ And finally, as Covid dissipates in the U.S., cold and flu viruses may return with a vengeance.