Welcome to this update from New World Same Humans, a newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.
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This week brings news from Boston Dynamics and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The message common to both stories? The humanoid robots are coming.
Meanwhile, the internet reacts to Apple’s new Vision Pro headset.
And the FCC take action against a California company that used AI to create fake phone calls from President Biden.
🤖 Robots are go
This week, yet further signs that the robots will soon walk among us. I mean, all of us.
The Boston Dynamics humanoid, Atlas, has been a regular in this newsletter over the years. Recently it has been overshadowed by competitors, including the Digit humanoid by Agility Robotics and Tesla’s Optimus.
But this week Boston Dynamics released a video that shows Atlas picking up automotive struts and placing them in a flow cart.
The team say Atlas is using onboard sensors and object recognition to perform the task. The footage is short. But it marks a significant advance for Atlas, because previous videos have shown the robot doing elaborate dances rather than useful work, and those dances have been pre-programmed rather than autonomous.
Meanwhile, in Beijing a research team at the Institute of Automation in the Chinese Academy of Sciences this week debuted their Q Family of humanoid robots.
The research team have reportedly built a ‘big factory’ for the design and manufacture of Q Family humanoids.
Back in New Week #124 we saw how the CCP has ordered ‘domestic mass production’ of humanoids’ to fuel economic growth. Remember, this is the underlying demographic reality that has China dashing towards robots.
⚡ NWSH Take: In last month’s Lookout to 2024 I said this would be the year of the humanoid. We closed out 2023 with the announcement that the Digit humanoid had started a trial inside US Amazon fulfilment centres. Days after I published the Lookout, BMW announced a trial of Digit in its California manufacturing plant. Now, the Boston Dynamics team are clearly eyeing commercial applications, too. Their Atlas robot has so far remained a research project; the question they’ll have to answer if they want to change that is whether Atlas can match Digit and Tesla’s Optimus for autonomous capability. // The graph above tells the underlying socio-economic story here. Both the CCP and innovators in the Global North know that working age populations are falling. If economic growth isn’t to become a distant memory, we need new armies of autonomous workers. AI applications can handle some of our knowledge work. But we’ll need humanoids to do some of the physical work that currently only people can do. The CCP see this as an existential imperative; they know they must maintain GDP growth. For innovators in the US and beyond, it’s an epic opportunity.
👀 Having visions
No one could have missed the launch of the Apple Vision Pro a few days ago.
Years from now, this instantly iconic magazine cover will no doubt spark intense nostalgia for the simpler times that were 2024:
It took about ten minutes for someone to try out their new Vision Pro while using Full Self Drive in their Tesla:
This was later revealed to be (surprise!) a skit for YouTube. Still, it delivered useful findings; the man in the picture, Dante Lentini, says the Vision Pro doesn’t really work inside a moving car because it can’t properly display visuals over a fast-moving landscape.
⚡ NWSH Take: After the frenetic metaverse hype of 2021, many will shrug at the launch of the Vision Pro. But something real, and powerful, is happening here. The internet is going to become part of the world around us. In the end, this is about the deep merging of information and physical reality, of bits and atoms, that I wrote about in the essay Intelligence in the World. // We’re going to see the emergence of a unified digital-physical field: a blended domain of bits and atoms that is a new, and in some sense final, innovation platform, because it brings together everything we do online with everything we do in the real world. // Apple’s new product — whether it proves a hit or not — is just another signal of this underling process. I’ll get my hands on one ASAP and report back. But Apple, here, are clearly aiming at high-end and industry users; they’re going to have to maker a cheaper product if they want mainstream impact.
☎️ Good call
Also this week, a glimpse of what lies ahead when it comes to this year’s US presidential election.
The FCC this week banned AI-voiced robocalls after an AI Joe Biden ‘called’ over 25,000 voters in late January and told them not to vote in the then-upcoming presidential primary elections.
The calls have been traced back to a Texas-based company called Life Corporation, owned by an entrepreneur with a long history in automated calling for political campaigns. Researchers believe Life Corporation used software from UK-based AI voice startup ElevenLabs, which I’ve written about here several times before, to deepfake Biden’s voice.
ElevenLabs just raised an $80 million series B funding round, led by VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, that valued the company at $1.1 billion.
⚡ NWSH Take: In the Lookout to 2024 I said we should expect politics to collide with the exponential age this year. The impact of AI deepfakes on November’s US presidential election will be at the heart of that story. Okay, the FCC has banned AI calls. But deepfake audio and video is surely going to be rife on Facebook, Elon Musk’s X, and TikTok. // Our liberal democracies were built in the age of one-to-many mass broadcast; those broadcasts were gatekept by social elites that felt a sense of duty towards the broader socio-political system in which they were operating. It wasn’t perfect, but it muddled along. Now, we’ve built previously unimagined technologies of image and sound manipulation. We’ve slain the gatekeepers, and told ourselves that this was an empowering move. The upshot? We're about to find out how liberal democracies work under those conditions.
🗓️ Also this week
👶 Researchers trained a large language model using only inputs from a headcam attached to a toddler. A data science team at New York University strapped a camera to a toddler for 18 months. They say their AI model learned a ‘substantial number of words and concepts’ from exposure to just one percent of the child's total waking hours between the ages of six months and two years. The team say this indicates that it is possible to train an LLM on far less data than previously believed.
🏭 Sam Altman says the world ‘needs more AI infrastructure’ and that OpenAI will help to build it. Altman is reportedly seeking trillions of dollars to build new semiconductor design and manufacture capability. Access to chips and the compute they supply is crucial for OpenAI if they are to train GPT-5 and other large AI models.
💸 Disney says it will invest $1.5 billion in Epic Games, the makers of Fortnite. The media giant say they’ll work with Epic to create a new ‘entertainment universe’ featuring characters from Pixar movies, Star Wars, and more.
🦹♂️ The US National Security Agency say an advanced group of Chinese hackers have been active across US infrastructure for at least five years. The Volt Typhoon hacking group is said to have infiltrated computer systems across aviation, rail, highway, and water infrastructure.
🔋 Europe’s deepest mine is to be converted into a gravity battery. The Pyhäsalmi Mine in Finland is 1,444 meters deep. Its copper and zinc deposits have run out. Scottish energy tech firm Gravitricity say they will now convert the mine into a gravity battery, in which energy is created stored via elevated heavy weights and released when those weights are dropped.
💥 Scientists at CERN want to build a massive new particle collider. The new Future Circular Collider would cost £12 billion; with a circumference of over 90 kilometres it would be three times larger than the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The LHC enabled the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle in 2012, but CERN scientists say they need a more powerful machine if they are to uncover the truth about dark matter and energy.
🤔 Popular Chinese social media accounts have claimed that Texas has declared civil war against the US. Posts with the hashtag #TexasDeclaresAStateOfWar have been widely shared on the popular social network Sina Weibo.
🇿🇲 A startup backed by Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos has discovered a vast copper reserve in Zambia. California-based KoBold Metals say the reserve will be ‘one of the world’s biggest high-grade large copper mines.’ Copper plays a crucial part in electric vehicle batteries and solar panels.
🤯 Researchers says AIs tend to choose nuclear strikes when playing war games. A team at Stanford University challenged LLMs such as GPT-4 and Claude-2 to participate in simulated conflicts between nations. The AIs tended to invest in military strength and to escalate towards violence and even nuclear attack in unpredictable ways. They would rationalise their actions via comments such as ‘we have it, let’s use it!’ and ‘if there is unpredictability in your action, it is harder for the enemy to anticipate and react’.
🌍 Humans of Earth
Key metrics to help you keep track of Project Human.
🙋 Global population: 8,090,538,177
🌊 Earths currently needed: 1.82069
🗓️ 2024 progress bar: 15% complete
📖 On this day: On 10 February 1996 the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue beats Garry Kasparov at chess, becoming the first computer to beat a reigning world champion under normal time controls.
New Model Army
Thanks for reading this week.
The collision between demographic change and a coming army of humanoid robots is yet another classic case of new world, same humans.
I’ll keep watching, and working to make sense of it all. And there’s one thing you can do to help: share!
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I’ll be back next week as usual. Until then, be well,
P.S Huge thanks to Nikki Ritmeijer for the illustration at the top of this email. And to Monique van Dusseldorp for additional research and analysis.