- Better Odds
- The paradox of doomsday narratives — #115
The paradox of doomsday narratives — #115
Making people fear the future makes them more at risk in the present.
I’m writing this while watching the first proper snowfall of the season. Enough snow for me to ask, “Where are my skis?”.
I love snow. It makes the world quieter.
This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about fear. Not in the form of personal anxiety but the strategic use of fear to gain power.
Fear is one of the most effective ways to control people. So, when you have a narrative of fear being constantly pushed, I think it makes sense to ask who benefits.
Fear erodes trust in institutions, government, and leadership. People may become more sceptical of official information and guidelines, making it challenging to respond to challenges effectively.
And we have some challenges to crack.
This week, I was at an event about AI, where one person in a panel kept pushing the narrative that this is a dangerous technology which needs to be controlled. “Ethics, compliance, regulation, low-risk applications”. Then I realised this person owned a company providing AI ethics and compliance services. So, this person has a financial incentive to scare everyone about AI.
All of a sudden, AI ethics felt a lot less ethical.
I think the current fear of AI harms society more than the existential risk of AI might in the future.
So, pushing this narrative out of concern for “humanity” or “democracy” is counter-productive.
The best thing we can do as individuals is to help switch the narrative around climate change and AI. Help people move out of their “fight, flight, freeze” state of mind by giving them power and a feeling of safety.
It doesn’t have to be more complicated than a “you can impact the future” — because we can. The more people actively working for a future where AI and climate are not "killing us all”, the less likely it is.
Be a leader.
📍Five Small Things
Talk — This talk by writer and historian Abby Smith Rumsey about history and the future, how we create our collective memory and the constant rewriting of history made me exponentially wiser. Probably one of the most impactful 52 minutes I’ve spent in a long time.
Podcast — This tip should come with a nerd alert … But my new favourite podcast is Data Sceptic by American data scientist Kyle Polich. I listen primarily to the mini-episodes where he explains math/data science concepts with his co-host and wife, Lihn Da. Not a data scientist, she asks the perfect questions, helping herself and the listener understand what he is explaining.
Tool — Calculate your carbon footprint with this calculator to see if you can make any small, practical changes to help the planet.
Non-fiction — Are you frustrated with a friend who keeps bringing up their horoscopes? Or do you wonder why you keep doing it? In the book The Age of Magical Overthinking, author Amanda Montell argues that in the modern information age, our brain’s coping mechanisms have been overloaded, and our irrationality has been turned up to an eleven.
Fiction — I love the books by Ann Patchett because of how she follows characters and families over time - in settings far from my everyday world. I’m currently deep in her latest book, Tom Lake. Her books The Dutch House and Commonwealth are among my Top 10 favourites.
🗞️ The News Section
Two Consecutive Days of Record-Breaking Temperatures — Climate Emergency Milestone Reached
On Friday, November 17, global surface air temperatures were 2.07 degrees Celsius above temperature averages from 1850-1900, before extensive fossil fuel use. Provisional data for the following day, November 18, indicated a global temperature elevation of 2.06 degrees Celsius.
This marks the first time average global temperatures have exceeded 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels for at least a day, with the new measurements breaching previous records for two subsequent days. Due to these temperature anomalies, November 2023 will likely become the warmest November on record. The European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Services (CS3) provided the data as part of the Copernicus Earth Observation Programme.
These measurements are crucial as world leaders gather for COP28 in Dubai, starting on November 30, to assess progress toward meeting Paris Agreement commitments. Last year, in Egypt, world leaders failed to agree on a phase-out of all fossil fuels. During negotiations on overtime, a Loss and Damage Fund was created to transfer funds to developing nations most at risk from the consequences of climate change.
Expectations for COP28 include another push for a commitment to phase out all fossil fuels with resistance from states, including the host country, dependent on oil. The consensus seems that the 2-degree Celsius target will be breached, leading to increased focus on adaptation plans and funding.
UK’s National Health Service Awards £330 Million Contract to Palantir, Raising Concerns Over Patient Privacy
The British National Health Service (NHS) recently awarded a £330 million contract to Palantir, a United States tech company known for its surveillance technology, to create a new data platform. This decision has sparked privacy concerns surrounding patients’ medical records. The contract, which spans five years, includes Palantir and four partners, including Accenture. Palantir has a history of working closely with intelligence and military organisations worldwide.
While the goal of the new data platform, known as the “federated data platform” (FDP), is to enhance digital communication and data sharing among health service trusts and integrated care systems, it has been met with unease from various quarters. MPs from different political parties and tech, medical, and civil liberties groups have expressed concerns about Palantir’s involvement and the potential mishandling of patients’ data.
Amnesty International criticised Palantir for its involvement in human rights abuses and questioned why NHS England chose to collaborate with the company. Palantir has also been known for supplying technology that allows governments to spy on their citizens.
NHS England has emphasised that the winning consortium, including Palantir, will not have access to health and care data without explicit consent, and general practice patient information (“GP data”) will not be included. They have also pledged to maintain the highest security standards and use privacy-enhancing technology.
Initially, there was a statement that patients would not be allowed to opt-out, but this decision faced potential legal challenges. The CEO of the NHS Confederation, Matthew Taylor, sees the platform as “game-changing” for clinicians, acknowledging past difficulties in consolidating NHS data.
OpenAI and Microsoft Face Lawsuits Over Alleged Copyright Infringement in AI Training
Artificial Intelligence, Copyright
OpenAI and Microsoft are facing lawsuits for allegedly misusing nonfiction authors' work to train their AI models, including ChatGPT. Julian Sancton, an author and Hollywood Reporter editor, leads a class action lawsuit, joined by authors like John Grisham and George R.R. Martin. They accuse OpenAI of copying thousands of books without permission.
For Microsoft, an OpenAI investor, it is the first time it has been named in a copyright infringement lawsuit related to AI training data. Both companies deny the claims. Attorney Justin Nelson, representing Sancton, alleges nonfiction authors aren't compensated, calling it "rampant theft of copyrighted works." The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and a court order to halt copyright infringement.
Edelman’s Trust Barometer is Criticised for Positive Bias Towards Authoritarian Regimes
PR, Human Rights
The world’s largest public relations firm, Edelman, has a “trust barometer” that measures public trust in governments. The trust barometer has indicated that citizens of authoritarian countries, including Saudi Arabia, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, and China, tend to trust their governments more than those in democracies do. However, public opinion surveys in authoritarian regimes tend to overstate government favorability due to fear of reprisal. This means measures of public support for the government may be inflated in Edelman’s trust barometer when it comes to authoritarian states.
The Guardian and Aria, a non-profit research organisation, analysed Edelman’s trust barometers and Foreign Agent Registration Act (Fara) filings, revealing Edelman’s financial relationships with these governments. Some authoritarian governments have paid Edelman millions to develop and promote their desired images and narratives.
The government of the United Arab Emirates became an Edelman client in 2007 and paid the firm over $6 million for its work to improve its reputation on sustainability. Edelman’s trust barometer surveys have consistently reported high levels of trust in the UAE government. Simultaneously, activist Ahmed Mansoor was sentenced to 10 years in prison in the UAE after being critical of the government on social media.
Edelman has also cultivated deeper ties with Saudi Arabia, even after the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Richard Edelman, the CEO of Edelman, personally registered as a foreign agent representing the Saudi Ministry of Culture, and the company signed contracts to improve the social media presence of Neom, a futuristic city in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is also included in the Edelman trust barometer despite criticism.
Edelman’s work for these governments attempts to increase their “soft power” and shape the perceptions of these countries. However, in light of these business relations, critics say that Edelman’s trust barometer is a sales tool, arguing that the firm should disclose its financial relationships.
United States Authorities Prevented an Assassination of a Sikh Activist on US Soil
Geopolitics, India, United States
United States authorities prevented a plan to assassinate Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, the general counsel for Sikhs for Justice, a US group supporting an independent Sikh state called “Khalistan.”
The plan of an assassination on American soil prompted US President Joe Biden to speak with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 meeting in September. The US National Security Council confirmed the plot and said it engaged in diplomatic discussions with India at the highest levels. However, it is unclear whether raising the issue to New Delhi led the plotters to abandon their plan or if the FBI intervened.
This situation should be viewed in light of the assassination of another Sikh separatist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen, who was killed in Vancouver in June. India has rejected Canada’s claims of its involvement in Nijjar’s murder, severely straining the relationship between the two countries. Because of this, US authorities informed some allies about the Pannun case, raising concerns about a possible pattern of behaviour.
Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, the target of the assassination plot, declined to confirm whether US authorities had warned him about the threat. Meanwhile, the White House stated that Indian officials expressed surprise and concern when the issue was raised while denying involvement.
The incident has raised questions about the US administration’s efforts to deepen relations with India. India’s ruling party has a Hindu nationalist stance, and there are accusations against Prime Minister Narendra Modi of inciting violence against religious and ethnic minorities in India. India also thinks other countries with a sizeable Indian community don’t do enough to restrict Sikh separatists.
Despite these challenges, the US government views India as a critical partner in its strategy to counter China and emphasises the importance of a strong US-India relationship.
📈 The Insights Section
AI Servers Could Consume as Much Electricity as all of Sweden by 2027
Artificial Intelligence, Sustainability
OpenAI's ChatGPT exploded onto the scene a year ago, gathering around 100 million users in just two months. This rapid rise marked the beginning of an AI boom. ChatGPT and similar AI technologies rely on thousands of specialised computer chips, but this invention comes with a significant energy cost.
A recent peer-reviewed analysis by Alex de Vries, a data scientist and PhD student at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, paints a concerning picture of AI's energy consumption. By 2027, AI servers could use between 85 to 134 terawatt hours annually, equivalent to the yearly electricity consumption of countries like Argentina, the Netherlands, or Sweden. This energy demand accounts for about 0.5 per cent of the world's total electricity use and raises concerns about its environmental impact.
The environmental impact of AI depends on whether the data centres powering it rely on fossil fuels or renewable resources. In comparison, in 2022, data centres that supported all computers, including giants like Amazon and Google, consumed approximately 1 to 1.3 per cent of the world's electricity. This calculation excludes cryptocurrency mining, which added another 0.4 per cent, some of which is now being redirected to support AI.
To estimate AI's electricity consumption, de Vries used projected sales of Nvidia A100 servers, which dominate the AI market. These servers have varying electricity usage, such as 6.5 kilowatts for Nvidia's DGX A100 servers and 10.2 kilowatts for its DGX H100 servers. However, there are uncertainties to this estimation, including the potential for servers to operate below total capacity and the influence of server cooling and infrastructure on electricity consumption.
It is also worth noting that AI technology is already in place to make energy usage more efficient in many industries, so it is challenging to accurately calculate AI’s net impact on energy.
Large-Scale Study Finds No Evidence of Screen Time Harming Children's Brain Function
In a new study, researchers from the United Kingdom, the United States and the Netherlands analysed data from nearly 12,000 children to examine the impact of screen time on their brain function and well-being. Using the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, the largest of its kind in the United States, researchers focused on children aged 9-12 who self-reported their daily screen time. This included watching TV, using digital platforms, playing video games, and engaging with social media.
Over two years, even children with high levels of digital engagement showed no evidence of impaired brain development. The study assessed neurodevelopment through MRI scans, physical and mental health assessments, and caregiver input. While patterns of brain connectivity were related to screen engagement, there was no meaningful association between screen time and cognitive or mental well-being. Even social media engagement did not yield significant findings.
This research challenges assumptions about the harmful effects of screen time on children. It underscores the need for high-quality science in discussions about technology's role in the lives of young people in the digital age.
Majority of Americans Believe Money Can Buy Happiness
A survey of over 2,000 Americans aged 18 and older by the financial services company Empower explores the views on financial happiness in 2023. The findings revealed that a significant % of Americans, 59%, believe that money can indeed buy happiness. This belief is even more pronounced among younger generations, with 67% of Gen Z and 72% of millennials sharing this view.
Regarding the amount needed to be happy, Americans, on average, stated that they require $284,167 per year. However, millennials have a notably higher average figure of $525,000 annually, while other generations hover around $130,000 annually. This discrepancy is attributed to the lasting impact of the recession on millennials. According to data from the US Census Bureau, the median millennial household pretax income is $71,566, far below their happiness benchmark.
Financial happiness, as defined by the respondents, encompasses several factors. For 67% of those surveyed, it means paying bills on time, while 65% prioritise being debt-free. Additionally, 54% consider the ability to afford everyday luxuries without worry, and 45% view homeownership as a critical component of their happiness. Despite these aspirations, 54% of respondents admitted to having debt, and 36% expressed concerns about covering unexpected expenses exceeding $500.
Increase of Financial Scams in 2023: 15% of US Households Affected
In 2023, financial scams have become a widespread issue among United States adults, with 15% reporting that someone in their household has fallen victim to scams. This places scams among the top four most common crimes affecting American households, alongside property vandalism, theft, and identity theft. Notably, around 8% of adults have personally experienced being scammed, amounting to approximately 21 million individuals.
While scams affect various demographic groups, they tend to target lower-income households and those with lower levels of education. Non-college-educated adults are twice as likely to be personally victimised by scams than college graduates. Similarly, households earning less than $50,000 annually are approximately twice as likely to report falling victim to scams as middle- and upper-income households.
Younger adults bear the highest overall rate of household victimisation, with 22% experiencing scams, in contrast to lower rates among those aged 50 to 64 and 65 and older.
Scams have also emerged as the second-highest crime worry among Americans, with 57% expressing concern about falling prey to them. Only identity theft ranks higher, with 72% worrying about it. Although worry levels vary slightly across different demographic groups, lower-income households and those with no college experience tend to worry more frequently.
Interestingly, relatively few scam victims - less than 30% - report these incidents to the police.
Thank you for reading. I hope you learned something new. ✨
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