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Aeroplanes, Airships and Beta Bias

Blog Post | Air Transport

Aeroplanes, Airships and Beta Bias

This article was published at the Pessimists Archive on 2/8/2024.

We cannot understand to what practical use a flying machine that is heavier than air can be put.

Manchester Guardian, 1908

This amusing quote was shared on Twitter by ex-Financial Times assistant editor Brian Groom. Naturally we went looking for the original source and after a little digging, we found it:

Old article from 'The Manchester Guardian' titled 'The Aeroplane and The Airship'
The Manchester Guardian, later renamed The Guardian

Revealed is the quote’s context: a comparison between aeroplanes and airships, prompted by a historic breakthrough: 1 week prior the Wright Brothers publicly proved possible heavier than air flying machines.

Sizing up the aeroplane against then dominant airships was a natural reaction to the breakthrough. Like many others, The Manchester Guardian (later renamed The Guardian) noted the existing limits of this nascent technology and the upsides of the established alternative.

Airships didn’t need a runway to take off or land, were easy to control, could hover mid-air and allowed the transport of many people at an average cruising altitude of 650ft – while the Wright Brothers only achieved 20ft. (The fact Airships were full of highly flammable gas went unmentioned.)

The Manchester Guardian commended the Wright Brother’s impressive “acrobatic” achievement and “great feat of mechanical engineering”, but dismissed the aeroplanes military potential because of early downsides: its low cruising altitude meant “it presented a target that no one who had ever handled a gun could possibly miss.” And its use in reconnaissance was doubted due to its limited capacity to carry passengers and the difficulty of piloting, giving “no opportunity to observe the world below.” The piece would end by commending the English, French and German governments for its focus on airship development.

The US Military officials present at the Wrights public demonstration were more optimistic however – seeing beyond early limits – towards possible improvement, with the Navy signalling intent to begin purchase of the new technology immediately.

Image of military Aeroplanes

Only 6 years later World War I would begin, military Aeroplanes would take to the skies – first for reconnaissance – helping the allied forces prevent the German’s invasion of France, among other things. This new intelligence advantage, saw weaponization soon follow, as each side sought to take out each others reconnaissance crafts.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, France suggested it create a flying corps of 4,500 aeroplanes, the US set a goal of 22,625 – echoing the enthusiasm of its military leaders on first witnessing manned flight. It never managed to fulfil this goal and purchased the majority of its planes from France and the United Kingdom. By the end of the war it would form the Royal Airforce, the first dedicated airforce in the world, one that would play a key roll in World War II.

Beta Bias

On paper – looking at pros and cons – dismissing the aeroplane would have felt fair, convincing and well reasoned in 1908. The problem though: this could apply to many nascent breakthrough technologies when comparing them to established alternatives. It isn’t a fair or useful comparison.

This common error in thinking about technology is certainly a strain of “status quo bias,” but should probably have a name: we’re christening it “beta bias.”

Beta Bias: The inclination to compare an early-stage version of a new technology, typically in its beta or developmental phase, with a more developed and established alternative technology. This comparison often overlooks the growth potential, cost reductions and future improvements of the new technology, leading to an underestimation of its eventual impact and utility.

Every nascent innovation has a more developed predecessor, more familiar and socially acceptable, with clear advantages, and disadvantages that society has rationalized. We’ll be exploring ‘beta bias’ more in our next post.

Blog Post | Science & Technology

AI Is a Great Equalizer That Will Change the World

A positive revolution from AI is already unfolding in the global East and South.

Summary: Concerns over potential negative impacts of AI have dominated headlines, particularly regarding its threat to employment. However, a closer examination reveals AI’s immense potential to revolutionize equal and high quality access to necessities such as education and healthcare, particularly in regions with limited access to resources. From India’s agricultural advancements to Kenya’s educational support, AI initiatives are already transforming lives and addressing societal needs.

The latest technology panic is over artificial intelligence (AI). The media is focused on the negatives of AI, making many assumptions about how AI will doom us all. One concern is that AI tools will replace workers and cause mass unemployment. This is likely overblown—although some jobs will be lost to AI, if history is any guide, new jobs will be created. Furthermore, AI’s ability to replace skilled labor is also one of its greatest potential benefits.

Think of all the regions of the world where children lack access to education, where schoolteachers are scarce and opportunities for adult learning are scant.

Think of the preventable diseases that are untreated due to a lack of information, the dearth of health care providers, and how many lives could be improved and saved by overcoming these challenges.

In many ways, AI will be a revolutionary equalizer for poorer countries where education and health care have historically faced many challenges. In fact, a positive revolution from AI is already unfolding in the global East and South.

Improving Equality through Education and Health Care

In India, agricultural technology startup Saagu Baagu is already improving lives. This initiative allows farmers to increase crop yield through AI-based solutions. A chatbot provides farmers with the information they need to farm more effectively (e.g., through mapping the maturity stages of their crops and testing soil so that AI can make recommendations on which fertilizers to use depending on the type of soil). Saagu Baagu has been successful in the trial region and is now being expanded. This AI initiative is likely to revolutionize agriculture globally.

Combining large language models with speech-recognition software is helping Indian farmers in other ways. For example, Indian global impact initiative Karya is working on helping rural Indians, who speak many different languages, to overcome language barriers. Karya is collecting data on tuberculosis, which is a mostly curable and preventable disease that kills roughly 200,000 Indians every year. By collecting voice recordings of 10 different dialects of Kannada, an AI speech model is being trained to communicate with local people. Tuberculosis carries much stigma in India, so people are often reluctant to ask for help. AI will allow Indians to reduce the spread of the disease and give them access to reliable information.

In Kenya, where students are leading in AI use, the technology is aiding the spread of information by allowing pupils to ask a chatbot questions about their homework.

Throughout the world, there are many challenges pertaining to health care, including increasing costs and staff shortages. As developed economies now have rapidly growing elderly populations and shrinking workforces, the problem is set to worsen. In Japan, AI is helping with the aging population issue, where a shortage of care workers is remedied by using robots to patrol care homes to monitor patients and alert care workers when something is wrong. These bots use AI to detect abnormalities, assist in infection countermeasures by disinfecting commonly touched places, provide conversation, and carry people from wheelchairs to beds and bathing areas, which means less physical exertion and fewer injuries for staff members.

In Brazil, researchers used AI models capable of predicting HER2 subtype breast cancer in imaging scans of 311 women and the patients’ response to treatment. In addition, AI can also help make health resource allocations more efficient and support tasks such as preparing for public health crises, such as pandemics. At the individual level, the use of this technology in wearables, such as smartwatches, can encourage patient adherence to treatments, help prevent illnesses, and collect data more frequently.

Biometric data gathered from wearable devices could also be a game-changer. This technology can detect cancers early, monitor infectious diseases and general health issues, and give patients more agency over their health where access to health care is limited or expensive.

Education and health care in the West could also benefit from AI. In the United States, text synthesis machines could help to address the lack of teachers in K–12 education and the inaccessibility of health care for low-income people.

Predicting the Future

AI is already playing a role in helping humanity tackle natural disasters (e.g., by predicting how many earthquake aftershocks will strike and their strength). These models, which have been trained on large data sets of seismic events, have been found to estimate the number of aftershocks better than conventional (non-AI) models do.

Forecasting models can also help to predict other natural disasters like severe storms, floods, hurricanes, and wildfires. Machine learning uses algorithms to reduce the time required to make forecasts and increase model accuracy, which again is superior to the non-AI models that are used for this purpose. These improvements could have a massive impact on people in poor countries, who currently lack access to reliable forecasts and tend to be employed in agriculture, which is highly dependent on the weather.

A Case for Optimism

Much of the fear regarding AI in the West concerns the rapid speed at which it is being implemented, but for many countries, this speed is a boon.

Take the mobile phone. In 2000, only 4 percent of people in developing countries had access to mobile phones. By 2015, 94 percent of the population had such access, including in sub-Saharan Africa.

The benefits were enormous, as billions gained access to online banking, educational opportunities, and more reliable communication. One study found that almost 1 in 10 Kenyan families living in extreme poverty were able to lift their incomes above the poverty line by using the banking app M-Pesa. In rural Peru, household consumption rose by 11 percent with access to phones, while extreme poverty fell 5.4 percent. Some 24 percent of people in developing countries now use the mobile internet for educational purposes, compared with only 12 percent in the richest countries. In lower-income countries, access to mobile phones and apps is life-changing.

AI, which only requires access to a mobile phone to use, is likely to spread even faster in the countries that need the technology the most.

This is what we should be talking about: not a technology panic but a technology revolution for greater equality in well-being.

Brookings | Financial Market Development

Women’s Financial Inclusion Boosted in Sub-Saharan Africa

“In the 10 years leading up to 2021, the share of women in sub-Saharan Africa who owned a financial account more than doubled to reach 49%, according to data from the Global Findex.

Since 2017 alone, account ownership rates for women in the region increased 12 percentage points, driven entirely by increased adoption of mobile money accounts.”

From Brookings.

Wall Street Journal | Health & Medical Care

You Can Now Get Weight-Loss Drug Zepbound through Amazon

“Amazon Pharmacy, which has sold prescription medicines online since 2020, will now handle some of the home delivery of anti-obesity therapy Zepbound and other Eli Lilly drugs that are ordered through the drugmaker’s new direct-to-consumer service, the companies said Wednesday.

The service, called LillyDirect, connects patients with telehealth services specializing in obesity that can write prescriptions for Zepbound or another weight-loss drug. The service also arranges for a prescription to be processed and mailed directly to customers.”

From Wall Street Journal.

Blog Post | Adoption of Technology

Bitcoin Brought Electricity to Countries in the Global South

It won’t be the United Nations or rich philanthropists that electrifies Africa.

Summary: Energy is indispensable for societal progress and well-being, yet many regions, particularly in the Global South, lack reliable electricity access. Traditional approaches to electrification, often reliant on charity or government aid, have struggled to address these issues effectively. However, a unique solution is emerging through bitcoin mining, where miners leverage excess energy to power their operations. This approach bypasses traditional barriers to energy access, offering a decentralized and financially sustainable solution.

Energy is life. For the world and its inhabitants to live better lives—freer, richer, safer, nicer, and more comfortable lives—the world needs more energy, not less. There are no rich, low-energy countries and no poor, high-energy countries.

“Energy is the only universal currency; it is necessary for getting anything done,” in Canadian-Czech energy theorist Vaclav Smil’s iconic words.

In an October 2023 report for the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship on how to bring electricity to the world’s poorest 800 million people, Robert Bryce, author of A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations, sums it as follows:

Electricity matters because it is the ultimate poverty killer. No matter where you look, as electricity use has increased, so has economic growth. Having electricity does not guarantee wealth. But its absence almost always means poverty. Indeed, electricity and economic growth go hand in hand.

To supply electricity on demand to many of those people, especially in the Global South, grids need to be built in the first place and then have enough extra capacity to ramp up production when needed. That requires overbuilding, which is expensive and wasteful, and the many consumers of the Global South are poor.

Adding to the trouble are the abysmal formal institutions of property rights and rule of law in many African countries, and the layout of the land becomes familiar: corruption and fickle property rights make foreign, long-term investments basically impossible; poor populations mean that local purchasing power is low and usually not worth the investment risk.

What’s left are slow-moving charity and bureaucratic government development aid, both of which suffer from terrible incentives, lack of ownership, and running into their own sort of self-serving corruption.

In “Stranded,” a long-read for Bitcoin Magazine, Human Rights Foundation’s Alex Gladstein accounted for his journey into the mushrooming electricity grids of sub-Saharan Africa: “Africa remains largely unable to harness these natural resources for its economic growth. A river might run through it, but human development in the region has been painfully reliant on charity or expensive foreign borrowing.”

Stable supply of electricity requires overbuilding; overbuilding requires stable property rights and rich enough consumers over which to spread out the costs and financially recoup the investment over time. Such conditions are rare. Thus, the electricity-generating capacity won’t be built in the first place, and most of Africa becomes dark when the sun sets.

Gladstein reports that a small hydro plant in the foothills of Mount Mulanje in Malawi, even though it was built and financed by the Scottish government, still supplies exorbitantly expensive electricity—around 90 cents per kilowatt hour—with most of its electricity-generating capacity going to waste.

What if there were an electricity user, a consumer-of-last-resort, that could scoop up any excess electricity and disengage at a moment’s notice if the population needed that power for lights and heating and cooking? A consumer that could co-locate with the power plants and thus avoid having to build out miles of transmission lines.

With that kind of support consumer—guaranteeing revenue by swallowing any excess generation, even before any local homes have been connected—the financial viability of the power plants could make the construction actually happen. It pays for itself right off the bat, regardless of transmissions or the disposable income of nearby consumers.

If so, we could bootstrap an electricity grid in the poorest areas of the world where neither capitalism nor central planning, neither charity worker nor industrialist, has managed to go. That consumer of last resort could accelerate electrification of the world’s poorest and monetize their energy resilience. That’s what Gladstein went to Africa to investigate the bourgeoning industry of bitcoin miners electrifying the continent.

Bitcoin Saves the World: Energy-Poverty Edition

Africa is used to large enterprises digging for minerals. The bitcoin miners springing forth all over the continent are different. They don’t need to move massive amounts of land and soil and don’t pollute nearby rivers. They operate by running machines that guess large numbers, which is the cryptographic method that secures bitcoin and confirms its transaction blocks. All they need to operate is electricity and an internet connection.

By co-locating and building with electricity generation, bitcoin miners remove some major obstacles to bringing power to the world’s poorest billion. In the rural area of Malawi that Gladstein visited, there was nowhere to offload the expensive hydro power and no financing to connect more households or build transmission lines to faraway urban areas: “The excess electricity couldn’t be sold, so the power stations built machines that existed solely to suck up the unused power.”

Bitcoin miners are in a globally competitive race to unlock patches of unused energy everywhere, so in came Gridless, an off-grid bitcoin miner with facilities in Kenya and Malawi. Any excess power generation in these regions is now comfortably eaten up by the company’s onsite mining machines—the utility company receiving its profit share straight in a bitcoin wallet of its own control, no banks or governments blocking or delaying international payments, and no surprise government currency devaluations undercutting its purchasing power.

No aid, no government, no charity; just profit-seeking bitcoiners trying to soak up underused energy. Gladstein observes:

One night during my visit to Bondo, Carl asked me to pause as the sunset was fading, to look at the hills around us: the lights were all turning on, all across the foothills of Mt. Mulanje. It was a powerful sight to see, and staggering to think that Bitcoin is helping to make it happen as it converts wasted energy into human progress. . . .

Bitcoin is often framed by critics as a waste of energy. But in Bondo, like in so many other places around the world, it becomes blazingly clear that if you aren’t mining Bitcoin, you are wasting energy. What was once a pitfall is now an opportunity.

For decades, our central-planning mindset had us “help” the Global South by directing resources there—building things we thought Africans needed, sending money to (mostly) corrupt leaders in the hopes that schools be built or economic growth be kick-started. We squandered billions in goodhearted nongovernmental organization projects.

Even for an astute and serious energy commentator as Bryce, not once in his 40-page report on how to electrify the Global South did it occur to him that bitcoin miners—the very people who are turning the lights on for the poorest in the world—could play a crucial role in achieving that.

It’s so counterintuitive and yet, once you see it, so obvious. In the end, says Gladstein, it won’t be the United Nations or rich philanthropists that electrifies Africa “but an open-source software network, with no known inventor, and controlled by no company or government.”