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Still Chugging Along

Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.

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What Could Go Right? This AI tool draws anything you want

Plus, big money gets thrown at carbon capture technology, a lake in central Florida sues to protect itself against development, and more

Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas

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This AI tool draws anything you want

In an upcoming episode of the What Could Go Right? podcast, economist and modern-day renaissance man Tyler Cowen pegs GPT-3—an artificial intelligence tool that can code, write essays, translate languages, and generally work with text at human-like levels—as a technology to watch that is likely to make our lives better.

The organization behind GPT-3 is OpenAI, funded by Microsoft and others, with a mandate to ensure that artificial intelligence benefits all of humanity. Last year they came out with DALL-E, a kind of GPT-3 for images. Tell DALL-E to “draw” whatever image you want, and it will. You can ask for, say, a tissue box shaped like a doughnut, and it will produce 30 images, some of which are a little off but others of which are exactly what you would imagine a tissue box shaped like a doughnut to be.

Courtesy of DALL-E: Nine tissue boxes shaped like doughnuts and one that looks more like a meringue pie.

This month OpenAI released DALL-E 2, a better, faster, more precise version with images that are of higher quality than you might expect a computer capable of making. The asks it can deliver on are freakishly detailed: here, for example, is what came out of “a bowl of soup that looks like a monster spray-painted on a wall” and “an astronaut lounging in a tropical resort in space in a vaporwave style.” It also has impressive editing capabilities.

Concerned, rightly, about deepfakes and other misapplications, the tool is not yet available to buy or use fully, although you can play with some examples like the ones above on DALL-E and DALL-E 2’s websites. (It’s fun.) TechCrunch also has longer explanations of what the original and version two can do, if you want more information, including about how OpenAI has trained them not to create violent, perverse, and malicious imagery.

Cool, you might be saying, but what exactly is the benefit here? For its part, OpenAI thinks DALL-E will eventually be used in graphic arts industries. As a small nonprofit media team, we could see using it to much more easily create visual data displays or artistic imagery for an article, for example, which would be a real boon to us. 

Before the technology is done being developed, it’s tough to draw a straight line between it and what will happen in the future. The excitement comes from imagining the potential. It may help to think about what previous advancements in human–computer interaction have brought to our everyday lives. We first communicated with computers with punch cards. Then we upgraded to a screen and a keyboard, then a mouse, then to touchscreens and things like Siri. GPT-3 is one of the next, new steps in this progression.

Big money thrown at carbon capture

Big tech efforts with big money also made climate change news this week, with the announcement of Frontier, a fund owned by Stripe, Inc. to scale up carbon removal from the atmosphere. Carbon removal is needed to meet climate goals in time—we’ve likely moved too slowly to do it just by cutting emissions—but carbon removal technology is currently too small and too expensive to be up for the job. 

Frontier is trying to give it a boost, so it can scale up and become cheaper and widely adopted. They’re doing it through what is called an “advance market commitment,” essentially pre-purchases or agreements to pay for future tons of carbon removed from the atmosphere. This guarantee helps support and mature carbon removal startups and makes it easier for them to secure funding. Check out how it’s all supposed to work on Frontier’s website, and if you’re confused, Bloomberg Green has another clear explanation here.

In other climate startup news, this one is trying to solve shipping emissions with an electric battery that is stored in shipping containers and switched out at ports. Bonus: it inadvertently ameliorates supply chain delays. And this one in Bolivia is creating the tiniest electric cars we have ever seen. (No, that’s not the point. The point is that they are trying to expand the electric vehicle market into Latin America. But really, the cars are terribly cute in size.)

Also, the world’s first genetically engineered wheat is here and is drought-tolerant. Sweden is the first country to take the carbon footprint of imported goods into their accounting of emissions. The European Union is trying to fashion rules around fast fashion. Greece just opened an enormous solar park that will power 75,000 homes. And a lake in central Florida is suing in court, together with a second lake, a marsh, and “two boggy streams,” to protect itself against development.

Before we go

Scientists are working on a new Covid-19 vaccine that will work for the immunocompromised

Have you ever wondered to yourself, why have the past ten years of American life been uniquely stupid? So has The Progress Network (TPN) Member Jonathan Haidt

We loved this interview with physicist David Deutsch in Der Spiegel. Do read the whole thing, but we wanted to highlight one delightful and counterintuitive point he makes in it that our world today is progress-minded as a default, even if we don’t realize it:

David Deutsch (DD): At some point, some societies came to realize that improvement was actually possible, ancient Athens and Renaissance Florence being two well-known examples. But even in these cases, the innovative society was destroyed within a couple of generations. Only the Enlightenment survived, it spread and produced everything we have today.

Der Spiegel: What was different in the case of Enlightenment?

DD: It was optimism that made science take off. It’s very ingrained in our culture today that when something changes for the worse, people complain. Because they are convinced that the problem is soluble, and therefore that the situation can be improved again. That attitude is new. For most of history, people thought: The world is bad and, usually, it’s getting worse.

Deutsch mentions later in the interview that he doesn’t think humans will reach immortality in his lifetime. But scientists did just turn a 53-year-old’s skin cells into the equivalent of a 23-year-old’s, so who knows.

Below in the links section, New York lifts hurdles to nurse practitioners, Somalia launches its first all-female newsroom, and more.

Editor’s note: Last week we wrote about the gains wind and solar power have made in a way that may have left readers with an overly rosy impression. TPN Member Joshua Goldstein, who specializes in climate issues, wrote us to emphasize that “Overall a strong majority of electricity in the world is still ‘dirty.'” He added, as we had noted, that wind and solar “are not in fact replacing fossil fuels but only adding to them as demand grows.” The world is not on track to reduce emissions.  


An endangered African forest elephant in Gabon, monitored via AI-powered camera traps.

The Happiness Rebellion | S2 Ep. 3

What is happiness, and why does it feel so difficult to find? The path to purpose, meaning, love, and contentment is actually no mystery, says Harvard University social scientist Arthur C. Brooks. He shares the research for how to invest in a thriving “happiness 401k.” | Listen to the episode

TPN’s Zachary Karabell and Emma Varvaloucas on MetaPod

The tables have turned! Zachary and Emma went on the MetaPod show to explain how TPN is building a foundation for alternative approaches to public discourse and engagement on important issues—one that doesn’t assume disaster. | Listen to the episode

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James Pethokoukis is a columnist and economic policy analyst. He is the Dewitt Wallace Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he writes and edits the AEIdeas blog and hosts a weekly podcast, Political Economy with James Pethokoukis. He is a columnist for The Week and an official contributor to CNBC. He also authors the Faster, Please! newsletter on Substack.

Read James’ essay about creating an “Up Wing” society in America.

Until Next Time

Here’s to many Easter miracles.👇

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Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas is the Executive Director of The Progress Network. An editor and writer specializing in nonprofit media, she was formerly Executive Editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and is the editor of two books from Wisdom Publications.