March 15, 2023

Today's Topics

Hello! Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water… a seaweed bloom, twice the width of the US, is baffling scientists and heading for Florida. Today we’re tackling:

  • GPT upgrade: OpenAI's latest model is a big step up.
  • Willow windfall: A controversial Alaskan oil project has got the green light.
  • Global convenience: The rise of 7-Eleven.
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The world of artificial intelligence just got a lot more exciting, or scary, depending on your perspective, as the tech firm behind the wildly-popular and surprisingly-addictive ChatGPT unleashed its new model.

OpenAI’s latest creation, GPT-4, is a smarter, more powerful version of the tech behind the viral chatbot — and on a series of benchmark tests, the engine’s ability to outperform humans is staggering.


While GPT-4 is locked behind OpenAI’s paywall, Microsoft revealed that it’s been powering Bing’s chatbot for 6 weeks now. Even though that test of the language model’s capabilities hasn’t always run smoothly, the new version has outscored its predecessor on nearly every academic and professional exam.

GPT-4, for example, would apparently beat a staggering 90% of lawyers attempting to pass the bar, compared to GPT-3.5 which would have been in the bottom 10%. Indeed, in 12 of the 15 AP exams the pair took, GPT-4 scored ahead of 50% students. The model still has some revision to do in the English department, however, showing no improvement in language or literature.

Aside from acing exams, GPT-4 is also able to accept images as inputs — a key factor in one of its first implementations where the model will be used to power a “virtual volunteer” for those with visual impairments.

Windfall in the Willow

On Monday, Joe Biden greenlit the Willow oil drilling project — a proposal to drill at 3 sites in Alaska’s vast North Slope region.

At peak production, the project is anticipated to supply 180,000 barrels of crude oil per day, roughly 1.5% of total US oil production. The proposal is popular with local officials, who are eager to secure the ~2,500 new jobs, as well as most of the Indigenous groups in the area.

Environmental activists, however, are less enthused. Condemnation from climate groups has poured in, and online petitions to cancel the project have been widely shared on social media, with one reaching nearly 4 million signatures. By the government’s own calculations the project is set to emit the equivalent of 9.2 million metric tons of carbon pollution annually, equivalent to adding 2 million gas-powered cars to the road each year.

Petrol heads

The Willow project is a perfect microcosm of the wider debate in America about energy security — an argument that’s only intensified in the wake of last year’s energy crisis and oil price spikes.

For years domestic production has increased in a bid to reduce American reliance on imports and… it’s worked. The US is by far the biggest consumer andproducer of oil in the world, even becoming a net exporter of petroleum products in the last two years. Ensuring energy security today, while meeting the global climate goals of the future, is likely to be a core issue in the 2024 election.

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Masatoshi Ito, the “king of convenience” who turned 7-Eleven into a global empire, passed away last Friday, aged 98.

Convenience, cornered

Ito’s empire got started in 1956 when he took over his family’s store in Tokyo, quickly expanding it beyond clothes into a Japanese retail empire. But it wasn’t until the early 1970’s, on a trip to the US, that Ito spotted a 7-Eleven store — which at the time was a Dallas-based company.

Masatoshi spied an opportunity, striking a deal to open Japan’s first ever 7-Eleven in 1974 — a retail revolution quickly followed. 7-Eleven, and other convenience stores, transformed everything in many of Japan’s densely-populated, fast-paced cities, from how companies move products to the way people eat, even introducing the now iconic ready-to-eat rice ball to its shelves.

Apprentice to master

7-Eleven was so successful in Japan that it quickly outgrew its US counterpart, eventually buying a controlling stake in the American corporation in 1991. Since then, growth has hardly slowed, with the holding company Seven & I growing to more than 83,000 stores around the world. The majority are in Asian countries, with just 15% — still some 12,000 stores — in the US. Masatoshi made the convenience store so integral to daily life that the Japanese government declared it part of the national infrastructure.

Go deeper: Explore all the great things you will find in a Japanese 7-Eleven.

More Data

Zombies vs. dragons: The Last of Us is edging out House of The Dragon for the title of HBO's biggest show this year, averaging 30.4m viewers across the first 6 episodes.

• Shares in Credit Suisse are reaching all-time lows after its biggest financial backer, Saudi National Bank, said it would not be able to offer any more financial aid. Shares are down ~15% at the time of writing.

44% of US job postings now include salary ranges on job platform Indeed, up from just 18% in just 3 years.


Bankageddon: Visualizing every 21st century bank collapse in the US.

• Charting tech's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year.

Off the charts: Which fast-food restaurant, that we charted about last year, is planning a $1bn international expansion?. [Answer below].

Answer here.

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