Dec 22, 2022 - Podcasts

President Zelensky's historic visit to Washington

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky traveled to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday for his first international trip since Russia invaded Ukraine over 300 days ago. Zelensky met with Biden and spoke to a joint session of Congress.

  • Plus, a look back at the year in tech.
  • And, the story of a life-changing journey to Antarctica.

Guests: Axios' Mike Allen, Ina Fried and Margaret Talev.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Alexandra Botti, Fonda Mwangi, Robin Linn and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Thursday, December 22nd.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Today: a look back at the year in tech. Plus, for our final show of 2022, the story of a life changing journey to Antarctica. But first, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s historic visit to Washington. That’s today’s One Big Thing.

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY: Will celebrate Christmas, celebrate Christmas and even if there is no electricity. The light of our faith in ourselves will not be put out.

NIALA: That's Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaking to a joint session of Congress and the American people last night from Washington.

This is the leader's first international trip since Russia invaded his country more than 300 days ago. It's also the first time a wartime leader has visited Congress since Winston Churchill did during World War Two. The visit prompted an announcement from President Biden pledging $1.8 billion in additional military aid for Ukraine.

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY: Your money is not charity. It's an investment in the global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way.

NIALA: Axios’ co-founder Mike Allen is here with his takeaway.

MIKE ALLEN: Niala, never surrender. President Zelensky echoing Winston Churchill, Who as British Prime Minister spoke from the podium of the US Congress 81 years ago, near the start of World War II. President Zelensky, wearing his trademark Olive drab, got repeated bipartisan standing ovations, Very rare these days. He made it clear as he did throughout this bold, astonishing, wartime trip to Washington that he's in this for the long haul.

Niala, he's asking a lot of Americans and the House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, repeated after this historic speech that he's not for a blank check for Ukraine. So President Zelensky made repeated appeals to Americans, efforts to connect directly humanly. He made repeated references to Christmas, Christmas Eve, the possibility his country men, country women will be celebrating without electricity. He talked about their war for independence, our battle of the bulge, faith in ourselves, he said. But driving the home to Americans, the victory will depend partly on them. He said, this isn't charity, this is an investment in global security.

Thank you from the front lines, President Zelensky said, and happy victorious New Year. Niala, thank you to you and your listeners for this epic year. Peace and joy.

NIALA: That's Axios’ AM and PM author, Mike Allen.

In a moment, Ina Fried on the most important tech of 2022.


A look back at the year in tech

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo.

It's been a wild year in tech and one name has taken up a lot of space in the headlines. That, of course, is Elon Musk. But, so much has happened this year outside of the world of Mr. Musk.

Axios’ Chief Technology Correspondent Ina Fried is here with what caught her attention this year and what she's watching as we ring in the tech new year. Hey Ina.

INA FRIED: Hey, Niala.

NIALA: First, you were on the podcast most recently to talk about the pretty remarkable AI generator technology we've been seeing gain popularity. How big of a development is something like ChatGPT in the tech and social world this year?

INA: I think generative AI broadly the category that we're talking about, whether it's photo generators like DALL.E or Stable Diffusion or text generators like ChatGPT are a huge deal. Probably the biggest tech breakthrough of 2022 was the advent of these rather powerful, generic, interesting technologies that all sorts of people are playing with.

I think for 2023, the thing to watch is how individual companies take broadly useful tools like these and really find a specific use case within their business. So I was talking to Facebook's head of reality labs and one of the things that they see as a potential is, you know, if you're trying to create an avatar or create a scene, it's a lot easier to describe it than it is to like have to paint it out by hand. I think that's really what I'm excited about.

NIALA: So let's talk about augmented reality and virtual reality. You've reported that we've gotten some glimpses of what's possible this year. What did we learn?

INA: So I think we learned both how cool this stuff will eventually be. And yes, it's gonna be a while before we have the kinds of devices we're really dreaming about. And when I say that, I mean. In augmented reality, you really want something that weighs not much more than a pair of glasses, has all day battery life and you can afford, that's a pretty long way off if you want full features.

Although we did get things like the Meta glasses, the Ray Bans stories that don't have a display on them, but they do fit some of those other bills. So, they can record video and they feel just about like a regular pair of glasses and they're affordable. They don't have all day battery life. So I think we're gonna keep getting glimpses, but they're gonna be just that. They're gonna be, for most people, a sign of what's to come rather than something you wanna rush out and buy.

NIALA: I think one of the other big through lines we saw this year was economic uncertainty, particularly within the tech industry. How do you think that affected the entire industry this year, and what do we think going into 2023 on that front?

INA: For the second half of the year, we saw companies start to grapple with it. But for the most part, the products, the directions they took were all influenced by the better economic times. So I think next year will really be the year we see the impact of that. And you'll see it in a few ways, I think you'll see products in some senses coming to market as companies kind of focus on their priorities and drop sort of nice to have projects. And I think you'll also see it in pivots. So, I'd expect to hear a lot more about products that can make you more productive as an employee and maybe less on very far flung sort of things that are nice to have and that will stretch all the way to consumer devices and services.

NIALA: Are there stories you think didn't get enough attention in tech this year?

INA: I think privacy is always one of those. I think if you look at this generation of technologies that's coming to the surface, a lot of them have profound privacy implications, whether it's devices with facial recognition. Or again, even some of these artificial intelligence systems, you know, really interrogating the downsides and making sure that these products are being developed in a way that we'd want. I say this a lot, but you know, these algorithms are still in their young stages. Now's the time we can say, we demand that they be transparent, that they explain themselves, or if we don't, we're gonna get a lot of black boxes.

NIALA: Ina Fried is Axios’ chief technology correspondent. Happy Hanukkah Ina.

INA: Thanks. Happy holidays to you.

The story of a life changing journey to Antarctica

NIALA: This can be a joyful time of year, but it can also be a difficult one as many reflect on those they've lost. While Axios’ Managing Editor for Politics Margaret Talev has a special tradition to remember her parents, and this year she took that long standing tradition to a new level. And when we heard about it, we knew it's something we wanted to share with you all to close out the year. Hi Margaret.


NIALA: So you have a tradition when you travel and it has to do with your parents. Can you share it?

MARGARET: I do. I have for several years been taking my parents' ashes around the world with me. My father passed away in 2008, and I started taking his ashes with me in 2013. I was covering the White House and I was seeing all corners of the earth, including many incredible places that he had never gotten to in his life.

And so I started out carrying him in a Ziploc bag. It was kind of dusty and probably broke several international protocols. And over time I switched to one of those plastic, like, pill jars. Uh, also not technically approved, but spill proof. When my mom passed away in 2015, I decided to fold some of their ashes in together. And I take it with me everywhere I go. In some places I sprinkle a couple and in other places I just let them be there with me and see what I'm seeing. And it's one of my favorite ways to communicate with them, even though they're gone.

NIALA: So, until a special trip you took this month…as someone who covered the White House you had been to every continent in this world, except one.

MARGARET: Except one. It was Antarctica, obviously. And so, for at least a decade, I have been dreaming and plotting how to get there on my own. And I wanted to do it by the time I turned 50, and I turned 50 this year. So this was gonna be the year.

NIALA: And so I guess it was also then a no-brainer that you were taking your parents on this trip with you?

MARGARET: I was, although there are strict protocols and treaties about leaving anything in Antarctica or taking anything from Antarctica. So I knew that the jar was gonna have to stay sealed on this trip. But I wanted them to be there, and I wanted them to see what I was gonna get to see.

NIALA: I think many of us here, Antarctica and wonder about climate change. What did you see and experience on your trip and were you thinking about that?

MARGARET: Yes, of course climate change is a huge global problem. And Antarctica has been a ground zero of it, not because there are people there, they're really, it's the most uninhabited place in the world. But, remember in the 1980s, the hole in the ozone in Antarctica was discovered, and that, of course, is what prompted a lot of the international protocols around what has become the climate change movement. Climate change is happening in front of our eyes. Ice sheets are melting in Antarctica.

What surprised me in preparing for the trip, is how many other issues are at stake. Antarctica is governed by a treaty called the Antarctic Treaty. It's been around since the 1950s. There's 50 some countries that are signatories to it. But key provisions of that treaty expire in about 25 years. And so, what is there not in Antarctica now? There are no billboards, there are no stores, there are no hotels, there's no military footprint in Antarctica. There's no mining in Antarctica. No country runs or controls or holds Antarctica, although a handful of countries have territorial claims, but they're not recognized internationally.

And so, all of that is at bay because of this treaty. What is potentially at stake, the carving up of the most pristine continent on the globe. Military positioning, geopolitics, and, of course, the environment. When you go there now you know that none of it's there. The absence of it is what is so striking. And, when you pull up in a boat and all you hear are the, the sound of penguins and the sound of the water, the cold, clear blue water. And you see penguins, you see, quails, you see seals. We also saw a seal kill a penguin, just feet in front of us and thrash it till its skin came off, because that's how they like to eat it. It was shocking, but it's nature. It is really one of the most powerful displays of mostly unspoiled nature that I have ever been around. And at times it was rough and brutal. And at times it was so peaceful and so beautiful that it was otherworldly. It was like a science fiction movie and you thought, this is like from another planet, but it's not. It's from our planet.

NIALA: So I texted you when you came back that this was the trip of a lifetime, but it was the trip of a lifetime for one other reason too?

MARGARET: That's true. I guess we buried the lead. My partner John and I had both wanted to go to Antarctica, it was the seventh continent for both of us. And we've been together for many years. When we set foot on the actual continent, on the last continent, he got down on one knee and proposed. I was, I didn't see it coming at all. Everyone else on the boat saw it coming. Yeah, he had talked to my daughter in advance, she knew it was coming. I was completely swept off my feet at the ends of the earth, and I said yes. And my parents got to be there for it, they were in my pocket.

NIALA: Congratulations, I love all of this story. So apart from what we've talked about, what are you taking away from this trip?

MARGARET: First of all, it was, such a, like, soul refresh, right? It was like a total cleanse to step away from the partisan wars of Washington, and all the end of the year nonsense about whether Kevin McCarthy's gonna become speaker. And but more broadly it was just, it puts everything in perspective to go to a place like that where everything is so much larger than you. And so, you go there and you see beauty and stillness and warm and sun, and an hour later, a snowstorm, 15 foot waves, and crazy winds and animals killing each other. And you just realize that all the stuff we worry about doesn't matter. And we are a very small part of what is going on in the world. And no matter what we accomplish or don't accomplish, life will go on without us. We all have a time and a place on the earth. It's not forever. And sometimes it's quite beautiful. Just breathtakingly beautiful.

NIALA: Thanks, Margaret.

MARGARET: Thanks Niala.

NIALA: That’s it for this week…and for this year!

Axios Today is produced by Fonda Mwangi, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Robin Linn and Amy Pedulla. Our senior sound engineer is Alex Sugiura, and Ben O’Brien also mixes the show. Alexandra Botti is our supervising producer. Sara Kehaulani Goo is Axios’ editor in chief. And special thanks as always to Axios’ Co-founder Mike Allen.

I’m Niala Boodhoo. Thanks for listening - today and this year. Here’s wishing you a safe happy holidays - and hoping for some soul refreshing time for you this season as well.

We’ll see you back here on January 3rd.

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