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For decades, corporate America has spurned big-lab research-and-development spending, the type that delivered the dizzying and broad tech and economic progress of the last century. But a belief that artificial intelligence is going to drive the next big economic wave has led today's largest companies — like Google, IBM and Microsoft — to revert to the old, ambitious R&D model. And their Chinese competitors — Baidu and Alibaba — aren't far behind.

These five companies — plus Amazon, Facebook and Google — combined are investing more in research and development than many entire economies. In 2015, for instance, the entire U.K. economy — companies and the government — invested $53.8 billion in R&D, less than the $58.2 billion posted by the big eight. Take a look at the chart below.

Expand chart
Data: OECD, Company disclosures; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon / Axios

Why it matters: In an economy in which corporate R&D spending has been conspicuously absent, these companies are investing big on the future. This dynamic underscores the growing advantage that a company like Amazon has over incumbent rivals: Investors bid up Amazon stock to sky-high multiples, lowering its cost of capital and enabling more robust investment and low prices.

A level deeper — more economic inequality: That these companies are investing in the long term is great for the U.S. and Chinese economies. It helps to power economic growth and makes workers more productive. But, at least in the U.S, it's also a sign of growing economic inequality, which underpins income inequality among workers, one reason for the election of President Donald Trump.

One more level down: The outsized spend is also buttressing these companies' market heft and risks a pushback to their monopoly power.

Go deeper

Dion Rabouin, author of Markets
29 mins ago - Economy & Business

Stock buybacks are kicking back into high gear

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

It was expected that with the economy improving and company balance sheets already loaded with cash, U.S. firms would slow down their debt issuance in 2021 after setting records in 2020. But just the opposite has happened.

Why it matters: Companies generally issue bonds for one of two reasons — because they're worried about not having enough cash to cover their expenses or because they want to lever up and make risky bets.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
1 hour ago - Energy & Environment

Japan vows deeper emissions cuts ahead of White House summit

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images

Japan on Thursday said it will seek to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 46% below 2013 levels by 2030, per the AP and other outlets.

Why it matters: The country is the world's fifth-largest largest carbon dioxide emitter and a major consumer of coal, oil and natural gas.

2 hours ago - Technology

The global race to regulate AI

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Regulators in Europe and Washington are racing to figure out how to govern business' use of artificial intelligence while companies push to deploy the technology.

Driving the news: On Wednesday, the EU revealed a detailed proposal on how AI should be regulated, banning some uses outright and defining which uses of AI are deemed "high-risk."