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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

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

U.S. sounds alarm on Ukraine

Conscripts line up at a Russian railway station yesterday before departing for Army service. Photo: Sergei Malgavko/TASS via Getty Images

The Biden administration is "deeply concerned" by new intelligence — detailed for Axios and other outlets — showing Russia stepping up preparations to invade Ukraine as soon as early 2022.

Why it matters: Most of this was known from public sources and satellite imagery, but the administration is sending a stronger signal by releasing specific details from the intelligence community.

CNN fires Chris Cuomo

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for CNN

CNN said Saturday evening it has fired one of its star anchors, Chris Cuomo, following new revelations from a legal review made by the company into Cuomo's involvement in the management of his brother's sexual harassment scandal.

Why it matters: Saturday's firing speaks to how much pressure CNN was under by employees and critics to address Cuomo's behavior.

Updated 6 hours ago - Energy & Environment

Electric car prices could go up before they come down

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The secret to affordable electric vehicles is cheaper batteries. But after years of falling prices, battery costs are now headed in the wrong direction.

Why it matters: Costlier batteries could drive up the price of electric vehicles — threatening the auto industry's transition away from fossil fuels, and, in turn, society's fight against climate change.