Jul 1, 2020

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

Welcome to Axios Future, where we finally got a socially distanced haircut and have gone from "balding werewolf" to just "balding."

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Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,692 words or about 6 minutes.

1 big thing: Hong Kong's fate is the future of globalism

Andrew Wan, a pro-democracy legislator, is arrested during a protest in Hong Kong, July 1. Photo: Yat Kai Yeung/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A new security law in Hong Kong is the latest blow to a globalist vision of the free movement of people, ideas and capital.

Why it matters: The law all but eliminates the civil rights that people in Hong Kong have exercised for years. But it also points the way to a more dangerous and divided world that will be increasingly defined by borders and nationality.

What's happening: At 11pm local time on June 30, the Chinese government released the details of a security law long in the works that effectively criminalizes pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

  • After thousands took to the streets in Hong Kong to protest the law on July 1 — the 23rd anniversary of the city's transfer to Beijing's control — police arrested more than 300 people, including at least nine over new offenses created by the law.

Between the lines: While Hong Kongers will be the first and primary victims of the law, its passage casts doubt on the future of the place that has long branded itself as "Asia's World City."

  • If globalization could be said to have a capital, it would have been Hong Kong — or more precisely, its gleaming international airport, used by 71.5 million passengers from around the world last year.
  • The city's freewheeling capitalism, and its location geographically inside but politically outside of China, made Hong Kong rich, with its per capita GDP rising from $429 in 1960 to nearly $50,000 in 2018.
  • More than that, Hong Kong was a place where East and West could mingle, home to a pungent press, and overseen by an independent judiciary and civil service that was internationally respected for its adherence to the rule of law.

Hong Kong's economic primacy declined after it returned to Beijing's control in 1997 and China itself began to open up to the rest of the world, but Hong Kong's value as a symbol of globalism only increased.

  • The hope of many in the West was that China would become more like Hong Kong and that the influence of global capitalism would lead Beijing to become politically more liberal over time.
  • This was globalization Hong Kong-style — economic and a growing degree of political freedom, and membership in a near-borderless world.

Yes, but: In truth, that vision only ever applied to a minority of actual Hong Kongers, many of whom resented the city's extreme inequality and were all too aware that even under the British, Hong Kong had never been a real democracy.

  • These are the people who have taken to the streets off and on for 17 years, dating back to July 1, 2003, when half a million Hong Kongers marched in opposition to proposed national security legislation — an early version of the law now being imposed on them.

The big picture: That Hong Kong seems near death, as does the broader globalist vision the city represented.

The bottom line: Hong Kong was far from perfect and it was far from fully free. But at its best, it represented a hope for a brighter, more global future — a vision now dimmed by the old forces of nationalism and disease.

2. Your home is your gym

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The pandemic-enforced lockdown that led to a boom in virtual fitness activities is here to stay.

Why it matters: Remote fitness can allow more people access to high-quality teachers and classes. But with gyms likely to be one of the last businesses allowed to reopen during the pandemic, neighborhood fitness studios could be in trouble.

What's happening: On Monday, the athleisure company Lululemon announced it was purchasing the connected fitness company Mirror for $500 million.

  • Mirror, which sells a $1,495 wall-mounted screen used for streaming workout classes, is one of a number of remote fitness companies that have boomed as the pandemic kept gym rats at home.
  • Peloton's stock has risen more than 200% since the first stay-at-home orders were issued in mid-March.

While the rise of at-home fitness is at least partially driven by the fact that exercisers had no other option, there is evidence many will continue to work out at home even with gyms reopening in some parts of the U.S.

  • A survey this week of 2,000 Americans who exercise regularly found a quarter of them say they plan on never returning to the gym, while a third will go less often than before.
  • Gyms that do reopen will likely need to restrict capacity and install safety measures, pinching their bottom line. "It's going to be a challenging time for gyms and boutique studios," says Marshall Porter, the CEO of corporate wellness platform Gympass.

Be smart: Porter believes fitness in the coronavirus age will end up in the same place as work and education: hybridized, with services offered both in person and online.

  • This week, Gympass announced an expansion of its platform offerings, increasing access to on-demand streaming fitness classes and remote personal coaching, along with online therapy sessions.
  • "The future will be about meeting the customer where they are, whether that's at home or elsewhere," says Porter.

The bottom line: Given the resurgence of the pandemic, your long-delayed Peloton order is likely to arrive before your gym fully reopens.

3. Rooting out AI bias

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

New research offers strategies to prevent algorithms used in business from pushing unethical policies.

Why it matters: Machine-learning algorithms are increasingly being deployed in commercial settings. If they are optimized only to seek maximum revenue, they can end up treating customers in unethical ways, putting companies at reputational or even regulatory risk.

How it works: In a paper published today in Royal Society Open Science, researchers formulated what they call the "Unethical Optimization Principle."

  • It essentially boils down to the idea that "if there is an advantage to something that will be perceived as unethical, then it is quite likely the machine learning is going to find it," says Robert MacKay, a mathematician at the University of Warwick and an author of the paper.
  • MacKay uses the example of an algorithm that prices insurance products. If it is optimized only to maximize revenue, it's likely to treat customers unfairly and even unlawfully, selecting a higher price for users whose names code as non-white.
  • In their paper, MacKay and his colleagues lay out complex mathematics that can help businesses and regulators detect the unethical strategies an algorithm might pursue in a given space and identify how the AI should be modified to prevent that behavior.

The big picture: As increasingly sophisticated algorithms take more decisions out of the hand of humans, it becomes even more important for programmers to set initial clear limits.

  • Unfortunately, as a new survey from the data science platform Anaconda demonstrates, while data scientists are increasingly concerned about the ethical implications of their work, 39% of those polled say their team has no plans in place to address fairness or bias.
  • "Businesses using algorithms need to ask questions of 'ought,' rather than just 'can,'" says Peter Wang, Anaconda's CEO.
4. The left smoothes over climate differences — for now

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

House Democrats' new climate blueprint may be a wish list, but for now it has succeeded in one big respect: Avoiding a major flare-up of intra-left tensions over policy, my Axios colleague Ben Geman writes.

Driving the news: A lot of groups cheered the nearly 550-page plan yesterday, while criticisms from the left flank of the green movement were real but rather muted.

  • "The House Democrats' climate plan is more ambitious than what we’ve seen from Democratic leadership to date — and that is in no small part a testament to the ever-expanding climate movement who have demanded a Green New Deal," said 350.org's Natalie Mebane.
  • Still, she urged Democrats to "go even further and put forward a plan at the scale of the climate crisis."

The big picture: There's nothing remotely resembling a clear path for enacting most of the big proposals, which in sum are vastly more aggressive than any climate policy seriously considered in the United States.

Go deeper

5. Worthy of your time

Our ghost-kitchen future (Anna Wiener — The New Yorker)

  • Why the future of eating out won't actually involve going to restaurants. Or going out.

The faux fish coming to a restaurant near you (Brian Payton — Hakai)

  • But if restaurants continue to exist and you continue to go to them, you may soon find yourself eating lab-grown fish.

TikTok is shaping politics. But how? (John Herrman — New York Times)

  • If you're like me and you understand neither TikTok nor young people but have a vague sense that you're supposed to, this interview with two researchers in the field is for you.

The man whose security camera sparked a national uprising (Bonsu Thompson — Level)

  • An in-depth profile of a 30-year-old restaurant owner in Minneapolis whose surveillance camera captured the death of George Floyd, disproving police arguments that Floyd was resisting arrest.
6. 1 dino thing: The asteroid, in the Yucatan, with the endless winter

An Ankylosaurus magniventris just minding its business, circa 66 million years ago. Credit: Fabio Manucci

A new study makes the case that it was a massive asteroid strike, not volcanic eruptions, that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Why it matters: Knowing for sure how the dinosaurs were wiped out can give us a better appreciation of the existential risks we face. Plus scientists take this debate very seriously.

Background: A couple of generations of schoolchildren have absorbed the lesson that the impact of the 6 mile-wide Chicxulub asteroid off what is now the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico caused the extinction of the dinosaurs some 66 million years ago.

  • However, there is a small but vocal minority of scientists who insist the primary cause was the eruption of volcanoes in the Deccan Traps of what is now southern India, which emitted more than 200,000 cubic miles of lava over tens of thousands of years.

In a new study, a group of scientists used supercomputers to model both the asteroid impact and the volcanic eruptions to ascertain the culprit.

  • They conclude that only the asteroid strike could have created the conditions that led to the dinosaurs' demise, by releasing particles and gases into the atmosphere that would have blocked the sun and caused temperatures to fall by as much as 60°F.
  • The massive amounts of carbon dioxide released by the volcanoes might have actually helped life bounce back, by warming the climate enough to partially offset the impact winter.

The bottom line: I doubt scientists will conclusively settle this question before humanity meets its own asteroid/volcano/AI demise.

Bryan Walsh