Oct 19, 2018

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

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1 big thing: A doorman in the age of Amazon

A doorman on New York's Upper East Side. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty

For 21 years, Edgar Rodriguez has worked as the doorman at 115 Central Park West, a job requiring subtle courtesy and dapper dress. But in the last decade, his duties have been wholly upended.

  • Once a summoner of taxis, watcher of small children, and keen vetter of visitors, Rodriguez now mostly spends his time on a single task — managing the safekeeping of a daily avalanche of Amazon deliveries, writes Axios' Erica Pandey.

Why it matters: The rise of Amazon has shaken up the U.S. and global economy. But it's done so in sometimes odd ways, all but killing some centuries-old trades, like bookselling, while giving others — like the doorman — surprising second lives.

The big picture: The Amazon effect on jobs has been two-sided. The e-commerce giant has added nearly 600,000 jobs in the U.S. alone, but a whopping 12 million retail jobs are in jeopardy because of its rapid ascent, per government data quoted by MarketWatch.

  • Amazon has also faced sharp criticism for the wages and working conditions of its tens of thousands of warehouse employees and truckers.

And those are just the employees on Amazon's payroll. The company is unleashing tectonic shifts across the working world.

  • Amazon has transformed the job of retail sales clerk. Thrown out of work by the shrinkage of Sears, Macy's, J.C. Penney and other retailers, thousands of salespeople have found jobs at Amazon and other e-commerce warehouses.
  • It has changed the job of shipper, who in the old days sent a truckload or two of inventory to a store once a week. Amazon Prime has made buyers expect their purchases delivered to their home — now.
  • The e-commerce giant has also been part of a wholesale change in retirement. Thousands of financially strapped older Americans have become a transient workforce that travels the country, laboring a few weeks or months in one Amazon warehouse, a few weeks in another, and so on.

As Amazon grows larger and larger, "we don't quite know what the consequences are going to be, and it's going to touch things that we don't predict," said Joe Parilla of Brookings. "It's changing these corners of the labor market."

On a typical day, Rodriguez's 215-unit building, employing a team of 10 doormen and a mail clerk, receives 160 packages.

  • In the month between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Eve, that jumps to 300 per day, he said. "It's really, really out of control."
  • The building put custom technology in place to scan and record the flood of packages. Before, the doormen used to write out serial numbers by hand in a log book. "That alone took three hours."

Across New York, doormen juggle deliveries that pile up astoundingly high.

  • On the Upper East Side, at 72nd Street and 2nd Avenue, the 855-unit Wellesley apartment building had to hire two doormen specifically to direct a never-ending stream of delivery guys.
  • Waddit Cruz has been at 25 East 68th Street, a much smaller building of 75 units, for 10 years. He said he has to deal with some 60 packages a day.
  • As Erica was talking to Ian Vasquez, a doorman at 170 Amsterdam Avenue, he scanned the 100th package of the day — at 3:30 pm. "Some of the carriers haven't come yet," he said.
2. At last, proof for quantum computing

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

In a paper today, a trio of scientists claim the first proof that quantum computers can outstrip conventional technology, Axios' Kaveh Waddell reports.

Why it matters: In the belief that quantum computing will become a massive, strategic industry, private companies and investors, along with the U.S. and foreign governments, have spent billions of dollars on research into the field. But until today, it wasn’t certain that the technology would be faster than supercomputers we can build now.

Details: The authors of the theoretical proof, published today in Science, showed that quantum computers can solve some problems faster than conventional machines.

  • A classical computer — the field’s word for the computers we use today — would need to be impossibly powerful to solve these increasingly difficult problems.
  • Until now, the biggest hint of a quantum advantage has been that for some problems, the best quantum algorithms that have been discovered are faster than the best classical algorithms discovered so far.
  • That was a pretty big hint, but not proof.

"Our result shows that quantum information processing really does provide benefits — without having to rely on unproven complexity-theoretic conjectures," said Robert König, a co-author of the paper, in a statement from the Technical University of Munich, where he teaches. The other authors are IBM’s Sergey Bravyi and David Gosset.

  • Current quantum computers are not yet capable of advanced computation. They likely won’t surpass the power of classical computers for years or even decades.

The stakes: The quantum advantage proven today is exactly the kind of edge that the U.S. and China are competing for in order to supercharge their economies and militaries.

3. What you may have missed

Photo: Gideon Mendel/Corbis/Getty

Where did the week go? Here is the top of Future for the week.

1. Sears' last chapter: The productivity panic over e-commerce.

2. Scientists, too, are being automated: Machines are doing more in the lab.

3. Small, narrow — and revolutionary AI: Losing our fixation on all things large.

4. America's surprising economic powerhouse: The northern plains

4. Worthy of your time
Expand chart
Chart: Data: Ministry of Health DRC; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Urban areas seem HQ2 favorites (Laura Stevens, Shayndi Raice, Keiko Morris - WSJ)

Congo, war and Ebola (Eileen Drage O'Reilly, Andrew Freedman - Axios)

France's growing skilled shortage (Harriet Agnew - FT)

Dew off the US-China rose (The Economist)

A big gator on a golf course (YouTube)

5. 1 artsy thing: An AI self-portrait

Photo: IBM Research

Accompanying an NYT series on artificial intelligence today is a piece of art — seen above — that’s very unlike the newspaper's usual imagery: It represents AI, and it’s drawn by AI.

Why it matters: Artists are using increasingly powerful machine-learning algorithms to help produce fiction, film, and visual art. Incapable of creativity on their own, they can be programmed to act as a formidable artistic tool, Kaveh writes.

Developed by IBM Research, the algorithms that created this image were divided into three parts that together approximated a creative process.

  • First, the system had to pick what to draw. It read about 3,000 NYT articles about AI and extracted the 30 most salient concepts, like robot, self-driving, and computing. It went on to unearth the 10 that were most representative, from which one — a human and robot shaking hands — was chosen.
  • To build its own version, a generative adversarial network, or GAN, was trained on more than 1,000 existing images to create new ones.
  • To match the newspaper’s style, a final step sampled past NYT imagery and applied the design to the AI-generated image.

Importantly, every step depended on human-generated content for training data.

  • The algorithms synthesized thousands of artworks created previously by humans to make something novel.
  • This means AI can help creative people make new things — but it can’t make something unique on its own, said John Smith, a fellow at IBM Research who worked on the project:

"Creativity itself, which is the leap of thought or imagination to create something completely new, different and valuable is still an essentially human ability."

Go deeper: AI-generated art is selling for thousands of dollars

Bryan Walsh