Oct 24, 2018

Axios Future

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Situational awareness: The Nasdaq closed down almost 4.5%, signaling a market correction for the first time in two years, and the Dow Jones and S&P 500 lost all gains for 2018. The bloodbath comes against forecasts of a recession.

Okay, let's start with ...

1 big thing: Relax about the robots ... or maybe not

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

The last year has seen vigorous pushback against forecasts of a robot nightmare — that machines, over the coming decades, will vaporize whole swaths of employment, leaving tens of millions of people jobless.

But if the dystopian forecasts were alarmist, the backlash against them are veering too sharply in the other direction.

The backdrop: In 2015, futurist Martin Ford captured the nightmare vision in "Rise of the Robots," a book that attracted wide attention with a picture of massive job losses rendered by the speed and breadth of the new age of automation.

Over the last year or so, other futurists have dissented.

  • Instead of this dystopia, a flurry of reports say the U.S. and global economy will produce more than a sufficient number of jobs to employ everyone displaced by robots — just as has happened in every technological cycle over the last 2 centuries.
  • Last December, the McKinsey Global Institute quoted a 1966 report in the Johnson administration: "Technology destroys jobs, but not work.”
  • And in a report this month, the Economist said worries about the new gig economy — about job instability, low pay and a lack of benefits — "are mostly overblown."

All in all, society is being whipsawed into agitated anxiety, followed by lulling calm.

What they're saying: I checked with a few people in the future field as to what is going on with the forecasts. The main answer — we are in a real fix, but it is barely yet visible. And, though jobs may be created for everyone once automation digs deep into businesses across the economy, no one knows how long it will take to create them, nor what they will pay.

Meanwhile, the first signs are already with us:

  • "When you look around, you don't see a robot apocalypse," says Andrew McAfee, co-author of "Machine, Platform, Crowd." "We are not living in a time of massive technological unemployment. But I can't see a middle class as strong, healthy, confident and prosperous as it was 40 years ago."
  • "I think that nobody is noticing, in the reading and writing public, the fact that automation is hitting jobs right now — because it isn't yet hitting their jobs," says Roy Bahat, head of Bloomberg Beta, a venture capital firm.

History says that technological change — though it can seem sudden — actually moves slowly. The hit from automation will be another 10–20 years, says Azeem Azhar, a senior adviser on artificial intelligence at Accenture. "Look at how long it took the internet (established 1969) to evolve a company that could destroy mattress vendors," he tells Axios. "And yet when it hit those vendors, it smashed them only one year after a major merger."

Azhar adds: "It has taken cloud computing 12 years to go from Amazon's first offering to something which the bulk of industry will rely on — and that is a much easier shift with more easily understood benefits than these societal ones we expect to see." 

The bottom line: I receive almost weekly pitches from analysts and futurists dismissing the dire forecasts. So why the wave of optimistic projections?

Bahat says, "I think it is all about staying credible. Warn too far out and soon people will start crying foul when they don't see it. Until it hits the reading and writing public, then staying credible is all about how 'close' to the current conventional wisdom you are."

Azhar says, "We're all forecasters now, and it is in the interests of the pundits, tech vendors and the founders to promote the future. A faster future = more $$$." 

2. Amazon and ICE

A July protest against Immigration and Customs Enforcement in New York City. Photo: Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

At a time when Big Tech is under attack for cooperating with military and police, Amazon is facing scrutiny for marketing its surveillance software to U.S. immigration officials.

Driving the news: Amazon has confirmed that it met with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Silicon Valley over the summer to discuss Rekognition, its controversial facial recognition software. Emails obtained by a watchdog group show that Amazon followed up in an apparent attempt to close a sale of the technology, writes Axios' Kaveh Waddell.

Why it matters: Amazon’s entanglements with ICE are becoming increasingly public. Just yesterday, a report published by several advocacy groups linked Amazon’s cloud technology to the agency’s work.

  • Hundreds of Amazon employees have reportedly signed a letter calling on the company to stop selling Rekognition to police, and an Amazon employee published an anonymous op-ed last week calling for the same.
  • The internal revolt resembles an uprising inside Google that pushed the company away from a controversial contract with the Defense Department.

Details: The June meeting was first reported by the Project on Government Oversight in The Daily Beast, and Amazon confirmed in a statement that the meeting took place.

  • The two organizations met at a Bay Area office of McKinsey & Company, which at the time had a contract with ICE, POGO reported.
  • "Arming ICE with real-time facial recognition surveillance technology could supercharge the agency’s enforcement power, and make undocumented immigrants afraid to seek out vital services in places where cameras could be located," wrote POGO's Andrea Peterson and Jake Laperruque.

What they’re saying:

  • In a statement to Axios, an Amazon spokesperson confirmed that Amazon was one of several tech companies that participated in a McKinsey-organized "boot camp."
  • An ICE spokesperson declined to say how many times the agency discussed Rekognition with Amazon, but said that there is no contract between the two for facial recognition software.

POGO said that one concern is that facial recognition systems have been susceptible to gender and racial biases, often identifying women and people of color less accurately than men and white people.

  • This summer, the American Civil Liberties Union tested Amazon Rekognition and found that it misidentified 28 members of Congress, including six members of the Congressional Black Caucus, confusing them with people in a database of mugshots.
  • The company hit back in a blog post, writing that the ACLU had not used its software as intended.

Other law-enforcement agencies have already tried out Rekognition. An Oregon sheriff's department began using the software in 2017, and the Orlando Police Department in Florida extended a test of it in July.

3. Alexa: Not quite yet the future of investing

NYSE, 1979. Photo: Santi Visalli/Getty

Imagine buying or selling stocks with a simple command: "Alexa, buy 10 shares of Apple." Keep imagining because we're not there yet.

Driving the news: TD Ameritrade said today that it is the first brokerage firm to allow clients to buy stocks using Alexa, writes Axios' Courtenay Brown.

But it's a lot more complicated than that: Trading on Alexa is actually a 10-step process (not including the one-time setup), per an audio demo that Axios heard.

  • First you dictate a pre-established security code.
  • Then you specify the symbol or company you want to trade.
  • Once Alexa reads back the ticker, it gives a "gut check" with the current stock price and how much money you have in your account.
  • You say whether you want to buy at the current price, or another.
  • If it's the latter, you provide the alternate price (first the dollars, Alexa confirms, then the cents) and Alexa confirms, again.
  • Finally you specify the shares you want to buy, verify and review the order, then repeat the security code. Alexa confirms, and finally your trade is complete.

Harrumph. In the same time, you could phone in the trade, or use TD's mobile app.

  • On the upside: Alexa-enabled stock trading will be helpful for aging populations, those with dexterity issues or people who simply want to buy and sell while multi-tasking, Sunayna Tuteja, TD Ameritrade's head of emerging technologies, tells Axios.
  • One trader, Demond Hicks, who runs consulting firm Hicks Holdings, says he is "interested in the convenience of it all."
  • Another investor, Jackie Koski, who has an account with TD Ameritrade, also says she plans to try it.

The bottom line: This is a big task for Alexa, which is notorious for mishearing verbal cues. Buying stocks via home assistant won't be a one-step process anytime soon. That's a good thing, since any errors would be more disastrous than, say, accidentally ordering too many dollhouses.

4. Worthy of your time

Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox. Photo: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty

No AI won't solve fake news (Gary Marcus, Ernest Davis — NYT)

Red Sox's Fenway Park is old and energy-stingy (Maggie Teliska — Axios)

The latest indictment of Russia's troll farm (Medium)

Korean shares may be signaling global recession (John Kemp — Reuters) (tweet)

Germany is trying to survive an "iPhone moment" for cars (Patrick McGee — FT)

5. 1 grandma thing: Instagramification of cooking

Insta-ready apple cake. Photo: Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald/Getty

We've reported on the rise of Instagram-friendly retail — brick-and-mortar stores paying special attention to decor to get millennials and Gen Z-ers through the door.

Now, Instagramification is coming for your old family recipes, reports WSJ.

The big picture: Instagram is changing the way we shop, eat and travel. We are curating everything — from Sunday dinner to a day at the beach — to pop as a square photograph on a screen, Axios' Erica Pandey writes.

  • Restaurants in London have swapped out drab wooden tables for sleek marble countertops so photos of their food stand out on Instagram and other platforms, BBC reports.
  • One Instagram user told her grandma to replace boring orange carrots with multicolored ones so her classic chicken soup would photograph well, per WSJ.
  • A home chef in D.C., who 'grams under @mc5ulli, owns special plates and a light box so she can capture stunning photos of her creations.