Jun 25, 2019

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

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Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,141 words, ~4-minute read.

What else should we write about this summer? Hit reply to this email or message me at steve@axios.com or the rest of the Future team: Kaveh Waddell at kaveh@axios.com and Erica Pandey at erica@axios.com.

Okay, let's start with ...

1 big thing: U.S. reaches for the tech jugular

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Ahead of a high-stakes meeting Saturday with Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Trump has expanded a new battlefront with Beijing and other leading U.S. foes: a technology war.

What's happening: With the hope of extending its tenure as the world's sole superpower, the U.S. is reaching for its rivals' economic jugular, squeezing them using American technological superiority, and in China's case demanding that it suppress its own aspirations.

The big picture: For the last half-dozen or so years, Beijing has more publicly flaunted its global ambitions, stretching a grand infrastructure network called Belt and Road across the globe, and stating its intent to dominate the technologies of the future.

It is the latter aim that worries the West most given the geostrategic link of a strong technological base and global power. Hence, alongside his trade war against Beijing, Trump has:

  • Essentially banned U.S. companies from doing business with Huawei and pressured American allies to follow suit.
  • Locked a stranglehold on five strategically vital Chinese supercomputer makers, preventing them from buying the U.S. chips on which they rely.
  • Insisted in trade talks that Xi amend or halt his Made in China 2025 program, through which Beijing hopes to finally restore the geopolitical stature it held until the 19th century.

Taken as a whole, Trump has made technology a distinct new dimension of his global war footing. "Just like the trade war, like the South China Sea, technology is part of the larger conflict with China," James Lewis, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tells Axios.

Last Friday's move by the administration blacklisting five Chinese supercomputer makers was especially demonstrative.

  • In kind, it is similar to China's threat last month to cut off or restrict its exports of rare earth metals, which are crucial in high tech and to the U.S. military.
  • Just like the U.S. needs China's rare earths, China needs U.S. computer chips: China imports most of its memory chips, 70% of those in smart phones, and 95% of its most advanced chips for computer processors, the FT reports.
  • "The U.S. is going after sectors where China aspires to compete head-to-head with the U.S./West — 5G and supercomputing," said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group.

What they're saying: Richard McGregor, a fellow with the Lowy Institute, said he does not expect the bans to endure. He thinks that Trump may trade them away as a bargaining chip with Xi.

Experts generally don't like to call this a technology war.

  • Nicholas Wright, a U.K. expert, called it a foray "into the grey zone between peace and war."
  • Elizabeth Economy, of the Council on Foreign Relations, suggests that the only reason to play this kind of hardball is to get China to the negotiating table.
  • Nicholas Lardy, of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said the U.S. risks confirming a view "that the U.S. is not interested in a settlement on trade issues but seeks rather to slow China’s growth, particularly in high tech industries."

Be smart: The U.S. is working feverishly and on a bipartisan basis to tamp down China's technological surge. Look for continued firing along the technological line of control.

2. The quest for a national grid

Power lines and wind turbines, Germany. Photo: Jens Kalaene/picture alliance via Getty

America was “tantalizingly” close to building what would have amounted to a superhighway power line sending renewable energy across the country, but local opposition, government delay and utility disinterest killed it, writes Axios' Amy Harder.

What's happening: In "Superpower: One Man's Quest to Transform American Energy" (just out today), WSJ reporter Russell Gold documents in excruciating detail the reality of just how hard it is to build big infrastructure projects in the United States.

  • What’s more, this 700-mile-long power line was for something that ostensibly has a lot of support: renewable energy.

The big picture: The book is part biography of entrepreneur Michael Skelly — whose now-shuttered firm tried to build the power line — part historical record on electricity, and part lesson in trying big things against myriad obstacles.

Skelly’s firm, Clean Line Energy Partners, was founded in 2009 to move wind power from Oklahoma to Tennessee, but folded in 2017 after legal, political and bureaucratic obstacles mounted, including:

  • A slow start on federal review at the Energy Department under then-President Obama.
  • Lawsuits and legislation from lawmakers and residents in Arkansas, which the line would pass through, and Tennessee.
  • Mixed messages but ultimately no interest from Tennessee Valley Authority, a government-owned utility, to buy the wind power.
  • A lack of support, despite President Trump listing it as an infrastructure priority.

Between the lines: While covered regularly in trade publications, the power line didn’t garner many national headlines.

  • Much of the media — myself included! — were focused far more on another big project that failed for some of the same reasons: The Keystone XL Pipeline, a Canada–U.S. oil pipeline under review from 2008 until 2015 when Obama rejected it. (Trump wants to revive it, but legal and other hurdles remain.)
  • Experts say big power lines moving renewable energy — akin to our highway system — will be essential to really expand variable wind and solar.

What’s next: Gold wonders if Skelly and his team “will turn out to have blazed a trail that others can follow. The second mouse gets the cheese, as the saying goes. What is usually left unsaid is that the first mouse gets the trap.”

  • Gold references Cape Wind, a similar story about a 16-year attempt to build America’s first offshore wind farm. It finally faded in 2017, just as what actually ended up being the first one began operating.

Go deeper: Read an excerpt in the WSJ.

3. The driver boom

A cab and a Lyft in NYC. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty

In the last decade, the number of Americans who say their primary occupation is driving cars for hire has tripled, Erica writes.

The big picture: The boom is thanks to Uber and Lyft, Quartz reports. Close to 0.3% of all Americans say driving is their primary job — and that doesn't even include the scores of ride-hailing drivers who do the job as a side gig.

Fascinating stat: "Growth in the profession accelerated in 2014, the year Uber expanded from 66 to 266 cities around the world and transformed from a niche startup into a household name," write Quartz's Alison Griswold and Dan Kopf.

4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The aftermath of Amazon's domination (David Streitfeld — NYT)

Stadiums in a digital world (Kendall Baker — Axios)

Innovators under 35 (MIT Tech Review)

How to rob a train (Laura Millan Lombrana, Félix Decombat — Bloomberg)

Poor public education for a quarter of students (The Economist)

5. 1 fun thing: Hearing what's invisible

An improvised periscope in World War I. Photo: Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty

Researchers at Stanford have developed a way to see around corners — with a microphone, Kaveh writes.

How it works: Taking cues from sonar, the researchers point a speaker at a wall, bouncing sound off it and toward a hidden object.

  • A microphone near the speaker picks up the echoes reflecting back off the unseen thing.

Autonomous vehicles could benefit from seeing-around-corner technology, which in the field is called "non-line-of-sight imaging."

The big picture: Academics have come up with all sorts of creative ways of peering around — and even through — walls.

Bryan Walsh