Oct 25, 2018

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

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1 big thing: China’s robot uprising
Expand chart
Reproduced from International Federation of Robotics; Chart: Axios Visuals

China bought 36% of all factory robots sold last year, more than any other country, and it intends to ramp up its own production of them — another sign of its determination to be the pre-eminent technological superpower.

Writes Axios' Kaveh Wadell: With the U.S. and China locked in a race to master artificial intelligence and quantum computing, robots are a third, quieter competition between them. Mastery of any or all of the three technologies is seen as key to geopolitical and economic power in the coming decades.

"If you are an industrial robotics supplier, China is a short-term sales opportunity, but a long-term competitive threat."
Gregory C. Allen, Center for a New American Security

China’s robotization has unfolded extremely quickly. The number of industrial robots in the country nearly doubled between 2015 and 2017, according to the International Federation of Robotics.

  • Still, China lags in "robot density," or the number of industrial robots per 10,000 workers, according to IFR stats. But that, too, is changing fast.
  • The trend has been driven in part by rising wages, which have made it more expensive for companies to manufacture in China, says Allen, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
  • The other main factor is China’s push to get into manufacturing sectors that require advanced robots, like building semiconductors, he says.

Because of the speed of these changes, China has been importing robots in huge numbers. But if all goes according to Beijing’s plan, the flood will only be temporary.

  • China intends to crack the top-10 most automated industries by 2020, according to the IFR, which writes in its 2018 World Robotics report that "a huge increase in local production of industrial robots is anticipated."

The big picture: China's ascendancy to a robotics giant would represent a significant global shift.

  • "The geopolitical implications of China dominating AI and robotics are powerful, even corrosive," says Eleonore Pauwels, a researcher at the United Nations University and director of the AI Lab at the Wilson Center.
  • "The new world order will be defined by a country’s capacity to harness the convergence of AI, robotics and other emerging technologies to achieve economics and security dominance."

Pauwels says China will look next to entering markets in Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

  • Distributing its robots around the world, China could gather extremely valuable personal data that could boost business — or be used for espionage.
  • "These datasets are the next gold," says Pauwels. "The country that dominates AI and robotics will set the design rules for what data these robots capture, how they work with or replace us, and how they get integrated into society."
  • Imagine a health care robot that becomes popular in the U.S. The data the bots gather could deeply inform Chinese health care companies about Americans' health and provide an edge over competitors, said Abishur Prakash of the Center for Innovating the Future.

A potential harbinger: drones.

  • Nearly two-thirds of the world’s commercial and consumer drones are made by China's DJI.
  • Last year, the NYT reported on U.S. suspicions that DJI was sending sensitive data from the drones back to China. DJI has denied the reports.
  • Prakash worries that Beijing could remotely alter the behavior of exported Chinese robots — thereby "hijacking a company’s economy by messing with their robots."
2. A quantum internet

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Scientists in Chicago are trying to create the embryo of the first quantum internet.

Why it matters: If they succeed, the researchers will produce one, 30-mile piece of a far more secure communications system with the power of fast quantum computing, writes Axios' Andrew Freedman.

  • The key was the realization of an unused, 30-mile-long fiber-optic link connecting three Chicago-area research institutions — Argonne National Lab, Fermi Lab and the University of Chicago.
  • This led to the idea to combine efforts and use the link for what they call the Chicago Quantum Exchange.

David Awschalom, an Argonne scientist and University of Chicago professor who is the project's principal investigator, tells Axios that the concept is difficult to grasp, even for experts.

  • “One of the other unusual properties of quantum matter is that you’re unable to ascertain the state of the information until you look at it, and the act of looking changes it," Awschalom said.
  • "So while that might seem a liability, it’s an asset for secure communications. Because if I send you a message, you would like to be confident that no one has eavesdropped on the message I’ve sent you."


  • Data won't travel across the 30-mile distance.
  • Instead, quantum mechanics will teleport it instantaneously, with two particles linked despite being located in different places — a property known as quantum entanglement.
  • When they are entangled, whatever happens to one particle happens to the other, even when they are separated by many miles.

What they're saying: Prineha Narang, a Harvard researcher who studies quantum materials and isn't involved in the project, says it's a promising effort to provide real-world proof of techniques that have only been studied in labs.

"Fundamentally what they’re doing has been done before but just in a much, much smaller setting. And it sounds like, 'Ok, so it should just scale.' But something we’ve noticed with quantum technologies in the past, particularly doing things reliably, is that when you try to scale them over long distances things don’t always work."
Prineha Narang
3. Paying women the same

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The financial strain of raising children is a major factor in a stubborn pay chasm between men and women 45 and older. They earn almost the same starting out in their careers, but then diverge when children come into the picture.

Writes Axios' Erica Pandey: At a time of a critical U.S. labor shortage, companies are largely failing to resolve pay and child care questions, the main issues for women when deciding to return to and stay in the workforce.

  • "We're unimaginably behind the ball. ... We've just never recognized what child care means for getting moms to work and getting kids a strong start," says Helen Blank, director of child care at the National Women's Law Center.

The big picture: As unemployment is the lowest since 1969 — at 3.7% — companies are adding perks to lure workers, including minimum wage hikes and student loan assistance.

  • Starbucks has added child care benefits to that list, with a new program that offers employees 10 days of subsidized, emergency care a year.
  • Campbell's Soup has added a subsidized day care center at its New Jersey headquarters, plus 12 family lounges.
  • American Express has on-site centers and reimburses employees who have to bring kids along on work trips.
"One desirable thing about child care benefits is that they're really a win-win from workers' and employers' perspectives. ... Women return to work sooner if they know their child will be well cared for."
Francine Blau, Cornell economist
  • But, but, but: The vast majority of big companies that do provide child care limit offerings to higher-level employees working at headquarters — leaving out hourly employees in warehouses or behind counters.

By the numbers:

  • College-educated women in the U.S. make 90% as much as their male counterparts at 25.
  • But by 45, they make 55% as much, according to NYT.
  • The average family spends 7.8% of monthly income on child care, the Center for American Progress says. But that rises to half for families earning less than $1,500 per month.
4. Worthy of your time

North Korean soldiers. Photo: Kim Won-Jin/AFP/Getty

Montreal — the world's AI startup powerhouse (James Temperton — Wired)

North Korea's weak spots: Poker, games, petty crime (Joe Uchill — Axios)

A 5,000-robot map of the universe (Glenn Roberts Jr — Berkeley Lab) (video)

Investors see signs of economic trouble ahead (The Economist)

The world's longest sea bridge (WSJ) (video)

5. 1 profitable thing: Clothes recycling

Tokyo thrift store. Photo: Getty Images

The average American throws out 70 pounds of clothing a year — and 85% of it ends up in landfills. Now, some outdoor retailers are seeing profit in the trashed clothes, Erica writes.

What's happening: Apparel companies like Patagonia, REI and North Face are reselling used, returned or damaged gear at discounted prices, reports Retail Dive.

  • Capitalizing on recycled goods isn't new. Apple exchanges its devices for gift cards. And H&M and American Eagle take back used clothes so they are recycled instead of thrown out, per Forbes.
  • But now the outdoor retailers are turning clothing waste into a money-making machine.

The other side: This summer, Burberry was criticized for burning about $38 million worth of unsold clothes and bags and shoes. The company has since vowed to recycle its extra inventory.

Bryan Walsh