Apr 30, 2019

Axios Future

Steve LeVine

Have your friends signed up?

Any stories we should be chasing? Hit reply to this email or message me at steve@axios.com. Kaveh Waddell is at kaveh@axios.com and Erica Pandey at erica@axios.com.

Okay, let's start with ...

1 big thing: For James Bond, a mission less possible

Photo: Greg Williams/Eon Productions/Getty

The age of surveillance and Big Data is throwing up a new challenge to one of the oldest professions on the planet. We are talking the job of secret agent.

What's happening: Suddenly, the world's least open nations can marshal a lifetime of personal and location data on friend and foe from security cameras, social media and smart phones.

  • This seriously complicates the mission of undercover spy — men and women whose talent since Cleopatra and before has been gaining cozy proximity with movers and shakers and persuading locals to betray their countries.

"If you go through any classic of spy fiction — le Carré, Fleming — almost anything they do would be impossible today because of technology," said Edward Lucas, a Russia specialist and author of "Spycraft Rebooted: How Technology is Changing Espionage."

  • "CCTV cameras make anything that Bond and Smiley did difficult. In a hostile environment, you'd be picked up immediately," Lucas said.

I queried former U.S. intelligence analysts, all of whom said the secrecy profession will survive:

  • Mathew Burrows, a retired senior CIA official and counselor to the National Intelligence Council, said the new tech actually provides advantages, and not just handicaps. There will continue to be a job for "a spy who can worm him/herself into the confidence of a decision-maker and know exactly his/her next move that hasn’t yet been revealed by any tech-driven spying," he said.
  • Aki Peritz, a former CIA analyst in Iraq, said, "Intelligence gathering is as old as human civilization, and it's not going to end because of technical advances. No gizmo can see into the hearts of men."

Yet Lucas catalogues the difficulties in an article for Foreign Policy. If he is right, it's not clear how many jobs are at risk: There are no public figures for how many spies the U.S. sends abroad, though in a January speech, CIA director Gina Haspel said she wants more of them.

  • As of last year, Russia was thought to have more than 100 spies working undercover in the U.S. But working is more difficult even for them — operatives living under aliases in open societies where people are not tracked as a matter of course.

Consider this example of the new world:

  • A year ago, former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in the U.K. with Novichok, a nerve agent. U.K. investigators perusing footage from security cameras installed around the country quickly zeroed in on two men.
  • They were filmed putting the poison on the Skripals' front door, then flying to Moscow. The men had entered the U.K. using aliases.
  • Then Bellingcat, a private research group that uses open sources, was able in a matter of months to identify them as Russian military intelligence officers. Their cover may now be blown forever.

If you are a suddenly out-of-work spy, where do you go? Lucas suggests that former spies can pile into the private intelligence firms that have proliferated in New York and the Mayfair district in London.

I contacted the head of one such London firm, an acquaintance from my Central Asia days. He said that while he does employ two former intelligence agents, the rest of his approximately 30 case managers are varied. "In the private sector, you want multiple talents/skill sets — forensics accountants, former bankers and journalists, Caspian oil and gas specialists (!) etc.," he said.

2. Another robot company is gone

One of Anki's robots. Photo courtesy Anki

Building robots is hard, but building a robotics company seems nearly impossible.

Kaveh writes: The latest in a spate of robotics companies to fold is Anki, the 9-year-old company that built cute robot companions and AI-powered toy race cars. It had raised more than $200 million in venture capital from top Silicon Valley firms and said last year it was nearing $100 million in revenue.

Things were looking good for Anki back in 2013 when it launched its first product, a nearly $200 toy race car and video game, onstage at an Apple keynote — an enormous platform.

  • After the racers, its next wave of products were friendly companion bots: little bulldozer-looking things with expressive eyes that make cute noises.
  • But this week, after losing out on what Anki spokesperson Peter Nguyen called a "significant financial deal at a late stage," the company is laying off its entire workforce, Nguyen said in a statement.
  • The news was first reported by Recode.

This trajectory is familiar to robotics companies — especially those making social robots. In the past year, several firms that made them, like Jibo and Mayfield Robotics, closed their doors.

At a robotics summit hosted by TechCrunch earlier this month, several speakers discussed why building a robotics company is so hard.

  • "The hardest problem starting out is finding the right problem to solve and making sure that people want you to solve it," said Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics.
  • "Groups that do warehouse automation have often been successful because the market is there," said Manish Kothari, president of SRI Ventures, which invests in robotics companies.
  • "We know people pick apples; we know how much they charge for picking apples," Kothari said. "It's a daunting technical challenge" — but someone will probably want an apple-picking bot if you can create it and beat the cost of human pickers.

There's not yet a clear signal that people want robots in their homes.

  • For now, smart speakers like Amazon Echo are the closest thing to must-have home hardware — and they're still a far cry from any sort of robot.
  • The biggest market for bots at home is still for vacuums like Roomba, which have been around for nearly two decades.

Go deeper: Why is so hard to build profitable robot companies? (IEEE Spectrum)

3. The web's "dark period"

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Whether you live in the democratic or authoritarian world, you are likely to be uneasy with the direction the internet has taken in the last few years.

  • In response to the proliferation of hate groups, terrorists, pedophiles, etc., on the web, we are creating “a Balkanized and not-so-open internet everywhere,” says Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab and one of the world’s most prominent experts on the internet.
  • Ito is featured in today's Masters of Scale podcast and talked to Axios about the "dark period" of the internet, one he says is especially apparent in the struggle for power between the U.S. and China:
"I think that for now, it’s possible that we’re headed into something that looks like a different version of the Cold War — but I think there is a chance to avoid that and I hope we figure out how to do that."

Why it matters: Experts are increasingly worried — and warning — about the dangers social media can pose to healthy societies.

  • For example, as Axios reported, Sri Lanka blocked Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat and other social platforms after the coordinated terrorist attacks on Catholic churches that killed about 250 people.

Go deeper: Hear the episode where Ito says more about the birth of online communities and the open vs. closed internet.

Editor's note: Details of this podcast are available exclusively to Axios readers first through a partnership with Masters of Scale.

4. Worthy of your time
Expand chart
Adapted from a Pew Research chart; Percentages are medians based on 27 countries; Data: Spring 2018 Global Attitudes Survey; Chart: Axios Visuals

Gene Wolfe, RIP (Brian Phillips — The Ringer)

Politicians are killing faith in democracy (Stef Kight — Axios)

Zero Amazon income tax vexes voters (Stephanie Saul, Patricia CohenNYT)

U.K. car washes seek to pay minimum wage (Robert Wright — FT)

Translating brain waves (The Economist)

5. 1 posthumous thing: Facebook users, after death

Photo: Lisa Werner/Getty

If not a single new person joins Facebook, it will take a half-century before the platform has more dead than living members, according to a strange new paper.

The paper, by Oxford researchers Carl Öhman and David Watson (h/t MIT Tech Review), finds that inflection point around the year 2070. In another three decades, 1.4 billion Facebook users will have died. At today's membership numbers, that would leave roughly 900,000 million still living.

Why they are counting dead Facebook users: Öhman and Watson are attempting to get a grip on a new Facebook effort to itself figure out what to do with a member's data after death.

Steve LeVine