Apr 4, 2019

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

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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: Jobs and tech disruption

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Economists expect the government tomorrow to report yet another surge in new jobs and pay — the 118th straight month of employment growth, and terrific news after decades of flat wages.

  • But the exhilaration masks a stark, second reality in which some economists also are calling for the government to urgently prepare the labor force for a future wave of automation that seems likely to destroy jobs and roil communities across the country.
  • This coming technological disruption is currently invisible against the backdrop of robust jobs growth. But economists say that, without aggressive measures, the financial inequality that underlies current political turbulence will widen.

What's happening: In a new report, the Aspen Institute nudges policymakers away from any notion that the American economy will naturally adjust as robots are introduced at an accelerated pace over the coming two and three decades. Already workers displaced in prior technological cycles "have experienced profound downward mobility" in new jobs at much lower pay and benefits, Aspen's Alastair Fitzpayne tells Axios.

The big picture: The report departs from a flood of largely glossy major studies issued by nonprofit and corporate think tanks over the last couple of years, nearly all of which have forecast that the current technological disruption will follow the historical script. That is, it will produce as many and probably more jobs than it destroys.

  • In an interview, Fitzpayne, a co-author of the Aspen report, says no one knows how many new jobs will be produced, where they will be created or how much they will pay.
  • The points are important because most studies play down the real possibility that the automation age could go very wrong, for an extended period, for large swaths of workers and their communities.
  • Workers who lost their jobs in the wave of manufacturing layoffs in the early 1980s, for instance, were still earning 15%–20% less in their new work 20 years later, according to the Aspen report.

"The individuals impacted by automation in manufacturing over the last 40 years — they did not get the exact same job at the same pay," Fitzpayne says. "They experienced profound difficulty finding a new job. If they found one, they took lower pay and lower benefits."

  • Among its recommendations, Aspen suggests a renewal of pre-1980s policies that established an effective social contract between workers and their companies with benefits, protections and training.

Mark Hamrick, senior economist at Bankrate, notes the political paralysis in Washington. Historically speaking, some of the government's most aggressive social and economic actions occurred during one of its darkest moments — the Great Depression.

  • "Hopefully it won’t take another depression to foster real solutions for pressing problems,” Hamrick tells Axios.

But given the tight, 3.8% jobless rate, some companies are already introducing training programs, says Adam Roston, CEO of BlueCrew, a staffing platform for workers. "It's in their best interest to grow and retain the best workers," he said.   

2. A science book written by AI

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

At the start of the first chapter of a thick new academic tome about lithium-ion batteries, where information about the author would usually go, five words hint that something's different: "This book was machine-generated."

Kaveh writes: The following 232 pages are a dry, technical read. But it's entirely intelligible — valuable, even, for a scientist trying to catch up to the vanguard of battery research.

Why it matters: AI is helping to speed up science, unlock impossible problems and dig researchers out from under information overload. Automatic summarization is a big remaining challenge that, if solved, would accelerate discovery by focusing researchers on the most pressing problems in their fields.

What's happening: The book, which summarizes peer-reviewed research papers about lithium-ion batteries, is the first machine-written volume from Springer Nature — but the publishing giant says more are on the way.

Details: The machine-generated summary is made up of intelligible sentences, but it's anything but a pleasant read. It's pocked with citations — a result of the computer's inability to understand themes and concepts — and many sections are a paragraph long, built around just one research paper.

  • "The holy grail in this space is a system that can read multiple texts, understand the texts, integrate those texts, synthesize the ideas, and then turn that into generated language," says Kristian Hammond, a Northwestern professor and co-founder of Narrative Science, a language AI company.
  • "We're not even in the ballpark of that. We're nothing."

How it works: The "prototype" volume was written by an algorithm that the publisher created with researchers from Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany.

  • The algorithm — "Beta Writer," as it's credited on the cover — picks out relevant research from Springer's abundant archives, groups it by similarity, and arranges it into chapters and sections. Then, it summarizes the work, footnoting as it goes.
  • Check out the free e-book, with its detailed intro about Beta Writer.

But, but, but: By using only research published by Springer Nature, the book is missing out on the vast body of peer-reviewed work published elsewhere — like the prestigious Science journal, for example.

3. Sexless America

Single in the city. Photo: Getty

The share of young men, age 18–30, in the U.S. who say they did not have sex in the past year jumped from 10% in 2008 to 28% in 2018.

Erica writes: Among young women, the share increased from 10% to 18%, reports the Washington Post.

  • The rise can be attributed, in part, to the fact that young Americans are delaying long-term relationships, psychology professor Jean Twenge told the Post. Those without live-in partners are less likely to have sex.
  • To compare, rates of sexlessness among older Americans are far lower. For 30- to 39-year-olds, it’s 7%. For 40- to 49-year-olds, 9%.

Go deeper: Americans are divided by who finds love

4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Chess — a pawn in Kremlin politics (Sam Jones — FT)

Extreme debt is the new, new thing (Dion Rabouin — Axios)

Amazon backs off special treatment for its own products (Eugene Kim — CNBC)

A transformation in esports training (Madis Kabash — Quartz) (video)

Japan's workers still won't take time off (Hillary Leung — Time)

5. 1 Xinjiang thing: Life under surveillance

Kashgar. Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty

For Uighurs who have not been detained in Chinese internment camps, life in Xinjiang, the northwest corner of the country, is no less closely monitored and controlled.

Kaveh writes: An interactive video from the NYT reveals the constant, omnipresent surveillance that the Chinese Muslim minority endures.

  • In a recent visit to Kashgar, a major city in Xinjiang, two NYT reporters found police regularly checking Uighurs' phones to make sure they installed required spying apps.
  • The reporters had their phones confiscated numerous times and scrubbed of "sensitive" photographs, and they were followed around by a bevy of plainclothes officers.
  • One of the offending photos was of a camel. The officer told the reporter: "In China, there are no whys."

A single street bristled with some 20 cameras, and Uighurs are assigned to spy on one another.

Surveillance in Xinjiang is "like a sledgehammer — sweeping, indiscriminate; as much about intimidation as monitoring," write Chris Buckley, Paul Mozur and Austin Ramzy.

Bryan Walsh