Dec 21, 2018

Axios Future

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Okay, let's start with ...

1 big thing: The China blind spot

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The West has a blind spot when it comes to China’s technological advances.

  • Axios' Kaveh Waddell writes: Again and again, the West has shown that it misunderstands China's true competence in the technologies of the future — artificial intelligence, quantum science, robotics, and more.
  • Alternatively under- and over-estimating China's progress, the U.S. and Europe are left simply unmoored in terms of tracking their primary geopolitical competition.

What it looks like: Whiplash.

  • In an utterly unexpected announcement last month, a Chinese scientist said he had produced a genetically edited embryo.
  • In recent years, there has been a headline-grabbing explosion of AI papers from Chinese researchers, followed by analyses suggesting that Chinese research lags significantly behind American and European work when accounting for impact.
  • Over the last year, major advances have been announced by Chinese companies that most in the West have never heard of — like MiningLamp, a big data company that’s attracted name investors.

The backdrop: Several factors contribute to the trans-Pacific information gap. Unlike military hardware that can be publicly demonstrated, virtual technology like AI and quantum computing is difficult to scrutinize, especially because they are, at their core, difficult to understand.

  • The Chinese government deliberately sows confusion in official announcements and state-controlled media. The aim is sometimes to send rivals scrambling toward a dead end, says Elsa Kania, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
  • A narrow Western focus on major cities — Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen — leaves out major universities and data-annotation outfits that also contribute to China’s AI rise, says Jeffrey Ding, of Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute.

Combined, these factors and others have often left the West in the dark. MiningLamp, for example, is barely mentioned in English literature but is well known in China, says Joy Ma, a researcher at the University of Chicago's Paulson Institute. As a result, U.S. and European companies and officials don't know how to respond appropriately.

  • Now, the West has swung from discounting Chinese innovation to panicking, depicting an unstoppable tech juggernaut. Against this framing, the U.S. is considering ways to preserve the American tech advantage, like imposing export controls. But sanctions can be overkill, too.
  • The reality is somewhere in the middle, says Kania.

Axios science editor Andrew Freedman writes: Policy decisions made now will determine whether the U.S. successfully competes with China for the lead in scientific and engineering research, or squanders it through a mix of underfunding and poorly crafted legislation.

  • It's conceivable that China, not the U.S., will be the next country to land a human on the Moon, while also rivaling the U.S. and the E.U. in weather prediction in as little as a decade from now — a field with many military applications.
2. The future of Yellow Vests

Dec. 15 in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Photo: Robin Utrecht/AFP/Getty

The Yellow Vest movement in France was triggered by a tiny increase in gasoline taxes, but it actually is a more fundamental revolt against some of the main social and economic trends striking the West as a whole.

Driving the news: The uprisings have spread to Belgium and the Netherlands (above), reflecting discontent with economics that bypass large swaths of the population, often living outside of the biggest cities.

In France, Yellow Vests have widened their protests to include blockading a rural mall that has taken away business from Main Street, and overrunning a private tollbooth on a public road, reports the NYT's Michael Kimmelman.

  • In an exceptional profile of the situation, Kimmelman crystalizes the French crisis as one of mobility: people have trouble physically getting to work unless they have a car because public transportation has been cut back, and their social mobility has been reduced by the way the economy has developed.

"It is a crisis of dignity. It's a pride movement," said Celia Belin, a fellow with Brookings, speaking to Axios by phone from Paris.

  • "There used to be the equivalent of the American Dream — the French Dream, based on a meritocracy allowing everyone to rise," she said. "But the French Dream has been shattered."
3. What you may have missed

Photo: Getty Images

Can't believe it's Friday? Neither can we. Here's the top of Future this week.

1. AI and the future of research: The end of papers

2. Big Tech infighting: Google and Apple love the Amazon backlash

3. Political AI: Inventors join the raging public debate

4. Staving off a robot apocalypse: What might work

4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Holiday shoppers in a pinch trust Amazon most (Karen Weise — NYT)

Autonomous vehicle makers want to set standards (Joann Muller — Axios)

Americans are sleeping less (Rodrigo Pérez Ortega — Science News)

Unusual employee expenses (The Economist)

A Christmas movie written by AI (Karen Hao — MIT Tech Review)

5. 1 🎉 thing: Thanks from the Future crew!
The gang's all here. Photo: Axios

It's been a wild year at Future. We've covered everything from the economics of populism to the automation of science to doormen in the age of Amazon — and we've enjoyed every thoughtful response from you, our readers, along the way.

Kaveh, Erica and I have exciting projects and even more threads of coverage planned for next year, but we want to hear from you, too. Let us know what you'd like to read about!

Until then, Happy New Year! 🥂