Aug 1, 2018

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

Situational awareness: The Trump administration said it may more than double tariffs on China to 25% on $200 billion of imports, Reuters reports. The move is likely to trigger retaliation by Beijing.

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Let's start with ...

1 big thing: A special robotic hand
Video: OpenAI

Researchers have created a robot hand that can flip a cube into specific positions, using human-like techniques it learned on its own over the course of 100 simulated years of training.

Axios' Kaveh Waddell reports: The algorithm behind the feat has a surprising backstory: It previously trained AI agents to play Dota 2, a complex multiplayer video game. Using it again for a very different task is a leap over today’s algorithms, which can generally only do one thing well.

The two challenges — playing a video game and spinning a cube with robot fingers — are very different, to be sure. But OpenAI found overlapping characteristics, said Jack Clark, OpenAI’s communications and strategy director.

  • They both involve a quickly shifting environment. In Dota 2, AI players collaborate to outsmart a team of humans; with the cube, the robot hand uses 20 motors to control its fingers in a complex show of dexterity.
  • Independent researchers suggest it's a breakthrough. "I think this is a very exciting result," said Blake Richards, a professor at the University of Toronto and fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, who was not involved in OpenAI's research. He tells Axios:
"This is big, because it shows that real-world applicable AI should be possible using only a few small tweaks on already developed systems."

The sheer scale of the training regimen was the main reason the algorithm was able to solve these two different tasks, said Jonas Schneider, OpenAI’s head of robotics engineering.

  • Huge amounts of compute power allowed the hand to accumulate 100 years of experience in about two days. An even more powerful setup helped the Dota 2 players to play 180 years of games daily.

Go deeper: Read Kaveh's whole post here.

2. The race penalty in wages
Expand chart
Note: Underlying data is inflation-adjusted to 2017 dollars. Data includes hourly wages and salary for all workers. Data: Economic Policy Institute; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

Having a college degree has generally meant higher wages and better jobs, and the pay-off continues to be significant for white Americans. But there's a penalty for African-American women: They earn less than white women having the same credentials, economic data shows.

  • Axios' Stef Kight reports: As they keep raising tuition, colleges risk tipping the cost-value balance and losing minority groups. "Eventually college wouldn’t be worth it,” says Lisa Barrow, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

The big picture: Many minorities already face extreme disadvantages in getting accepted and affording a college education. Even if an African American or a Hispanic adult earns a degree, the financial reward still doesn't match that of a white person, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute.

But the alternative is worse. While earning a bachelor's degree may not increase an African American man's wages as much as a white man's, not going to college is likely to lead to 12% lower pay than a high-school-educated African American man would have earned 40 years ago.

  • Overall, men without a degree are worse off, making 10% less than male high school grads did in 1977 — regardless of race.
  • Meanwhile, women have made overall gains on the gender pay gap. Without a college degree, their wages are 9% higher than 40 years ago.
  • And women are now more likely than to men have a college degree — over 2 million more women enrolled in college last year than men, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

How to read the chart: The blue and orange lines show the change in inflation-adjusted hourly salary and wages since 1977. For instance, in the last chart of the second row, Hispanic men with a college degree make 13% more than they did in 1977, while those with only a high school diploma make 5% less.

Read more of Stef's post here.

3. Being the enemy

Bukharin, second from right, with Stalin on Red Square, 1930. Photo: Gamma-Keystone/Getty

The "enemy of the people," President Trump said Sunday, is the American media. Amid his numerous slogans, the phrase has made many people recoil because of its centrality in a chilling moment of 20th century history: Josef Stalin's 1930s show trials.

Why it matters: The trials demonstrated how the indictment of one class of people can rapidly spiral and cut across society.

  • Before the Great Terror reached its apex with the 1938 trial of Nikolai Bukharin, it swept through most of the senior military corps, unlucky party leaders, industry chiefs, elite writers, two dozen astronomers, and down the line to peasants — an estimated 1.2 million people in all.
  • But Bukharin's presence in the final and most momentous show trial of the Soviet purge was something else — a former Lenin comrade, right hand to Stalin, and Politburo member, Bukharin was now an "enemy of the people," accused of murder, spying and an attempted coup.

"Fear hung over the city like a mist, seeping in everywhere. Everyone lived in terror of everyone else," wrote Fitzroy MacLean, a 25-year-old British diplomat then posted in Moscow. "... No one could be trusted. No one was safe."

The description is from "Eastern Approaches," MacLean's first-hand account of the trial. Setting the scene in the book, MacLean described a preceding trial of a half-dozen marshals and generals:

"Up to a few days before these men had been held up as heroes, as examples of every military and civic virtue. Their portraits, larger than life size, were still to be seen publicly exhibited all over Moscow, side by side with those of Stalin and the members of the Politburo."

After their confessions and trial, these men were immediately executed. Now it was Bukharin's turn, along with that of 20 other alleged "traitors," "spies" and "wreckers."

Go deeper: Read the whole post here.

4. AI boot camp

The Deep Learning and Reinforcement Learning Summer School in Toronto. Photo: CIFAR & Vector Institute

Amid an intense global race to develop artificial intelligence, Canada — home to some of the field's pioneers, and among the most aggressive nations in the contest — is running a boot camp this week to beef up its chances to share in the AI future.

Axios' Alison Snyder reports from Toronto: More than 250 students and researchers from 20 countries are in Toronto, where Canada is attempting to attract as much of the world's best AI talent it can by showcasing itself as a first-rate center for research.

Canada has set a goal of recruiting 25 world class AI researchers from outside the country to chair academic programs, according to Elissa Strome of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. The country is specifically looking to lead in the responsible use and social impact of AI:

  • "Being a moral leader is very important especially as democracy seems to be threatened on many fronts and AI could be used for good and bad," says Yoshua Bengio, a pioneer of deep and reinforcement learning and a professor at the Artificial Intelligence Institute in Montreal.
  • Bengio says he is also starting a professional AI master's degree program in Montreal that he hopes will make it easier to fill the enormous demand for talent faster.
  • This is all part of Canada's Artificial Intelligence Strategy, which includes three AI institutes, the AI summer school, and a number of other initiatives.

Go deeper: Read Alison's post here.

5. Worthy of your time
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Data: Axios analysis of Securities and Exchange Commission filings. Chart: Andrew Witherspoon, Kerrie Vila, Lazaro Gamio/Axios

White threat, browning America (Ezra Klein — Vox)

Chinese students are increasingly going home (Youyou Zhou — Quartz)

$42M a year and other CEOs' pay (Bob Herman, Andrew Witherspoon — Axios)

Why "stubborn, intractable, uppity" Brits left the EU (Robert Armstrong — FT)

China is offsetting the tariffs with the yuan (Gwynn Guilford — Quartz)

6. 1 caffeinated thing: Steaming coffee on a bike

Food delivery bikes in Beijing. Photo: Zhang Peng/LightRocket/Getty

Have you ever ordered your morning cup of coffee delivered to your office? I asked 28 colleagues — all based in the U.S. Just two said "yes," and two others that they might. Twenty-four basically told me to get lost.

  • Not so in China, where a delivered cup of steaming-hot coffee, brought by motorbike, is the new new thing, Axios' Erica Pandey writes.

The big picture: Tea is still king in Chinese offices. For those who have switched, coffee is an inconvenient luxury — few offices have brewing machines, and it can take ages to walk to a cafe on the packed streets.

  • But the other thing about China is a mania for on-demand delivery — Chinese want what they want, and they want it now.
  • Hence the opening for delivered coffee, including reported a new venture between Starbucks and Alibaba.

The latest: The partnership between Starbucks and, Alibaba's food delivery arm, is to be announced tomorrow, WSJ's Xiao Xiao and Liza Lin report.

  • "Alibaba and Starbucks are always exploring new ways to deepen our long-term partnership in China," an Alibaba spokesman said. Starbucks didn't respond to an email.

The backdrop:

  • Starbucks has had incredible success in China, capturing 80% of the coffee market in 2017, per Euromonitor International.
  • But there's a new competitor. Luckin Coffee, a Beijing startup that launched in October, has already opened 660 Chinese stores.
  • Luckin's strategy? Super-fast coffee delivery via scooters — and if your coffee is more than 30 minutes late, it's free.

The bottom line: "Chinese culture is less relaxed that American culture," says Hans Tung, managing partner at GGV Capital, a VC firm that works in China. So even the mid-morning coffee run is an indulgence. "People say, 'Why should I go out there? I just want my coffee now.'"

Bryan Walsh