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Jul 29, 2019

Axios Future

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Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,018 words, a 4-minute read.

What else should we write about this summer? Hit reply to this email or message me at steve@axios.com, Kaveh Waddell at kaveh@axios.com and Erica Pandey at erica@axios.com.

Okay, let's start with ...

1 big thing: The forces all around us

In the East Africa Rift, Ethiopia. Photo: Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis/Getty

Some 6 millennia ago, temperatures abruptly plunged, and a profound drought ensued in the then-tropical Middle East: To survive, people abandoned their land, migrated, and ultimately organized into a string of cities, stewarded over by strong rulers including the pharaohs in Egypt.

Quick take: Today, geopolitics usually mean war, human ego, big economics, or disease. But the Middle East drama in the third and fourth millennia BC illustrates the much-underestimated role of earthly forces in shaping and utterly turning history — and is a window into what may be in store for current and future generations.

The big picture: Historians focus on social forces, big personalities and economics — but wind, tectonics and Earth's orbit are among the deeper dynamics that set "the very course of history," says Lewis Dartnell, author of "Origins: How Earth's History Shaped Human History."

  • Earth and space are the fixed objects that go all-but ignored: "There are huge, long chains of cause and effect that created the stage for the human drama," Dartnell tells Axios.

The list of earthly induced geopolitics is long: The Harappan civilization, its collapse around 1700 BC blamed on drought or another weather catastrophe; the Minoans, their demise abetted by a volcanic eruption around 1500 BC; and the Little Ice Age of the 14th to the 19th centuries, which caused famine that wiped out swaths of France, Norway, and Sweden.

The Middle East events prior to the Bronze Age mirror some of the challenges we face today, according to a 2016 paper published in the Quaternary Science Reviews:

  • Back then, it was a momentous cooling trend that transformed the conditions on Earth, setting in motion a massive migration, and the rise of authoritarian leadership to cope with the chaos.
  • Now, if the past is prologue, climate-induced extreme weather is likely to reinforce and amplify the closing off of countries already underway for separate reasons, along with the authoritarian trend, Dartnell said.
  • There will be "more and more extreme politics trying to justify" such strongarm policies.

"If you fast-forward 10, 20, 30 years in the future, it will fundamentally change where rain falls. It will change where we can grow food. Throughout history, with climate change, if people can't support themselves where they are, they will move," Dartnell said.

What's next: Scientists believe that, in order to sustain complex intelligent life, other planets would have to have a very similar geological system to Earth's, including tectonics. That means that on terrestrial planets, continents would crash into each other and pull apart, mountains would push up, and the sun beating down would create a wind circulation system.

  • In other words, "it is likely that, if there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, similar natural forces are shaping the course of history on the planets on which it lives," Dartnell said.
2. U.S. AI funding slips

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

With top talent and eager, deep-pocketed venture capitalists, the U.S. has far-and-away led the world in the number and amount of fundraising deals for AI companies, write Axios' Dion Rabouin and Kaveh.

But now, its lead has slipped: This year, for the first time, the majority of funding deals went outside the U.S. — mostly to Chinese and European companies, according to data from research firm CB Insights.

  • By the numbers: The U.S. was home to nearly 75% of all deals in 2013, but that share dropped to 40% in 2018.

Between the lines: The number of startups in the U.S. has been relatively flat since the financial crisis — in part because Big Tech quickly snaps up many of the most promising shoots. Meanwhile AI startups in Europe, and especially China, have flared into prominence, driven by their governments' strategic planning to dominate AI.

What's happening: In addition to the Chinese government allocating significant spending to AI, more new companies are being started in a raft of different countries and raising equity, analysts from CB Insights tell Axios in an email.

  • In 2013, there were only around 20 AI startups in countries outside the U.S. that raised funding, data shows. In 2019, there are more than 60.

Yes, but: The total amount of funding is still tilted heavily toward the U.S. — with the exception of a handful of Chinese mega-companies like TikTok owner ByteDance, which is the top-funded AI startup in the world. The U.S. funding lead is likely to continue because of its concentration of AI experts.

  • Many U.S. startups "have graduated from the seed-funding stage and entered later stages such as expansion and pre-IPO," says Joy Dantong Ma, an analyst at the Paulson Institute. "Funding in these later stages tend to be more sizable."
3. Saudi's coming surveilled city

Shanghai. Photo: Alex Tai/SOPA/LightRocket/Getty

As we have reported, the emerging new economy is rooted in knowing as much as possible about large numbers of people, including their most intimate facts, manipulating behavior, and selling the results.

Now, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, is planning to unleash this data-vacuuming tech on Neom, a futuristic new city-state he has in the works, write the WSJ's Justin Scheck, Rory Jones and Summer Said.

  • The WSJ cites 2,300 pages of confidential documents it obtained involving consulting work on Neom by the Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey and Oliver Wyman.
  • "This should be an automated city where we can watch everything," Neom's founding board writes in one document.
  • "Everything can be recorded."

Among the technology Neom's planners propose are cameras, drones and facial recognition technology.

Such technology is most dramatically in use by China in its western region of Xinjiang. But Beijing has also sold the technology to at least 18 other countries, the NYT has reported.

4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The hidden costs of automated thinking (Jonathan Zittrain - New Yorker)

Einstein's disappointing success. (Alison Snyder - Axios)

Police are quietly pushing smart doorbells (Caroline Haskins — Vice)

Anyone can be gullible (Kera Bolonik - The Cut)

Can the internet save the department store? (Chris Mims - WSJ)

1 startled thing: Roots of an exclamation
Photo: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty

When Russia's Sergey Shubenkov stumbled in the 110-meter hurdles in the European Athletics Champions last August (see above), it was an opportune time to shout the family-safe, time-honored English expression, "Oops!"

But where did this visceral verbalization come from?

According to the WSJ's Ben Zimmer, the word oops — used to recognize an unintended slip of some sort — was first recorded in 1917, but that no one knows its derivation with certainty. Among the competing theories:

  • It's a short version of "whoops," which was part of a song in 1910.
  • It has something to do with a "ooperzootic," a condition contracted by horses during the era.
  • It contracts the word, "upsidaisy."

Thanks for reading!