Mar 20, 2019

Axios Future

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

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1 big thing: The trouble with smart cities

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Giants like Alphabet, GE and Cisco are building tech that they claim can transform a city stuck in the past into a futuristic paradise, but their early projects have resulted in companies making what typically are City Hall decisions.

Erica writes: Across the country, mayors are issuing open calls for smart city tech. One reason, as we've reported, is that second-tier cities are desperate to attract jobs and people — and boost their flagging and sometimes dire circumstances. The effort is to beat a trend in which the best talent and money are going to so-called "superstar cities."

  • To get there, they are loosening regulations and inviting companies to use their streets as living labs for nascent technologies.
  • They are letting the companies into every part of city operations, from managing citizens' data to building affordable housing.

But the results so far are mixed:

  • Cities like Las Vegas have made development a free-for-all for Big Tech, and they ended up with an urban hodgepodge and no coherent look.
  • Others, like Toronto, have handed over responsibility to a single tech company and are finding their decision-making power usurped.
  • Such cities are giving "an incredible amount of control [to] tech companies ... that certainly don't have the same general interest as what their governments should be focused on," says Ben Green, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Klein Center.

Driving the news: Toronto teamed up last year with Sidewalk Labs, Alphabet's smart city company, giving the firm a 12-acre piece of waterfront to develop however it saw fit.

  • After that, Sidewalk Labs proposed broad data policies for the neighborhood — assuming the patina of lawmaking authority typically exercised by local government.
  • Protests have erupted since it was revealed that Sidewalk Labs proposed taking a cut of property tax revenue from its redevelopment. Sidewalk Labs argues that it is only seeking reimbursement for its proposed investments in public infrastructure like a high-speed rail and waste collection — services that will be essential to the new neighborhood but may not be built as quickly with just the city’s money.
  • "I'm not convinced that the project will go through," Green says. "Toronto might have to pull an Amazon HQ2."

Sidewalk Labs told Erica that 40% of the area that it redevelops will be devoted to high-quality affordable housing built from sustainable materials. The company maintains that it will move ahead with its plans and that public debate will make the project better.

  • What to watch: In a matter of months, the company will release a master plan that will then be considered by a number of public boards and agencies.

Correction: This story has been updated to show that the reimbursements Sidewalk Labs is seeking are to fast-track public services.

2. A lesson in one-man rule

Nazarbayev. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty

Authoritarian power is all the rage across the continents. But one of the most practiced autocrats on the planet, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, has just offered up an object lesson in how to elevate mere one-man power to something higher.

In an announcement yesterday, the 78-year-old Nazarbayev resigned after three decades in power. It was seemingly historic news — the exit of the last political survivor of the Soviet Union, for which he had served as vice president until its 1991 collapse.

  • That's what was surprising to those like me who have followed the exceedingly shrewd Nazarbayev. I was a Kazakhstan-based correspondent through the 1990s, and I profiled him as part of a history of the U.S.-Russian struggle for power on the Caspian Sea.
  • Renunciation of power seemed out of character in a region whose leaders typically conflate their own identity and the state itself. As Louis XIV put it, "l'état, c'est moi" — the state, it's me.

As it turns out, it was out of character: Through an entanglement of titles conferred by the supine Parliament, Nazarbayev is holding onto supreme power. And that's not all:

  • He got a big city named after himself: The loyalist new acting president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, yesterday renamed the national capital of Astana after Nazarbayev. It is now enshrined as Nursultan.
  • A possible dynasty was set in motion: Nazarbayev's eldest daughter, Dariga, became the second-most powerful official in the country with her appointment yesterday as president of the Senate. This positions her to run for president in 2020, when Tokayev's term will expire.

Be smart: Together, the moves resemble the long rule of Singaporean founder Lee Kuan Yew, a figure much respected in the former Soviet Union. Lee also served for three decades as his country's leader, then behind the scenes remained its most powerful figure for 21 years after that. He died in 2015.

  • Lee's son, Lee Hsien Loong, has been Singaporean prime minister since 2004.
3. Estonia's huge online voting tally

A woman votes online in Estonia in 2011. Photo: Raigo Pajula/AFP/Getty

In Estonia's parliamentary elections this month, nearly half of the votes cast were submitted online.

Kaveh writes: The country allows citizens to vote online during a six-day window before election day, reports Kalev Aasmae for ZDNet. Estonians cast 247,232 "i-votes," or "internet votes," during that time, using their national ID cards and PINs.

Kaveh asked Axios cybersecurity reporter Joe Uchill why most countries, including the U.S., don't vote online. He said:

"Voting experts generally oppose online voting because it introduces massive security complications into the process. Connecting voting systems to the internet makes them more vulnerable to hackers, the apps used to do the voting are separately vulnerable, and there's no centralized written record to audit voting accuracy in case something seems awry."
  • Switzerland's online voting system, for example, was recently found to be vulnerable to a hacker changing votes remotely.
4. Worthy of your time
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Data: OECD survey; Table: Axios Visuals

How "golden visas" are bringing Greece back to life (Liz Alderman NYT)

Around the world, people are nervous and angry (Axios)

The coffee mavens (The New Yorker) (video)

380,000 years after the Big Bang (Anjana Ahuja — FT)

Our friend, the rat (Emma Marris — National Geographic) (h/t Don Van Natta)

5. 1 deceptive thing: An online lie detector

Polygraph result from an interview with Jack Ruby. Photo: National Archives/Corbis/Getty

Researchers at Florida State University and Stanford are developing an "online polygraph" that detects lies in text — without the contextual clues that can hint at deception in a face-to-face conversation.

  • Kaveh writes: In experiments, the researchers found that liars used more florid prose and often expressed certainty, while truth-tellers responded more slowly and with words like "perhaps," "guess" and "could."
  • They designed a machine learning system that can pick up on these subtle cues to correctly separate out liars from truth-tellers about three-quarters of the time. The results were published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

"You could use it for online dating, Facebook, Twitter — the applications are endless," says FSU researcher Shuyuan Ho, the paper's lead author, in an article published by the university.

Kaveh's thought bubble: The accuracy of old-school polygraphs — the ones that output the seismic wiggles seen above — has long been in question. A new test would have to clear a high bar to prove that it's not calibrated only to a certain group of people. It also provokes thorny ethical questions about the prospect of automatic deception-monitoring in online spaces.