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Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,270 words, ~5 minute read.
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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios
In a flurry of big decisions, major companies are refusing to work with gun sellers, states that restrict abortion rights and places that propose anti-LGBTQ bills — throwing their weight around to shift public policy, writes Erica.
Driving the news: Throughout the history of capitalism, wealthy and powerful companies have effectively acted like governments. But now, as these corporate giants get bigger and richer than ever, they are fundamentally changing the calculus of power in the U.S.
As Axios has reported, companies are taking ever more daring positions on social and political issues because of intense pressure from the public and their own employees. At a time of rock bottom trust in institutions and leaders, corporations are among the very few remaining bastions of public confidence, says Edelman, the public relations firm.
The latest example is Salesforce, which has recently barred certain gun sellers from using its e-commerce software, per the Washington Post. It follows a trend of companies targeting guns:
Firms have waded into other debates, too: In an outcry over abortion rights, Hollywood studios are threatening to stop filming in Georgia. And two years ago, a backlash by PayPal, the NCAA, Bank of America and others forced North Carolina to repeal a "bathroom bill" that discriminated against transgender individuals.
"We are concerned by the rise of boardroom legislation by unelected corporate leaders," says Lawrence Keane, SVP of public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation. "It’s particularly troubling when the companies making the decisions have tons of market power."
The big picture: While firms are well within their rights to take a stand, their actions take on new significance when unelected businesses have the same sort of power as government officials, says Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago.
The bottom line: Look for continued corporate activism, as socially minded employees and consumers show no sign of wavering in their insistence on their companies taking such positions.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
Those consumers are finding that at a time when national politics is at an impasse, refusing to buy something on Amazon until it takes sides in a debate could be a more effective way to assert their political will than calling their representatives in Congress, Erica writes.
Turning to companies instead of lawmakers has already shown results.
Why it matters: While companies are beginning to act like governments, some experts say it is not their power that has boomed, but that of consumers.
"This doesn't look like some new corporate power to me," says Brink Lindsey, co-author of "The Captured Economy." "It looks like new power by public pressure groups to change corporate behavior."
The bottom line: Using companies to change policies "is a really effective way to include people on the ground floor in American politics," says Boston College's Richardson.
Photo: Adam Berry/Getty
Robots are getting pretty good at the repetitive, precise tasks that make up a good deal of factory and warehouse work. But place one in a home it's never seen before, or on a busy sidewalk, and it's likely to struggle to get around or do anything useful, Kaveh reports.
These chaotic scenarios — called "edge cases," because no two are the same — are the singular focus of a new robotics startup that was announced today. The high-powered venture wants to teach robots to think more like people in order to navigate the world.
The big picture: A wild debate has been raging in AI, and it's all about rules. One side says that machines should learn nearly everything from scratch; the other says that computers — like humans — must lean on some basic concepts about the world.
The team behind the new startup, Robust.AI, is firmly in the second camp.
No robot today can deliver a package all the way to any doorstep, or take care of an elderly person in their home. "For those kinds of situations, you need robots that can actually think for themselves — robots that can deal with an ever-changing world," Marcus says.
Bringing back ideas from the era of symbolic AI — a focus on ground rules that died out in the 1980s — is a potential way forward, Barrett says. "I see it as absolutely necessary if we really want to close the gap between the tour de force mechanical capabilities of today's robots and their rather limited intellectual capacities."
How did cowboys get so much coffee? (Star Simpson — Twitter thread) (h/t James Cham)
Britain's record 18 days without coal (Amy Harder — Axios)
Amazon's robotic "3D chess" warehouses (Matt Simon — Wired)
China leads in the cashless society (EY report) (h/t Clay Chandler)
The looming 100-year U.S.-China conflict (Martin Wolf — FT)
If you live in a small apartment like me, you're constantly looking for creative places to store those big packages with nine rolls of toilet paper or paper towels, Erica writes.
Charmin is out with a new option for millennials who live alone in tiny studios and just don't need that much toilet paper at once. It's called the "Forever Roll," and it's colossal (see above).
The catch: If you want the "Forever Roll," you also have to have a toilet paper stand from Charmin because there's no way this monstrosity is fitting into the dainty roll holder you've got next to the commode.