Jun 5, 2019

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

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Any stories we should be chasing? Hit reply to this email or message me at steve@axios.com or the rest of the Future team: Kaveh Waddell at kaveh@axios.com and Erica Pandey at erica@axios.com.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,270 words, ~5 minute read.

Okay, let's start with ...

1 big thing: When firms act like governments ...

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:

  • Amazon and eBay have both banned the sale of firearms on their platforms.
  • Shopify has stopped providing its software to merchants who sell semi-automatic firearms and silencers, among other weapons.
  • Walmart, the country’s biggest gun seller, has stopped selling the weapons to customers under 21. And Dick’s Sporting Goods has pulled all assault-style guns from its shelves.

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.

  • In early 2018, Facebook and Google banned ads for cryptocurrency exchanges. That meant 60% of all online ads were off limits to cryptocurrency companies.
  • The combined actions of Amazon, eBay, Shopify and, now, Salesforce, have effectively banned the online sale of certain guns.

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.

  • "It has a lot to do with the war for talent," says Louis Hyman, a historian at Cornell. "In an age where the corporate talent is socially liberal, companies that do not take these positions are risking their key assets."
  • "It's not really companies who are making this difference. It's the consumers who support these companies," says Heather Cox Richardson, a professor at Boston College.
2. ... and consumers support them

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.

  • Just today, YouTube rolled out new, stricter hate speech policies that prohibit, for example, videos that promote Nazi ideology. Public criticism was a factor driving the changes, writes Axios' Ina Fried.
  • In 2015, under pressure from shoppers, Walmart came out swinging against an anti-LBGTQ bill in Arkansas, home of its headquarters. The behemoth prompted the governor to demand that the state legislature change the bill.

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.

  • 58% of millennials, 55% of Gen Xers and 51% of baby boomers think it’s important that brands they support invest in causes they care about, according to a 2018 report from market research firm InMoment.
  • When companies don't speak up, consumers are often organizing widespread boycotts to spur action.
  • But, but, but: It takes a lot of force to change the course of an enormous company. Take, for example, two recent failed shareholder votes meant to get Amazon to act on climate change and facial recognition.

"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.

  • "People feel frustrated with politics and feel like they don't have a voice, but buying stuff is something you do every day and you could send a message in your own way," says Rob Atkinson, founder of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
3. Teaching bots how the world works

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.

  • One co-founder is Gary Marcus, an NYU psychologist and AI expert who carries the banner for scientists who don't believe AI can learn how to navigate through the world without some level of prior knowledge about how it works.
  • Another is Rodney Brooks, a legendary MIT roboticist who previously built Rethink Robotics, which sold factory robots meant to work alongside humans. Rethink folded last year.

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.

  • He argues that deep learning — a reigning AI technique that teaches machines patterns without any hard rules — can't do the job on its own.
  • "In order for these machines to reason and operate with more humanlike priors and a deeper understanding of the world, just brute-forcing deep learning is not going to get you there," says Peter Barrett, co-founder of VC firm Playground Global, which led the seed-round investment in Robust.AI.

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."

4. Worthy of your time
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Data: IEA; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

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)

5. 1 rolled thing: Big toilet paper

Photo: Charmin

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 roll is supposed to last about three months. There are two sizes: 12 inches and 8.7 inches in diameter — both a lot bigger than the typical 5-inch roll.

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.

Bryan Walsh