Jun 18, 2019

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

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Today's Smart Brevity count: 1217 words, ~ 5 minute read.

What should we write about this summer? 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.

Okay, let's start with ...

1 big thing: The U.S. cyber offensive

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

After years of bitter complaints about cyberattacks from foreign adversaries, a new report describes an aggressive U.S. cyber plan against Russia, a show of long-understood American prowess on the leading edge of warfare.

  • What’s happening: Experts tell Axios that the leak, published Sunday in the New York Times, may intend to signal the damage that Russia could suffer in its confrontation with the U.S. But the disclosure also risks exacerbating already-fraught relations.

The big picture: Over the last half-dozen years, the U.S. has been on the receiving end of some of the most damaging hacks in history, climaxing with Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election.

But now, in a high-profile story, the U.S., under tremendous military, economic and diplomatic pressure globally amid the multi-front brinkmanship of the Trump administration, has been depicted as a formidable cyber actor:

  • In its piece, the NYT reported that the U.S. has placed “potentially crippling malware inside the Russian [electric] system at a depth and with an aggressiveness that had never been tried before.”
  • In another report, in 2016, the NYT described a plan called Nitro Zeus, in which American personnel would use vast U.S. cyber capabilities to “disable Iran’s air defense, communications systems and crucial parts of its power grid,” in addition to the Fordo nuclear enrichment site. The lead byline on both stories is David Sanger, a national security correspondent.

Both reports resemble a lower-level 21st century version of the “mutually assured destruction” policy between the U.S. and the Soviets that prevailed during the Cold War. “With the 2020 election heating up, and Russia's cyber offensive continuing, I can well imagine policymakers wishing Americans to know what their government is doing in response," Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Center for a New American Security, tells Axios.

  • Previously, U.S. officials have described Russia inserting malware to sabotage U.S. infrastructure like power plants, water supplies and energy pipelines.
  • While neither nation is known to have actually flipped off the power switch in the other country, Russia did shut off the electricity in Ukraine in December 2015.
  • And in August, the U.S. attacked the Internet Research Agency, the group responsible for much of Russia’s hacking of the 2016 U.S. election.

Speaking by email, James Lewis, director of CSIS’s Technology Policy Program, said that the leaks may in part reflect unhappiness by some U.S. officials with Trump’s Russia stance, and “a desire to lock in a more confrontational policy.”

  • Chris Meserole, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, agrees. "The White House and intelligence community don’t see eye to eye on the threat Putin poses, particularly in cyberspace, so the leaks are designed to tie Trump’s hands while also communicating to the Kremlin that Russia is even more vulnerable to cyber attacks than we are.
2. A robot for scrubbing dishes
Video courtesy Dishcraft Robotics

Like an automated carwash for plates, a new commercial-grade robot dish-scrubber takes in dirty dishes in tall stacks and spits clean ones out the other side — potentially cutting dishwashing staffs by more than half, Kaveh reports.

  • But in a concession to the limitations of today's robots, the machines can only handle specially made plates and bowls with magnetic inserts, and their cost lands them out of reach of all but the biggest restaurants and cafeterias.

Why it matters: Dishwashing, a longstanding entry point for restaurant workers, is an unpleasant and potentially dangerous job. Add in low pay and restaurants face a near-constant churn: The average tenure for dishwashing staff is under a month and a half.

What's happening: The robotic dish-scrubber from Dishcraft Robotics, a Silicon Valley startup, is the latest in a boom in food robotics that we've been covering. It takes the place of the manual scrub most dishes undergo before heading to a commercial dishwasher, which sanitizes them with chemicals or very hot water.

How it works:

  • Restaurant workers stack plates and bowls into carts, sorting items into separate slots. When a cart is full with 70 or so items, it's wheeled into the mouth of the machine.
  • As seen above, a magnetic arm picks up individual dishes and sticks them onto a rotating wheel, which brings them to a scrubber designed specially for Dishcraft's own plates and bowls.
  • After a good scrubbing, the machine's cameras and sensors check for remaining gunk, and scrubs a second time if needed. Finally, clean dishes are racked and sent out the door, to be sent into a sanitizing machine.

The scrubber, by Dishcraft's account, is fast and uses water and energy more efficiently than people. But it's inflexible.

  • Its process is "standardized as much as possible," says Dishcraft cofounder Paul Birkmeyer. That helps file off what roboticists call "edge cases" — unusual scenarios that can trip up machines.
  • To use it, restaurants have to switch to custom bowls and plates. The machine needs the embedded magnets to move them around, and its scrubbing and inspection mechanisms have been built specifically for these dishes.
  • It can't clean cups, glasses and silverware. (Birkmeyer says 90% of dishwashing time is currently spent on plates and bowls.)

Only the biggest kitchens, like hospital or hotel cafeterias serving many hundreds of diners a day, might benefit from the robotic scrubber.

  • Dishcraft won't say how expensive its machines are, but claims they can save big operations money by cutting down on dishwashing staff.
  • They are already deployed in a few big restaurants, and Dishcraft is marketing them to more, backed with its $25 million in venture capital.
3. Mega-funds without mega-returns

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Private equity firms are raising record money, but the returns on these mega-funds aren't outpacing the S&P 500.

  • Erica writes: Blackstone is the latest to go big, capping its new fund at $25 billion, reports WSJ. That would best Apollo Global Management's previous record of $24.6 billion.

The big picture: These superstar funds are ballooning due to rising demand from investors with deep pockets. "With interest rates still persistently low, the industry’s historical reputation for 20%-plus returns, is appealing — even if it means paying higher fees and having money locked up for long periods," writes WSJ's Miriam Gottfried.

But, but, but: They yield middling returns. Over 3 years, mega-funds netted 15% in returns compared to the S&P 500's 17%. And over about 13 years, both mega-funds and the index netted 10%.

4. Worthy of your time

Plastic that washed up on the UK coast, 1994-2019. Photo: Steve McPherson

Questioning the zoning gospel (Emily Badger, Quoctrung Bui — NYT)

Our plastic planet (Andrew Freedman — Axios)

Iceland's booming data centers (Tryggvi Adalbjornsson — MIT Tech Review)

Why Big Tech is raiding animal research labs (Sarah McBride, Ashlee Vance — Bloomberg)

The biggest winners against poverty (GZERO Media)

5. 1 fun thing: Poop on the moon

Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Images/Getty

Since humans first set foot on the moon, astronauts have been leaving poopy diapers there. We should go and get 'em, reports Vox's Brian Resnick in a video.

Erica writes: It's not a question of cleaning up after ourselves. Rather, studying all that poop could tell us a lot about the moon and Mars and how life might fare outside of Earth. Across six moon landings, Apollo astronauts left 96 bags of poop, pee, vomit and other human waste on the moon.

  • That poop could be "teeming with life," Resnick says. Poop is 55% live bacteria, and although those diapers have now spent around 50 years in totally inhospitable conditions — without any protection from cosmic radiation and with crazy hot-to-cold-hot temperature swings — if any of that bacteria is alive or revivable from a dormant state, scientists want to know.

Watch Resnick break it down.

Bryan Walsh