Oct 6, 2018

Axios Future

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Situational awareness: Rethink, Rodney Brooks' iconic robotics company, is closing. Rethink is the maker of two pioneering robots — Baxter and Sawyer. Brooks did not respond to an email.

Okay, let's start with ...

1 big thing: A steep jobs ascent for blacks
Expand chart
Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics via Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Jobless blacks are taking full-time work at a higher rate than unemployed whites, amid a more favorable economy for a population whose prospects have historically been dimmer than for other races.

  • Why it matters: The data, reflected in the chart above, suggest a greater willingness by jobless blacks to accept relatively low wages, while many whites continue to sit out the sizzling economy, writes Axios' Courtenay Brown.

The 3.7% U.S. unemployment rate is at a whopping 49-year low, according to the September jobs report released today by the government. It was the 96th straight month of job gains, a new record.

  • Among blacks, the unemployment rate ticked down to 6% from 6.3% the previous month. And here’s another, less-talked about statistic:
  • The share of the employed black population is converging closer to whites than it's been since the government began tracking the metric in 1972.

What's going on: A strong economy does not undo racism, and the same hurdles that make it difficult to find work have not disappeared. But a tighter labor market forces employers to look outside their usual pool of candidates to find workers.

  • Historically, joblessness disappears faster for whites, so the length of this economic recovery — the second-longest in history — is also key.
  • Black unemployment was significantly higher than white joblessness during the Great Recession. So blacks have a lot more to rebound from.
  • A steady, strengthening economy allows the time to do that.

Between the lines: This dynamic — the convergence of the white and black employment-to-population ratios — is occurring despite wages not growing as much as they could be, said William Spriggs, chief economist at the AFL-CIO. Last month, average hourly earnings grew 2.8% from the same month last year.

  • But pay for blacks is still significantly less than for other races.
  • One example: Median weekly earnings for white, full-time workers is $907, while blacks made $683, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Blacks "are responding to low wages, but white people aren't," Spriggs told Axios.

Another economist agreed.

  • "There is some truth to the fact that if it's difficult to get a job or secure a job in a good or bad economy, you're not going to be extremely overly picky about it," said Valerie Wilson, director of the Economic Policy Institute's Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy.

Axios spoke to a few workers in Harlem about their motivation for taking work. None of their reasons had to do with pay:

  • Tray Baynard, who is black, re-entered the workforce 3 weeks ago and took a pay cut. The 27-year-old was hired as a construction worker at World Class Demolition in New York with a salary of $18 an hour, significantly less than the $26 he earned at his previous job. "I'm not getting paid as much, but it's a job so I took it," he said.
  • Onique Morris, who is also black, accepted a teaching position at New York P.S. 79 without shopping around for a better salary. "I would have taken it no matter what the pay was," said Morris, who is studying for a master's degree in education.
  • Another black worker, Terrence Riley, left a job at a Carolina Herrera retail shop after two years, and went on to be a production coordinator at Oscar de la Renta. Riley said opportunity outweighed other factors, including pay.
2. Pushback against driverless buses

Interior view of a self-driving shuttle in Times Square. Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty

A union representing Ohio bus drivers is threatening to strike in response to the planned introduction of a low-speed driverless shuttle in Columbus, calling the vehicles dangerous and a threat to jobs.

The big picture: Nearly 3% of the U.S. workforce is employed in driving occupations — some 4 million jobs that stand to be eliminated as AVs hit the roads, writes Mike Greco, a contributor to Axios Expert Voices.

  • Nearly 16% of these workers are union members, so standoffs like the one in Columbus are likely to occur across the country.

What's going on: State and local governments want to save money, increase safety and attract businesses to smart cities that appeal to younger, tech-savvy workers. Private sector employers likewise stand to gain from automation.

  • But job losses for driving occupations are certain, and they will spark legal fights. 
  • According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, bus drivers tend to be older, unionized and less educated. 
  • These workers have fewer alternative employment opportunities and are therefore inclined to resist the rollout of job-displacing AVs.

Go deeper: Employers may face striking workers as AVs roll out

3. What you may have missed

Photo: FPG/Hulton/Getty

Where did the time go? Never mind, here are the top stories from Future over the last week:

1. A triangle of anger: There is no going back to the pre-crisis status quo

2. The 20th century ends, 16 years late: We are only now watching the 21st unfold

3. Forecasting famine: AI as an early-warning tool

4. Argumentative AI: This system can't reason, but it can talk back

5. The last big bookstore: B&N looks to be finally succumbing to outside forces

4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

When China rules the Web (Adam Segal - Foreign Affairs)

Tesla falls behind in driverless tech (Joann Muller - Axios)

Planets are larger than the material they come from (Rebecca Boyle - Quanta)

The fish that hides in plain sight (Economist)

Fan Bingbing, a story of celebrity and wealth (Tom Hancock - FT)

5. 1 fun thing: Robot fingers

One way to stand out from the masses, as they hold identical, slab-like smartphones made of glass and metal, is to stick a robotic index finger to the bottom of your phone.

Why it matters: Researchers are always looking for new ways of interacting with the machines we surround ourselves with. Some are useful, like pressure-sensitive styluses for digital illustration. Others are, well, creepy, writes Axios' Kaveh Waddell.

The finger idea comes from a team of Parisian researchers, who will present their research at a conference later this month.

  • The appendage, MobiLimb, is meant to improve on the "static, passive, motionless" character of today's mobile devices, according to the authors’ paper.
  • MobiLimb can react to what’s happening on the smartphone screen, for example by wiggling when a notification comes in, or by stroking the user’s hand or wrist when he or she receives a smiley emoji from a friend.
  • It can even claw at the table to move itself, and the attached smartphone, around.

Something about the digit — particularly when it’s covered in realistic-looking human skin — is profoundly unsettling.

  • It may be stuck in the "uncanny valley," a concept used to describe revulsion at things that look almost human — but not quite.
  • The finger’s weird motions — viewable in this video from the authors — look something like a snake-like charger that Tesla previewed in 2015, which drew horrified reactions.
  • It’s not entirely clear whether the phone finger is a serious proposal, an academic thought experiment, or an elaborate joke.