May 16, 2019

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Any stories we should be chasing? Hit reply to this email or message me at [email protected]. Kaveh Waddell is at [email protected] and Erica Pandey at [email protected].

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1 big thing: The race to move stuff

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

With robots that can pack orders, an ecosystem of delivery helpers and a fleet of trucks, Amazon is building a shipping juggernaut, Erica writes.

It's not as glossy as space travel or flashy as AI, but the $1.5 trillion a year business of moving stuff around is one of the most lucrative and complex industries in the U.S. And Amazon is attempting to conquer it.

As we've reported, Amazon has signaled its intent to own shipping:

But unlike e-commerce, where Amazon takes more than half of every online dollar spent in the U.S., logistics is filled with worthy competitors that have dominated the industry for a century and won’t be easy prey.

  • In shipping, FedEx and UPS control the majority of the market, with 22% and 40% shares, respectively.
  • They have mighty forces to move a combined 20 million packages on a typical day, including a fleet of 160,000 cars and trucks, along with 900 planes.
  • And there are dozens of smaller players: In warehousing, for instance, DHL and XPO Logistics have sophisticated robotized operations, per a McKinsey Global Institute report.

Although Amazon has "been a big disrupter in other industries, I don’t think that they are going to be a major disrupter in the transportation industry," says Beth Davis-Sramek, a professor at Auburn University.

Look for out-and-out war: If Amazon strengthens its network and stops relying on the big shippers, UPS and FedEx could lose one of their biggest customers, hurting their bottom lines. And smaller firms could pick Amazon over them, too. But these companies are not going to roll over.

  • UPS tells Axios: "Amazon is a good customer, but e-commerce offers many opportunities beyond Amazon. ... We’re building innovative solutions and partnering with e-commerce leaders to serve small, medium and large businesses around the world."
  • FedEx responded: “While there has been significant media interest in what Amazon is doing to expand their in-source delivery capability, this should not be confused as competition with FedEx."

What's happening: The rise of online retail — and customer demand for speedy delivery — has supercharged the U.S. shipping industry.

  • Despite the massive volume, shipping remains costly. For every $100 in sales, e-commerce companies spend about $20 on logistics, McKinsey reckons.
  • E-commerce's growing share of U.S. retail will put even more strain on shipping.

To keep up with the fast growth, companies large and small are pouring money into automating logistics, betting that firms that use machines to make deliveries cheaper, faster and more accurate will hit the jackpot.

"The idea is to build the physical internet," says Julian Counihan, founder of Schematic Ventures, an investment fund. "Boxes become bytes that move throughout the supply chain network as seamlessly as data."

The big picture: The logistics industry employs around 15 million people and has the third-highest automation potential of any sector, per McKinsey.

  • This week, Amazon made significant headway with new robots that can box up items, reports Reuters. These machines are beginning to make Amazon more efficient.
  • Still, human labor is required to complete some of the most crucial tasks: handling individual items, picking products off of shelves and arranging them in boxes.

2. AI-generated headlines

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

One of the most frustrating parts of journalism is writing headlines — they need to be pithy and smart, drawing in readers but not infuriating them with cheap clickbait, Kaveh writes.

Perhaps the simplest solution is to summarize an article as efficiently as possible. And because machines are getting increasingly good at that, AI headline writers can now nearly instantly generate titles that outshine even some human-made ones.

What's happening: Primer, an AI company, built a tool to do this, and spoke first with Axios about it.

  • To learn how actual news editors write headlines, Primer's system read more than a million news articles and the headlines they were paired with — but only those where the headline was made up entirely of words found in the story.
  • Once trained, it can read a new article and string together the best possible series of words to turn into a headline, according to Primer.
  • In what Primer director of science John Bohannon calls a "headline Turing Test," evaluators were asked to rate computer-generated headlines against the originals — without knowing which is which. In its final form, Primer tied or beat out humans more than half the time, the company said.

I asked Bohannon to headline some of our recent stories with the Primer model. The results:

What's next: Summarizing huge troves of documents can help fish out useful information from a bottomless sea. Eventually, says Bohannon, a machine that has a good idea of what you care about can read through millions of documents and send you summaries of only the most relevant information.

3. Gimme shelter

Last year, Manchester, England. Photo: Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage/Getty

In an announcement today, the Rolling Stones said they will begin a 17-date U.S. tour next month in Chicago, and the bulk of the expected audience is evident in its sponsor — an association of firms that sell annuities.

Speaking with Axios, Jean Statler, executive director of the Alliance for Lifetime Income, says the demographic that she expects at the concerts is ideal for the 24 financial services firms in her association: an average age of 45–75 and with somewhere in the $75,000–$2 million range of assets the alliance targets.

  • How it happened: An alliance member had sponsored a traveling Stones exhibit that moved through the U.S. until February, and a representative of the group asked whether the same firm wanted to back the Stones' new "No Filter" tour.
  • That query was forwarded to Statler, who says she responded, "Do I look stupid? I could be on TV for nine months and not hit our target group as much as I will in two months" sponsoring the Stones.
  • In every conversation, the Stones said the alliance could not use the word "retirement" in its own advertising "because this isn't our retirement tour."

In addition to having its name emblazoned on tour programming before millions of the group's social media followers, the alliance will have tables at the concerts explaining annuities and a VIP lounge.

4. Worthy of your time

SpaceX Falcon 9, in March. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty

Is this synthetic bacteria artificial life? (Carl Zimmer — NYT)

How to watch tonight's SpaceX Starlink launch (Axios)

Hearing aids that hear your brain (Charlotte Jee — MIT Tech Review)

The secrets in Big Tech CEOs' libraries (The Economist)

We are using too much sand (Anjana Ahuja — FT)

5. 1 deepfake thing: "Faux Rogan"

Joe Rogan. Photo: Michael S. Schwartz/Getty

Comedian Joe Rogan has said all sorts of things on his popular, freewheeling podcast. But he probably hasn't said this: "Now that we have deepfakes and fake voices, I'm starting to believe that we're not far off from simulations after all," Kaveh writes.

And yet you can hear him intone those words in his distinctive Rogan way right here. So what's happening?

What's happening: Researchers at Dessa, an AI company, say they have synthesized Rogan's voice. They claim to be able to type out any phrase and have him speak it aloud.

  • This capability isn't new — we reported last month on audio deepfakes, AI-generated clips of people saying things they never said, and the defenders searching for ways to detect them.
  • What is new is the quality of this fake voice. We highlighted a synthetic Ellen DeGeneres clip last month that had her trademark lilt but still sounds very robotic. This one sounds nearly true to life.
  • See if you can tell the difference. Which of these clips are real and which are made up?

But, but, but: Dessa hasn't published any technical details about how it made the voice — it promises a follow-up in the coming days. We'll be speaking with Dessa to learn more, too.