Jun 12, 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: 1,224 words, ~5 minute read.

Okay, let's start with ...

1 big thing: The clash of two troubles

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

U.S. politics have teed up twin reckonings — one a sudden threat against the gargantuan power accumulated by Big Tech, and the second a challenge to the decades-long rise of China. 

  • But the two, launched one after the other, appear to be on a collision course, potentially jeopardizing one or both of the risky U.S. attempts to police the market at home and maintain geopolitical primacy abroad.

The catch: If the U.S. is to capture the commanding heights of future, frontier technologies like AI and quantum computing — which is the aim of both the U.S. and China — it arguably needs Google, Facebook and other Big Tech companies to help pave the way.

  • "It seems strange that the quixotic political mood in the U.S. Congress makes that body keen to declare the Big Tech firms 'modern day robber barons' that must be broken up just as it’s turning to 'game on' with China," said Christopher Johnson, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

This week has brought the twin issues to a head.

  • On Monday, President Trump again raised the temperature in his 17-month war of tariff brinkmanship with China, threatening to elevate the levies if President Xi Jinping declines to meet with him at the G20 summit June 28–29 in Japan. The Chinese have not yet confirmed whether Xi is attending.
  • And yesterday, the U.S. antitrust chief fired a shot across Big Tech's bow, pointedly noting that Standard Oil was once innovative before it became an "entrenched monopolist" and was broken up in 1911. In a hearing around the same time, Congress pounded Big Tech, too.

The big picture: Critics say Big Tech's concentration of market power threatens democracy and the integrity of U.S. and European society. And while detractors criticize Trump's style, his challenge to Beijing has been largely embraced by both political parties and most U.S. allies, themselves worried about a world dominated by authoritarian China.

That tech power and China have been thrown together is happenstance — criticism of Big Tech is not new, but the administration's decision to investigate it is. At least, it only became public about 10 days ago.

  • But they are melding together: Beijing has warned Western and South Korean tech companies against too willingly complying with a U.S. crackdown against China, such as moving supply chains out of the country, the NYT and WSJ have reported.
  • This is forcing allies and companies to make a difficult choice between the U.S. and China. And unlike the last Cold War, the answer is not clear cut and immediate. So far, for instance, Japan and Australia are the only large U.S. allies to agree to ban Huawei.
  • "Neither the administration nor many in Congress seem to have thought through how they want to coexist with China in the global economy. They may want to vote them off the planet, as if it’s some reality game show, but that’s not an option," said Philip Levy, a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

The way the conflict is playing out is that both countries are retreating in what experts call a "de-coupling." China, and not Trump, actually set the separation in motion, argues Richard McGregor, a senior fellow with the Lowy Institute, with its Made in China 2025 policy, announced in 2015. But now both countries appear to see the issue as zero-sum.

2. Race-blind charging decisions

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty

Next month, the San Francisco District Attorney's office will begin using a computer program developed at Stanford to strip police reports of names, neighborhoods and other proxies for race like eye color or hairstyles, Kaveh writes.

The effort is meant to remove bias. Prosecutors decide whether to charge suspects based on police reports and evidence — but they're liable to be swayed by their own biases, which could lead them to bring charges more often against people of color.

The big picture: The U.S. criminal justice system is chock-full of racial disparities. Our prisons are disproportionately black and Hispanic — the two groups make up 56% of incarcerated people, but only 28% of the U.S. adult population.

  • Among other things, it's the result of countless layers of systemic biases, from overpolicing in neighborhoods of color to sentencing disparities.
  • The SFDA–Stanford project addresses one link in the chain: prosecutorial decisions.

"We want to make sure that when we're charging somebody, race doesn't come into it," a spokesperson for the SFDA's office tells Axios. "If we're able to take implicit bias out of even 90% of these cases, that's a huge achievement."

How it works: The system replaces racial proxies with generic placeholders — Person 1, Officer 2, Neighborhood 3. The idea is that a prosecutor reading a sanitized report will focus on the narrative rather than being influenced by their own preconceptions.

  • It's not fancy AI — rather it's more like an advanced search-and-replace tool — and that's on purpose. Sharad Goel, the head of the Stanford team behind the project, says a simpler, rules-based system is more predictable, consistent and interpretable.
  • In the grand scheme, it's a modest step. After reading the edited report and making an initial charging decision, prosecutors must read the full, unmasked report. They can then change their decision, but the switch will be recorded and later analyzed.

What's next: Later this year, the Stanford team will take a bigger leap. It's working on a machine learning program that will flag cases that, based on the DA's history, are most likely to be discharged.

  • As with any system that is based on past patterns, there's a danger of perpetuating previously biased practices.
  • But a 2017 study indicated that racial disparities in San Francisco's criminal justice system are largely not the result of the DA's charging decisions.
  • Goel says the tool's results will be regularly audited to make sure it's not disproportionately recommending discharge for some groups over others.
3. Edge of recession

Landing in Hong Kong. Photo: Marcio Rodrigo Machado/S3studio/Getty

Among the signposts pointing at a potential coming recession are dipping global trade flows, Kaveh writes.

Trade volumes are flat or down across major economies the world over, according to a new market analysis from Reuters' John Kemp.

  • Trade is down 5% at Hong Kong International Airport — the world's largest air-freight hub — comparing this March–May to the same period last year.
  • Heathrow Airport, outside London, saw a 4.5% drop in volume over the same period, matching 2013 lows.
  • And other major air hubs saw smaller declines, Kemp found.

Why it matters, from Kemp: "Air freight is used only for the most valuable and time-sensitive merchandise but is generally a good leading indicator for the rest of the cargo sector and the broader economy."

The bottom line: The trade downturn shows no signs of slowing, Reuters reports, potentially helping to tip the global economy toward recession.

4. Worthy of your time

An artist's impression of a Jupiter twin orbiting a distant star. Image: ESO/L. Benassi

Found — the limit of human endurance (James Gallagher — BBC)

Name some stars and planets (Miriam Kramer — Axios)

The roots of Big Tech (Tim Wu, Stuart Thompson — NYT)

What jobs of the future may be (Tim Aeppel — MIT IDE)

The current state of the driverless Cadillac (Alex Davies — Wired)

5. 1 companion thing: The 7,000 dogs of Amazon

Doggy treats at Amazon. Photo: Erica Pandey/Axios

Every day, some 45,000 humans come to work at Amazon's Seattle headquarters. And every day, they bring with them about 7,000 dogs, Erica writes.

The big picture: Letting workers bring their pups to work is part of Amazon's peculiar culture.

  • Over its 25 years, the company has added dog treats at reception, a 1,000-square-foot dog park on campus and doggie drinking fountains.
  • Obviously there are some consequences. When I was at Amazon yesterday, a big swath of the lobby in one of its biggest buildings was cordoned off because a dog peed everywhere.

I had a couple of questions about dogs at work:

What if I’m allergic to dogs? Employees who want to bring their furry friends to work clear it with their office mates first. And there are dog-free buildings.

Can I bring a cat? Or a pet turtle? Nope. Dogs only.

Bryan Walsh