November 09, 2019

Welcome to Future! Thanks for reading. Get in touch by replying to this message or at [email protected]. Erica, who writes Future on Wednesdays, is at [email protected].

📺 Coming up on “Axios on HBO”: The life-changing costs of being a whistleblower (sneak preview), Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi on the company’s goals for profitability and an exclusive poll on America’s surging political anger. 

  • Plus, “Axios on HBO” heads to the border for an on-the-ground look at the Trump administration's “Remain in Mexico” policy, followed by interviews with U.S. immigration officials Ken Cuccinelli and Mark Morgan. Tune in Sunday at 6 p.m. ET/PT. 

Today's issue is 1,227 words, which should take <5 minutes to read.

1 big thing: Philosophers tackle deepfakes

Photo illustration: Eniola Odetunde. Photo via Francois G. Durand/Getty Images

Technology could erode the evidentiary value of video and audio so that we see them more like drawings or paintings — subjective takes on reality rather than factual records.

What's happening: That's one warning from a small group of philosophers who are studying a new threat to the mechanisms we use to communicate and to try to convince one another.

  • Understanding the coming changes — and how people are likely to react — could help inoculate us against their worst effects.

The big picture: We generally trust that videos and audio clips tell us something about real events, in part because of how costly and time-consuming it is to fake them — unlike, say, a sketch, a statement spoken aloud or even a photo.

  • But in a world where deepfakes are cheap and easy, videos — no longer largely constrained by the physics of light — will carry less information than they once did, argues Don Fallis, a philosophy professor at Northeastern University.
  • "Under those circumstances, videos and photographs would be no more evidential, no more probative, than a drawing," Fallis says.
  • "There's a power for someone to step in between and tinker with what we're seeing," argues Regina Rini, a philosophy professor at York University in Toronto.

The big picture: There have been plenty of informed guesses about specific potential hazards of AI-powered deepfakes — a spoiled election, a tanked IPO, a derailed trial — but their broader effects on society remain hazy.

  • "Philosophical analyses can illuminate what's going on in the information environment," says Fallis. "If they don't help address it, they can at least help us be aware as we sink into chaos."

How it works: Normally, when you receive new information, you decide whether or not to believe it in part based on how much you trust the person telling you.

  • "But there are cases where evidence for something is so strong that it overrides these social effects," says Cailin O'Connor, a philosopher at UC Irvine. For decades, those cases have included video and audio evidence.
  • These recordings have been "backstops," Rini says. But we're hurtling toward a crisis that could quickly erode our ability to rely on them, leaving us leaning only on the reputation of the messenger.
  • One huge implication is that people may be less likely to avoid bad behavior if they know they can later disavow a recording of their mischief.

The big question: What comes next? When Photoshop made it easy to transform images, we could fall back on video or audio. But we may now be at the end of the line, Rini says.

  • "We're falling down one ledge at a time," she says. "It's not clear to me that there's a ledge after this one."
  • A potential new backstop could be something like 3D video — a type of recording that is still hard, expensive and time-consuming to counterfeit.

2. The limits of Amazonian money

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Amazon spent nearly $1.5 million in Seattle's City Council race Tuesday — an eye-popping contribution for a municipal election — but it couldn't guarantee the results it wanted, Erica writes.

What's happening: Seattle accepts ballots by mail, so the election results are still somewhat in flux. But, of the seven candidates supported by Amazon, only two appear poised to win places on the nine-seat council — though the company may still end up taking out its biggest critic.

Why it matters: The limits of Amazon's money illustrate a larger trend. Big companies are finding it increasingly difficult to throw their weight around in their progressive hometowns.

  • "In today’s bring-out-the-pitchforks moment, and in deep-blue places, corporate interventions may backfire," says Margaret O'Mara, a historian at the University of Washington.
  • "Just like HQ2 didn’t quite turn out the way [Amazon] thought politically, this didn't either," O'Mara says.
  • In fact, Amazon's massive spending on Seattle's election became a talking point for some of its political opponents. Councilwoman Kshama Sawant turned it into a rallying cry. And 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren latched onto it as an example of corporations' outsize influence.

Erica's thought bubble: Big companies and rich CEOs are starting to realize that spending on politics can work against their interests.

What to watch: Amazon's most important fight is against Sawant, who is arguably the tech giant's fiercest hometown critic. Her race is still up in the air.

  • A PAC backed by Amazon spent nearly $450,000 on Sawant's opponent, Egan Orion, per Seattle's NPR affiliate.
  • On Tuesday, Sawant was trailing Orion by 8 points, but, as of the latest vote count Friday night, she has a 2- point lead.

The bottom line: All eyes are on Sawant's race. Unseating her would be worth more to Amazon than all of its other victories combined, experts tell Axios. That’s looking increasingly less likely.

Go deeper: Big Tech's hyperlocal fights

3. Where will drone jobs land?

Data: ZipRecruiter; Map: Naema Ahmed/Axios

A predicted wave of new jobs in the drone industry may spread beyond the usual tech hotbeds, attached not just to research universities in wealthy areas but to delivery and logistics hubs, construction sites and big industrial installations.

Why it matters: It's not yet clear how much new work drones will create, but where new jobs are — and who will be equipped to do them — will help determine who will benefit from the Drone Age.

The big picture: Thousands of people already work with drones — designing, manufacturing, maintaining and flying them. But the industry is still in its early stages, slowed in part by regulatory requirements.

  • Experts' estimates for the future of this work vary widely, from a continued steady trickle of new jobs to a broader deluge.
  • The map above shows today's baseline. Drone-related hiring appears concentrated in big cities — not just in traditional tech hubs like San Francisco and Seattle, but also near Phoenix, Atlanta and Minneapolis.

"It's so easy to see the explosive nature of it," says Ian Siegel, CEO of ZipRecruiter, the job-search site — and an outspoken drone optimist.

  • "Every industry you look at will potentially be touched by drones," Siegel says. "Anywhere you would go and wait in a line and not be happy about waiting in that line, just assume there'll be a delivery option available."
  • In data ZipRecruiter shared with Axios, job openings ranged from the obvious (developer, pilot) to the unexpected (lifeguard, camp counselor).

Yes, but: "On the ground, sometimes it feels like it's moving a little slower," says Alan Perlman, CEO of UAV Coach, which trains pilots for a certification required to fly drones.

  • Perlman says his classes are in demand, but not overflowing.
  • One thing holding back uptake is many companies' ignorance of how to integrate drones. "They think of drones as a very easy tool, but they don't think about the maintenance schedule and regulations," Perlman says.

The big question: When the government finally allows most pilots to fly drones remotely — beyond their own line of sight — will operations be aggregated into a central location?

  • Rather than having pilots sitting at every logistics hub, a drone delivery company like UPS or Amazon could put them all in an office building somewhere and have them oversee flights worldwide.
  • That — plus increasingly autonomous drones — might chip away at the vision of ubiquitous drone jobs.

4. Worthy of your time

Reproduced from a Freedom House map. Note: Score based on obstacles to access, limits on content and violation of user rights. Map: Axios Visuals

Internet freedom crumbles worldwide (Dave Lawler - Axios)

Autonomous vehicles' collision course (Will Oremus - OneZero)

Six-figure annual tuition is coming (Alia Wong - The Atlantic)

The China balancing act for American AI (Craig Smith - Eye on AI podcast)

Fungi steaks! (Joe Fassler - New Food Economy) (h/t Kottke)

5. 1 fun thing: Pushing your buttons

Photo: Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group/Getty

Buttons seem like simple affairs: start or stop, on or off. But when they don't work as expected, they're crazy-making.

  • In a deep button investigation, William Poor of The Verge gets to the bottom of the infuriating elevator buttons in his office.
  • Watch the video.