Jun 25, 2017

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

Good afternoon, and welcome back. Please invite your friends and colleagues to join the conversation.

On Tuesday, Axios launches our latest newsletter: Sara Fischer on media trends — the business, technical and societal forces shaping the digital ecosystem. Sign up free here.

We'll be off next week for the Fourth of July. So have fun, and see you next in two weeks.

1 big idea: How migrants solve dire problems

Our age is one big contradiction:

  • Around the world, people are flocking to big cities. But we are abandoning other cities — our rust belts and rural towns.
  • The developed world — the number of Europeans, Japanese and Americans — is shrinking and aging.
  • Africa's population is doubling, and young.
  • We worry about too few jobs in the future. For now, we have an acute shortage of workers.

These aren't statistical curiosities:

  • Alienation in rust belts and secondary cities underlies the anti-establishment wave in the U.S. and Europe.
  • The cost of supporting and caring for our growing elderly populations could overwhelm state budgets.
  • Chaos and worsened political instability could erupt in the gap before we fully adjust to vast automation.

I'm querying people in the work/AI community about how to think about these powerful, opposing forces. If you have ideas, please fire over an email (steve@axios.com) or just hit "reply" on this newsletter.

  • Starting out the conversation: Jose Lobo, a professor at the Santa Fe Institute, told me that things that look like enormous problems may actually be answers.

Keep reading here.

2. Small-fry challenge to big tech

Last week, we profiled heavyweights whose data troves and colossal spending make them the players to beat in the next generation of tech. But some venture capitalists are betting on scrappy startups with a long-shot potential to upset the incumbents' plans, writes my colleague Kim Hart:

  • The giants start with an advantage: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft — not to mention China's Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent — are investing in future technologies like they are countries (chart above).
  • But outsized victory does not go only to the best technology: An ingenious business model can be a tremendous equalizer.
  • Think Bill Gates and Marc Benioff: Gates convinced consumers to pay for software; and Salesforce's Benioff persuaded companies to trust their critical data to his servers.

Keep reading here.

3. Sunday interview: Dean Kamen

Dean Kamen likes to say he has invented so many things for so long that soon, his expired patents will exceed the valid ones. Given his total of 440 U.S. and foreign patents, many of them breakthrough medical devices, he can gripe when all of that is reduced to a single product — the Segway.

The wiry, 66-year-old inventor and entrepreneur is one of the most fervent American evangelists for patent rights. Silicon Valley technology hands are special targets of his ire when they say patents are passé and slow down innovation.

  • Kamen to Axios, during a visit to Washington last week for FIRST, the global group he founded to encourage young inventors: "There is an entire class of people who don't really understand the perspective of what it takes to create an innovation. ... What does the little guy have — his idea."
  • The next big thing, per Kamen: advances in medicine, including replacement human organs regenerated from a person's own cells and immunization against Alzheimer's.
4. Wall Street's quants are growing

A rush into algorithmic trading is setting up a concentration of faith in computerized investment, a trend that could backfire in intensified volatility and lowered returns, my colleague Chris Matthews reports:

What's going on: By 2025, Wall Street firms are expected to shed 10% of their work force — 230,000 jobs — as they embrace intelligent algorithms, trading that relies on crunching mountains of data and sometimes anticipating the actions of human traders (chart above), according to the financial consultancy Opimas.

  • Such trading is soaring: Quantitative hedge funds, or quants, doubled their share of U.S. stock trades to 27% from 2013 to 2016, and are now just under the 29% carried out by individual investors, the WSJ reports.
  • The leading edge of this movement uses machine learning, programs that write their own algorithms for use in trading. Humans continue to play a role in all of these trades.
  • But programs inadvertently converge on the same strategies, engaging in algorithmic group think. When that happens, returns fall.

Keep reading here.

5. Worthy of your time
6. 1 fun thing: universal origami

If there's anything you ever wanted to render as paper — your cat Luna, your first car, some odd polyhedron — here's your chance: After 17 years of trying, MIT's Erik Demaine has co-written an algorithm that unlocks the secret of how to fold a piece of paper into any shape, using the minimum number of seams.

  • Origami has practical engineering applications: You can use the science of folding to fashion molecules in drugs, collapsible solar-arrays in space, and miniature robots.
  • But he began as an idle pursuit: Demaine made his first stab in a 1999 paper. At the time, he was 18.
  • The eureka moment: Demaine and his research partner, Tomohiro Tachi of the University of Tokyo, finally found an entirely different way of going after the problem.
  • Suspenseful ending: They'll announce their breakthrough next month in Brisbane at the annual Symposium on Computational Geometry.
Mea culpa

In the newsletter of June 11, I cited "the late biologist E.O. Wilson." Professor Wilson is alive and well, as many of you reminded me, and I apologize to him. Last week, we inserted "trillion" for dollars spent on AI research in the U.S. and China on artificial intelligence research; it should have been billion.

Bryan Walsh