January 11, 2020

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1 big thing: The stakes of a swift U.S.-China decoupling

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As the U.S. and China rewrite their rules of engagement, the open exchange of scientific research and talent between the two powers is under scrutiny, Axios' Alison Snyder and I report.

The big picture: Experts warn a "decoupling" of the two global powers — unwinding economic and technological dependencies, as well as raising barriers to collaboration — would destabilize the world and put the U.S.'s innovation edge at risk.

"The openness of the U.S. system has been exploited," says Samm Sacks, a fellow at the New America foundation. "Now the question is, 'Is it possible to maintain that openness in a way that’s resilient?'"

Yes, according to a recent report from the MITRE Corp. outlining the risks that come with international collaboration on research.

  • The authors report instances of foreign influence in U.S. fundamental research — via coercion, deception and theft of intellectual property.
  • While the picture isn't complete, they write, there is "a developing situation that appears to be worsening and that represents a threat to our fundamental research enterprise and, in the longer run, our economic security and national security."
  • But ultimately the authors conclude the problems can be addressed with existing ethics and disclosure practices, and that "the benefits of openness in research and of the inclusion of talented foreign researchers dictate against measures that would wall off particular areas of fundamental research."

What's happening: Lawmakers recently formed two groups to address — and fight — foreign influence in U.S. research.

There have also been proposals to wall off areas of research from foreign students or to restrict who can come to the U.S. to study in the first place.

  • Such restrictions would be difficult to implement in practice, says Remco Zwetsloot of Georgetown's Center for Security and Emerging Technology, citing AI as an example of a technology that pervades numerous fields, sectors and industries and is composed of different methods and techniques. "Agencies would have to define what they mean by AI — that is in practice a very hard thing to do."
  • It could also hamper American universities' efforts to attract top talent if foreign researchers go to Canada or elsewhere due to U.S. restrictions. "All you achieve as U.S. policy is to drive scientists out of the U.S.," says Zwetsloot.

Meanwhile, China is trying to draw scientists back to the country, and other nations are trying to woo AI talent.

  • So far, they seem to be staying. Zwetsloot found more than 90% of Chinese students who receive AI-related PhDs from American programs, for example, remain in the U.S. for at least five years.

The bottom line: A true decoupling that gives the U.S. no visibility into technological advancement in China could be "really dangerous," says New America's Sacks.

"Gene-editing? AI? These are technologies that are going to fundamentally change society, and if China and the U.S. go down completely different paths here, there could be dire consequences for humanity," she says.

But, but, but: "One reason not to fear imminent decoupling is that, even at its most successful, China’s model of technological development can proceed only so fast," the Economist writes in its latest issue. "When a technology is complex and expensive, progress is slow, as is shown in the manufacture of semiconductors."

2. Working from home

Sources: IPUMS USA, Ruggles et al. (2019); St. Louis Fed. Chart: Axios Visuals

The U.S. economy is shifting inexorably away from manufacturing and toward services, and with that shift comes a rise in remote work, Felix Salmon writes in his weekly Axios Edge newsletter.

By the numbers: St. Louis Fed researchers found that more than 3% of American employees worked primarily from home in 2017, up from 0.7% in 1980.

  • That number rises to 4% for workers in sales, and 5% for workers in management, business and finance.
  • In Boulder, Colo., 9% of full-time employees work primarily from home.
  • At Axios, 12% of full-time employees work remotely.

What they're saying: "The technological substrate of collaboration has gotten shockingly good over the last decade," wrote Stripe CTO David Singleton in May, announcing that his company's fifth engineering hub would be "remote."

  • Some Stripe teams are comprised entirely of remote employees.

My thought bubble: As we've reported, a largely overlooked reason preventing millions of Americans from finding work is that they live too far from open jobs. For some of these workers, the growing acceptance of remote work could lead to new opportunities.

  • But working from home remains a privilege only available to middle- and high-skilled workers in jobs that can be done on a computer or over the phone.

The bottom line: America's self-employed have been working from home for decades. Now full-time employees are beginning to discover the attractions of avoiding the dreaded open office.

3. The bidding war for old tractors

Photo: Patrick Pleul/Getty Images

The hottest tractors on the market right now aren't driverless or run by computers. They're 40 years old.

What's happening: Farmers in the Midwest are getting tired of $150,000 futuristic tractors that run on software, and they're opting for the simpler John Deere models from the late '70s, which work fine without all the fuss, the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Adam Belz writes.

Why it matters: Tractors are the latest example of the fight over right to repair, pitting farmers against corporations like John Deere.

  • The older tractors, which sell for anywhere from $30,000 to $60,000, depending on how gently used they are, can be fixed manually or by replacing a part. But newer models are not only more expensive but require computers and trips to the dealership for repairs.
  • There's also a nostalgia for the past and a sense of pride among farmers associated with fixing your own tractor, writes Belz.

The bottom line: Newer and tech-infused isn't always better.

4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Big Tech struggles to police deepfakes (Sara Fischer — Axios)

Walmart's robot associates (Sarah Nassauer — WSJ)

Why McDonald's is stalling on fake meat (Kelsey Piper — Vox)

The tech that will invade our lives in 2020 (Brian Chen — NYT)

Trump Country's love affair with China (Marrian Zhou — Nikkei Asian Review)

5. 1 fake thing: The next frontier for plant-based meat

After conquering the plant-based burger, fake meat startups are focusing on perfecting other meat alternatives.

Driving the news: Impossible Foods is now out with Impossible Pork. The company distributed samples at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, and tasters said it closely mimicked real pork, Vox reports.

  • If plant-based pork takes off, it could turn into a windfall for fake meat companies. Pork is the most popular meat, accounting for 36% of the world's meat consumption, per Vox.
  • Fake pork could also be meat alternative companies' ticket to the lucrative Chinese market, where pork is especially popular but prices are soaring due to African swine fever and a trade-war-induced shortage of soybeans (feed for pigs).

Go deeper: U.S. fake meat industry vies for China market

Thanks for reading!