Apr 3, 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. Kaveh Waddell is at kaveh@axios.com and Erica Pandey at erica@axios.com.

Okay, let's start with ...

1 big thing: What robots can't do

NYU, 1945. Photo: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty

As powerful as artificial intelligence can be, its abilities are extremely narrow: An AI that beats a chess grandmaster can't recognize a face or drive a car. And a robot that carries out flawless eye surgery can't do so unless positioned precisely first.

  • Erica writes: It turns out that humans have a similar failingput them in front of a problem they've never solved, and they often come up short.
  • But in the future of work, when automation assumes responsibility for up to half or more of current jobs, such ability will be a huge human advantage — and possibly necessary.

What's happening: U.S. colleges, preparing students for future jobs that might not yet even exist — and to beat the robots — are starting to nudge them out of the familiar rhythm of class and teach them how to tackle unfamiliar problems. "That is the skill of the future," says David Hollander, a professor at NYU.

The big picture: One of the greatest anxieties experienced by today's college and high school students is how to game a very different future whose shape is still all-but imperceptible, but that will involve lots of automation across blue- and white-collar jobs.

  • The good news is that, according to the preliminary consensus, robots will have an extremely difficult time mimicking the very human ability to pivot both physically and mentally when confronted with something surprising.
  • So early preparation for the future revolves around developing, polishing and expanding on this adaptability.
  • Soft skills "are the hardest skills to get," says Marina Gorbis, executive director of the Institute for the Future.

Hollander designed and oversees a seminar at NYU that is meant to make this pivoting skill much more advanced. In the "Real World," as he calls the class, Hollander invites companies and government agencies into the classroom to confront students with problems they definitely will never have seen.

  • "You may be from the real estate world and working on a marketing problem. You may be from marketing and solving a human resources challenge. To me it's all the same thing," Hollander told me.
  • "You are developing the skills of taking on something you have never seen before, and you must do it collaboratively with other human beings."

Erica visited the class on Monday. Fifteen students gathered along with their professor — Jonathan Yi, a film director whom Hollander recruited to teach this semester — at the headquarters of FCB International, a fancy PR firm.

Their challenge? To design an anti-vaping ad campaign for the Food & Drug Administration, targeted at teens. The FDA is one of the firm's clients.

  • "We want crazy ideas," said Jared Shell, an FCB director co-teaching with Yi.

Leon Zhang, a graduate marketing student, suggested an ad showing how much money teens spend on Juul and Juul pods. But Shell said it wouldn't work because the FDA wants to avoid publicizing that teens are buying these products illegally.

Zhang and his teammates then honed in on ewaste, the electronic trash generated by vaping. Tossing used Juul pods is not the same as littering cigarette butts, they told Erica. The former has metal bits that could seriously harm a dog that eats it while on a walk. But the team is not yet sure if they'll settle on that.

  • Still, Shell was impressed. “If you guys don’t want to use that environment thing, I'll take that to our creative team right now," he told them.

Go deeper: Rebooting high school

2. A swipe against counterfeiting

Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty

The Trump administration is targeting U.S. and Chinese e-commerce sites — Amazon, Alibaba, eBay and others — in an effort to curb an outbreak of counterfeit brand-name products.

What's happening: In a presidential memorandum today, President Trump ordered government agencies to report back by November on how to counteract an estimated half-trillion-dollar-a-year business.

  • The move crosses at least two major points of tension with Trump — his acrimonious relationship with Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, and his trade brinkmanship with China.
  • “This is a shot across the bow to those companies. If you don’t clean it up, then the government will,” Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro said in a conference call with reporters.

Counterfeiting of the biggest brand names is a major global business. Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce platform, has had a particular problem with counterfeit goods on its Tmall site. The White House estimated that about $100 billion in counterfeiting infringes on American intellectual property.

  • In an op-ed yesterday in the WSJ, Navarro said a problem is that current law doesn't effectively police e-commerce. "Alibaba, Amazon and eBay face virtually no liability when they act as middlemen for counterfeiters," he wrote.

In a statement, an Alibaba spokesperson said: “We welcome this new initiative and the attention it brings to the global fight against counterfeiting. Alibaba has developed best-in-class systems to protect IP and battle the scourge of counterfeiting. This work takes place through substantial collaboration with brands, law enforcement, trade associations and consumers, both on our platforms and offline at the criminal sources of production and distribution. We look forward to further advancing the working relationship and cooperation that we have with the US federal agencies mentioned in today's order, as well as with our global commerce peers.”

An Amazon spokesperson said:Amazon strictly prohibits the sale of counterfeit products, and we welcome additional coordinated support from law enforcement so we can hold bad actors accountable. Amazon invests heavily in proactive measures to prevent counterfeit goods from ever reaching our stores. In 2018 alone, we spent over $400 million fighting counterfeits, fraud, and other forms of abuse. We have built industry-leading tools like Brand Registry, Transparency, and our newly-launched Project Zero to protect our customers and help rights owners drive counterfeits to zero. With these and other tools, we ensure that over 99% of the products that customers view on Amazon never receive a complaint about counterfeits."

Ebay said: "Counterfeits are not welcome on eBay, and we’re committed to combatting their sale. Using a combination of technology, enforcement and strong relationships, eBay has consistently been an industry leader in working to stop the online sale of counterfeit goods, which is a global issue — both online and offline. We look forward to enhanced collaboration among NGOs, law enforcement and online marketplaces to stop this illegal trade."

Go deeper: Amazon's problem with fake goods

3. Resume untruths

Fashion icon Oscar de La Renta considers a portfolio. Photo: Owen Franken/Corbis/Getty

In a survey by Blind, an anonymous social networking platform for professionals, 10% of people said they've lied about their qualifications on a resume, on LinkedIn or during a job interview.

  • Kaveh writes: At 6 companies, more than 1 in 10 people fudged their background, according to Blind: SAP, Amazon, Cisco, PayPal, eBay and Microsoft.
  • It's not clear if these were white lies, like "proficient in French" — or big ones, like "B.S. from Stanford University."
4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The problem with AI ethics (James Vincent — The Verge)

IPO valuations echo housing bubble (Dion Rabouin — Axios)

When an economist meets a brothel (Peter Coy — BusinessWeek)

Doubts about Amazon's facial recognition (Cade Metz, Natasha Singer — NYT)

Home air pollution (Nicola Twilley — New Yorker)

5. 1 fun thing: Algoraves

An algorave at SXSW. Photo: JEALEX/Getty

"The old patterns are dead."

The message was blasted onscreen at a recent San Francisco dance party, where the DJ wasn't spinning vinyl, but instead tapping laptop keys, reports Michael Calore for Wired.

  • Kaveh writes: Revelers gathered at the "live-coding" party to watch as these futuristic jockeys wrangled music-making code, with their work projected on a giant screen for all to see.
  • They're not just playing prerecorded loops — instead, they're cueing up sounds to be run through an algorithm, such that no two songs will ever sound the same.
  • "This is the apotheosis of electronic creation," writes Calore. "Half-human, half-machine."
Bryan Walsh