Jul 17, 2019

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

Have your neighbors signed up?

D.C.-area readers: Join Axios' Sam Baker tomorrow at 8am for a discussion of the future of pain management. Among Sam's guests will be:

  • Rep. David McKinley (R-W.V.); Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.); Adm. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; and Dr. Marian Sherman, director of clinical operations at the Acute Pain Service Faculty at George Washington University Hospital.
  • RSVP here

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,088 words, a 4 minute read.

What else should we write about this summer? Hit reply to this email or message me at steve@axios.com, Kaveh Waddell at kaveh@axios.com and Erica Pandey at erica@axios.com.

Okay, let's start with ...

1 big thing: Beating the robots by becoming one

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

For 5 years, Elon Musk has been warning about apocalyptic runaway AI, calling it more dangerous than nukes. To stave off his feared future, in 2016 he launched Neuralink, a company to create cyborgs with the express mission of getting ahead of superhuman intelligence, Kaveh reports.

Now, Musk says he has charted the long path to merging man and machine. In an elaborate presentation last night, he said his company has installed brain–computer links in rats and monkeys and aims to put them inside human skulls next year.

The big picture: Around the world, top research labs are building brain–computer interfaces (BCIs), devices that can both read brain activity directly from neurons and write information straight into the brain.

  • At this early stage, BCIs are being used to treat conditions and injuries related to the brain or nervous system, including Parkinson's or paralysis, allowing people to control, and even feel, prosthetic limbs with their minds.
  • In the far future, researchers want to implant interfaces into healthy people. Among their ideas is to use the implants for communication, or a super-efficient connection to an electronic device.

But for Musk, medical uses are a stepping stone to an existential imperative.

  • Last year, he told Axios on HBO that Neuralink's ultimate goal is to "achieve a long-term symbiosis with artificial intelligence."
  • BCI, he says, is the best defense against an alarming future in which AI suddenly surpasses human intelligence and leaves our species behind — or totally imperiled.

Key quote: "This has a very good purpose, which is to cure important diseases — and ultimately to secure humanity's future as a civilization relative to AI," Musk said last night at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

Many AI researchers, who still struggle to get computers and robots to complete some basic tasks, disagree with Musk's techno-doomsaying. But Musk has called them "fools."

How it works: Neuralink's system consists of hundreds of electrodes implanted deep inside the brain, connected by tiny wires to a hub that communicates wirelessly with a device behind the wearer's ear. There's also a robotic "sewing machine" that plunges the electrodes into patients' brains.

Reality check: Getting surgical implants into healthy humans is a long shot in the near future, says Kenneth Shepard, a BCI researcher at Columbia University.

  • For the Food and Drug Administration to approve an implant, the upsides have to far outweigh the risks. "And anything that requires surgical implantation comes with a lot of risk," says Shepard.
  • Much more likely to be approved are medical applications that address sensory or motor problems like blindness or paralysis — a significant benefit to outweigh the risks of poking stuff into brains.
  • And those are still out of reach of the best scientists, who are developing devices and software to reliably decode brain activity and send signals back into the mind.

Asked yesterday how he plans to construct a viable business, Musk said simply that the economics of curing brain diseases and injuries "will easily pay for itself."

  • In the long run, Musk joked, "I think it's safe to say you could repay the loan with superhuman intelligence."
2. The antitrust files

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In both major U.S. political parties and on either side of the Atlantic, a strong, unusual consensus is emerging: Big Tech's power needs to be curbed.

On Capitol Hill, normally irreconcilable Republicans and Democrats found common ground against tech giants across three committee hearings yesterday, Axios' Ina Fried reports.

  • Tech executives appeared before three separate committees in both houses probing whether the industry has grown too big for its digital britches. Never bet against Congress' inertia and deadlock, but blows are flying from so many directions that it's hard to imagine the industry escaping unscathed.

The EU said today that it will investigate how Amazon treats third-party sellers, writes Axios' David McCabe.

  • Amazon's critics say the company can use the data it gathers on merchants to develop its own house-brand products. Then, Amazon could give those products prime placement on the site.
  • EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said today that she would "take a very close look at Amazon's business practices and its dual role as marketplace and retailer, to assess its compliance with EU competition rules."
  • An Amazon spokesperson said the company would cooperate fully with European officials.
3. Mailbox: The automation trap
Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty

We received numerous responses to Monday's special report on The Technology Trap, the argument that the dystopian jobs future actually began in the 1970s. Here are excerpts from two letters:

"Many of us who regularly read Axios have openly wondered if there really is a person named Steve LeVine or if that is a cover for an AI entity. And, when this (person?) says machines (yes, machines) are likely to replace lawyers, then our suspicions are greatly amped up.
And, how about athletes? Will the NBA soon be composed of robotic teams? Tennis? Gymnastics? There's no end to what an AI entity will predict in order to throw a scare into we 'meat bags,' as you call us and to hasten the day that the machines take over. After all, we've all seen The Terminator and we know what you machines look like.
Get real, AI entity. If you are human, please prove it."
— Strat Douthat, Plainfield, Vermont
"The problem that exists today is that there is no easy solution for displaced workers. The mechanization of agriculture in the mid 1800s displaced millions but from the mess came a solution: Public education was expanded, beginning in the 1880s, to include grades 9-12. For free, kids could get enough education to work in manufacturing and move to cities for jobs. Today, there are few re-training programs in rural areas, and rural America has become somewhat anti-urban, so they stay put."
— Norm Eavenson, West Chester, Pennsylvania
4. Worthy of your time
Expand chart
Adapted from Morris, et al., 2019, "The risk of fiscal collapse in coal-reliant communities"; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The murder of New Coke (Tim Murphy — Mother Jones) (h/t Don Van Natta)

Coal's decline imperils communities (Ben Geman — Axios)

This piece of glass recalls numbers (Donna Lu — New Scientist) (h/t Azeem Azhar)

Life at 60 (Lucy Kellaway — FT)

The marketing of Chinese caviar (Ephrat Livni — Quartz)

5. 1 fun thing: A pickup emoji

Photo: Bob D'Olivo/The Enthusiast Network/Getty

Next year, the scooters, bikes and dainty cars on your emoji keyboard will likely be joined by a hulking, masculine, all-American pickup truck, Kaveh writes.

It's a watershed moment for emoji, reports Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic. Originally used in Japan, emoji have only recently started including distinctly Western icons like a cowboy hat. Now, the pickup — the most popular vehicle in the U.S. — joins bullet trains, pagodas and various types of sushi.

  • The catch: The campaign to get the pickup on your phone was quietly pushed by none other than Ford, maker of the chart-topping F-150 truck.
  • The company sponsored the truck emoji proposal without disclosing its role, Meyer reports. Today, the company trumpets its marketing win in a silly video that cost around $50,000 to produce.
Bryan Walsh

Thanks for reading,

Steve "As I Live and Breathe" LeVine