Jul 8, 2018

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

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1 big thing: The robot riot of 2016

Illustration: Sam Jayne/Axios

For two years, historians, economists and others have pondered whether western leaders, facing a growing populist challenge, must prepare for an even greater temblor resembling the French Revolution or 1930s fascism.

In a new paper in the Oxford Review of Economist Policy, U.K. economist Carl Frey and two co-authors argue that indeed the 2016 U.S. presidential election — and the effects of industrial automation during the decades before — may be a signal of worse to come.

What's going on: Frey, co-author in 2013 of one of the most-cited papers about automation and jobs, writes that since the start of the Industrial Revolution about 1780, new technology has transformed living standards but also "bred many political revolutionaries."

  • A cause of political backlash: Three generations of ordinary Britons over six decades in the Industrial Revolution saw no benefit from mechanization. Instead skilled craftsman were thrown out of work and replaced often by child laborers.
  • One shocking indicator of their suffering: Men in 1850 were shorter than they had been in 1760, they write.

Frey found similar statistics in the years leading up to the 2016 election. "The trajectories of the American economy over the four decades following the revolution in automation of the 1980s almost exactly mirror the first four decades of the Industrial Revolution in Britain," the authors write.

  • From 1979 to 2013, productivity rose by 65% but hourly wages for 80% of the workforce were up by just 8.2%. Since they were also working more hours as well, they may have lost ground.
  • And from 2000 to 2013, wages for 70% of workers either were flat or fell.

To assess any link between automation and the 2016 election, the authors used local mechanization data from the International Federation of Robotics and county-level voting data from Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. They say they controlled for other factors in joblessness — like offshoring of manufacturing and trade deals. Among their results:

  • At a 10% lower robot exposure, Michigan would have swung in favor of Clinton.
  • If robots barely increased in the years leading up to 2016, Clinton would also have won Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The electoral count, the authors say, would have been 278-260 with a Clinton win rather than the ultimate 306-232 in favor of Trump.

What's next: Frey and his team recommend that governments act before political unrest worsens.

  • "Looking forward, automation is likely to become a growing political challenge."
  • "To avoid further populist rebellion and a looming backlash against technology itself, governments must find ways of making the benefits from automation more widely shared."

Read the whole post.

2. Blind robots that feel
MIT's Cheetah 3. GIF via MIT video

In a turn away from vision, a team at MIT has created a feline robot that attempts to better approximate how humans and animals actually move, navigating stairs and uneven surfaces guided only by sensors on its feet.

Kaveh Waddell writes: Many ambulatory robots rely on substantial recent improvements in computer-vision, like advanced cameras and lidar. But robots will be more nimble and more practically interact with humans with the addition of "blind" vision — a sixth sense of feeling that most living things have for their surroundings.

What's going on: Computer vision alone can result in a robot with slow and inaccurate movements, says MIT's Songbae Kim, designer of the Cheetah 3.

"People start adding vision prematurely and they rely on it too much," Kim tells Axios, when it's best suited for big-picture planning, like registering where a stairway begins and knowing when to turn to avoid a wall. So his team built a "blind" version in order to focus on tactile sensing.

How the blind version works: Two algorithms help the Cheetah stay upright when it encounters unexpected obstacles.

  • One determines when the bot plants its feet, by calculating how far a leg has swung, how much force the leg is feeling, and where the ground is.
  • The other governs how much force the robot should apply to each leg to keep its balance, based on the angle of the robot's body relative to the ground.

The result is a quick, balanced robot: The Cheetah can move 6.7 miles an hour, and jump up onto a table from a standstill. These tricks make the 90-pound bot look surprisingly nimble.

Cheetah's design emphasizes "sensors that you and I take for granted," said Noah Cowan, director of the LIMBS robotics lab at Johns Hopkins University.

  • Humans unconsciously keep track of where their arms and legs are — and the forces acting on them — to help stay balanced and move smoothly. MIT’s Cheetah "feels" its legs in a similar way.

Read Kaveh's whole post.

3. Paying people for their data

Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Big Tech is being challenged by a new strain of thought: that it should pay people for their data. The current arrangement — data for free search and friendship services — is insufficient, the new thinking goes.

Why it matters: If adopted, the argument — pressed by tech thinkers, economists and a new book — could erode billions of dollars of profit from companies like Google and Facebook, along with China's Alibaba and Tencent. Meanwhile, an undetermined amount of money, though probably just a few dollars to start, would go into the pockets of ordinary people around the world.

What they're saying: The argument is that data is actually labor — the result of stuff that everyone does in their daily lives. Therefore, if a company is using it for commercial purposes, it should pay the source of the data — you.

  • In the Weekend FT, tech thinker Jaron Lanier laments that “gargantuan, global data monopsonies” have taken over, retaining the entirety of the economic reward while creating much risk for everyone else.
  • In Radical Markets, a book published earlier this year, economist Glen Weyl and law professor Eric Posner predict the rise of data platforms representing ordinary people. They call them "data-labor unions."
  • The current Economist writes that a mechanism by which the wealth is shared might not actually turn out so bad for Big Tech. "Tech giants’ profit margins are likely to get squeezed, but their overall business may get bigger," the magazine says.

Speaking to Axios, Brookings' Mark Muro says this convergence of thought is legitimate. "It makes total sense that the exploitation of people for their data will lead to new forms of organization for recouping its value, or at least for extracting greater return," he says.

But, but, but: No one thinks it will be easy to devise the compensatory system. Nor, of course, that Big Tech will easily surrender to a new data marketplace.

4. Worthy of your time

Najin (L) and Fatu, the last known northern white rhinos, both female. Photo: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

Why Americans are having fewer babies (Claire Cain Miller - NYT)

In Virginia, Macy's becomes a homeless shelter (Terrence McCoy - WP)

U.S. malls are their emptiest in six years (Corinne Ruff - Retail Dive)

Reproduction help for rare rhinos (Eileen Drage O'Reilly - Axios)

5. 1 tattoo thing: Hipsters unite

At the Hipster Olympics in Berlin. Photo: Adam Berry/Getty Images

If you happen to seriously favor tattoos, vintage shops, vinyl records, vegan food and coffee — in other words, if you're an unapologetic hipster — where is the best place on the planet to put down roots?

The big picture: According to MoveHub, which collected data on 446 cities in 20 countries, two cities more or less tie for the appellation of the world's biggest hipster haven: the southeast U.K. city of Brighton and Hove and Portland, OR. Rounding out the top five were Salt Lake City, Seattle and the Portuguese capital of Lisbon.

An important cultural anchor: In 2011, Berlin — which many locals regard as a capital of hipster fashion and manner — held a Hipster Olympics (its second year in 2012 is pictured above). The Olympics appears to have segued into the Hipster Cup Festival, which will be next held in July 2019, according to its website.

  • The top cities mostly were near the sea in cities of less than 1 million.
  • The top cities mostly weren't on any continent other than North America, Europe and Australia — although that appears to have been a matter not of hipsterdom but the availability of data.

Why MoveHub bothered: "Our pretentious brethren deserve attention. It’s all they really want. So we rolled up our plaid sleeves and worked out exactly where to find them," writes MoveHub's Frederick O'Brien.

Fun fact: the French call hipsters bourgeois bohème, or bobos for short.

Bryan Walsh