Axios Future

A robotic hand with the palm facing upward.

June 04, 2019

Have your friends signed up?

Any stories we should be chasing? Hit reply to this email or message me at [email protected] or the rest of the Future team: Kaveh Waddell at [email protected] and Erica Pandey at [email protected].

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,305 words, ~5 minute read.

Okay, let's start with ...

1 big thing: Mining your brain

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Market researchers are hooking up test subjects to scientific-grade brain scans, searching for triggers that spark emotional connections and affect behavior, Kaveh reports.

What's happening: Deploying tools from neuroscience, firms have been plumbing people's minds in hopes of exerting a stronger influence over their decisions.

The big picture: Already, Big Tech is under fire for sneaky techniques known as "attention hacking” to keep people under the spell of apps and social media feeds. "Dark patterns" allow them to shepherd people through choices — like how much personal information to share — in a way that benefits the companies rather than their users.

  • Now, some two dozen market research firms are seeking ways to eke out even more attention for advertisers and product designers, and more effectively drive users to do or buy something.
  • The firms say they aim to know consumers better than they know themselves, which could supercharge this quiet pressure.

Critics warn that the efforts, if successful, would help data-rich companies manipulate consumers.

  • This power imbalance is a product of "surveillance capitalism" — a term coined by academics to describe the drive of companies to profit by collecting as much data as possible about potential buyers.
  • "The people who are able to apply and market these technologies are large brands and corporations," says Meredith Whittaker, co-founder of the AI Now Institute. "This is not an equal-access set of technologies. They're used by some on others."

How it works: Brain tests like electroencephalography (EEG) allow researchers to see how people's brains react, second by second, to experiences like watching a TV ad, scrolling through an app, or popping a redesigned cap on a soda bottle.

  • Electrodes monitor neuron activity in various parts of the brain, cameras watch for eye movements and micro-expressions, and skin sensors pick up on changes in heart rate and mental effort.
  • They're looking for emotional attachment, memory activation and active attention — how they vary throughout an experience and whether they change after a consumer interacts with an ad or a product.
  • "It's the combination of emotion and memory that's really powerful as an indicator of whether this experience right now is going to have an impact on future behavior, which ultimately is what's at interest here," says Bradley Vines, director of neuroscience at Nielsen, a leading market research firm.

Background: This controversial technique took a while to take hold in the marketing world. Only in the last half-decade or so, after Nielsen bought up a firm called NeuroFocus, has consumer neuroscience edged toward the mainstream, says Ming Hsu, a Berkeley marketing professor.

  • The technology’s effectiveness has been debated as long as it has existed — with critics taking aim at the assumptions on which analyses are built — but it’s started to see wider uptake.
  • Nielsen has signed up big clients like Time Warner and New Balance, and startups like Spark Neuro are now pushing into advanced testing methods like functional near-infrared spectroscopy.
  • Facebook, too, has hired neuroscientists for a 2-year-old "marketing science" center in New York City.

For now, advertisers’ influence tactics are mostly opaque, Hsu says, potentially "polluting our minds with excess associations we don't really need or want."

2. This is my brain on a puppy ad

Photos of a man with a brain scan cap and a computer screen with a series of waves on it

Kaveh before an EEG test — and his results. Photos: Jenna Richard/Nielsen; Kaveh Waddell/Axios

At a Nielsen office in San Francisco a few weeks ago, I sat on a stool as a neurophysiologist squirted goo into holes in a swim cap she'd fitted on my head, Kaveh writes.

The goofy setup, seen above, prepared me for an EEG test — the kind subjects regularly undergo at the research firm's 16 neuroscience labs around the world.

  • Vines, the Nielsen director of neuroscience, led me to one of several small rooms outfitted with nothing but an armchair and a TV.
  • "You could be in Tokyo, you could be in São Paolo, you could be in Mexico City or one of the five labs in the U.S.," said Vines — in each, the same drab rooms, shielded from electromagnetic radiation, ensure the brain data captured inside is comparable.

Sensors bristled from my head. The 32 electrodes in the cap watched for changing magnetic fields from my neurons firing — 500 times a second. Cameras trained at my face watched for twitches and eye movement.

  • I sat stock-still on the armchair and stared at the TV as a series of logos flashed across it one by one.
  • Then words like "lovable" and "friendly" took turns on screen, followed by a video ad for adopting pets featuring a very cute puppy. Finally, the logos and words returned.

What's happening: The first series of logos and words were meant to establish a baseline — how my brain reacted to them before the TV ad intervened.

  • After the ad, the second round was intended to search for a change — perhaps I now associated "lovable" with the adoption campaign.
  • "Without asking any questions, we're able to see: Are the consumers emotionally motivated? Are we connecting with these ideas, communicating the brand and different concepts?" said Vines.

Nielsen wouldn't tell me about my own results, but Vines showed me how aggregate findings from test subjects watching the video led the advertiser behind it to make changes, editing out footage that lost viewers' attention and removing distractions from the screen.

This was not a dangerous exercise — apart from having rose-smelling gunk in my hair for the rest of the day.

3. The new warehouse landlord

An Amazon package zooms through quality control along a conveyer belt

An Amazon warehouse, Baltimore. Video: Erica Pandey/Axios

With an $18.7 billion deal to buy up 179 million square feet of U.S. warehouse space from Singapore's GLP, Blackstone is again one of the country's major landlords — and many of its buildings are rented out by Amazon, Erica writes.

  • That's the equivalent of 66,600 average-size American homes.

Quick take on last evening's deal: Axios' Dan Primack reports, "It's the largest such purchase in history and makes Blackstone an even more dominant player in U.S. real estate. It's also the private equity industry's latest 'back to the future' deal, as Blackstone previously owned around half of the properties, selling them to GLP in 2015."

Between the lines: Amazon has long been trying to take control of its own logistics network — adding fleets of trucks and planes to complete its deliveries and offering those capabilities as a service to other companies. But the juggernaut has taken less of an interest in buying warehouses.

  • That's because, with its size, Amazon already has "enormous leverage over property owners and wouldn't see much added benefit by an outright purchase," says Julian Counihan, founder of Schematic Ventures, a venture capital fund.
  • According to Amazon's 10-K for last year, it owned 4.5 million square feet of warehouse and data center space in North America at the end of 2018. Compare that to the 154 million square feet it leased. (The report does not break out warehouse space alone.)

4. Worthy of your time

Data: NASA GISS; Graphic: Harry Stevens/Axios
Data: NASA GISS; Graphic: Harry Stevens/Axios

Gabriel Zucman, wealth detective (Ben Steverman — BusinessWeek)

To date in 2019, all the temperature records broken (Andrew Freedman — Axios)

My grandfather's secret D-Day Journal (Barry Svrluga — WP)

London, the nightmare track for driverless cars (Alex Eliseev — Wired)

Your new roommate, Alexa (Christopher Mims — WSJ)

5. 1 forgotten thing: Hailing the early browsers

A man uses an old computer

Using Netscape. Photo: Hansa-Press/ullstein bild/Getty

This year is the 30th anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee's idea for the World Wide Web. To celebrate how far we've come, Ars Technica looked back at the ancient web browsers of the '90s, Erica writes.

Remember Mosaic? That was the big one co-created by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina and eventually spun into Netscape. But Mosaic was far from the first.

Some of the very early browsers:

  • Erwise, developed by four Finnish college students in 1991, first allowed users to search for words on pages. It also had the first graphical interface.
  • ViolaWWW was written by a Berkeley student in 1992. "One of the most significant and innovative features of ViolaWWW was that it allowed a developer to embed scripts and 'applets' in the browser page. This anticipated the huge wave of Java-based applet features that appeared on websites in the later 1990s," Ars Technica reports.
  • Mosaic came along in 1993. Its new perks included supporting audio and video clips.