Apr 8, 2019

Axios Future

Steve LeVine

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Tomorrow marks the launch of Axios Space, Miriam Kramer's new weekly email covering the trends, business and science of space. Sign up here for the first edition.

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: A global push for AI ethics

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The EU today published a set of ethical guidelines for "trustworthy AI" — a long wishlist of idealistic principles, many still technically out of reach, meant to keep unwanted harms from the powerful technology at bay.

Kaveh reports: It's an early, earnest attempt to get countries to buy into general ethical principles. But without an enforcement tool, it is unlikely to result in safe AI.

The big picture: Up to now, AI development has largely been a free-for-all.

  • The big players have taken off on their own, ending up in familiar places: The U.S., favoring a hands-off approach, has left responsibility with Big Tech; Beijing imposes its own norms on Chinese companies; Europe has hewn a middle path.
  • But there's a growing realization that current unsupervised AI development is headed into dangerous territory. This has prodded experts to work toward shared norms for AI.

Why it matters: The driver's seat of global AI policy is still empty, awaiting the country or organization that will set the rules for others to follow.

  • Much rides on who takes control. A world with the U.K. at the helm would look very different from one with China chauffeuring.
  • "Everyone wants to dictate what's happening," says Amy Webb, an NYU professor and founder of the Future Today Institute.

With today's announcement, the EU has scored the first-mover advantage, says Chris Padilla, IBM's VP for government and regulatory affairs, as it did with GDPR, the landmark privacy bill that has changed the way Big Tech does business in Europe.

  • The new guidelines are a far cry from GDPR's strict rules.
  • But that doesn't mean they're useless, argues OpenAI Policy Director Jack Clark, who helped build an equivalent set of recommendations for the OECD. Governments will likely use these guides as templates for their own national policies, he tells Axios.
  • Before regulations kick in, international standards and industry self-policing are especially important, says Charlotte Stanton, Silicon Valley director for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

What's next: The EU guidelines will soon have stiff competition.

  • In the coming months, the OECD will come out with its own recommendations, with many similarities.
  • U.S. and European officials are also considering a proposal by Webb for an international body to oversee big tech companies, she tells Axios. A spokesperson for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy would not confirm that it's considering the proposal.
  • AI pioneer Yoshua Bengio is pushing for binding ethical regulations as part of a new organization for governments, nonprofits, companies, and other experts.

In an interview with Nature, Bengio says, "Self-regulation is not going to work. Do you think that voluntary taxation works? It doesn’t."

  • Webb says much the same: "Developers are not incentivized at all to follow these guidelines," she tells Axios, emphasizing that building in ethics would slow companies' AI systems and perhaps make them less capable.
  • What's more, the growing buffet of ethics proposals may cause problems, Webb argues. A firm deciding between several international guidelines, its home country's national policy, and recommendations from universities and nonprofits might end up doing nothing.

Go deeper:

2. Exodus of U.S. workers from floods

Floodwaters in Hamburg, Iowa, March 20. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty

Workers are permanently moving from flood-ravaged towns and cities in the U.S. Midwest, an exodus that could hurt already-struggling manufacturing and agriculture companies, according to a new report.

What's happening: Flooding last month from heavy rains caused more than $3 billion in damage in Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota, Wisconsin and elsewhere, the AP reports. Among companies sustaining damage were Big Ag's Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and Tyson.

  • In a new report provided first to Axios, LinkedIn said members from flood zones are changing their place of residence in considerable numbers.
  • Based on that, and what workers did in prior natural disasters — Miami for example had a 62.9% increase in net migration in the calendar year after Hurricane Irma in 2017 — LinkedIn forecasts a comparatively large migration to the Southwest in the coming months.
  • "[W]e expect to see an increase in workers moving to: Denver, Dallas-Fort Worth, Seattle, and Phoenix," LinkedIn said.
  • "It's important to consider that severe weather caused by climate change may have lasting consequences on the economic health and vitality of regions like the Midwest that are already struggling to retain jobs and talent," said Guy Berger, LinkedIn's chief economist.

Agriculture and manufacturing companies, such as Cargill and Tyson, are among those that are likely to be hit hard by the migration of workers to the Southwest, LinkedIn said.

Neither Cargill nor Tyson responded to emails seeking comment.

3. Stat of the day: Trucks at the border

April 4, the Ciudad Juarez crossing. Photo: Herika Martinez/AFP/Getty

Wait times are up for cargo trucks crossing at key ports of Mexican entry into the U.S., write the NYT's Kirk Semple and Paulina Villegas.

  • Usually: 2 hours
  • After 9/11: 6 hours
  • Since March 29: 8-24 hours and longer

The reason — a redeployment of some 750 border guards to process arriving migrants.

4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

An airline goes all-electric (Nicolas Zart - Clean Technica)

A new form of American capitalism (Jim VandeHei - Axios)

The fantastic story of an ant invasion (Tom Junod - Esquire) (h/t Jack Shafer/Don Van Natta)

FB's old-fashioned plan to build its Africa market — lay a cable (Drew FitzGerald - WSJ)

To win the electric car race, China goes cheap (The Economist)

5. 1 prophetic thing: Carl Sagan called it

Sagan in 1990. Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty

A prescient passage from a 1995 book by Carl Sagan that describes the ills of today's world regularly goes viral on social media — most recently over the weekend when it was tweeted by the technologist Dan Kaminsky.

Kaveh writes: It's not hard to see why the passage hits a nerve. In "The Demon-Haunted World," the late Sagan predicts a future in which manufacturing has been shipped overseas, a select few control life-altering technology, and truth is severely devalued. Read Sagan's words, printed nearly a quarter-century ago:

"Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness."
Steve LeVine