Apr 24, 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.

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1 big thing: Why you don't want to be a tech hub

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Alongside unicorns boasting sky-high IPOs and sparkling urban redevelopments, superstar cities like New York and San Francisco are beset by ever-deepening inequality and housing crises.

That's the steep cost of superstardom — an enviable tax base and a glamorous reputation, set against rife homelessness, hours-long commutes in bumper-to-bumper Teslas and BMWs, and the erosion of your home's character.

Erica writes: As we reported last week, longstanding U.S. tech hubs like Boston, Seattle and Silicon Valley continue to build in stature, pumping out top-tier, high-paying jobs, and serving as the setting for fancy, high-cost pads.

But there are also numerous, and so far unyielding, downsides to tech superstardom — starting with living as a company town and stretching to city demography:

  • In city after city, heavy-handed technology giants often influence local affairs, assuming the authority held in prior generations by paternalistic industrial giants.
  • Huge swaths of lifers get priced out of housing, resulting in an increasingly homogeneous population bereft of children, immigrants and communities of color, says Jennifer Friedenbach, head of San Francisco's Coalition on Homelessness.
  • "The worry is these places are becoming Meccas for white, wealthy, college-educated brogrammers," says Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution.

The big picture: Articles after articles have chronicled the housing crunch in superstar tech hubs — skyrocketing home prices that push out almost all but the beneficiaries of a rich IPO.

But a less-reported-on effect of tech's rise is the slow evisceration of the soul of the cities they call home — apparent through transformed neighborhoods and the detritus of shuttered local businesses.

  • Between 2017 and 2018, 850 Bay Area restaurants — many of them longtime neighborhood staples — closed their doors.
  • The culprit, according to Gwyneth Borden, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, is the rising cost of living. The old favorites simply could not compete with buzzy, new spots.
  • In Seattle, natives are finding once-beloved bars and coffee shops so crowded that they're almost unpleasant, Jen Swanson, a resident who recently returned to the city after 10 years, writes in the Seattle Times.

“I don’t know that we can get the folks back that we’ve lost,” says Friedenbach. “A lot of the fabric of the community is gone.”

By some metrics, life is good for superstar city residents.

And some experts say tech companies are wrongly blamed for some urban ills — such as homelessness:

  • "I don't think there is credible evidence that links homelessness to tech," says UC Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti.
  • "I think it's the policymakers' lack of planning," says Friedenbach. "We had enough experience in San Francisco after the last dot-com boom to know exactly what would happen."
2. A rare victory for labor

Photo: Barry Chin/Boston Globe/Getty

Labor experts call a tentative new contract reached by striking Stop & Shop workers a rare victory for unions after three decades of plunging leverage with companies.

What's happening: The deal, struck Sunday and subject to ratification by some 30,000 workers of the northeast U.S. supermarket chain, has not been made public, but reportedly includes higher wages and retention of health and retirement benefits. It also appears to include a sweetener for management in the form of less compensation and benefits for new hires.

  • John Weber, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO, tells Axios that public support for unions is at a 15-year high.
  • "This victory is yet another example of working people refusing to accept less than we deserve," Weber says. "We're witnessing a moment of collective action that we haven't seen in a generation — and we're just getting started."
  • "It is another example of a re-energized labor movement and its ability to deliver wage increases and better benefits in the face of long-term wage stagnation for most of the American workforce," says Al Fitzpayne, head of the Future of Work Initiative at the Aspen Institute. 

The big picture: It is early, but labor may be another beneficiary of the abrupt transformation in political and social thinking over the last 2 years. The public has dramatically shifted track across fundamental issues, including on capitalism, gender rights and technology.

  • "It seems that social concern has increased because of the failure of things to improve for people down at the bottom of the earnings distribution. And any management proposal to reduce wages or benefits is now seen publicly as an attack on everyone," says Ronald Ehrenberg, a labor economist at Cornell.
3. Remembering an AI pioneer

Nilsson, 1987. Photo: Ed Souza/Stanford News Service

Nils Nilsson, a pioneer in artificial intelligence whose groundbreaking work helped lead to today's online maps, died yesterday at the age of 86.

Kaveh writes: Nilsson's work was foundational to several modern technologies. Anyone who has gotten directions online, played a video game, or marveled at moving robots has experienced the legacy of his research.

  • Nilsson developed a famous algorithm called A* for finding the shortest path from one point to another, while working at the Stanford Research Institute, now SRI International.
  • He helped build Shakey, the first robot that could plan a complex route on its own. Starting in 1966, Shakey wobbled through the halls of SRI by relying on a map and various sensors — much like today's autonomous cars do.
  • He wrote a textbook in 1980 that helped shape a generation's understanding of his field.

Nilsson's navigation work "motivated everything that's in Waze and Google Maps," says Frank Chen, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz who studied under Nilsson at Stanford. "That's pretty lasting influence."

In his 2010 history of AI, Nilsson wrote: "I have participated in the quest for artificial intelligence for fifty years — all of my professional life and nearly all of the life of the field."

  • His quest included the exciting dawn of AI, as well as a period known as the "AI winter" during which investment and interest in the field dried up. That's when Chen took Intro to AI with Nilsson. He was one of about 100 students, he tells Axios — a tiny number compared with the several thousand who today take introductory AI classes at Stanford every quarter.
  • In an oral history recorded in 1989 — winter's coldest hour — Nilsson was undeterred:
"A lot of people in computer science would say, 'Well, AI's intractable, because the problems are all exponential. … ' My point of view about that is that that might be. Posed in that fashion, they may be intractable. [But] people do them."

Now, decades later, one of his biggest contributions is experiencing a resurgence. After a period of unpopularity, a method Nilsson championed — giving an AI system specific rules, rather than having it learn them from data — is thought to be able to take AI to the next level, if paired with new techniques like deep learning.

The breadth of Nilsson's legacy has been reflected on Twitter:

  • Andrew Ng, a Stanford AI researcher, wrote: "RIP to my friend, colleague, and AI visionary Nils Nilsson. Your work on the A* algorithm has improved countless lives. … I will always remember your work, but even more importantly your kindness."
  • Rodney Brooks, the robotics pioneer, wrote: "My 1972 introduction to AI research was his 1971 book "Problem-Solving Methods in AI". Thank you Nils!!! RIP."
  • Judea Pearl, the leading AI researcher at UCLA, called Nilsson "an AI pioneer, and a mentor to many of us since the 1970s. Always encouraging and always insisting on understanding new ideas, and how they fit together in the grand scheme. I will miss him immensely."
4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The surveillance state (Paul Mozur, Jonah Kessel, Melissa Chan - NYT)

Age of the elected despot (Martin Wolf - FT)

Amazon upends Madison Avenue (Sara Fischer - Axios)

China's conspicuous maritime ambitions (The Economist)

A kinder, gentler livestock industry (Gregory Barber - Wired)

5. 1 bot thing: Finding Waldo

Waldo hides in plain sight at a Vancouver Canucks vs. Calgary Flames game. Photo: Todd Korol/Getty

Remember the iconic "Where's Waldo" books? How long did it typically take you to find him in his red-and-white-striped glory?

Erica writes: Well, there's a new robot that can find Waldo in 4.5 seconds or less — every time. The machine uses computer vision, trained on thousands of images of Waldo, to pinpoint his face on the page, reports Bloomberg.

  • A rubber hand attached to the bot even moves over and points to Waldo once he's found.

Watch it go.

Bryan Walsh