Axios Future

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March 27, 2021

Welcome to Axios Future, where thanks to the big boat stuck in the Suez Canal, globalization may be hobbled, but at least the meme economy is humming.

  • I'm on vacation next week, but Future will be brought to you by my editor Alison Snyder and my Axios colleagues.

If you haven't subscribed, you know the drill.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,854 words or about 7 minutes

1 big thing: The border crisis is intensified by the climate crisis

Illustration of a tiny woman with a backpack walking through a desert within an hour glass

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The influx of migrants to the U.S. southern border has taken over the news — and climate change, among other factors, ensures it won't be going away.

Why it matters: The migration of tens of millions of people, exacerbated by a changing climate, will be one of the mega-trends of the 21st century. For both humanitarian and political reasons, wealthy countries like the U.S. will need to figure out a way to handle a flow of people that may never stop.

Driving the news: During President Biden's first presidential press conference Thursday, questions about the renewed flow of migrants — including unaccompanied minors — dominated the discussion.

  • As my Axios colleague Stef Kight has reported, the administration "is struggling to keep up with a migration surge" as it tries to balance humanitarian and COVID-19 concerns with border security.

The big picture: People make the difficult decision to leave their homes for many reasons, including conflict and crime, political persecution, and the simple desire for a better life.

  • But a factor now — and even more so in the future — is the push of extreme weather and climate change, which will disproportionately affect the people living in the poorer, hot countries that are already a major source of migrants to the U.S.
  • That means the U.S., as well as the rich nations of Europe and even countries like India, will likely face a permanent and likely growing flow of climate migrants that they and the international refugee system more broadly are ill-equipped to handle.

By the numbers: The World Bank estimates that three regions — Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia — will generate 143 million more climate migrants by 2050.

The catch: Most people displaced because of the effect of weather and climate first migrate not internationally, but to towns and cities in their own countries.

  • But as Abrahm Lustgarten reported in a sweeping story for the New York Times and ProPublica last year, as migrants crowd ill-equipped urban areas, they "stretch infrastructure, resources and services to their limits," which becomes both a source of misery and push for international migration.
  • A model produced for the piece projected that migration from Central America will rise every year regardless of climate change, but that in the most extreme warming scenarios, more than 30 million migrants would head toward the U.S. border over the next 30 years.

Be smart: Climate change's precise role in migration is tangled up with more immediate factors, like security and economic well-being. But we know millions of people will want to migrate to the U.S. in the future — and that many of them will try to come regardless of border policies.

  • A survey released this week by Gallup found more than a quarter of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean — 120 million people — say they would like to permanently move to another country.
  • 42 million of them say they want to move to the U.S.

Yes, but: Immigration is among the most politically divisive issues in the U.S., one that has repeatedly foiled efforts of presidents from both parties to find a solution.

The bottom line: "Here are questions every leader should be able to answer regardless of their politics," Gallup chairman and CEO Jim Clifton wrote this week. "How many more people are coming to the southern border? And what is the plan?"

  • The answers: Almost certainly many more. And we don't know.

2. Building the AI-enabled factory

Illustration of a uniform name patch with the letters "A.I." stitched

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A startup is employing AI to streamline and perfect manufacturing.

Why it matters: As valuable as machine learning has been in software, the next phase could be even more disruptive: bringing AI to the often messy process of making things.

What's happening: Nanotronics, a Brooklyn-based science technology company, has developed a platform that combines AI, automation and computer imaging to identify anomalies in the manufacturing process.

  • Quality control is usually the province of workers, but Nanotronics is able to automate much of the process, leading to an "autonomous factory that can change parameters and create alerts, doing things that humans just wouldn't be able to do," says Matthew Putman, the company's founder and CEO.
  • For Nanotronics' partners — which include biotech and semiconductor companies — "AI becomes a great partner in being able to build a factory," he says.

By the numbers: A report last year from the research firm Technavio estimates that the size of the broader automated industrial quality control market is expected to grow by 7% a year between 2020 and 2024.

  • That growth will likely be accelerated by the effects of the pandemic, which disrupted supply chains and put a premium on the ability to automate manufacturing as much as possible.

Situational awareness: On Thursday, Nanotronics announced a partnership with chemical manufacturer Solugen to use its technology to ensure clean water and safety in Solugen's autonomous chemical plants.

"I don't want the next big tech idea to be a social network. I want it to be a factory."
— Matthew Putman, Nanotronics

3. ACLU to FOIA information about national security uses of AI

Illustration of a camera tracking a person

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The ACLU will be seeking information about how the government is using artificial intelligence in national security.

Why it matters: The development of AI has major implications for security, surveillance and justice. The ACLU's request may help shed some light on the government's often opaque applications of AI.

Driving the news: Later today, the ACLU will be filing a broad Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the CIA, the NSA, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies concerning the government's use of AI, especially in the area of national security.

  • "The problem with these AI systems is that they're black boxes," says Patrick Toomey, senior staff attorney at the ACLU National Security Project. "The public needs to know exactly what kinds of fundamental decisions about our lives the government is handing over to AI."

Details: The ACLU is specifically concerned about "vetting and screening processes in agencies like Homeland Security and tools that can analyze voice, data and video," says Toomey.

  • Another area of concern is the possibility that AI systems could be "biased against people of color, women and marginalized communities," he adds.

Background: The FOIA request was prompted in part by a recent 750-page report put out by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence that lays out a case for the U.S. to embrace AI throughout the national security sector.

The bottom line: "AI will be a society shaping technology," says Toomey.

  • "Because of that, we have to be considering what safeguards and protections are necessary from the start."

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4. Warming up to solar geoengineering

Illustration of the planet earth wearing a pair of sunglasses

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As countries struggle to meet ambitious targets to reduce carbon emissions, financial backers and government officials are grappling with how to study ideas for engineering the Earth’s climate, my Axios colleagues Andrew Freedman and Alison Snyder write.

Why it matters: Once dismissed as science fiction, solar geoengineering is now viewed as a possible tool to help humans reduce the dangerous impacts of climate change on ecosystems and society. However, much remains to be learned about these schemes before they can be considered.

Driving the news: A report released Thursday by the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) details recommendations for conducting, funding and governing research on solar geoengineering.

  • The authors say most climate research resources should still be steered toward mitigation and adaptation, but they call for $100 million to $200 million to be devoted to studying solar geoengineering over the next five years.
  • The report's authors also call for a comprehensive research program that would involve all federal agencies conducting climate research.
  • The research program would seek to answer not only if solar geoengineering programs can be feasibly deployed, but also address the thorny question of whether they should be once more is known about the technologies.

How it works: Solar geoengineering involves injecting aerosols into the stratosphere or brightening clouds over the world's oceans with the aim of reflecting sunlight and lowering global temperatures.

Details: The NAS report recommends funding modeling, theory and governance of solar geoengineering over the next five years. It specifically cautions against a move to develop and deploy such technologies.

The pushback: Some of the opposition to geoengineering research stems from concerns that it could distract from efforts to rein in emissions.

The bottom line: “The underlying decision is, should humans do this or not?” Keith said. “Learn, then decide, is the right lesson from my point of view.”

Go deeper.

5. Worthy of your time

Decadence and the intellectuals (Ross Douthat)

  • The conservative New York Times columnist on the apparent waning of intellectual life at a time of cultural exhaustion.

Zack Snyder’s superhero universe is unsettling — but says a lot about our reality (Alyssa Rosenberg — Washington Post)

  • The four-plus hour Snyder cut of "Justice League" may be an exercise in audience endurance, but its strange and disturbing vision of superheroes is a better fit for our moment than the far more popular Marvel franchises.

No one can find the animal that gave people COVID-19 (Antonio Regalado — MIT Tech Review)

  • Assuming the novel coronavirus didn't come from a lab leak — as former CDC director Robert Redfield argued yesterday — the missing link is how the virus got from wild bats to human beings.

The bank effect and the big boat blocking the Suez (Brendan Greeley — Financial Times)

  • If you — like the entire internet — can't get enough of big boat stuck content, check out this story arguing that the real problem is the sheer size of modern container ships.

6. 1 sci-fi thing: "The Expanse"

Book cover of "Leviathan Wakes"

The first book in "The Expanse" series.

A series of novels that have been turned into a TV show offers one of the most realistic visions of what the colonization of space might actually be like.

Why you should read (and watch): "The Expanse" imagines a future where human beings have moved into space without growing much beyond the often unjust political and economic systems of today.

How it works: Set in the 24th century, when humanity has managed to colonize Mars and part of the asteroid belt, "The Expanse" views space not as the final frontier, but as merely the latest backdrop for age-old geopolitical struggles — albeit without the "geo."

  • Humans have left Earth less out of the spirit of discovery than because their planet had become hot and crowded, with the only opportunities for advancement to be found in the hostile environment of space.

Context: "The Expanse" is an example of "hard sci-fi," meaning it largely operates under the constraints of science as we know it.

  • So that means no warp drives, no transporters and absolutely no Force.
  • What definitely exists is gravity, which functions almost as a supporting character on "The Expanse," a factor that always needs to be reckoned with.
  • Humans who grow up in the lighter gravity of Mars or the asteroid belt can't really function on Earth, which contributes to political divisions.

Analog for "Star Trek" fans: The 1990s series "Deep Space Nine."

  • But if "Deep Space Nine" was occasionally gritty, "The Expanse" is a veritable Beijing-style sandstorm of grit, featuring brutal worker exploitation, planetary-scale war and very nasty aliens.

Yes, but: Still fun!

  • Plus Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is such a fan that he reportedly helped save the show from cancellation by moving it to Amazon Prime in 2019.
  • That's a little odd, given that Bezos is one of the foremost advocates of space settlement, which "The Expanse" largely portrays as a terrible mistake.

The bottom line: Do read the books and watch the show.

  • Don't go to space.