Dec 20, 2018

Axios Future

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1 big thing: Slowing the robot apocalypse

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

For more than a year, we have reported exceedingly pessimistic forecasts about the future of jobs — robots and automation, we've written, are likelier than not to wipe out a large portion of current U.S. employment by 2030 or so.

Driving the news: The problem isn't only that companies seem likely to automate at a faster and faster pace, but that the U.S. and other advanced economies are doing little to get prepared. Meanwhile — in a tech race against the U.S. — China is in a headlong push to deploy as much advanced robotics as it can.

But there are ways to both cushion the blow of automation and meet the challenge posed by China. Here are a few of them:

1. Decide to keep humans in the mix with robots:

  • As of now, reports tell us not to worry — that robots will not wipe out jobs, but instead work alongside humans. If only it were that easy. In fact, there has to be an affirmative policy decision, either by government, companies or both, to develop automation as a machine-human endeavor. The likelihood is that government will have to take the lead: "Government will have to step up, a political leader who sees a threat to his own political power," says Jeffrey Brown, head of the future of work project at the Bertelsmann Foundation.

2. Initiate aggressive, long-term job training and upskilling:

  • Even the most optimistic forecasts urge a massive campaign to reskill tens of millions of Americans, and hundreds of millions of people around the world. Government should take the lead, but companies need to revive traditional practices of training new workers.
  • One option: tax incentives. "There can be a knowledge tax credit for training front-line workers," says Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

3. Award low-interest education loans, and forgive debt:

  • Education and skills training will be a core fact of life for the the next workforce, the next after that, and so on — everyone will have to up their game, and keep doing so, in everything from AI and medicine to plumbing and electric work. Skilling and retraining has to be national policy, because the nations that don't do so will fall behind as nations. "In China, the state is leading in establishing new training centers in schools," said Paul Triolo, head of geotechnology at the Eurasia Group.
  • More: An entire generation of Americans is weighed down by unconscionable college debt. Figure out how to forgive it.

4. Aggressively fund research in AI, robotics and quantum computing:

  • Should Washington assume a central role in the country's development of futuristic technology? Yes. Long-term, aggressive government funding and shaping will be central to both first-out invention and deployment of next-generation technologies (see next post).
  • "We need focused government action," says Samuel Brannen, director of risk and foresight at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Then suddenly we will leap past the Chinese like we did the Soviets."

The bottom line: Will many — or any — of these measures be adopted by the government or industry? If so, there is no sign of it today. The current 3.7% jobless rate does not help, lulling policymakers and companies into a false sense of confidence. Action could require a new bout of job market mayhem.

Bonus: On the quantum side

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

American quantum scientists have been clamoring for a national funding plan to counter China's government-led program.

Driving the news: In unusual bipartisan action, the House yesterday voted 348-11 to fund a $1.2 billion effort to develop quantum computing, sending it to the White House for President Trump's signature

Axios' Kaveh Waddell and Ina Fried write: Among other things, the National Quantum Initiative Act:

  • Forms a 10-year program to advance quantum science development.
  • Establishes a White House office for strategic planning.
  • Supports basic research at government and academic centers.

Background: The White House started the ball rolling in September, worried about falling behind in the early stages of a strategic race in a new generation of fast computers.

2. A new chance for lawbreakers

Cosmetology class at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, California. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty

The U.S. is moving to ease decades of get-tough prisons policy by, among other things, beefing up training programs so that ex-convicts can get jobs.

Kaveh reports: The First Step bill, sent to Trump today, will also reduce some sentences and give judges more sentencing flexibility. But one of the most pernicious aspects of the criminal justice system is how it has fallen short in allowing ex-convicts to make a fresh start.

Why it matters: By one estimate, barriers to employment for former prisoners caused a loss of at least $78 billion in annual GDP in 2014. Yet ex-convicts usually either cannot find work or are paid low wages, according to a Brookings report.

Daniel Yanisse, CEO of Checkr, a company that runs background checks for hiring, tells Axios that the legislation only begins to address the problem but that "it's a really good first step."

  • "We see a lot of [ex-convicts] failing in their first job because they haven't had any job training — how to present yourself, how to write a resume, how to work with a lot of people," Yanisse said.
  • Future reforms, he said, should take steps to move ex-convicts into higher-skill work, such as easing licensing rules in jobs that bar people with criminal records.
3. A criminal side to the U.S.-China rivalry

Photo: Castaneda Luis/AGF/UIG/Getty

In new allegations today, the U.S. has demonstrated that it does not regard China as a standard-issue geopolitical rival, but as an actor with an unusual criminal dimension.

Reports Axios' Joe Uchill: In an indictment, the U.S. accused two Chinese hackers of a campaign nicknamed Operation Cloud Hopper, which attacked biotech, health care, space and oil enterprises — more than 45 companies in all. "It's just as if they broke into the companies and stole the data physically," said Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.


  • In October, the U.S. extradited Yanjun Xu, a senior officer with China’s Ministry of State Security, to the U.S. on charges of seeking to steal secrets from aviation companies.
  • And earlier this month, Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, the CFO at Huawei and daughter of the company's founder, for extradition to the U.S. on charges of fraud and sanctions evasion.

Details: In the latest case, the U.S. alleges that the two hackers — Zhu Hua and Zhang Shilong — conducted their operations in a dozen U.S. states and U.S. government agencies. The group to which they belong — "APT 10" — is accused of attacking a dozen countries in all.

  • Chinese authorities contracted them as cyber mercenaries from Huaying Haitai Science and Technology Development Company, the indictment says.
  • Per the indictment, the operation itself has been active since at least 2006.
  • Other target nations included Brazil, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, India, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom.

The bottom line: "Cloud Hopper is one of the most aggressive of Chinese groups," said Ben Read, senior manager for cyber intelligence at FireEye.

4. Worthy of your time

Photo: Education Images/UIG/Getty

China's military objectives in Pakistan (Maria Abi-Habib — NYT)

The far-reaching opioids lawsuit advances (Caitlin Owens — Axios)

Soros' wild ride from celebrated to demonized billionaire (Roula Khalaf — FT)

The Mars whisperer (Rebecca Boyle — Quanta)

A dollar store backlash (Tanvi Misra — CityLab)

5. 1 halo-less thing: Saturn without rings

Photo: Jamie Cooper/SSPL/Getty

Picture an angel without a halo. That’s what Saturn, which is one of the most glorious sights to see in the night sky, is rapidly turning into, Axios’ Erica Pandey writes.

The bad news: Gravity is sucking Saturn’s 100-million-year-old rings into the planet. And while we knew the rings were disappearing, we didn’t know how rapidly it was happening, Axios managing editor Alison Snyder notes.

The good news: “Rapidly” in the context of the history of the universe is still a long time. The rings will be around for 300 million more years.