Nov 20, 2018

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

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1 big thing: "Rebordering" in the new cold war

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia — The global economic and tech system appears to be breaking in two, one led by the U.S. and the other by China, in an unfolding new world resembling the competing geopolitical spheres of the Cold War.

  • One of the eeriest features of this apparent future will be new virtual and legal "borders," a formalization of attempts already afoot by the U.S. and China to bar the other from the sphere they themselves control.
  • "We will reborder" to keep unwanted Chinese companies out of U.S.-led parts of the world, Janice Gross Stein, political science professor at the University of Toronto, tells Axios.
  • "China is already rebordering," walling off its people from the global internet, Stein said on the sidelines of the Halifax International Security Conference, a gathering of military and security officials from the world's democracies.

Why it matters: The main battleground for the future is tech — the race to dominate artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computing, green energy, electric cars and so on. With the trillions of dollars and military power to be gained through these and other technologies, China is out to build itself up and preserve its closed political system; the U.S. objective is to maintain the global dominance it has enjoyed since World War II.

  • In the West, the rebordering, as Stein calls it, will take the form of regulation of technology companies — not to protect consumer privacy, but for national security. Stein sees a change in public and government perception in which advanced technology is seen much more clearly as having dual use — for both consumers and armies.
  • We’ve seen this in the government crackdown on foreign investments and in the Commerce Department’s move yesterday toward imposing new export controls on emerging technologies, including AI and robotics.

With the shift in attitudes, regulation will come "in a way that would have been inconceivable five years ago," Stein said.

Some say that Congress itself may not have the mettle to crack down so hard. Nicholas Burns, a former senior U.S. diplomat and now a professor at Harvard, tells Axios that there is a "trust-busting spirit coming out of Europe," but that he is not certain it will spread to the U.S.

But just on privacy concerns, the ground seems to be already fertile for regulation.

  • In a poll by SurveyMonkey for "Axios on HBO," 57% of American adults agreed that social media giants are hurting democracy and free speech. And 55% want the government to regulate them.

What's next: Expect tech executives to fight.

  • As of now, they say they are only superficially monopolistic — that they fiercely compete among each other for ad dollars, and for the future of AI. Sooner than many people presume, they say, there will be even more savage, direct commercial competition with Chinese Big Tech companies.
  • But that is the same dynamic that thinkers like Stein believe will bring the sharp new tech divide, separated into U.S. and Chinese zones.

Go deeper:

2. U.S. military chief admonishes Big Tech

Gen. Joseph Dunford. Photo: Smith/Gado/Getty

Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, is unhappy with the readiness of Big Tech to produce products for China while many company employees insist on not working with the U.S. military.

  • Dunford, speaking in Halifax on Saturday, said that the American military needs the help of Big Tech companies to master artificial intelligence, which he said will lead to a battlefield advantage.
  • But his remarks suggested that he continues to find resistance in Silicon Valley in helping the military get there.
  • "This is not about doing something that's unethical, illegal or immoral," he said. "This is about ensuring that we collectively can defend the values for which we stand."

The big picture: In June, Google pulled back from a Pentagon program called Project Maven after a massive protest by its employees, but it said it will not rule out future work with the military. Google has meanwhile defended plans to produce a censored search engine for the Chinese market.

  • In October, Microsoft employees wrote a letter opposing company plans to bid on military projects. But Microsoft — and separately Amazon and Oracle — said they would continue to work with the Pentagon.

The bottom line: Notwithstanding the company statements, Dunford's remarks suggest that he is not seeing the action he'd like.

  • "I have a hard time with companies that are working very hard to engage in the market inside China ... then don't want to work with the U.S. military," he said. "I just have a simple expression: 'We are the good guys.'"
3. A new robot census
Expand chart
Data: Information Technology & Innovation Foundation; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

A common way to measure the use of robots around the world shows that wealthy countries — like Korea, Singapore, Germany and the U.S. — are way ahead of the curve, while China flounders behind unlikely characters like Slovenia and the Czech Republic.

Axios' Kaveh Waddell writes: Taking wages into account changes the landscape dramatically. When comparing countries’ actual robot adoption to the quantity one would expect based on their wage levels, Asian countries far outstrip Europe and the U.S.

Details: A new report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation created baselines for expected robot adoption using manufacturing workers’ pay. Then, ITIF compared each country's baseline to the actual number of robots there.

  • The report's authors argue this measure is more useful than the more standard one: the number of industrial robots per 10,000 manufacturing workers.
  • "That’s not the real story, because robots cost money," ITIF president Robert Atkinson says in a video released with the report. "It makes sense to install more of them in countries with high wages, because they pay for themselves more quickly that way."
  • The new ranking, reproduced above, shows which countries are investing in robots beyond the standard level that ITIF says makes economic sense for that country.

China in particular leapt from laggard to leader in ITIF’s reassessment.

  • As we’ve written before, the country is moving swiftly to become a robotics superpower, both as a consumer and a producer.
  • "We project it will lead the world in robot adoption in less than a decade, controlling for wage levels," says Atkinson.

The countries at the high end of the graph above generally have national strategies or policies in place for investing in robots, the ITIF report says.

  • By contrast, the 16th place American finish "reflects an overall lag in capital expenditures by U.S. manufacturers and an almost complete lack of a national robotics strategy."
4. Worthy of your time
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Data: CoinDesk; Chart: Harry Stevens/Axios

What if only wealthy Americans can afford a home? (Lorraine Woellert — Politico)

Bitcoin's comeuppance arrives (Kia Kokalitcheva — Axios)

The geoeconomic world order (Anthea Roberts, Henrique Choer Moraes, Victor Ferguson — Lawfare)

Bosnia's warning to the world (Andrew Higgins — NYT)

The five fastest supercomputers (Kevin Jackson — Science Node)

5. 1 fun thing: Alexa the newscaster

The late Carl Kasell delivers one of his last newscasts. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A childhood memory: NPR’s "Morning Edition" on the car radio on the way to school, punctuated by a line so familiar I could say it along with the newscaster, imitating his trademark lilt: "I'm Carl Kasell, NPR News, Washington."

Kaveh writes: The way newscasters speak is unmistakeable, with their exaggerated modulations and drawn-out pauses. Now Amazon has taught Alexa, its voice assistant, to approximate the authoritative intonation.

  • The company used machine learning to detect patterns in recordings of broadcasters’ speech and incorporate them into a new voice for Alexa, reports The Verge’s James Vincent.
  • Alexa's new voice can make it more pleasant to listen to news read out loud by a computer.

Go deeper: Listen to a voice sample

Bryan Walsh