Axios Future

A robotic hand with the palm facing upward.
February 27, 2021

Welcome to Axios Future, where I'm thankful for those who responded to the question about subject lines, and for those who asked: Yes, it was Monty Python.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,812 words or about 7 minutes.

1 big thing: How the automation economy turns workers into robots

Illustration of a warehouse worker casting a shadow of a robot
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

More than outright destroying jobs, automation is changing employment in ways that will weigh on workers.

The big picture: Right now, we should be less worried about robots taking human jobs than people in low-skilled positions being forced to work like robots.

What's happening: In a report released late last week about the post-COVID-19 labor force, McKinsey predicted 45 million U.S. workers would be displaced by automation by the end of the decade, up from 37 million projected before the pandemic.

  • That increase is a function both of permanent changes in the economy because of the pandemic — less business travel and more remote work — as well as an acceleration in investment in automation and AI.

Yes, but: McKinsey notes that despite the displacements, the total number of jobs is projected to increase.

  • "We often first think of the substitution argument, but throughout history, complementation or augmentation [with automation] has been much more important, and I think that's going to be true for the next decade," says Erik Brynjolfsson, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI.

The catch: McKinsey finds that while the total number of jobs will increase, “nearly all net job growth over the next decade is projected to be in high-wage occupations" — which is not good news for workers with low job skills.

  • And there are a lot of them — a 2016 OECD report found 14% of the U.S. working-age population had low literacy skills, 23% had low numeracy skills and 62% had low digital problem-solving skills.

Zoom in: To better understand the effect of automation on employees in low-skilled jobs, Brynjolfsson and Matt Beane of the University of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB) have been carrying out detailed studies of one field that has experienced tremendous employment growth recently: e-commerce warehouses.

  • Beane and Brynjolfsson are working with companies commercializing AI-enabled robotics in pick-and-pack facilities to determine how e-commerce warehouses are instituting automation, and how front-line workers are adapting to it.

Details: Some of their early findings underscore why simply introducing robots — especially in jobs that involve a lot of unpredictable, fine manual work — doesn't instantly lead to wholesale job destruction.

  • Economic productivity after the introduction of automation and AI tends to follow a J-curve — remaining static or even dipping as companies spend time and money to adapt to technology, before rising rapidly once the implementation phase is completed.

Between the lines: But what they have discovered during detailed interviews with e-commerce employees and visits to warehouses is that humans themselves are already working in more automated ways.

  • "Warehouses" — which have very narrow profit margins — "have engineered the environment to make the human ability to cope with uncertainty as close as possible to automation," says Beane. "They want fewer skilled touches over time to make money."
  • That in of itself isn't new, but for e-commerce warehouse workers — often in geographically isolated locations, working long shifts, and unable to effectively unionize — that means there is "no energy or time to learn the new skills" that would help them get ahead of automation.
  • "You are essentially a robot while doing this job," says Beane. But what might be worse is the way that human workers "become institutionalized to that robotic job by the constraints of the environment."

What to watch: How quickly industrial robots are developed that can handle the uncertainty and fine manual work of e-commerce warehouses as well as human laborers.

The bottom line: Without better government support, U.S. employees with low job skills increasingly face a future of working like a robot — if at all.

Go deeper: The robo-job apocalypse is being delayed

2. The e-commerce boom

Retail Indicators Branch, U.S. Census Bureau; Chart: Axios Visuals
Retail Indicators Branch, U.S. Census Bureau; Chart: Axios Visuals

As e-commerce sales spiked during the pandemic, backroom warehouse labor rose to meet the demand.

Why it matters: With more Americans employed in the warehouse sector, the quality of those jobs — and the effect automation will have on them — will be increasingly important.

By the numbers: E-commerce sales rose to more than $211 billion in the second quarter of 2020 as the pandemic shifted consumers online.

  • That represented an all-time high of 16.1% of total retail.
  • Though total e-commerce and the percentage of all sales fell slightly by the end of 2020 as the pandemic slowed somewhat, e-commerce sales were still up more than 5,000% from when tracking began at the end of 1999.

3. More warehouses, more workers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals

Behind the scenes: Employment in warehouses and storage — the backbone of the e-commerce industry — rose to more than 1.4 million workers by last month, more than double the total from a decade ago.

4. Tracking coronavirus variants through sewage

Illustration of a role of toilet paper shaped like a strand of DNA
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Wastewater is proving a valuable resource to genetically track the spread of the coronavirus — and the emergence of new variants.

Why it matters: As long as widescale testing and genetic surveillance remains constrained, we'll always be a step behind COVID-19. But sequencing sewage presents a cheap and simple way of keeping tabs on viral spread within a community.

What's happening: While Missouri has reported only one confirmed coronavirus variant case — the B.1.1.7 U.K. variant — genetic sequencing of community wastewater found evidence of it this week in more than 13 communities around the state.

How it works: Wastewater surveillance takes advantage of two things: increasingly inexpensive genetic sequencing tools and the undeniable fact that almost everything that goes into our body eventually ends up in sewage.

  • "In the same way that you analyze information about the health of an individual by looking at their urine and stool, you can look at wastewater and very rapidly understand things about an entire community," says Newsha Ghaeli, president of Biobot Analytics, a startup that specializes in wastewater epidemiology.

Background: Ghaeli launched Biobot in 2017 with Mariana Matus, a computational and systems biologist at MIT. They originally aimed to use wastewater epidemiology to identify areas where opioid abuse was prevalent.

  • Once COVID-19 hit, they pivoted to monitoring wastewater samples for the virus, which gave clear indications of outbreaks before hospitals were overwhelmed.
  • Biobot has worked with more than 400 communities around the U.S. and Canada to track the spread of the virus, which helps local leaders better time outbreak controls.

What to watch: The big board at the wonderfully named COVIDPoops19, a dashboard maintained by researchers at the University of California-Merced that tracks wastewater surveillance efforts around the world.

The bottom line: For epidemiologists, at least, sewage is anything but garbage.

Go deeper: Why COVID demands genetic surveillance

5. Key part of the climate system apparently weakening

Photo of the town of Isafjordur in Iceland, where the climate is more temperate because of the influence of warm Gulf Stream current
The town of Isafjordur in Iceland, where the climate is more temperate because of the influence of warm Gulf Stream current. Photo: Masci Giuseppe/AGF/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A new study has worrying conclusions about changes to a vital aspect of the global climate system.

Why it matters: The apparent weakening of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) — largely because of melting ice — is a reminder that climate change could bring about nasty surprises in the future.

Driving the news: In a study published in Nature Geoscience on Thursday, researchers reported the AMOC — a system of ocean currents that includes the Florida Current and the Gulf Stream — is in its "weakest state in over a millennium."

  • The AMOC is the oceans' thermohaline circulation, and it plays an important role in managing the global climate, including keeping temperatures in Europe warmer than they would otherwise be for its latitude.

The big picture: The AMOC has been called the "Achilles' heel" of the climate, causing drastic changes when it has shifted on and off during the Earth's history.

  • It got a moment of public fame in the 2004 climate disaster film "The Day After Tomorrow," where it shut off and caused, well, this:
Jake Gyllenhaal Storm GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
Credit: 20th Century Fox

Yes, but: Nothing remotely near that drastic is expected even if the current were to weaken far more, and researchers still don't have a direct grasp on the health of the AMOC, which is why they were forced to use proxy data in the study.

The bottom line: The biggest reason to worry about climate change — and act on it — isn't the most likely but survivable bad outcomes, but the less likely ones that could be truly existential.

6. Worthy of your time

Lessons from a year of COVID (Yuval Noah Harari — Financial Times)

  • The big-thinking author of "Sapiens" on what we can learn from a year of scientific breakthroughs and political failures.

How Google's hot-air balloon surprised its creators (Chris Baraniuk — BBC Future)

  • The story of an autonomous balloon meant to bring internet access to the masses shows the unexpected creativity of AI — and why it should worry us.

The value of your humanity in an automated future (Kevin Roose — TED)

  • The New York Times reporter — and author of a forthcoming book on the effects of automation — says that we should lean into what makes us human to compete with robots.

How to defeat Boston Dynamics' Spot robot in 1:1 combat (Damon Beres — OneZero)

  • Should you find yourself in a life-or-death bout against a robot dog, follow the advice of my former colleague and go for the battery.

7. 1 movie thing: "Nomadland"

Photo of "Nomadland" star Frances MacDormand at the film's drive-in screening at the Telluride Film Festival
"Nomadland" star Frances McDormand, living long and prospering, at the film's drive-in screening at the Telluride Film Festival in September. Photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images

A brilliant film casts a measured but romantic eye on the itinerant lives of a new class of American nomads.

Why you should watch: "Nomadland" offers a rare glimpse at the shadow Americans who live on the road, working occasional, low-paying jobs in parks and e-commerce warehouses, literally fulfilling the demands of a just-in-time economy.

  • Also: It stars national treasure Frances McDormand, perennial nominee for the Academy Award for Actress Most Deserving of an Oscar Who Isn't Meryl Streep.

Background: "Nomadland" — which is currently streaming on Hulu — was adapted by the Beijing-born auteur Chloé Zhao from a 2017 nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder.

  • Bruder's book was subtitled "Surviving America in the 21st Century," and she followed the stories of Americans, cut loose in the wake of the Great Recession, who take to the road as "workampers," migrating in vans from job to job and RV park to RV park.
  • Many of the real-life characters from the book appear as themselves in Zhao's film, save McDormand as Fern, a former teacher who embraces the life of a nomad after the death of both her husband and their town.

What they're saying: "I'm not homeless," Fern tells a young girl. "I'm just house-less."

Details: In the hands of a different director, "Nomadland" could easily have been an overt work of protest against an economic system that has left these people largely on their own, but Zhao casts her eye on the beauty and the connection — however fleeting — they manage to forge.

  • Perhaps too much — some critics have accused Zhao of soft-pedaling the arduous, insecure nature of nomad jobs, especially in e-commerce warehouses. (McDormand has said she secured permission for the film to shoot in an Amazon center after emailing a company executive.)
  • But even fair critiques can take nothing away from the artistic achievement of the film, a kind of 21st century "Grapes of Wrath," albeit one where there is no fabled California at the end of the road — just more road.

The bottom line: Employment in these facilities may feel robotic, but "Nomadland" shows the humans doing the work are anything but.