May 1, 2021

Axios Future

Welcome to Axios Future, where we are reacquainting ourselves with this thing called the "outside world."

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Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,816 words or about 7 minutes

1 big thing: It's set to be a hot, violent summer

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

After a year in which murders spiked in the U.S., homicides are already trending up in many cities, presaging what is likely to be a violent summer.

Why it matters: The rise in homicides is a public health crisis that has multiple interlocking causes, which makes solving it that much more difficult. We're still a long way from the murderous days of the 1990s, but rising gun violence is destroying lives and complicating efforts to help cities recover from COVID-19.

Driving the news: From Washington to Louisville, Kentucky, New York to Oakland, California, and Kansas City to Atlanta, murder rates are trending up in U.S. cities large and small.

  • A sample of 37 cities with data available for the first three months of 2021 collected by the crime analyst Jeff Asher indicates murders are up 18% over the same period in 2020.
  • The continued increase comes after a year in which major U.S. cities experienced a 33% rise in homicides, and 63 of the 66 largest police jurisdictions saw an increase in at least one category of violent crime, according to a report from the Major Cities Chiefs Association.

The intrigue: Criminologists still haven't settled on a single explanation for why violent crime dropped drastically from the 1990s, and they're even less certain why it's risen so dramatically over the past 16 months.

Yes, but: Even if 2021 eclipses last year's murder numbers, America will remain a far safer country than it was during the most violent years of the 1990s.

What's next: A violent summer on America's streets appears likely, given that homicide already appears to be trending above last year's spike.

  • Homicide rates historically spike during the summer months, when the hotter weather puts more people on the streets, and while vaccination coverage is increasing, the pandemic and all its knock-on effects won't be finished by then.
  • "Summer 2021 is going to be abnormally violent," John Roman, a senior fellow at the economics, justice and society group at NORC at the University of Chicago, wrote this year. "It is the new normal."

The bottom line: The historic decline in murder over the past few decades was accompanied by mass incarcerations and increasingly brutal policing, leading to what the criminologist Patrick Sharkey termed "the uneasy peace."

  • As America reckons a new murder wave with policing in the post-George Floyd killing era, it needs to find a way to a lasting peace that features both safety and justice.
2. The 3D printer goes industrial

The Holo 3D printer. Photo: Courtesy of Holo

A new generation of heavy-duty 3D printers is increasingly being employed for industrial manufacturing.

Why it matters: 3D printers have long been used to speed the making of prototypes, but the growing ability to design and print a range of materials means they are becoming an integral part of the manufacturing chain.

How it works: Manufacturing has historically required the production of parts first by injection molding, which can "take weeks or even months," depending on supply chains, said Richard Garrity, the CEO of Stratasys, the global leader in 3D printing.

  • Newer generations of 3D printers can enable manufacturers to "skip that process and go right to the end output itself," he adds, allowing companies to simply mass print the parts they need.
  • When GM suddenly needed to make ventilators during the early stages of the pandemic last year, 3D printing — also known as additive manufacturing — allowed the company to rapidly transition its automobile assembly lines for the new product.

Background: This kind of industrial use marks a change in how 3D printing was initially envisioned, says Bradley Rothenberg, CEO of the 3D printing software company nTopology.

  • "Everyone was obsessed with the idea of a 'Star Trek'-like replicator you could have in your home that would make everything," he says.
  • "But what we've learned is that 3D printing is a new manufacturing process that enables new applications to be built and made."

Details: Holo, a 3D printing startup that spun out of the design giant Autodesk, has made progress in developing machines that can produce difficult-to-print industrial materials like copper.

  • "These are parts that can only be made using 3D printing, not traditional manufacturing," says Arian Aghababaie, president and chief strategy officer at Holo. "They're designed with the intent that will be made at volume with additive manufacturing."

The bottom line: You may not be using a 3D printer at home any time soon, but the spread of the technology into traditional manufacturing can shorten supply chains and enable companies to transition to new product lines more nimbly.

3. Using AI to root out unconscious bias

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

AI language models are being used to identify instances of racial and gender bias in employee performance reviews.

Why it matters: The tech industry — and all industries — have an ongoing problem with bias in the workplace. AI systems that parse text can help identify bias in at least one area: who companies decide to hire and promote.

How it works: Text IQ, an AI startup that focuses on uncovering latent risk in unstructured data like reports and financial data, recently launched its Unconscious Bias Detector.

  • Its AI system can scan employee performance reviews and identify, for example, whether male managers in a company are more likely to give higher scores to male workers.
  • It can also parse the text in written reviews and identify "work-focused language versus personality-focused language," says Apoorv Agarwal, Text IQ's CEO.
  • If a manager is giving one group of workers reviews that focus much more on personality versus work performance, that suggests some element of bias may be at work.

What they're saying: "Our goal with this is if we can make something unconscious conscious, that's already doing a lot," says Omar Haroun, Text IQ's COO.

The catch: While natural language processing models like this one have made major leaps in recent years — in part by being able to "combine the social aspect of text along with the linguistic," notes Agarwal — they're far from perfect and shouldn't be relied upon alone.

Context: As firms across industries begin to take diversity and inclusion more seriously, they need to rely on robust data about what's actually happening inside their companies, says Tauhidah Shakir, vice president of human resources and chief diversity officer at Paylocity.

  • "We're looking at all of the available information to say, 'Where do we need to focus?'" she adds. "And we wouldn't be able to do that without that data."
4. The good is better than the perfect

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Whether it's vaccine passports or public health protocols, or even passive investment strategies, perfection is rarely achievable or even desirable. Allowing a bit of fuzziness and error is at the heart of broad-based success, my Axios colleague Felix Salmon writes.

Why it matters: Silicon Valley has known for decades that the essence of disruption is to do something that is not as perfect as the incumbent but is a lot cheaper and easier — and more effective.

Be smart: When it comes to vaccine passports, it's easy to immediately start worrying about whether they provide real proof of vaccination, whether they can be forged, that kind of thing. But most of the time, credentials don't need to be bulletproof.

  • A simple vaccine selfie, or verbal assurance, is usually enough to persuade your friends and family that you've been vaccinated.
  • A filled-out CDC card, plus an affirmation that it's authentic, is all you need to get Hawaii's vaccine passport. That combination should also suffice for many other potential uses, from attending a church or play to studying at an in-person college or working near colleagues.

The big picture: There will be lies and fakes. But even when credentialed people are telling the truth, vaccines aren't 100% effective. The idea here isn't to get the risk down to zero, it's just to get it down to an acceptable level, somewhere around the kind of risk we have always faced from the flu.

Read the entire story

5. Worthy of your time

Let’s parse the crazy week that upended the central math of batteries and EVs (Steve LeVine — The Mobilist)

  • My Axios Future predecessor — who writes a mobility-focused newsletter definitely worth checking out — on the ambitious new benchmark for EV batteries.

Why the planet needs cute monsters (Nathaniel Rich — Wall Street Journal)

  • From cloned animals to cultured meat to genetic chimeras, the future of animals is going to be weird — and we should be ready for it.

How long can we live? (Ferris Jabr — New York Times Magazine)

  • Humans on average are living longer than ever, but scientists are divided on whether the maximum human lifespan has been reached, or if it can be extended even further.

A mystery to itself (Rivka Galchen — London Review of Books)

  • A journey into the many, many things scientists still don't know about the human brain.
6. 1 robo-cop thing: retiring Officer Digidog

The NYPD used a robotic dog like this one from Boston Dynamics. Photo: Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP via Getty Images

The New York Police Department terminated its contract for a robotic dog after residents complained.

Why it matters: Robots and drones are becoming a bigger part of policing, but their presence makes some people feel uncomfortable, as they've come to symbolize the growing militarization of the police.

Driving the news: The NYPD revealed this week that it had ended a $94,000 contract with the robotics company Boston Dynamics for a four-legged robot that officers named "Digidog."

  • Digidog had been acquired by the NYPD last August, and it had been employed in the field a few times since then, including one instance when it was used to scout a hostage situation in the Bronx before officers entered the building.
  • Digidog, which is agile enough to climb stairs — a feat even the murderous Dalek robots in "Doctor Who" long struggled to manage — was meant to be used in situations deemed too dangerous for human officers.

The catch: Its presence at a hostage situation at a public housing building in Manhattan caused a fierce backlash among residents and politicians who saw it as alienating and a waste of taxpayer money.

Background: Police have used robots for decades to respond to hazardous situations, but concerns about the technology spiked after the Dallas police killed a mass shooter in 2016 by blowing up a bomb-squad robot.

On the one hand: Given that police who are under threat — whether real or imagined — are more likely to respond with violence, the possible increased use of unarmed robots might make both officers and the people they are meant to serve safer.

On the other: Taking human officers out of the equation will do little to improve deteriorating relations with the public.

The significantly less friendly robot dog from the "Black Mirror" episode "Metalhead." Credit: Netflix