June 24, 2018

Thanks for subscribing to Axios Future. Consider inviting your friends and colleagues to sign up.

I'm filling in for Steve LeVine, who is on vacation. Please send me your feedback. Just reply to this email or send me a note at [email protected].

1 big thing: Can robots be sued?

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

The advancement of AI-fueled technologies like robotics and self-driving cars is creating a confusing legal landscape that leaves manufacturers, programmers, and even robots themselves open to liability, according to legal scholars who study AI, Axios' Kaveh Waddell reports.

Why it matters: As autonomous vehicles take to the road and get into collisions, drivers, insurers and manufacturers want to know who — or what — is liable when a harmful mistake occurs. The degree of liability comes down to whether AI is treated as a product, service, or a human decision-maker.

Case study: Some car makers, including Volvo, Google, and Mercedes, have already said they would accept full liability for their vehicles' actions when they are in autonomous mode.

  • Yes, but: Exactly who counts as the manufacturer might not be immediately obvious, says John Kingston, a professor who studies AI and law at the University of Brighton. If a self-driving car kills a pedestrian, the car company might be considered the manufacturer, he said — but it could also be a subcontractor who wrote the software, or even a hardware supplier that produced a faulty camera.

Another possibility: Going deeper into the system, the AI itself could be held responsible, according to Gabriel Hallevy, a law professor at Ono Academic College in Israel. That still means its programmer or manufacturer could be found negligent as well, or even accomplice to a crime.

  • But it's hard to punish AI if it's found guilty. The simplest sanction would be to decommission the offending robot or the program. But there are more creative options: Hallevy suggested that AI found to have broken a law could be shut off for a period of time — the equivalent of a prison sentence — or even be required to perform community service, like cleaning the streets.

Go deeper: Read Kaveh's post.

2. It's a "quantum summer"

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Venture capitalists, corporations and the federal government are investing in quantum computers, a powerful new generation of machines that one day could help develop new drugs and decrypt secrets.

The big picture: The problems such devices can solve today are still limited. But the technologies are advancing and as China invests heavily in the field, some researchers and policymakers in the U.S. are calling for a national plan to develop fundamental research into commercial products.

What's new:

"It's a quantum summer."
Chris Monroe, IonQ and the University of Maryland

How it works: Quantum technologies — sensing, communications and computing — all leverage fundamental properties of atoms and their subatomic particles to process and transmit information.

  • The status: Quantum systems with up to a few hundred quantum bits (qubits) — the equivalent of bits in a classical computer — exist. But fully programming a quantum computer requires controlling the qubits and running algorithms. Right now, just a handful of qubits can be strung together to perform a basic computation.

Tech advances: In the past five years, quantum devices have been built by IBM, Intel, Google and Microsoft as well as university researchers and startups like Rigetti Computing and IonQ.

Keep in mind: It is still a speculative field, says Monroe, who co-authored a blueprint for the anticipated House bill. "To get to the promised land, where we get something useful, [quantum computers] will have to be run by a third party," he says. "It can't require a bunch of researchers."

Here comes China (again): The EU, Canada, Australia and the U.K. are all investing in developing quantum technologies — and are potential sources for U.S. collaboration — but they don't match China's scale of investment.

  • "[Other nations] are all behind the U.S. — comfortably so — but they're improving at a pace that is alarming, especially China," says Monroe.

Go deeper: Read the full story.

3. Chinese retail is winning the future

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

U.S. and European companies are being seriously outsmarted while China's Big Tech rivals compete to pull traditional retail businesses into their exclusive, online corporate universes, Steve LeVine writes after his recent trip to China.

Why it matters: Retail is the largest single source of American jobs — and, in the U.S. and most other countries, one of the biggest parts of the overall economy. That Chinese companies are aggressively exploring how to save Main Street and middle-class jobs is terrific; that the U.S. and Europe seem all but flat-footed is not.

The battlefield for Alibaba, Tencent and JD.com is digitalization-in-a-box — off-the-shelf systems that allow virtually any business, from a mom-and-pop shop to a Walmart, to zoom directly into the exosphere of e-commerce.

  • The data underlying this merger of e-commerce and plain-old commerce are that brick-and-mortar remains by far the largest chunk of retail, and thus if e-commerce wants to continue growing, it must marry itself to physical stores.
  • The West does not necessarily want this, but in China doing it well is a state affair: President Xi wants Big Tech to help enact his economic policies — like expanding the middle class — so they do, because they want to survive.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere, retailers have been filing bankruptcy in increasing numbers. More and more analysts are advising calm — that the trend is ultimately less crucial than one might think because Amazon and other warehouses are snapping up workers in larger numbers than retail workers are losing jobs.

Be smart: Here is where Americans and Europeans may be getting the wrong picture.

  • The worker-less future: Among the places I visited was JD. Along with other reporters, I stood near its latest e-commerce fulfillment center, a warehouse that can ship 200,000 packages a day with just four human workers, all of them robot mechanics.
  • JD will decide over the coming months whether its investment building this futuristic warehouse justifies the savings in labor costs, and thus whether it should build more of them. Meanwhile, it is installing as much automation as it can in its other hundreds of warehouses in order to reduce its work force.
  • At the same time, Amazon and other e-commerce firms are hiring workers in droves — now. But when they approach full-automation, those workers are likely to vanish.

Go deeper: Read Steve's post.

4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

  • U.S. chipmakers go to war with China (Erica Pandey - Axios)
  • Space industry is developing like self-driving cars (Michael Sheetz - CNBC)
  • 30 years ago: our global warming warning (Andrew Freedman, Mike Allen and Harry Stevens - Axios)
  • A generation of Americans enters old age the least prepared in decades (Heather Gillers, Anne Tergesen and Leslie Scism - WSJ)
  • Saudi women can drive, but here's the real roadblock (Margaret Coker - NYT)

5. 1 legacy thing: Alan Turing's impact on AI

Alan Turing and colleagues working on the Ferranti Mark I Computer, 1951. Photo: SSPL/Getty Images

In 1950, Alan Turing, whose 106th birthday would have been yesterday, laid out a test that today in popular culture is known as the gold standard for evaluating AI.

Several chatbots have claimed to "pass" Turing's test by convincing some proportion of human judges that they are human, too.

  • In 2014, for example, a chatbot named Eugene Goostman managed to persuade 10 out of 30 judges that it was a 13-year-old Ukranian boy.
  • But Goostman isn't truly intelligent by any stretch; it just managed to play a few tricks to convince judges that its conversational shortcomings were due to age and linguistic ability.

What's next: As AI researchers notch successes in processing language, playing games, and recognizing images, some of the field's heavyweights like Judea Pearl are calling for a wider approach to creating intelligent machines.

The Turing test captures some dimensions of human intelligence, like emotional fluency and natural language. But how else can intelligence be measured? It's a complicated question, says Jon Crowcroft from the Alan Turing Institute in London. Human intelligence encompasses intuition and common sense, which is informed by our social norms, laws — and the list goes on.

"The Turing test is reductionist — it removes consciousness, emotions and also our rich, constantly changing social structure. It leaves out a bunch of things that make humans human."

Yesterday's tomorrow: Turing's experiments set off wild optimism as well as fear in the 1940s, writes Diane Proudfoot, a professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and co-director of the Turing Center at ETH Zurich.

  • Turing made fun of both camps, Proudfoot writes. Mocking the fearmongers, Turing said: "A similar danger and humiliation threatens us from the possibility that we might be superseded by the pig or the rat."
  • She argues that voices promising AI-driven utopias or warning of the existential dangers of super-intelligent AI today are repeating age-old hysterias. "Turing was a voice of sanity" in the 1940s, she writes, but she says similarly moderate opinions risk being drowned out today.

Go deeper: