Dec 19, 2018

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

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1 big thing: AI makers get political

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Earlier this month, Ed Felten — a Princeton professor and former adviser to President Obama — chided an international audience of artificial intelligence experts packing a cavernous Montreal convention center.

  • For too long, Felten said, AI hands have been hiding in their basements, in effect playing God by deciding which technology is ultimately released to the masses.
  • Stop assuming that you know what's best for people, he admonished his listeners, and instead dive into the already-raging public debate of what happens next with AI.

Axios' Kaveh Waddell writes: As scientists in major fields have done for decades, AI experts are being prodded to step out of the lab, get political and help formulate how society confronts what they are creating.

Why it matters: It's important that the makers of AI are involved in the debate over the ultimate boundaries and uses of technologies that will transform how people live and work in the coming decades and beyond.

"It’s only fair that those whose lives we are going to change should have some say in how that change comes about. Decisions will be made. What is our role?"
Ed Felten, Princeton professor

What’s happening: Employees at Google, Microsoft and Amazon — all of them dominant AI developers — have signed petitions urging their companies to back away from contracts to provide AI software to defense and law enforcement agencies.

But as AI increasingly informs life-altering decisions in banking, defense and other areas, top figures in the field are marshaling researchers for political action. In Montreal for the NeurIPS conference, Felten banged the war drum.

  • "We have a duty to be more active and more constructive in participating in public life," Felten said.
  • He laid out a mathematical model of democracy to explain why political decisions can seem nonsensical. (It's about one-third of the way down in this slideshow.)
  • Felten's bottom line: Fight to be in the room with political deciders, and encourage a culture that engages publicly.

Such momentum is slowly building.

  • "The group of us deeply concerned about the societal impacts of AI has grown extensively," said Brent Hecht, chair of the ACM Future of Computing Academy, an association of young computing professionals.
  • "People in computer science are definitely becoming aware of the impact that their research has on their society," said Mikey Fischer, a Stanford computer science Ph.D. student. 

This movement is being pushed along by nonprofits, including the Partnership on AI and OpenAI. The Center for a New American Security, a think tank, has convened back-room conversations between policymakers and researchers.

2. That robot in the store

Photo: Kaveh Waddell/Axios

Bleeping and whirring through the aisles of a sporting goods store in downtown San Francisco, Tally — a tall, wheeled robot bristling with sensors — was doing what it promises: It was counting.

Kaveh writes: The bot, made by Simbe Robotics and trundling through a Decathlon store, uses its sensors to read electronic merchandise tags, twirling this way and that to pinpoint products.

The big picture: Robots have long helped to assemble cars and move products around enormous warehouses. But Tally is the latest in a slow bot invasion into increasingly visible spaces, like sidewalks, malls and restaurants.

  • They’re taking up the roles of delivery workers, security guards and waiters.
  • Their makers insist, in a familiar line, that they’re not stealing jobs as much as freeing up humans to do better or more interesting work. That may be the case now, as the bots are tested, but not for long if they’re taken up in droves.

On a recent Friday in San Francisco, Tally checked up on water-sport gear during its daily round of Decathlon’s only U.S. location.

  • Tally is also used in grocery stores, where it generally roams the floor three times a day. Shelf-checking bots help store managers keep track of inventory — gathering sales data and preventing shelves from going empty.
  • Simbe CEO Brad Bogolea said the robot requires little in the way of support — just over 1.5 feet of clearance in the aisles and a charging dock that it can track down itself when it needs juice.
  • When first deployed, the robot uses lidar and 30 high-res cameras to map the new space, then it relies on smartphone-quality cameras and RFID readers for stock checks.

"Our customers love Tally," Bogolea told Kaveh at Decathlon. Soon after, a pair of shoppers jumped when they turned around to notice Tally waiting to pass. "That’s creepy," one shopper said. "You guys should know that."

3. Manufacturing: Back to 1941

Photo: Waring Abbott/Getty

The number of U.S. manufacturing jobs is up from the trough of the financial crash, but they are still only back to where they were in 1941, when the population was less than half of today's.

  • There were 12.8 million manufacturing jobs as of October, up from the 11.4 million in March 2010, the nadir of the financial crash, according to the St. Louis Fed.
  • But they are still a shadow of their modern 19.4 million-job peak in 1979, and right about where they were in October 1941, when the U.S. population was 133 million, 40% of today's.
4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Ex-convicts getting pulled back into jobs (Zolan Kanno-Youngs — WSJ)

The Fed walked Trump's tightrope (Dion Rabouin — Axios)

The Faustian bargain of nationalism (Martin Wolf — FT)

An epidemic of nostalgia (The Economist)

The fourth founding (Gideon Rose — Foreign Affairs)

5. 1 fun thing: Big stuffed dog in the office

Photo: Brad Barket/Getty

Corporate headquarters typically range from soulless cubicles to long white tables to corner offices with 180-degree views of the city. But Scholastic’s new New York office turns those images on their head, writes Axios' Erica Pandey.

Scholastic's space brings some of the most popular children’s books to life, reports Quartz's Anne Quito. From a floating Captain Underpants that appears to burst out of a wall to massive, adorable portraits of Clifford the Big Red Dog on every floor, the office is a museum of Scholastic’s greatest hits. “It also gives you so many more reasons to look up from your phone,” one employee said.

Bryan Walsh