Axios Future

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March 22, 2019

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Any stories we should be chasing? Hit reply to this email or message me at [email protected]. Kaveh Waddell is at [email protected] and Erica Pandey at [email protected].

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1 big thing: China's beachhead in Europe

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

For six years, the U.S. and Europe have been fixated on Russia as their gravest geopolitical threat. All the while, China has been building up its massive global infrastructure project known as One Belt, One Road.

  • Now, Beijing and its commercial aims seem much more of a menace.

Driving the news: As of tomorrow, China will have the commercial equivalent of a beachhead in the heart of Europe, when Chinese President Xi Jinping and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte sign a Belt and Road accord in Rome.

  • Their agreement will make Italy the first G7 country to join Belt and Road, a network of highways, ports, railroads, and energy pipelines that are quickly setting commercial terms around the world.
  • With the accord, Beijing obtains access to the ports of Trieste and Genoa, which will be the staging point for Chinese products to go by railroad and truck across the continent.

"The EU has been so focused on Russia for so long that it’s now waking up to the reality that China poses a more serious challenge," says Jonathan Hillman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Part of the delay is that Russia has posed a military threat, while China is exercising economic power."

The U.S. has responded furiously in recent days, suggesting that Italy is a traitor to the West. Europe's largest countries, too, have expressed alarm.

  • What worries China critics: Thus far in China's four-decade economic surge, Beijing has largely called the shots. Its businesses have enjoyed a relative open door to western economies while it has constrained access to its own markets, and displayed little respect for Western intellectual property.
  • While President Trump, with his trade war, is attempting to break down some of the barriers, the Italian breach in Europe could weaken the solid western front.
  • "Along with China’s growing involvement in Europe’s telecom industry, we are seeing deepening economic links between Europe and China that will have long-term geopolitical implications," said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Italy itself suggests that its allies are overreacting: While it may not seem so, the deal does not come out of nowhere — Italy has been negotiating it for months, and says Washington said nothing until now.

  • In an op-ed yesterday in the FT, Michele Garaci, Italy's undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Economic Development, who has conducted the negotiations with Beijing, suggests that his country is being unfairly singled out.
  • Chinese investment in European ports is nothing new, he says: China has put money in ports in Spain, France, the Netherlands, Malta and Greece (where it has a controlling stake in the port of Piraeus). Why the fuss over Italy?
  • Italy, he says, is only "protecting our national interests and strategic assets" by getting onto the new Silk Road. While doing so, Italy is establishing best practices. He urges the rest of the big European nations to follow suit.

2. More data, more problems

Illustration of a child's brain with animated dots

Illustration: Caresse Haaser/Axios

Big data got us here, but small data will get us the rest of the way. That's the mantra coming from AI researchers at the forefront of their field, who are casting about for the next big breakthrough.

Kaveh writes: Inspired by how children learn, they are experimenting with methods that will allow them to train up AI systems with a tiny fraction of the inputs required today — and then set the systems loose on a new problem that they've never seen before.

Background: The deafening fuss around AI is driven by deep learning, a technique that allows machines to pick out subtle patterns from enormous datasets.

  • It's great for all sorts of lucrative and interesting tasks, like driving cars and reading brain scans. And it can get better and better as it eats up more data.
  • But amassing and labeling vast amounts of data is cumbersome and slow — or even impossible, when there's just not much information available.

The next frontier is AI that learns on its own, rather than being explicitly fed information, and algorithms that can take what they know in one arena and apply it to another — like kids learning how the world works.

Driving the news: A panel of leading AI scientists laid out the state of the art at Stanford on Monday, at the launch of the university's Institute for Human-Centered AI. Among the various stabs at solving the data problem:

  • Curiosity-based AI, which would find gaps in its knowledge and gather the missing data itself — like a two-year-old finding her way about the world, according to Berkeley psychology professor Alison Gopnik.
  • Transfer learning, the long-sought but still out-of-reach principle that an AI system can apply what it's learned in one domain to a similar one.
    • "Just like children, we think that to learn things about the world properly you need to be an active learner," said DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis.
    • "I really think that's the direction we need to be going in as the field: How do we actually build more general systems that can take … a new task and do well on that," said Jeff Dean, head of Google AI.

3. What you may have missed

Photo: Leon Neal/Getty

Couldn't even start to think about the outside world? Never mind — here is the top of Future for the week.

1. Reinventing GDP: Where is the internet?

2. A splendid age for autocrats: The new tech will rule geopolitics

3. Trouble with smart cities: Companies are exploiting them

4. AI’s uneasy coming of age: Avoiding the mistakes of tech's forefathers

4. Worthy of your time

Walmart's secret weapon to beat Amazon (Sarah Nassauer — WSJ)

A long continued road to a U.S.-China deal (Dion Rabouin — Axios)

The missing insects (The Economist)

1500 to now: Biggest cities in the world (Tom Hannen, John Burn-Murdoch — FT)

Why we can pronounce F and V (Ann Gibbons — Science)

5. 1 leashed thing: A steer at Petco

Several steers in the wild

Oliver, an Ankole-Watusi steer native to Africa. Photo: Nacer Talel/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Petco has an open-door policy for all leashed pets. So one Texas couple decided to put that to the test with their pet, Oliver, a 1,600-pound steer.

Erica writes: Victor Browning, Oliver's owner, wrote in a Facebook post that Petco policy checked out. The staff at the store welcomed him and came over to pet him.

  • For his part, Oliver politely tilted his head when entering through the store's sliding doors so his enormous horns wouldn't shatter the glass.

Watch the entrance.