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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
New advances are taking automation to the highest end of human endeavors, offering scientists a shot at some of the most intractable problems that have confounded them — and along the way tipping a global balance to give upstarts like China a more level playing field in the lab.
What’s happening: A combination of artificial intelligence and nimble robots are allowing scientists to do more, and be faster, than they ever could with mere human hands and brains, reports Axios' Kaveh Waddell.
"We're in the middle of a paradigm shift, a time when the choice of experiments and the execution of experiments are not really things that people do," says Bob Murphy, the head of the computational biology department at Carnegie Mellon University.
Details: Experimental science is expensive. In biology, for example, pricey equipment and labor mean that scientists can’t do all the experiments they would like. Instead, they prioritize the ones they think will give them the most information about the questions they are after.
Automating science makes it easier to do big experiments, allowing more people to participate — and potentially boosting the scientific output of countries that have traditionally trailed the U.S.
This trend could move the nexus of experimental science away from the U.S.
It’s not clear what this democratization will look like.
What’s next: Biology is at the center of automation, but it can potentially be applied to any experiment-driven science, like chemical engineering, material science and experimental physics.
A supermarket in Alibaba's hometown of Hangzhou. Photo: AFP/Getty
American companies are being wooed by Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant, in a way they never have been by Amazon.
Driving the news: Alibaba is opening up its data to the companies to help them shape their products to suit Chinese tastes, Axios' Erica Pandey writes.
One success story: Alibaba showed Mars data that revealed Chinese snackers’ preference for a classic Sichuan spicy flavor called 麻辣 (mala). Mars responded with a now wildly popular spicy Snickers bar for the Chinese market.
The key difference between Amazon and Alibaba: Amazon is itself a retailer, thus competing with brands with its own private labels. Alibaba is only a platform, with no dog in the fight for customers.
Bina48, West Point instructor. Photo: Courtesy Bina48 Facebook page
Why it matters: The experiment at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point sought to determine if AI can "support a liberal education model," says William Barry, a West Point professor who has been using Bina48 to teach for years.
What’s happening: Bina48 co-taught two sessions of an introduction to ethics philosophy course — which covers ethical reasoning, just-war theory and the use of artificial intelligence in society, writes Axios' Khorri Atkinson. In the classroom were almost 100 students, along with Barry and Maj. Scott Parsons, an assistant professor at West Point.
The objective was to understand whether AI “can authentically support teaching in the classroom, where it enhances students’ comprehension and holds interest," Barry says.
How it works: Bina48 is fed a mosaic of general knowledge, in the form of what Barry calls "mind files."
After today’s class, Barry tells Axios the cadets were wholly receptive:
“Before the class, they thought it might be too gimmicky or be entertainment. … They were blown away because she was able to answer questions and reply with nuance. The interesting part was that [the cadets] were taking notes.”
But the bot may not be best suited for West Point, the cadets concluded, since it didn’t quite keep pace with the class. It might make a greater impact in countries with low literacy rates, he says.
Flashback: This is not Bina48's first interaction with West Point students. Last year, it participated in a debate about the use of nonlethal weapons in warfare.
Editor’s note: This post has been corrected to show that William Barry is a professor at West Point, not at Notre Dame de Namur University. It also corrects the name of Barry’s co-teacher, Maj. Scott Parsons, who was incorrectly named as Bill Parsons.
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios
China's great leap backward (Jonathan Tepperman — FP)
The cost of the first unstable climate in 7,000 years (Felix Salmon — Axios)
2 billion is a lot of cars (Liam Denning, Nathaniel Bullard — Bloomberg)
Uber's ultimate weapon: Economists (Alison Griswold — Quartz)
A theory of the rigged U.S. economy (Joseph Stiglitz — Scientific American)
The cover of the Sears catalog, 1900. Photo: Getty
With the news that Sears filed for bankruptcy yesterday, we chronicled how the once-iconic department store has been misunderstanding its shoppers for decades. But early in Sears' long reign, it was a revolutionary force in the U.S., as it subverted Jim Crow-era practices that blocked black Americans from shopping freely and charged them usurious prices, Erica writes.
"Equal access for consumption was a long fight for African-Americans," Hyman, who posted a tweetstorm yesterday on Sears and civil rights, tells Axios.
Before mail-order houses, black sharecroppers and tenant farmers had no choice but to shop at local stores where they'd be served only after white customers and charged higher prices for the same goods. In many cases, the storeowners would flatly refuse to sell black shoppers certain items, Hyman says.
"It didn't really matter what their personal beliefs were," says Hyman. Richard Warren Sears and Aaron Montgomery Ward inadvertently kick-started a revolution that lifted up black, immigrant, poor and illiterate consumers around America.