Axios Future

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Kaveh and Erica are steering Future as Steve finishes up a week in Davos. Watch your inboxes tomorrow for a special deep dive dispatch from Davos. Get it by signing up for Axios AM.

We'd love to hear from you. Hit reply to this email or message Steve at [email protected], Kaveh at [email protected] and Erica at [email protected].

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1 big thing: Hard-time politics

Illustration of a group of people carrying a white flag with an outline of the United States shifting colors.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

U.S. politics is veering toward a potential transformation in which both major parties are competing to capture a single constituency — millions of Americans, from schoolteachers to steelworkers, who have fallen on hard times.

Steve reports from Davos: In 2016, President Trump won on a political hunch — that a swath of the U.S. left behind by the forces of globalization was a winning base.

  • Now Trump's intuition has gained intellectual force, and major Republicans and Democrats are attempting to capitalize on the bipartisan anger that suffuses American politics.

The party that successfully wins over this constituency in 2020, crossing gender, race, ethnicity and age, could hold power for a generation.

  • "Millions of people feel left behind by the rapid social, cultural and economic changes under way. It’s clear the old ways no longer work and the party that is able to offer a better way forward will lead a new coalition on the scale of the New Deal and the Reagan Revolution," Sen. Marco Rubio tells Axios.
  • "Both parties are trying to come up with a 21st century economic doctrine that widens the winner's circle and finds ways to course-correct the obvious inequities and unaddressed externalities of our current system," says Bruce Mehlman, a leading policy lobbyist.

If this course sounds familiar, it's because Democrats have sought to own the space since FDR. For most of the intervening decades, they have.

  • Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders ran on it in 2016, and Elizabeth Warren is running on a similar platform for the party's 2020 presidential nomination.
  • Beyond, 29-year-old Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has lit up the left with a full-throated call for higher taxes on the rich, free college, and Medicare for all.

But, after Brexit and Trump's election, the context has now changed — Republicans see that Trump's case has remained tight but relatively small: white Americans concentrated in down-on-their-luck industries of decades-old boom economies will not command a presidential majority.

  • A broader appeal could target low-salaried school teachers, nurses and other professionals, suggests Adam Tooze, an economic historian at Columbia University. "The shift is important, and if constructed the right way it could actually be majoritarian," Tooze tells Axios.

From the right and center, Republicans are already road-testing what a non-Trump workers platform could look like:

  • In a long piece last month in The Atlantic, Rubio made the case for aggressive government action to rebuild the middle class.  
  • Oren Cass, Mitt Romney's former domestic policy adviser, has attracted broad mainstream conservative attention with his manifesto, "The Once and Future Worker," which proposes an intellectual foundation for a Republican capture of the left-behind.
  • From the far right, Fox News firebrand Tucker Carlson again ignited conservative attention with a much-circulated Jan. 3 monologue that auditioned a platform to overturn and fix the system for white male disadvantaged Americans.

Mehlman, the lobbyist, draws comparisons to the Progressive Era, the 19th and the first decades of the 20th century, when a backlash against the Gilded Age produced a vast expansion of high schools, the direct election of senators, and the women's vote.

  • "What we face in the 21st century mirrors pretty closely what we faced in the beginning of the 20th century," Mehlman tells Axios.
  • "Populist energy got absorbed by both parties' reform movements. Both major parties evolved to reflect what citizens were demanding."

2. A computer-generated soundtrack for your day

Elton John lounging on a couch and listening to music

Elton John in 1974. Photo: SSPL/Getty Images

Every year, it becomes less and less likely that a human being composed the upbeat jingle you just heard in the background of a video.

Kaveh writes: Simple online tools have turned music generation into a matter of a dozen clicks, and can crank out pleasant if somewhat boring background music in a few seconds.

These algorithmically generated ditties end up in product videos, news clips and occasionally even on musicians' albums.

  • They may soon proliferate on streaming services like Spotify, which are angling to soundtrack every moment of the day.
  • Atmospheric songs can be tuned to match a mood and be generated on the spot for listeners, or spit out en masse ahead of time for streamers to choose from.

The big picture: Computer-composed music has been around for few years, mostly in novelty form. But there are increasing signs that music companies are taking it seriously.

  • In 2017, Spotify hired François Pachet, a computer scientist and composer. Last January, he published an album of computer-generated music.
  • Tencent's popular QQ Music streaming service announced this week that it's a customer of Amper, a company that builds music-generation software.

Amper's CEO, Drew Silverstein, wouldn't tell me what exactly QQ plans to do with the software, but he offered a few hints. "How do we have the best type of music situated for our day based on what we want to do?" he asked. "Amper can create individualized music on a global scale."

How it works: Earlier this week, I watched as Zachary Shuster, an Amper product manager, created a video soundtrack with Amper's tool.

  • He uploaded a short video clip and marked on a timeline where he wanted the music to intro, climax, and outro.
  • From among several genres — cinematic, folk, hip-hop, rock — he picked "documentary," and then chose "relaxed" and "happy" from an array of moods.
  • Then, he lined up a couple instruments — marimbas and shakers for a tropical vibe — and hit the go button. Within seconds, the software had generated five tracks.

Our take: The end result won't win a Grammy, but it got the job done. A casual listener wouldn't know it wasn't composed or performed by people.

3. What you may have missed

A flurry of motorcycles, racing

Mojave Desert. Photo: Bill Eppridge/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

It's Friday already? Here are Future's top stories of the week.

1. Jobs of the future: Requiring particularly human skills

2. Americans, divided by shopping: A measure of inequality

3. Robots and the heartland: Where automation will hit

4. Worthy of your time

The Great Wall of China at sunset

Great Wall. Photo: Getty

16,625 papers about AI (Karen Hao — MIT Tech Review)

The invasive species threat from Belt and Road (Andrew Freedman — Axios)

What happens when you try to sue your boss (Max Abelson — Bloomberg)

The dark age of surveillance capitalism (Shoshana Zuboff — FT)

Huawei, beleaguered in the West (The Economist)

5. 1 fun thing: Bots on campus

Two delivery robots pass each other

Delivery bots on the move. Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images

There's a new way to eat lunch on George Mason University's campus: get pizza from the dining hall delivered by a robot.

Erica writes: Starship Technologies has brought a fleet of 25 little white delivery bots to campus — and they're a hit, reports the Washington Post's Peter Holley.

  • George Mason lets students use the robots to summon grub from the school's kitchens for a $1.99 delivery fee, payable through their meal plans.

The big picture: College students are increasingly choosing to hail food through UberEats or DoorDash instead of making the trek to the dining hall. Using delivery bots is one way to keep business on campus.