Nov 28, 2018

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

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1 big thing: The export rule threat to tech

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Last week, the Trump administration said it is considering new export controls on a broad range of futuristic technologies, a move explained as a way to prevent foreign theft and espionage.

  • Axios' Kaveh Waddell reports: With the announcement, U.S. officials are considering national security — mainly keeping China from stealing sensitive technology.
  • The critical objective is to stay ahead in advanced science and technology.
  • But the move triggered a major worry among tech companies and researchers — that the new rules could hobble American research in strategically crucial areas like artificial intelligence, robotics and quantum computing.

The big picture: The risk is that, by constraining the discussion and export of certain technologies, companies and academic researchers might find it impossible to collaborate with important foreign specialists. That could jeopardize the U.S. lead in strategically vital technologies.

  • Among the new areas that could be subject to export control are genetic engineering tech, AI, quantum computing and molecular robots.

Why it matters: At the center of the issue are American universities, which routinely navigate existing export controls that restrict the distribution of sensitive technologies like super-strong materials and certain types of centrifuges.

  • The rules bar Americans from sharing information about such technology with foreign nationals, even inside the U.S.
  • Generally, academic research is exempt, allowing foreign and American students to collaborate freely.

Things become trickier when companies get involved — which they often do: Industry throws big money at universities, which produce fundamental research that companies can then commercialize.

  • Businesses must get permission from the government to share data on controlled technologies with foreign nationals. That process can take months.
  • But top universities generally refuse to exclude foreign-born students from their research labs.
"Stanford, Harvard, MIT and other top research institutions do not take export control work by policy. We need to ensure that all students, regardless of citizenship, can fully participate in research."
— Steve Eisner, director of export compliance at Stanford University

If export controls are expanded to include hot technologies like AI and robotics, some of the fastest-moving research could be off-limits to industry collaboration, potentially drying up an important funding source.

  • And if top universities choose to start accepting work that falls under export controls, they could deter top foreign students from applying, says Steve Eisner, director of export compliance at Stanford University.
  • Businesses are equally concerned about possibly throttling a vital source of research, says Christian Troncoso, a policy director at BSA, an association of leading tech companies.

But some experts say new barriers are needed to preserve the U.S. technological advantage.

  • "China's approach to tech transfer is a multifaceted challenge that leverages licit and illicit techniques, often exploiting some of the gaps in current U.S. laws and policies," says Elsa Kania of the Center for a New American Security.
  • These proposed controls are one tool to plug those gaps.
  • For technologies where the U.S. is already ahead and that are hard to replicate, export controls can help "hold on to that advantage as long as you can," says Paul Scharre, head of CNAS' Technology and National Security Program.

What’s next: Three weeks remain for the public to suggest changes to the government’s preliminary list.

  • Every expert Axios spoke with said this is too short for a thoughtful response.
  • A spokesperson for the Commerce Department told Axios that the process is "largely informational" at this stage and it will solicit another round of suggestions after the current window closes.
2. Fewer unauthorized immigrants at work

Expand chart
Reproduced from Pew Research Center; duration share is for adult immigrants; Chart: Axios Visuals

Unauthorized immigrants have shrunk to their smallest share of the U.S. workforce in more than a decade, a trend that appears to have begun early in the Obama administration, according to a new study by Pew Research.

  • The shift has occurred against the backdrop of a sharp decline in the absolute number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. over the last decade, Pew said.
  • Both trends — the fall in the number of unauthorized immigrants and their share of the labor force — diverge from a broad public perception that the U.S. is overrun with people who have entered illicitly or overstayed their visas.

Axios’ Stef Kight writes: The number of unauthorized immigrants in the workforce was 7.8 million in 2016, the lowest since the mid 2000s. As a share of the workforce, they were 4.8% in 2016, a tick lower than the 4.9% in 2005. “The decline in the unauthorized immigrant workforce stems mainly from the decline in the overall unauthorized immigrant population,” Pew said.

Why it matters: While the Trump administration wages war on illegal border crossers and immigrants who overstay their visas, it is battling against a problem that is already steeply on the wane.

By the numbers: The median number of years that unauthorized adult immigrants have been in the U.S. reached a new high of 14.8 years in 2016, and most have been in the U.S. for more than 10 years.

The bottom line: This likely means there have been fewer new, unauthorized immigrants coming to the U.S. in recent years.

3. Accelerating urbanization

Ikea fashion, in Paris. Photo: Julien Mattia/NurPhoto/Getty

Millennials aren't the only ones ditching the suburbs for the cities. Some iconic retailers — fighting to stay relevant as Amazon looms — are downsizing and shifting to city centers.

Axios' Erica Pandey reports: As the density of the world's biggest cities keeps increasing, hopping in a car to drive out to a big-box suburban store 8 or 10 miles away is becoming a thing of the past.

Driving the news: Ikea has plans to open 30 smaller stores in big cities, AP reports. At 54,000 square feet, these are about one-quarter the size of a mall anchor like Macy's.

"Many people are still prepared to drive to big Ikea stores. But with growing choice online and improvements in delivery options, increasing numbers of people are becoming more reluctant to travel when they can shop online."
— Neil Saunders, managing director at GlobalData Retail

Ikea is not alone.

  • Target has done the same, building a handful of mini-stores right next to college campuses.
  • And Walmart's new, futuristic Sam's Club Now — half the size regular Sam's Club stores and outfitted with cashierless checkout — opened in Dallas earlier this month.

But, but, but: "I don't see this as a revolution," says Neil Saunders, managing director at GlobalData Retail. The big stores in suburbs will survive, but at the same time, smaller urban locations will pop up to give shoppers choice.

What to watch: Amazon is once again leading the pack.

  • The e-commerce giant has built 18 bookstores across the country.
  • Now, it's carving a place in grocery with Amazon Go locations in major cities, in addition to its purchase of Whole Foods.
  • And the 4-Star store, Amazon's latest venture, which only sells products that have received 4-star or higher reviews online, offers everything from coffeemakers to toys to TVs.
4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

How Trump and Xi arrived at the brink (Bob Davis, Lingling Wei — WSJ)

The rise of the delivery AV (Joann Muller — Axios)

Down an Amazon rabbit hole (Jenny Odell — NYT)

Beavers are re-engineering Alaska (Sid Perkins — Science News)

Hidden homes of the uber-rich (Judith Evans — FT)

5. 1 artsy thing: 4,000 square feet of birds

Photo: Cornell Admissions/Instagram

The newest way to study ornithology at Cornell is by spending an afternoon gazing up at 270 life-size, scientifically accurate birds (living and extinct), painted across a 4,000-square-foot mural.

Erica writes: The mural is the work of artist Jane Kim, who spent 2 1/2 years on the birds. The National Audubon Society calls the finished product a “Sistine Chapel for worshipping birds," reports Fast Company.

  • Kim, who was trained at the Rhode Island School of Design, began by creating sketches of the birds and sending them off to scientists to check for their accuracy.
  • She then re-created the sketches on the wall, using a computer to get the colors exactly right.

The colors are so specific that they are named after the birds, like Saddle-Billed Stork Legs, which is a dark gray.

Fun fact: One color, Cassowary Neck, a light blue-green, is used on every bird on the wall.

Bryan Walsh