Jun 11, 2017

Axios Future

(We realized that some of the links in the first version of this newsletter weren't working so here's a second copy with that problem fixed. Sorry about that!)

Welcome back, and thanks for joining this conversation. If you haven't caught Episode 1 of our "Almost Now" video series, click here for a fun trek through the stop-and-start history of robots (with a Roomba cameo).

I'd love your thoughts, including ideas we should be covering. Just reply to this email, or hit me at steve@axios.com.

Who's thriving in the retail bloodbath ...

We still like to do some of our own chores:

  • Despite the boom in online shopping, Americans still love to pick over and buy their food at brick-and-mortar stores.
  • Americans also like to buy stuff to fix up their homes, and do the work themselves.

These are clear messages from the chart above, researched and created by Axios Visuals Editor Lazaro Gamio. Online shopping's headline hiring is impressive on a percentage basis, soaring by 61% since 2003. But it's still only in the hundreds of thousands. Building materials stores employ 1.1 million workers, and have revitalized in recent years; grocery stores employ 2.7 million workers, a number that grew by almost 9% since 2003.

Why it matters: We are starting to get a clearer picture of which traditional stores might survive the shift to online shopping, and who won't: From May 2003 to May 2016, department stores lost some 295,000 jobs. That's in an industry employing 1.3 million people. But, for policymakers, other industries are stepping in to soak up some of those laid off.

Go here to read the rest.

... and can the general misery be stopped?

Plunging sales in brick-and-mortar retail will lead more than 8,000 U.S. stores to close this year, analysts say, twice the number killed in 2016. Among the chief victims: workers. Amazon says it's adding 100,000 employees, but, as spelled out in the chart above, a multiple of that number have lost their jobs in recent years. One in 9 Americans work in brick-and-mortar retail, almost 16 million people in all.

Is the bloodletting uncontrollable? We asked five experts. Read their replies here.

Applying machine learning to the Comey-Trump standoff

GeoQuant's Mark Rosenberg, whose Berkeley-based political scientists use a machine-learning algorithm to assess political risk, makes the surprising argument that we may be headed into a period of political stability. Not calm, mind you, but at least not worse chaos.

Is machine learning any better at forecasting political risk than human beings? We'll find out in the coming months and years as firms like Rosenberg's emerge in a field until now dominated by humans.

  • But out of curiosity, we asked Rosenberg to ask his algorithm to track what will happen in the months ahead, with Comey's testimony as the central factor. In the chart above, pink represents political risk; blue is social risk, like polarization; and purple tracks governance risk, like a change in regulation.
  • His bottom line: While Comey's testimony has accelerated political risk, "this trend is projected to stabilize (albeit at an elevated level) over the summer." Political polarization will become worse, but not the risk of outright upheaval.

A level deeper: ... No impeachment, at least for now: "The Russia investigation and associated (unprecedented) instabilities in U.S. state institutions will continue to weaken the Trump administration's policy agenda, but is unlikely to lead to impeachment given current information."

Read the rest here.

Why did Alphabet sell the coolest robotmaker on the planet?

Sci-fi robots, the bipeds we grew up seeing in books and movies, are still largely in our imagination. To the degree they are around, it's largely because of Boston Dynamics, a 25-year-old company that a lot of people call the coolest robot-maker anywhere (see Handle, above).

Which is why it's strange that deep-pocketed Alphabet — one of the most ambitious and prideful companies in the larger artificial intelligence space — last Friday sold Boston Dynamics to SoftBank.

  • Martial Hebert, director of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, tells me that it may be about pragmatics: Boston Dynamics robots display "fantastic locomotion." Its work — "so advanced and exceptional" — is leading the way to fast robots. But Alphabet was probably impatient about getting from there to a commercial product. It simply didn't want to spend the money while waiting.

But is Alphabet being short-sighted? The markets seem to think so: Alphabet shares plunged 3.4% on Friday. Softbank's soared 7.4%.

Futurism's Dom Galeon suggests that it's Softbank with the vision this time: The deal fits Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son's aim of prodding along the Singularity, or super-human intelligence, by 2047.

Read the whole post here.

Worthy of your time

Here are a few stories we liked from Axios and across the Web:

  • Why Apple is struggling to become an AI powerhouse (WP's Elizabeth Dworkin)
  • Trump's 75% cut in battery research funding could trigger a Chinese talent raid (Axios)
  • Automation and globalization are a single cycle (Axios)
  • Elon Musk and the top-secret space robot (Quartz's Tim Fernholz)
  • Japan worries as its births plunge. Who will work? (NYT's Jonathan Soble)
  • Don't urge Rust Belt workers to migrate to jobs elsewhere (Axios)
One fun thing: We're all Luddites

Andrew McAfee, co-author of "The Second Machine Age," says technology has evolved a lot faster than our brains:

  • Paraphrasing the late biologist E.O. Wilson, McAfee tells Axios: "We have Stone Age mental processes, medieval institutions, and science fiction technologies. And that is a really uneasy mix."
  • The pace could lead to combustion: "The Luddites could come back."