Nov 20, 2018

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

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Situational awareness: Richard Liu, CEO of Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com, will not have day-to-day duties in the company's main business but in "new" ventures, he told analysts today. Liu faces allegations of raping a University of Minnesota student in August.

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1 big thing: Futurism by hand, an eye on the past

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In today's topsy-turvy world — an unpredictable fog in which technology, geopolitics and the economy seem to turn on a dime — companies and governments would give anything to see around the next corner.

Axios' Kaveh Waddell writes: Scientists have yet to create an artificial intelligence system to help with such forecasting, leaving today's futurists leaning on time-honored traditional methods — deeply studying history for clues of what may come next.

The utter chaos in politics, economic trends and technology has created "a golden age for futurism," says Marina Gorbis, executive director of the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit research center. "We're in this period where all these things that we took for granted are all of sudden up for grabs."

  • Businesses are facing a new industrial revolution that will create new fortunes and destroy others.
  • Tech-enabled business models like gig-centered companies are changing how people work in unexpected ways.
  • And militaries are rushing to figure out how robots and fast-advancing artificial intelligence will transform war, on the battlefield and on the internet.

Lacking any machine to help them — even the equivalent of a quadrant or a slide rule — futurists to a large degree rely on intuition and common sense. "Unfortunately, it’s more art than science," says David Schatsky, who studies future technologies at Deloitte. "We don't have a machine that spits out, 'Here's a trend based on some data.'"

But there is a largely agreed-upon trail of facts — it's the past.

  • "Lately, I think of myself as much as a futurist as a historian," says Gorbis, of the Institute for the Future.
  • IFTF researchers start with the past. Then they search for blips in current events that buck the historical patterns they find.
  • "It could be a new technology being developed, or it could be a piece of data that tells you, 'Oh my gosh, there's something different going on here,'" Gorbis says.

Down the road, AI could help. Machine learning could be better than humans at scanning history and finding anomalies in the present, says Bob Murphy, head of the computational biology department at Carnegie Mellon University.

For now, though, futurists work largely by hand, blurring lines between fiction and nonfiction, econometrics and ethnography, history and forecasting.

  • Peter Singer, a senior fellow at New America, writes academic books on topics like cyberwar and private military contractors. But in 2015, he co-wrote a novel called "Ghost Fleet" with author August Cole.
  • "Science fiction is a valuable tool for policy because it can give everyone a shared vocabulary for grappling with emerging technologies. … [It] allows us to explore and anticipate the real human consequences of new technologies, laws, and social transformations," says Ed Finn, director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University.

The ultimate goal, says Gorbis: To find the things that "if we don’t pay attention to them now, we’re gonna kick ourselves five years from now."

2. The geography of despair
Expand chart
Reproduced from a Brookings Institution report; Chart: Axios Visuals

In the recovery from the financial crash, the largest, densest U.S. cities have had much steeper employment growth than smaller communities, according to a new study.

The report, by Brookings' Clara Hendrickson, Mark Muro and William Galston, says:

  • "Big, techy metros like San Francisco, Boston, and New York with populations over 1 million have flourished, accounting for 72% of the nation’s employment growth since the financial crisis."
  • "By contrast, many of the nation’s smaller cities, small towns, and rural areas have languished."

The report traces this economic trend through to the current of political polarization. "In a very real way, the 2016 election of Donald Trump represented the revenge of the places left behind in a changing economy," the authors say.

Go deeper: Countering the geography of discontent: Strategies for left-behind places

3. U.S. may escalate tech war

Photo: Laura Chiesa/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty

With an eye on curbing China’s scientific surge, the U.S. is considering export controls on a long list of emerging technologies, including AI, robotics and quantum computing.

Kaveh writes: In an announcement today, the U.S. Commerce Department says it may issue export controls on leading technology, and sought public comment on what any such restrictions should consist of.

  • Export controls are a "key component of the effort to protect sensitive U.S. technology," the government wrote in the Federal Register.
  • "This complex effort was undertaken primarily due to the perception that China was exploiting weaknesses in the system to obtain advanced technologies with potential military applications," said Paul Triolo, an analyst at the Eurasia Group.
  • "The new legal restrictions … will take time to fully implement and enforce, but they show the determination of the U.S. government to protect technologies that are now deemed critical to the national security innovation base," Triolo said.
4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

The future of war: robot soldiers, drone armies (Katrina Manson — FT)

The high-stakes game for sports gambling (Dan Primack — Axios)

The land that failed to fail (Philip Pan — NYT)

Why cats are so clean (The Economist)

Science gets less bang for the buck (Patrick Collison, Michael Nielsen — The Atlantic)

5. 1 mall thing: As much fun as you can stand

Photo: Erica Pandey/Axios

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A shoe store with a nail salon. A T-shirt shop with pinball machines. And an outdoor-wear clothier with an icebox to try on down jackets. Struggling with declining foot traffic, traditional mall retailers are debuting gimmicks and side businesses to get shoppers through their doors.

Axios' Erica Pandey writes: Columbus' Easton Town Center, a massive outdoor mall, has become a testing ground to see if these ideas work. The nail and hair salon is inside a DSW shoe store, and the ice box is in Eddie Bauer, allowing customers to see if the jackets will really keep them warm.

  • The ice box was inspired by Eddie Bauer himself. In the 1920s, he would step into Seattle restaurants and ask if he could stand in their meat locker to test out the jackets he was making.
  • In Columbus, the box faces the street and includes a big bench made of a block of ice. Right outside the door is a rack with several Eddie Bauer jackets to try on.

It's especially popular on hot summer days, store manager Eric Gorenz told me, when people use it as a quick way to cool off.

Bryan Walsh