Sep 25, 2019

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

Welcome back to Future. What should we be writing about?

Reply to this email or message me at erica@axios.com. Future's Saturday author, Kaveh, is at kaveh@axios.com.

Today, I've got 1,104 words, a 4-minute read. First up...

1 big thing: Retail's climate change moment

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As world leaders waffle on policies to head off the extraordinary climate change threat, the retail sector — America’s largest private employer — is moving on its own to cut back its environmental harm.

Why it matters: E-commerce and retail giants pump out emissions and pollution through mass manufacturing, incessant speedy shipping and uncurbed waste. Per one estimate, the fashion industry alone will burn up a quarter of the world's carbon budget by 2050.

By the numbers:

  • The manufacturing toll: Apparel and footwear industries contribute to 8% of global environmental impact, mostly due to manufacturing in Asian countries where factories rely on coal and natural gas, according to a 2018 report from sustainability research firm Quantis.
  • The logistics toll: The combined annual emissions of FedEx, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service is roughly equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 7 million cars. And to feed the demand for e-commerce, retailers are building more energy-guzzling warehouses.
  • The waste toll: The world wastes a garbage truck worth of textiles every second, per the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. On top of that, the packaging that comes with the stuff we order or buy accounts for half of all plastic waste, Supply Chain Dive reports.

The latest: Amazon — the biggest retailer on the planet, delivering more than 10 billion packages a year — came out last week with an ambitious climate plan to hit carbon neutrality by 2040, 10 years earlier than the Paris Climate Accord's goal. Its moves could have a ripple effect.

  • As part of the plan, Jeff Bezos is also committing to lobbying other big CEOs as well as his company's suppliers and deliverers to cut emissions. "We've been in the middle of the herd on this issue, and we want to move to the forefront," Bezos said at the announcement.
  • "Amazon is a huge part of everyday life in America right now," says Costa Samaras, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. "Companies will be willing to jump through sustainability hoops to be part of that Amazon ecosystem."

Other retailers have made commitments to curb impact as well.

  • In 2018, a number of brands — like Nike, Burberry, H&M and Hugo Boss — signed a charter for climate action that included a pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2030.
  • Walmart says it is on track to reduce its emissions by 1 billion metric tons — the equivalent of 212 million cars' annual emissions — by 2030. The giant also reported recycling 430 million pounds of plastic in 2018.
  • Best Buy is going a step beyond its own footprint and attempting to help shoppers reduce their impact when using Best Buy electronics. The company is investing in building energy-efficient devices and pledges to cut the emissions of its products by 20% by 2030.

The bottom line: The retail industry still has a long way to go in reducing its environmental impact, experts say. But companies are realizing that "to stay relevant requires action on sustainability," says Berkley Rothmeier of the climate advocacy group Business for Social Responsibility. "There is huge pressure for the private sector to get ahead of risk, and please employees and customers."

2. China on the U.S.' tail

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The U.S. has the upper hand in pivotal emerging technologies like AI and quantum computing, in part because American universities and companies boast world-class talent. But experts say its dominance could soon slip, Kaveh and I report.

Why it matters: The country that reigns in AI, 5G or quantum cryptography will likely have a huge military and economic advantage over its adversaries for years to come and will get to shape the technologies as they are implemented the world over.

A new report from the Council on Foreign Relations identifies the areas in which China is rapidly closing the gap with the U.S. "Slowing down China is not enough," says Adam Segal, an expert on emerging technologies and national security at CFR. "The U.S. needs to do significantly more at home."

  • China is vastly outpacing the U.S. in planning for and investing in critical research, and it is producing more and more top minds in AI and quantum computing. By 2030, China will likely be the world's leading spender on research and development, per the report.
  • Compare that to the U.S., where the share of government money spent on research has dwindled from 1.1% of GDP to 0.7%. Restoring that to historical levels is crucial, as about a third of patented American inventions in the last decade have leaned on federally funded research, the report notes.

What to watch: The U.S. needs to pull in scientists from around the globe to compete, Segal says. "China is producing 3 times as many STEM graduates at the undergrad level."

  • But increasingly restrictive immigration rules may keep Chinese scientists — as well as scientists from other foreign countries — at home.
3. Alexa in ... everything

An Amazon Echo. Photo: Joby Sessions/T3 Magazine/Future/Getty Images

Silicon Valley's tech giants are battling to take over your house, betting that the company that puts the most speakers, cameras and devices into customers' homes will reap massive profits from the troves of data collected.

The latest: Today, Amazon pulled even further ahead of its Big Tech brethren in this race, launching a slew of new smart products that are equipped with Alexa, its digital assistant.

Among the additions...

  • There's a pair of Alexa-enabled eyeglasses and the Echo Loop, a ring you can wear to have Alexa on your finger.
  • The new and improved Alexa can also detect frustration in your voice if she keeps misunderstanding you, reports The Verge.
  • Amazon also rolled out a smart appliance that is a toaster oven, a microwave and an air fryer, all rolled into one.

Why it matters: Amazon is rapidly building up the ways in which it can surveil its customers — listening to them, watching them, following them, keeping track of what they cook, and even figuring out how they feel.

Worth noting: The retail giant says it is keeping privacy concerns in mind. You can now ask Alexa to delete certain data, Axios' Ina Fried reports.

4. Worthy of your time

Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo. Photos via Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Special report: Higher education's existential crisis (Alison Snyder, Kim Hart — Axios)

How TikTok holds our attention (Jia Tolentino — New Yorker)

Vietnam is winning the U.S.-China trade war (FT)

Prehistoric baby bottles (James Gorman — NYT)

The trouble with adapting to climate change (The Economist)

5. 1 fun thing: Boris' view of the future

Boris Johnson speaks at the UN. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson presented quite an alarming, dystopian view of the future during his speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday. Here are some delightful quotes, via The Guardian.

“In the future, voice connectivity will be in every room and almost every object: your mattress will monitor your nightmares; your fridge will beep for more cheese.”
“A future Alexa will pretend to take orders. But this Alexa will be watching you, clucking her tongue and stamping her foot.”
“AI — what will it mean? Helpful robots washing and caring for an aging population? Or pink-eyed terminators sent back from the future to cull the human race?"
“What will synthetic biology stand for — restoring our livers and our eyes with miracle regeneration of the tissues, like some fantastic hangover cure? Or will it bring terrifying limbless chickens to our tables?”
Bryan Walsh