Trump: I will probably withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal in September - Axios
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Trump: I will probably withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal in September

Deal agreed, July 14, 2015 (U.S. State Department)

President Donald Trump said he expects in September to declare Iran not compliant with the 2015 nuclear agreement hammered out with the U.S. and five other leading countries. If he pushes forward with the expectation, made in remarks to The Wall Street Journal, he could trigger a new escalation in already-high tension between Iran and the U.S.

But the actual impact of a U.S. withdrawal on Iran or its nuclear program will depend on how Tehran and Europe respond. European powers seem unlikely to follow the U.S. in lockstep, and there is much financial reason — business deals between European companies and Iran — to keep the deal in place, at least as far as they are concerned.

Why it's important: Trump's beef and that of other deal critics is that Iran has continued its ballistic missile program, along with its aggressive regional politics. None of that is likely to halt or even slow because the U.S. withdraws from the deal. But it could lead Iran to bust out of the terms of the agreement and resume its suspected development of a nuclear weapon.

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Retailers can't find qualified workers

A now hiring sign is shown in the widow of an Express in NYC. Photo: Mark Lenihan / AP

Staffing companies that work with some of America's biggest retailers say that the industry is struggling to attract quality workers at both the store associate and management levels, Reuters reports.

Why it matters: It's good news for workers that an historically good labor market is generally enabling folks to eschew jobs that don't pay well or offer competitive pay. But it couldn't come at a worst time for the traditional retail industry, which will struggle to differentiate itself from cheap e-commerce if it can't afford to hire quality salespeople.

  • Melissa Hassett of ManpowerGroup Solutions, whose clients include Lowe's, Pep Boys, and Staples, says that retailers are having particular difficulty "hiring is the lower level, the seasonal or entry-level employees," because applicants are balking at the low pay and unpredictable schedules typically offered by the industry.
  • The struggles of traditional retailers of late has also limited their ability to pay competitive bonuses for retaining " talented regional managers or heads of business lines."
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Helping the places globalization forgot

A truck travels on an overpass towards the World Trade Bridge, in Laredo, Texas. Photo: Eric Gay / AP

"The right way to help declining places: Time for fresh thinking about the changing economics of geography" — The Economist's lead editorial:

  • "Populism's wave has yet to crest. That is the sobering lesson of recent elections in Germany and Austria, where the success of anti-immigrant, anti-globalisation parties showed that a message of hostility to elites and outsiders resonates as strongly as ever among those fed up with the status quo."
  • "It is also the lesson from America, where Donald Trump is doubling down on gestures to his angry base, most recently by adopting a negotiating position on NAFTA that is more likely to wreck than remake the trade agreement."
  • Be smart: "The demise of NAFTA will disproportionately hurt the blue-collar workers who back Mr Trump."
  • "Welcome to the place age. ... Mainstream parties must offer voters who feel left behind a better vision of the future, one that takes greater account of the geographical reality behind the politics of anger."
  • Politicians need "to focus on speeding up the diffusion of technology and business practices from high-performing places. ... Bolder still would be to expand the mission of local colleges."
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43% of tech workers fear losing their jobs due to age

Nearly half of workers in the technology field fear losing their jobs because of their age, according to survey from Indeed.com. 18% of respondents "worry about it all the time."

  • A growing problem: 22.8% of employment-discrimination complaints filed to the EEOC in 2016 were age related, up from 19.6% twenty years ago. But age discrimination can be difficult to prove, and the Supreme Court made it more difficult in 2009 when it instituted a stricter standard for proving age discrimination than other types of workplace discrimination.
  • Who has it worst: Those facing the harshest economic effects of ageism may be the already unemployed and female. A recent study by economist David Neumark showed that female workers aged 64-66 who applied for an administrative role were 47% less likely to be called back than equally qualified applicants aged 29-31.
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Walmart to enlist Lord & Taylor in war against Amazon

Wal-Mart employees walk past a sign in the lobby at the Walmart.com office in California. (Photo: Jeff Chiu / AP)

Walmart is nearing a deal with Lord & Taylor, which would give the department store a dedicated space on Walmart.com, reports the Wall Street Journal, citing an unnamed source who says that the move "would be the first step in creating an online mall that shoppers could access from Walmart's website."

Why it matters: Walmart has swiftly grown its online business in recent quarters, and has convinced investors that the firm has the will and the way to take on Amazon in the battle to dominate American e-commerce. Traditional retailers like Lord & Taylor have taken notice, and now see Walmart as a potential distribution partner in a world where customers are eschewing the shopping mall for the online retail experience.

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Blue Apron announces layoffs

A typical Blue Apron package. Photo: Bree Fowler / AP

Blue Apron, the meal kit company that went public earlier this year, announced on Wednesday that's its cutting about 6% of its staff company-wide, according to a new SEC filing. The layoffs will cost the company $3.5 million in expenses such as severance packages.

Background: Blue Apron, which ships individually packaged kits for preparing meals, has been struggling since it went public in June. Shortly after, Amazon announced its plans to start selling meal kits, and at last two groups of shareholders later filed lawsuits against Blue Apron, alleging it misled investors about its business before going public.

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New AlphaGo AI learns without help from humans

A game of Go. Photo: Baona / iStock

DeepMind's latest iteration of AlphaGo — the artificial intelligence that beat world champion Go player Lee Sedol in 2016 — can learn to play the ancient game without feedback from humans or data on their past plays, researchers report today in Nature. Instead, the new AlphaGo Zero started with just knowledge of the rules and learned from the success of a million random moves it made against itself.

The score: After three days of training, the AI beat the original AlphaGo 100 to 0 — and was also able to create new moves in the process. This demonstrates a decades-old idea called reinforcement learning, suggesting that "AIs based on reinforcement learning can perform much better than those that rely on human expertise," writes computer scientist Satinder Singh in his accompanying article.

What it means: If AI can utilize reinforcement learning, that could be important in cases where large amounts of human expertise isn't available. But, it isn't clear how much this strategy will generalize to other applications and problems, says the University of Washington's Pedro Domingos. Go, though more complex than chess, offers a problem with defined rules unlike a busy street with unpredictable pedestrians and ambiguous shadows that a robot-controlled car might operate in.

What's new: AlphaGo's initial iteration was trained on a database of human Go games whereas the newer AlphaGo Zero's artificial neural networks use the current state of the game as input. Through trial and error and feedback in the form of winning, the AI learned how to play.

It then used that same network to choose its next move whereas AlphaGo used a separate network. This reinforcement learning strategy, which was used extensively by AlphaGo as well, has its roots in psychology: the neural network learns from rewards like humans do.

The DeepMind researchers wrote: "the self-learned player performed much better overall, defeating the human-trained player within the first 24h of training. This suggests that AlphaGo Zero may be learning a strategy that is qualitatively different to human play."

How they did it: AlphaGo Zero uses less computing power than earlier versions but Google's immense computing power was still key. The sheer number of games the AI can play against itself is an advance, says Domingos, who is the author of a book called The Master Algorithm.
He points out though that the roughly 5 million training games of self-play it took for AlphaGo Zero to beat AlphaGo is "vastly more" than the number of games Sedol had played to become a champion.

Recent work suggests simpler forms of learning could achieve similar goals. A paper published earlier this year by OpenAI showed how a technique similar to hill-climbing — in which the AI basically starts with a solution then makes small tweaks to optimize it — can solve Atari games, albeit simpler than Go.

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Mexico, Canada to stay in NAFTA if U.S. pulls out, Mexican pres. says

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico City. Photo: Rebecca Blackwell / AP

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto told El Economista that Mexico and Canada will continue to participate in NAFTA under bilateral terms even if the U.S. pulls out of it. Trade with the U.S. will continue and be governed by the World Trade Organization's general guidelines, he said.

The big picture: Mexico and Canada say they'll reject the Trump administrations hardline demands on NAFTA, and Peña Nieto is saying they have a plan B if Trump won't agree to something they can live with.

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Jobs are plentiful for rock-bottom pay across the West

For many years, the economic rules were supported by both common sense and the data: when unemployment falls, wages rise soon after. But since the turn of the century and before, that relationship has broken down across the developed world, according to data from the OECD (scroll over the chart below for detail).

Data: Unemployment and annual wage data from the OECD; Chart: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Stagnant wages aren't just an American problem: Workers in the wealthier nations are facing similar headwinds, like declining union membership, increased competition from foreign workers in a global marketplace, and slow productivity growth. But no one knows precisely why economics are failing to observe the traditional supply-and-demand rules.

The question is not academic: Frustrated by stagnant income, fears for their children's future, and the deterioration of their towns and cities, ordinary people in the U.S. and across Europe are taking it out on migrants and their traditional politicians, shaking up the western-led political system.

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Automation is raising pay before it cuts jobs

Boxed's Union City warehouse. Photo: Christopher Matthews / Axios

UNION CITY, NJ — Visit Boxed headquarters, and you'll find lighthearted employees working right alongside an automated picking machine that retrieves items without human help, two miles of conveyor belts that move items faster than people can, and other robotic devices. The online retailer, a competitor of Costco and Sam's Club, has attracted years of fawning publicity for carrying out all this automation at its warehouses without laying off a single employee. Plus, it is even raising salaries.

The cruel twist: Boxed is already shrinking the number of added workers required for expansion — one executive said that to triple business at the warehouse, he'll only need to hire 33% more labor. That aligns with an axiom of automation — that jobs offering the best chance of rising pay are usually in industries that are growing and adding labor-saving technologies at the same time, before the number of jobs eventually declines.

What the data say: In a study published in June, MIT economist David Autor looked at 19 countries over 35 years, and showed that automation doesn't kill overall employment, but reduces jobs within automating sectors.

  • Boxed CEO Chieh Huang tells Axios that his company is growing quickly enough that it must add both technology and workers in order to meet demand. And Boxed may end up being an outlier to the larger trends — after all, Amazon, too, is reporting big hiring plans even while automating aggressively.
  • But the bigger picture is a process that is disruptive to workers' lives. "We find that industry-level employment robustly falls as industry productivity rises, implying that technically progressive sectors tend to shrink," Autor writes.
A little-appreciated rule of automation: A little-appreciated rule of automation: Robots require people skills, but while the jobs working next to them may pay better, their numbers are fewer. One example is manufacturing, whose employment peaked back in the late 1970s, but has continued to set productivity records.
  • Jobs in the sector pay better than average, while often not requiring more than a high school degree — manufacturing jobs still pay 10.9% higher than those in the rest of the economy, when controlling for required education levels, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
  • And the appeal of manufacturing jobs goes further, like offering stable predictable schedules and involving making things rather than providing (sometimes demeaning ) services to others. The loss of manufacturing employment, therefore, has a broader, sociological impact.
  • For many years, the effect of automation in manufacturing was not that employment was being lost, but that no new jobs were being created on net, even as the industry sold more and more stuff.

But it's more complicated, too: Autor tells Axios that automation can only tell part of the story of the decline of American manufacturing employment. Trade plays a huge role in the plunge of manufacturing jobs, he says, with China's 2001 accession to the WTO a major factor in convincing American employers to move jobs there. "Although the predominant force that has slowly eroded manufacturing employment in the post-WWII era is productivity growth, that's not the right story for the 2000s," he writes in an email.

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SoftBank wants to become a major AI player

In a Sept. 20 speech in New York, Masayoshi Son, founder of the Tokyo company SoftBank, forecast that by 2047, the Earth will be populated by equivalent number of humans and robots — 10 billion each. And the robots, he said, will be "smarter than mankind." Over the last year, Son has been investing in that moment.

Data: Crunchbase; Axios reporting; Chart: Chris Canipe / Axios

Why it matters: Son appears intent on becoming as big in artificial intelligence as the U.S. and Chinese tech titans that have dominated AI research — Alibaba, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Tencent and so on. Toward that aim, over the last year, Son's $93 billion Vision Fund has put down large investments in at least a dozen promising AI startups.

Son has also been on the looking for outright acquisitions. In June, he acquired two serious robotics companies — Boston Dynamics and Schaft — for undisclosed sums. The goal is to get ready for what's called “the singularity" — the time when robots and people reach equal numbers.

"What is my belief and vision for this investment? I have only one belief — [the] singularity," he said in New York.