The NewCo Daily: Today’s Top Stories
Artificial intelligence experts gathered in Asilomar, California in January to ponder the ethical and philosophical challenges their field presents. The choice of location echoed a historic 1975 conference at Asilomar that grappled with the future of genetics and biotech in cosmic terms. While the recent event was private, Cade Metz in Wired reports that the nightmare scenarios it raised were less of the science-fiction-apocalypse variety and more centered on mundane economic concerns.
The headline: AI-driven automation will “eliminate far more jobs far more quickly than…expected.” In other words, the long-term threat to the middle class comes much less from globalization than from technology, and the Trump-era focus on closing the borders is a waste of effort.
What if the White House decides that AI itself is the enemy, and tries to regulate it? That will just give overseas AI competition a boost. It doesn’t look like there’s any way to stop this train, even if we agreed we wanted to do that. But we can and should plan to help the people it is likely to leave behind.
Today’s Tech Markets Don’t Deserve That Name
The story of tech platforms has been a tale of creating new markets where they didn’t or couldn’t exist before — think everything from eBay to Uber. The problem today, writes Anil Dash (Medium), is that over time these markets have become less and less open, free, and fair. In the early days of the Internet, eBay made it possible for sellers and buyers to connect on line and make deals. But Uber is anything but an open market: the sellers (drivers) can’t set their own prices, the buyers (riders) don’t get to pick their sellers, and there’s no transparency.
Uber and many other of today’s platform services are “fake markets,” according to Dash. Their workings are typically subsidized by wads of investment cash that subsidize the service in hopes of establishing a monopoly that can someday jack up its prices. They provide real short-term benefits to some participants but their long-term social consequences are harmful.
Similar dynamics are at play in software marketplaces shaped by Apple’s and Google’s app stores and in the media-attention marketplaces shaped by Facebook and Twitter. If we can’t rely on these crippled exchanges to deliver efficient and fair results, we need to support alternatives that work the way markets are supposed to.
What Makes a Hit Go Pop Is Not What You Think
Things become popular at the intersection between novelty and familiarity: “To sell something surprising, you have to make it a little bit familiar. And to sell something familiar, you have to make it a little bit surprising.” That’s where Atlantic editor Derek Thompson comes out in his new book Hit Makers, which studies what makes movies, music, products, and political messages win attention and reach the masses (Heleo).
In Thompson’s theory of popularity, invention and originality count for somewhat less than conventional mythology would have it. Distribution is “king,” rather than content. “Virality” is mostly a myth, and most social distribution happens at the tail end of some vast one-to-many broadcast event. Luck and chance play a larger role than most of us would imagine, and because of that, persistence can pay off. You can’t control what happens each time you take a swing at the ball, but the more at-bats you get, the more likely you are to score.
Don’t Count on Pipelines to Resurrect U.S. Steel
When President Trump reversed policy and decided to push domestic pipeline-building, he also made a point of requiring the use of American-made steel in the projects. But that requirement is almost certain to be all noise and no action (The Boston Globe).
Of the two best-known pipelines, the Dakota is nearly complete, and the Keystone has already purchased most of its materials. Also: American steelmakers mostly don’t make the kind of steel these pipelines need. It’s a low-margin product, and U.S. producers have concentrated on the more profitable auto and appliance market. Finally: World Trade Organization rules bar preferential treatment of domestic firms for most kinds of projects. It turns out that reviving an industry like steel takes a lot more than an executive order.