How Serious Is Apple’s Billion-Dollar Factory Fund?

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Apple

Yesterday Apple announced a new $1 billion fund to invest in “advanced manufacturing” in the U.S. (CNBC). Though CEO Tim Cook didn’t come out and say it, the move is in line with many other U.S. companies’ efforts to appease President Trump, who has made reviving domestic manufacturing one of his most loudly proclaimed goals. (Vanity Fair: “Apple Just Handed Trump a Billion-Dollar P.R. Win.”)

Trump pines to revive the 1950s golden age of great factory jobs for high-school grads. But that word “advanced” before “manufacturing” is a tip-off that Apple, like everyone else, is going to be looking to hire people with training and skills.

Since Apple is sitting on more than $250 billion in cash, this fund is (pardon the expression) Trump change for the company. If flashing some cash in front of the president helps keep him happy, what does Apple have to lose? In case there was any doubt about the political motivation behind the move, Apple also unveiled a spiffy new page on its website touting how many millions of American jobs it is (indirectly) responsible for creating.

Cook offered few details about the nature of the new fund, the kinds of companies it will target, or the structure of its investments. In this, the announcement resembled those of other corporations that have made broad, vague promises to “bring jobs home” and “open new factories” that often turn out to be projects that were approved long ago.

Still: Cool! It’s good when Americans make stuff, and investment in new industries is rarely a bad thing — though when it’s done for political reasons, it can be shockingly wasteful. (When government does this, it gets castigated as “picking winners and losers.”) Of course, if the president’s on-again off-again talk of declaring trade war on China ever gets serious, Apple will need all the domestic manufacturing help it can get to try to salvage its business, which right now is almost entirely dependent on Asian manufacturing.


Qualcomm Asks Trade Agency to Ban iPhones

Not all trade disruption is the result of geopolitics. Sometimes it happens because companies get into fights with each other over things like patents.

That’s what’s unfolding right now between Apple and Qualcomm (Bloomberg). Apple stopped paying Qualcomm licensing fees, and now the mobile chipmaker is asking the International Trade Commission to bar iPhones at the border. That’s right, no more new iPhones for the U.S., if Qualcomm has its way. And yes, the ITC actually has the power to make such a thing happen, weird though it sounds.

Experts don’t seem to think that outcome is likely, not any time soon — they view this as just another move/counter-move in the patent-war chess game. But it’s a timely reminder that our gadget-filled lives rest on a complex structure of international legal and financial agreements. And that edifice is more vulnerable than we imagine. Push hard enough on it — with political instability, legal attack, or financial pressure — and the whole thing can topple. And then say goodbye to your new iPhone.


Preparing for the AI Future May Not Be Enough

As artificial intelligent and machine learning take over the world, what happens to human jobs? That question has been flashing in neon for several years now, and a new report from the Pew Research Center tries to get its arms around an answer to one pressing question: How can we prepare the job-seeker of the future for this strange new world?

One key finding: As education and training institutions change to meet the demands of the AI-dominated future, they will need to “focus on nurturing unique human skills that artificial intelligence (AI) and machines seem unable to replicate” — that is, “creativity, collaborative activity, abstract and systems thinking, complex communication, and the ability to thrive in diverse environments.” To stay employed, people should cultivate “tough-to-teach intangible skills, capabilities and attributes such as emotional intelligence, curiosity, creativity, adaptability, resilience and critical thinking.”

Virtual reality and augmented reality techniques, along with AI itself, can and will be deployed in training programs to speed learning, reduce costs, and make skills more widely available. General-purpose universities won’t disappear, but increasingly they will differentiate and specialize. Hands-on experience gained through apprenticeships will become increasingly valuable.

Also: Nothing we do in reaction to this wave of change will take place fast enough to protect everyone from the pain it will induce. And there’s always the chance that enough people will get angry enough that they will tear down the social and political institutions that fail to protect them. Or, as the Pew Report puts it, “Capitalism itself is in real trouble.”

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