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Machines Eye LeBron James

February 14, 2017, 3:58 PM UTC

The world’s strongest job security belongs to great professional athletes. No machine can yet do what Tom Brady or LeBron James or Serena Williams can do, and even if that becomes possible someday, no one will pay to see it. The human element – knowing that each of these apparent super-people is one of us – makes their performance compelling. At least that’s what I used to think. Now I’m not so sure. Events in the news force us to ask once again the larger question of who, if anyone, cannot be replaced by technology.

The NBA and Take-Two Interactive Software last week announced they will create an NBA e-sports league. Take-Two already makes a hugely popular NBA video game. This new league, set to launch next year, will feature games between teams of avatars (none based on real NBA players) controlled by e-sports players – that is, experts at playing video games – to be chosen in an NBA-style draft. NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick told ESPN the league will stage events, sell tickets for fans, create merchandise, sign sponsors, and negotiate licensing rights so fans can watch games remotely.

Ridiculous, obviously, except that it isn’t. ESPN and TBS already broadcast live competitive videogaming, and fans even go to Madison Square Garden and other arenas to watch competitions on giant screens. The players are guys who sit at computers controlling on-screen avatars. It’s fitting that many of these events are live-streamed on an Amazon site called Twitch.

Some 144 million fans worldwide watched e-sports at least once a month last year, estimates the Newzoo consulting firm. That’s far less than the number of traditional sports fans, but e-sports fans are mainly millennials. They’re the next generation of sports fans – and they don’t need Brady, James, Williams, or anyone else in any particular place. More important, e-sports players, as distinct from physical athletes, are doing precisely the type of work that pure software can and eventually will do better.

Which brings us to Elon Musk’s latest musings yesterday at the World Government Summit in the United Arab Emirates. “There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better,” he said. “The output of goods and services will be extremely high. I think we’ll end up doing universal basic income. It’s going to be necessary. The much harder challenge is, how are people going to have meaning? A lot of people derive their meaning from their employment. So if there’s no need for your labor, what’s your meaning? Do you feel useless? That’s a much harder problem to deal with.”

More ridiculousness? Who would dare to say so? When we think we’ve identified a job that can’t be taken over by technology, we might be right. But the emerging lesson is: Don’t count on it.


I urge you to consider a terrific new book called The Airbnb Story: How Three Ordinary Guys Disrupted an Industry, Made Billions…and Created Plenty of Controversy by Fortune’s Leigh Gallagher, published today. I was particularly fascinated by Leigh’s deeply reported description of how co-founder Brian Chesky quickly taught himself to be a CEO. It wasn’t easy, and Chesky worked ferociously hard at it. But it’s astounding that he could do it at all. For leaders of all kinds, this is a revealing tale.

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What We're Reading Today

Toshiba chairman steps down after...
...the company's struggling nuclear division posted a $6.3-billion loss. Shigenori Shiga's decision to step down follows a chaotic earnings non-announcement in which the company postponed its report. Toshiba is exploring sales of other parts of the company, including a majority stake in its chip business; it had previously been trying to sale a 20% stake. Bloomberg

Aetna and Humana end merger plans
A judge ruled last month that the proposed $34-billion merger between Mark Bertolini's Aetna and Bruce Broussard's Humana violated antitrust rules. The companies have abandoned the deal, and Humana will receive a $1-billion breakup fee. WSJ

Walmart melds buying teams 
Doug McMillon's company has long maintained separate operations to buy in-store merchandise and online merchandise. Now those groups will combine, enabling Walmart to use its vast buying power to reduce online prices. It's another tactic to combat Jeff Bezos's Amazon. Fortune

Peugeot considering purchase of GM's Opel
Carlos Tavares's PSA Group, owner of Peugeot, has had a relationship with Mary Barra's GM through a joint operation to make SUVs and minivans. PSA confirmed it's looking to expand its relationship with GM, which could include buying the Opel business. BBC

Building Better Leaders

Mixing love and business on Valentine's Day
Calico co-founders Rachael and Nick Cope built a business on their combined interest in design. Being married to your co-founder has advantages that can strengthen a company, says Nick. Inc.

Elon Musk always asks potential hires...
...about a problem they solved and how they solved it. He says those that really solved the problem can articulate every step in finding a resolution. Fortune

Google's self-driving car project lost a lot of good people...
…because they earned too much money. An unusual pay system gave early employees large payouts that multiplied as the project grew. Some employees no longer needed job security and were willing to consider new opportunities. Bloomberg

White House Comings & Goings

National Security Adviser Flynn resigns
Michael Flynn stepped down under pressure concerning his talks with Russia's ambassador before President Trump's inauguration. Flynn mischaracterized the conversation to White House staff. The Justice Department had warned Trump that Flynn's conversation could be used as blackmail against him. Washington Post

Trump cabinet picks gained big from government deals
Newly confirmed Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary nominee Wilbur Ross both benefited from a 2008 program at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which was unwinding troubled banks in the financial crisis. The FDIC offered hedge funds and private equity firms a brief opportunity to buy distressed banks. Mnuchin and Ross were both part of investor groups that did so, profiting in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Fortune

IBM CEO defends role on Trump's advisory council
In a memo to employees, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty said every IBM leader has held discussions with the president since Woodrow Wilson. She said she spoke to President Trump about the immigration ban, noting that technology can enable safer immigration and travel. WSJ

Fortune Reads and Videos

Mattel partners with Alibaba
The partnership will give Mattel consumer insights as it tries to build sales in China.  Fortune

Harvard, Yale, and Stanford want to join a lawsuit...
...fighting President Trump's immigration ban. The universities are part of a group of 17 colleges that have united against the ban. Fortune 

21 companies announce support of border adjustment tax plan
Big exporters including Boeing, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer have formed a lobbying group to support the controversial element of the GOP's proposed corporate tax overhaul. Fortune

Melinda Gates details support of global contraceptive policy
"My family, my career, my life as I know it are all the direct result of contraceptives," Gates writes. "And now, I realize how lucky that makes me." Fortune

Happy Birthday

Michael Bloomberg turns 75 today. Biography

Mitsubishi Chairman Ken Kobayashi turns 68. Mitsubishi

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