Data Sheet—The Almost Overwhelming Task of Retraining the Workforce
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Good morning one last time from Davos, where the U.S. president just finished reading a speech wholly from the teleprompter, declared America open for business, and asserted that “America first does not mean America alone.” It was a self-congratulatory speech that, but for one gentle jab at those in the room who supported Hillary Clinton, completely avoided provoking his well-heeled audience. (Trump did take a shot at the news media, as did World Economic Founder Klaus Schwab, but that won’t make headlines.)
Thursday night, as Donald Trump dined with a group of 15 business executives—I’m told by someone who was there the president was relaxed among fellow businesspeople and in listening mode—Fortune also hosted a dinner. We gathered an only-slightly-larger group to discuss one of the more pressing topics among corporate and government types this year in Davos, the future of work.
This wasn’t so much a conversation about whether robots powered by artificial intelligence will eliminate everyone’s jobs as an acknowledgement that technology will obliterate work as we know it and how to encourage the necessary “re-skilling” in response.
As happens in Davos, our’s was a high-powered gathering. At my table alone were Jim Kim, president of the World Bank, and CEOs Ginni Rometty of IBM, Marc Benioff of Salesforce, Paul Polman of Unilever, Andrew Liveris of Dow, and Feike Sijbesma of DSM. (The conglomerate’s name once was Dutch State Mines, but Sijbesma likes to say it stands for “Doing Something Meaningful.)
Training people for the new economy is complicated and overwhelming. Our dinner conversation ranged from focusing on feeding children in developing countries as a precursor to educating them to teaching specifically employable skills (as opposed to, say, poetry) to the need for corporations who demand specific skills to do more with their time and money to ensure a supply of workers who have them.
It’s a daunting problem. At the same time, I was struck by the optimism of the group—though it occurred to me more than once this week that attendees at the forum are overwhelmingly optimists. (Nature or nurture? I think I know the answer.)
They also are realists, of course, perhaps no one more than Jim Kim, a former university president and groundbreaking physician. He speaks regularly, here for example, about the concept of “reference income,” the notion that as incomes rise in developing countries so does awareness of how much more money people in the developed world make. That leads directly to dissatisfaction, yet another challenge to worry about for those mindful of the global economy and its workforce.
Digital discount. Readers of electronic books may be getting the first good news in the eight years since the major publishers and Apple conspired to raise prices. Walmart says it's is going to make a major push in ebooks via the Kobo platform, which had partnered with Borders before that chain went bankrupt. The giant retailer didn't discuss its ebook pricing strategy but is known for discounting. Meanwhile, Apple is simplifying the interfaces on its ebook app and store.
Digital discount, part II. One of Japan’s largest digital currency exchanges, Coincheck, has stopped letting customers make withdrawals and halted bitcoin trading, prompting a 7% drop in bitcoin's price. Back in the United States, free stock trading app Robinhood said it will start allowing free digital currency trading, as well.
Teenage angst. The latest attack on social networks came from billionaire investor George Soros. “They deliberately engineer addiction to the services they provide,” Soros said at Davos. “This can be very harmful, particularly for adolescents.”
Grown up angst. The panels that advise the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on its Doomsday clock have pushed the measure of the risk of nuclear war to just two minutes before midnight. That's the closest the clock has been to doomsday since 1953. "Hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative actions" by North Korea and President Donald Trump prompted the move, the magazine said.
The fix is in. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo resigned from a Federal Communications Commission advisory panel on broadband, saying the group was stacked with telecom industry insiders. "It’s obvious that this body is going to deliver to the industry what the industry wants,” Liccardo told Axios.
Good for the gander. After all the troubles at Uber, it's time for some scandal at competitor Lyft, it appears. Employees are alleged to have peeked into the ride histories of celebs like Mark Zuckerberg. Lyft said it is investigating the matter.
No holes in this report. Intel announced fourth quarter results that beat Wall Street expectations, thanks largely to booming sales of chips for servers and data centers. The company also said it would incorporate fixes for the Spectre and Meltdown security attacks into new chips this year. Shares of Intel jumped 7% in premarket trading on Friday, regaining all of the ground they lost since the attacks were disclosed. One of Intel's biggest customers, Dell, may want to go public again, almost five years after going private, Bloomberg reports.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Airbnb Adds Another Man to Its All-Male Board By Natasha Bach
Why Is Apple Suddenly Hiring So Many More Designers? By Don Reisinger
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
The grandmother of the World Wide Web has died. Computer scientist Mary Lee Berners-Lee was renown for her own achievements in advancing the age of computing. But she was also quite proud of the fact that her son, Tim Berners-Lee, invented the web. In an obituary for The Guardian, Georgina Ferry writes that the son also gave credit to his mom for inspiring him:
Modest about her own pioneering achievements, she is on record (in an interview with computer historian Janet Abbate) as saying that her biggest contribution was to be “the grandmother of the web”. In 1989 Tim Berners-Lee (now Sir Tim), the eldest of her four children, proposed a system to access and exchange documents across the internet, and soon afterwards built the first web server, website and browser.
Tim recalled that his mother had a strong sense of the potential of computers right from the start. “It was obvious to us growing up how incredibly exciting it was,” he said, “not just that you had a new device, but the sense that what you could do was limited only by your imagination.”
FOR YOUR WEEKEND READING PLEASURE
A few interesting longer reads I came across that are suitable for your weekend reading pleasure.
The Era of Quantum Computing Is Here. Outlook: Cloudy (Quanta Magazine)
It would be tempting to conclude from all this that the basic problems are solved in principle and the path to a future of ubiquitous quantum computing is now just a matter of engineering. But that would be a mistake. The fundamental physics of quantum computing is far from solved and can’t be readily disentangled from its implementation. Even if we soon pass the quantum supremacy milestone, the next year or two might be the real crunch time for whether quantum computers will revolutionize computing. There’s still everything to play for and no guarantee of reaching the big goal.
How To Win Founders and Influence Everybody (Wired)
For years Wennmachers has quietly advanced a narrative that has shaped how the world sees Silicon Valley and how the Valley perceives itself—as a group of brainy outcasts upending the limits of the status quo. But as the Valley’s tinkerers become industry titans, that image is changing. In the wake of the 2016 elections, the industry's largest companies have suffered a backlash. From almost every political perspective, they have been criticized as profit-mongering, irresponsible, privacy-invading, and out-of-touch.
I Copied the Routines of Famous Writers and It Sucked (Vice)
Did Balzac really drink 50 cups of coffee a day? Does Murakami actually wake up at 4 AM? For a week, I tried to live like famous writers. It went poorly.
Can Planet Earth Feed 10 Billion People? (The Atlantic)
Hundreds of millions of people in Asia, Latin America, and Africa have lifted themselves from destitution into something like the middle class. This enrichment has not occurred evenly or equitably: Millions upon millions are not prosperous. Still, nothing like this surge of well-being has ever happened before. No one knows whether the rise can continue, or whether our current affluence can be sustained.
BEFORE YOU GO
Many have decried the demise of local journalism but few have been able to do much about it. Now Google is creating an app, dubbed Bulletin, to try to reinvigorate the market with reports by citizen reporters which can then be highlighted on Google News. The app is starting with trials in Oakland and Nashville.