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Next:Economy Newsletter
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Augmented humans make inroads at Ford

Part of Tim O'Reilly's vision for the Next Economy is that robots and AI won't replace humans but, rather, will augment them, enabling them to work stronger, faster, longer, or smarter. While one can argue that on-demand drivers for platforms like Uber and Lyft are augmented by the company's apps on their smartphones, more obvious forms of augmentation are on the rise. For example, after a 16-month trial period, Ford is offering exoskeleton vests to employees in 15 factories around the world whose jobs require them to repeatedly reach overhead throughout the workday. The vests provide passive arm support that grows stronger the higher the workers reach. It's not meant to strengthen the employees but to ward off muscle fatigue and increase endurance. While Ford's only distributing 75 exoskeleton vests at this point, the company views this as the first piece of a system that can be built upon as new means of physical augmentation are perfected. Read more about Ford's first foray into exoskeletons and see the vests in action here.

+ From MIT Technology Review: "Meet the guy with four arms, two of which someone else controls in VR. These robotic limbs could someday help people work together when they're far apart."

+ The New York Times explores the evolution of robot hands: "Robotic hands could only do what vast teams of engineers programmed them to do. Now they can learn more complex tasks on their own."

+ From Joi Ito, writing for Wired: "Why Westerners fear robots and the Japanese do not."

+ Nancy Lubin's talk from TEDWomen 2015 describes how an algorithm augments the efforts of people who respond to messages for help on the nationwide Crisis Text Line. She also spoke at the Strata Data Conference in San Jose this March. Here's an excerpt.

Land use in the USA

A close look at US land use reveals important insights into agriculture and the economy. Without counting Alaska and Hawaii, the land mass of the US totals 1.9 billion acres. About a fifth of that—391.5 million acres—is used to grow crops, but less than one-fifth of that cropland (77.3 million acres) produces food for domestic consumption by humans. The largest use of US cropland is for livestock feed, followed by exports of wheat and other grain for human consumption and animal feed. Of the land used to produce crops for domestic human consumption, the bulk goes to growing wheat, soybeans, peanuts, and oilseeds; more than 30% of fresh fruit and vegetables bought by US consumers are imported, primarily from Mexico and Canada. More than one-third of the US mainland—654 million acres—is pasture and grazing land, mostly for cows. When combined with the land used for livestock feed crops, this means that 41% of US mainland acreage is used for livestock. On the other end of the land-use spectrum, urban areas comprise just 3.6% of the US mainland but contain about 80% of the US population. At a total of 69.4 million acres, urban areas in aggregate make the largest contribution to the US economy among other land-use categories, and this category grows by about a million acres per year on average. To put that into context, that's new urban land that could encompass Houston, Phoenix, and Los Angeles every year. Get the full picture of land use and the US economy in this fascinating series of data visualizations from Bloomberg. (Note: Don't neglect to scroll down.)

+ Wind and solar farms don't show up on the land-use data-viz maps, but they're glutting the power grid and pushing down energy prices across the globe.

+ "I haven't even looked for land to buy because it doesn't feel like a realistic possibility for me," says Torpey. "What I see as enough land to grow food for 130 families, a developer would see as enough land to build eight McMansions." From NPR: "Rhode Island bets the farm that cheap land will help local agriculture thrive."

+ "Polyculture Polenta," "Faux Fin Soup," "Potato CRISPRs"—just a few concepts for the future of food.

+ Is kelp the new kale? Science Friday looks into ocean farmers sustainably growing sea vegetables.

There's no such thing as a free lunch. Maybe...

Cities like San Francisco routinely offer attractive incentives to lure tech companies to set up shop in a depressed part of town. City officials expect these companies will more than make up for tax breaks with neighborhood revitalization and increased economic activity as well-paid workers spend money in local businesses. But that's not always the case when tech companies bring the perks provided at more remote campuses—conveniences like dry cleaning, gyms, and free or subsidized cafeterias—into their city headquarters. With free or cheap meals prepared by top chefs available on a daily basis, why would the average time-crunched worker venture out for lunch? Two members of the San Francisco board of supervisors have made a controversial move in hopes of seeing better returns on their tax-break investments; they've introduced an ordinance that would ban employee cafeterias from new corporate construction. It's a complex situation, given the sky-high rental market that takes a big bite out of worker paychecks and the inability of not-so-flush startups to compete for employees accustomed to benefits like free food. Get the full picture in the New York Times: "San Francisco officials to tech workers: Buy your lunch."

+ From Fast Company: "Are high-end restaurants the next coworking trend?"

+ From the Washington Post: "'We will not serve or pay for meat'—WeWork takes the green workplace to a new level."

5 ways to assess the impact of L&D

As businesses invest in learning and development, it stands to reason that executives want to know if and how these initiatives are paying off. However, it's not easy to determine the ROI of learning; there's no simple equation. But you may be able to assess the value of L&D through correlation; are your top-performing employees those who attend conferences or take advantage of online learning tools? O'Reilly's Karen Hebert-Maccaro lays out a five-point checklist that will help you measure the impact of your L&D initiatives.

+ Whether your employees want to learn new skills or find quick answers on the fly, they'll find what they need to know with O'Reilly online learning.

Deeper reading: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

21 Lessons for the 21st Century When historian Yuval Noah Harari drops a new book, which seems to happen fairly regularly, big thinkers take note. His two previous best sellers, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, took provocative looks—backward and forward, respectively—at the human condition. With his new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, he focuses in on the current day, grappling with the most challenging issues of our time—including income inequality, climate change, the significance of the rise of Donald Trump, and the proliferation of fake news—in five categories: technology, politics, truth, resilience, and despair and hope. Harari's publisher, Random House, released a series of Q&A videos featuring the author, which you can watch here, here, and here to get a taste of his discourse. The official release date is September 4, but August will be a buzzy month for the book. The Times of London interviewed Harari in Israel, where he's a lecturer at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Here's another interview, this one from the Jakarta Post. The Radio Times just published this review. Harari examines the question of immigration in this excerpt published in the Economist, and he delves into fake news, declaring that "Humans are a post-truth species," in this excerpt from the Guardian. The latter inspired this response from Tim O'Reilly. And if you're still wondering who Harari is, you might enjoy this piece from the Guardian exploring the runaway success of Sapiens: "How the 'brainy' book became a publishing phenomenon."
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