Read for Later - “You’ll just speak, and we will find the most relevant skill that can answer your query.”

This week’s headline quotes Rohit Prasad, Amazon’s Vice President and Head Scientist, Alexa Artificial Intelligence (AI), on the company’s ambitions to eliminate the use of Alexa Skills in favor of a system that uses context clues like a user’s location, subscriptions, services, and history to figure out what they mean and what service is most useful (Digital Trends “Amazon wants Alexa to figure out how to fulfill users’ without help from Skills”).

You can always check out the Center's trend collection to see how this scanning comes together to identify trends relevant to our futures. The Center's trend cards are also available to help you talk with colleagues and members of the community, map how trends fit together or how they fit into your community, or spark innovation activities.

What have you read lately to help you think about the future? Drop me a line to let me know what articles and reports you're reading that others might find of interest.

Five Highlights

The New York Times “NYC to add nonbinary 'X' designation to birth certificates”
Birth certificates in New York City will have a new "X'' option for those who don't identify as male or female under legislation passed by New York’s City Council – states including California, Oregon, and Montana allow individuals to change the gender on their birth certificates without a note from a doctor, but it's unclear how many jurisdictions allow parents to select a nonbinary option for their newborns.

NPR “If 'free college' sounds too good to be true, that's because it often is”
A new Education Trust review of 15 statewide “free college” programs finds that states vary wildly in how they define both "free" and "college” – the criteria used by the review, including coverage for living expenses and non-tuition fees, inclusion of adults and returning students, and provisions for half-time enrollment, serve as an important reminder of the different barriers students face in accessing a college education. See also The Atlantic.

Fast Company “Starbucks is making its stores more sustainable–and wants to help others do the same”
Starbucks’ new Global Greener Stores Commitment commits the company to building and operating 10,000 “greener stores” across six key standards, including energy and water conservation, renewable energy, responsible materials, waste diversion, healthy environments, and engagement with partners and employees in sustainable practices.

The Wall Street Journal “The government may want to buy your dying mall”
While real-estate analysts note that it is difficult to track the exact number, there appears to be a small but growing trend of local governments purchasing or taking over declining shopping malls over concerns that vacated retail centers will blight the community and drag down surrounding property values.

Digital Trends “Amazon wants Alexa to figure out how to fulfill users’ without help from Skills”
Amazon is reportedly exploring a system that will have the Alexa voice assistant perform any skill without requiring activation of specific skills to their device - Alexa will use context clues to figure out what users mean, drawing upon location, subscriptions, services, and history to determine what service is most useful.

Communities and Demographics

Wired “Melinda Gates' new research reveals alarming diversity numbers”
A new report from Melinda Gates and McKinsey & Company, “Reboot Representation: Using CSR and Philanthropy to Close the Gender Gap in Tech,” finds that 32 large tech companies, including Google, eBay, and Salesforce, together spent $500 million on philanthropy, but just $24 million to support programming for women and girls and just $335,000 targeted at programs aimed at women of color, even as many of them note the importance of gender and racial diversity in technology. See also Geekwire.

Economics and the Workforce

The New York Times “Americans want to believe jobs are the solution to poverty. They’re not.”
An important and eye-opening look at the limited job prospects for people without much education – in an economy that is said to be strong, there is a clear divide between corporate profits and real wages for workers.

Bloomberg “A world with fewer babies spells economic trouble”
In the world’s biggest economies – the U.S., China, Japan, and Germany – economists foresee slower economic growth unless nations increase their working-age populations by accepting immigrants.


Bloomberg “Amazon's Bezos launches $2 billion fund to help the homeless”
Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Bezos launched the $2 billion Bezos Day One Fund to focus on two initiatives – funding existing nonprofits doing “compassionate, needle-moving work” to shelter and support the immediate needs of young families and the development of a network of high-quality, full-scholarship Montessori-inspired preschools that will be run like Amazon and adopt Amazon’s principles, including an “intense customer obsession” where “the child will be the customer.” See also The Guardian.

Quartz “Silicon Valley is getting so pricey a university is pleading with professors to house students”
The University of California Santa Cruz’s executive director of housing services emailed nearly 6,000 faculty members asking them to consider housing “several hundred students without housing guarantees on the waiting list for housing” – the university admitted about 7,000 students this year, up from 5,300 last year, but the scarcity is exacerbated by the region’s failure to add enough housing for thousands of new workers arriving for high-paying tech jobs.

The Hechinger Report “College students predicted to fall by more than 15% after the year 2025”
Nathan Grawe, an economist at Carleton College in Minnesota and author of Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, predicts that the college-going population will drop by 15% between 2025 and 2029 and continue to decline by another percentage point or two thereafter, the result of a declining birthrate in the U.S.

The Internet

The Intercept “Google China prototype links searches to phone numbers”
Google’s prototype for “Dragonfly,” a censored search engine that it is reportedly building for China, links users’ searches to their personal phone numbers, making it easier for the Chinese government to monitor people’s queries – human rights groups have criticized Dragonfly, saying that it could result in the company “directly contributing to, or [becoming] complicit in, human rights violations,” and could inspire other governments to seek similar arrangements with technology firms. See also Foreign Policy.

Pew Research Center “About a quarter of rural Americans say access to high-speed internet is a major problem”
A Pew Research Center survey conducted earlier this year finds that 24% of rural adults say access to high-speed internet is a major problem in their local community, compared to 13% in urban areas and 9% in the suburbs – rural adults ages 50 to 64 and non-whites are more likely than those in other groups to see access to high-speed internet as a problem where they lived.

Motherboard “Lawmakers demand intelligence community release a report on deepfakes”
Three members of the U.S. House of Representative – Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), and Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) – sent the Director of National Intelligence a warning about the impending dangers of deepfakes, videos that utilize algorithmically-generated image synthesis techniques, including their possible use against the U.S. by hostile nations. See also The Daily Dot.