Aug 8, 2020

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

Welcome to Axios Future, where the news that TikTok may be banned is finally inspiring us to figure out what it is.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,696 words or about 6 minutes.

1 big thing: Indoor air is the next coronavirus frontline

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A growing body of research has made it clear that airborne transmission of the coronavirus is possible.

Why it matters: That fact means indoor spaces can become hot spots. Those spaces also happen to be where most business and schooling takes place, so any hope for a return to normality will require better ways of filtering indoor air.

What's happening: After a concerted campaign by scientists, the WHO last month updated its guidelines on COVID-19 to include the possibility that the coronavirus could be airborne.

  • That marked a shift from initial assumptions that the virus was mostly transmitted via contaminated surfaces and respiratory droplets emitted at close range, like an infected person coughing near someone susceptible.
  • More evidence was added to the airborne hypothesis last week, when researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center reported in a paper published in Nature that they had found coronavirus-filled aerosols — small airborne particles of fluid — in the air of COVID-19 patients' hospital rooms.
  • It's still not clear just how much or how often airborne transmissions happens, a question Anthony Fauci has said the White House coronavirus task force will examine.

Context: If coronavirus-contaminated aerosols can indeed hang in the air, perhaps for hours, then "mitigating airborne transmission should be at the front of our disease-control strategies for COVID-19," Joseph Allen of Harvard's Healthy Building program wrote in the Washington Post.

  • Schools in particular "definitely present a challenge," says Barry Po, president of connected solutions for mCloud Technologies, a provider of cloud-based remote HVAC management. Many school buildings in the U.S. are old and poorly ventilated, which makes them prime locations for indoor transmission.

The good news is there are existing technologies that can filter out or destroy coronavirus trapped in indoor air.

  • The easiest way is simply opening windows whenever possible, which dilutes the amount of virus in the air. In Japan windows are kept open in subway trains, which has helped prevent outbreaks in the country's crowded transit system.
  • Portable HEPA filters, which can cost as little as a few hundred dollars, are capable of capturing particles as small as the novel coronavirus and could be used to clean individual classrooms.
  • Commercial HVAC systems can be adjusted to increase the number of times they exchange air per hour, analysts from McKinsey said in a report last month.

The catch: Increasing ventilation decreases energy efficiency, and Po estimates that net energy costs for buildings could increase by at least 10% in the COVID-19 era.

A more high-tech solution involves the use of specialized UV light to deactivate coronavirus in the air or on surfaces.

  • Fred Maxik, the founder of Healthe Lighting, developed Far UVC 222, a short-wave UV light spectrum that the company reports can neutralize 99.9% of coronavirus in a space. The UV light breaks the chemical bonds in the virus, Maxik says, making it incapable of replicating.
  • Unlike the UVB rays in sunlight that can damage DNA and cause skin cancer, Far UVC 222 doesn't penetrate the human body.
  • The Healthe system has been installed in Seattle's reopening Space Needle, as well as the practice facilities of the Miami Dolphins. "This is one of the only methodologies where we can continually clean a space in real time," says Maxik.

The bottom line: Despite the runs early in the pandemic on Clorox wipes, it may be the air we breathe more than the surfaces we touch that need to be kept clean.

2. Jobs of the future aren't exempt from the pandemic recession

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The wave of unemployment connected to the pandemic even includes jobs that had been set to grow in a more digitally enabled future.

The big picture: The pandemic has accelerated shifts in the job market that will prioritize digital skills of all kinds. But the sheer job destruction of the past few months is so great that even the best-prepared fields haven't escaped losses.

Driving the news: Friday's monthly jobs report found the U.S. added 1.8 million new jobs in July, with the unemployment rate dropping to 10.2%.

Many of the lost jobs include what the consulting firm Cognizant has termed "jobs of the future" — occupations that require the digital technology skills that are expected to increasingly be in demand.

  • In its Jobs of the Future Index for the second quarter of 2020, the full extent of what Cognizant's Robert Brown calls the "blast radius" of the pandemic is clear.
  • The index, which measures demand for jobs of the future, fell 28.2% from the first quarter of 2020 and 3.1% year on year.
  • Perhaps unsurprisingly in the midst of double-digit unemployment, the occupation in the index that showed the single biggest loss was Career Counselor, down 44% year on year.

Yes, but: The index did show some occupations were resistant to losses even during the worst of the pandemic, while others should be poised to grow post-COVID-19.

  • Physicians increased the most year on year, at 189%, followed closely by personal health aide — especially vital at a moment when group nursing homes no longer seem safe.
  • IT and cybersecurity also showed major growth, reflective of the need for employees who can keep remote work working.

What they're saying: Ultimately, says Brown, "COVID-19 puts more fuel in the tank for automation." That means that many of the jobs disappearing now may never return.

3. Using AI to build a more resilient soldier

An Australian servicemember uses the Sparta Science platform. Photo: Courtesy of Sparta Science

A Silicon Valley startup is using machine learning to create individualized fitness plans designed to reduce injury risk.

Why it matters: Musculoskeletal injuries are a major cause of lost time for both athletes and members of the military. A platform like Sparta Science that can leverage machine learning to identify weak points before an injury could result in major health care savings.

How it works: Subjects carry out three different kinds of fitness assessments on Sparta's force plates: one involving balance, one involving the plank position and one involving a jump.

  • The plates — what Sparta Science CEO Phil Wagner calls a "high-powered bathroom scale" — granularly measure the force the subject is able to exert in different positions.
  • The company's machine learning platform takes that data and analyzes it to screen for potential injury risks in different kinds of activity, or to assess recovery if the system is being used for rehabilitation.
  • "When subjects perform a movement on the force plates, we can tell them 'here is your risk in these areas, and here is the best way to address it,'" says Wagner.
  • Sparta Science has worked for years with the University of Pennsylvania athletic program, which saw declines in the number of injuries and reductions in annual health insurance premiums.

More recently Sparta Science has branched out to the military, where "non-combat-related musculoskeletal injuries" account for up to 65% of soldiers who can't deploy for medical reasons.

  • Last month the House of Representatives passed legislation that includes a provision to study the benefits of force plate technology, with possible plans to possibly implement it throughout the Defense Department.

The bottom line: As health monitoring devices grow cheaper and more precise, expect to see similar solutions that aim to use AI to assess health individually and prevent injury and sickness.

4. New Hampshire passes Jetsons law

Terrafugia's Transition, a plane you can drive on roads and park in your garage. Photo: Terrafugia

New Hampshire is touting itself as the first state in the country to authorize flying cars, which is a bit of an overstatement, my Axios colleague Joann Muller reports.

Why it matters: The bill signed by Gov. Chris Sununu, dubbed "the Jetson law," makes it legal for "roadable aircraft" to drive on the state's roads.

  • That's not the same as authorizing urban air taxis to fly above those same roadways, something only the Federal Aviation Administration can do and remains a long way off.

Yes, but: It's still an interesting development on the road to future mobility.

  • It applies to small planes that can also be driven as cars.
  • A handful of companies are working on such flexible aircraft, including Terrafugia, Samson Sky and PAL-V.
  • The law allows pilots to drive these aircraft to and from airports but prohibits landing or taking off on public roads.
  • Terrafugia and PAL-V both have operations in New Hampshire, and all three companies helped shape the legislation.

How it works: Terrafugia's Transition, for example, seats two and converts from drive mode to flight mode in less than a minute by pushing a button.

  • It runs on automotive grade gasoline and the wings fold inward so it can be parked in your garage instead of an airport hangar.

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5. Worthy of your time

The UK is dropping an immigration algorithm that critics say is racist (Will Douglas Heaven — MIT Tech Review)

  • The move is the latest sign of a pushback against the use of algorithms in government policy.

The co-ops that electrified Depression-era farms are now building the rural internet (Nicolás Rivero — Quartz)

  • Remote work and remote education will only increase inequality unless policies are put in place to expand access to the internet.

Habitat destruction could fuel disease risk (Natalie Parletta — Cosmos)

  • New research underscores how deforestation can unleash the forces that lead to catastrophes like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Americans aren't making babies, and that's bad for the economy (Peter Coy — Bloomberg Businessweek)

  • The pandemic has accelerated a drop in the American birthrate, with major ramifications for the future of the country.
6. 1 fun thing: We're all learning guitar

Speaking from experience, don't start by trying to learn "Freebird." Photo: Courtesy of Fender

The guitar-maker Fender's instructional app exploded in popularity during the first months of the pandemic.

Why it matters: Some of us — if not all of us — had a lot of time on our hands during the early stages of the pandemic lockdown. And apparently we decided that it was finally time to learn to play that guitar.

By the numbers: Around the start of the global lockdowns, Fender offered a free three-month giveaway of its Fender Play app.

  • Between March 20 and June 18, Fender Play's user base grew by nearly 500%, from over 150,000 to approximately 930,000.
  • Nearly all of those users were new to the company, indicating that they were likely picking up a guitar for the first time.
  • The gender balance of app users swung from 70% male to nearly 50-50.
  • The most popular time of day for using the app shifted from 5 p.m. to 12 p.m., presumably because you have to fill those hours somehow.

What they're saying: "Clearly there was an organic element of people being locked inside and wanting to spend their time usefully, as opposed to binging TV," says Andy Mooney, Fender's CEO. "Or perhaps in addition to it."

  • Of note: As my Axios colleagues Sara Fischer and Kyle Daly reported, we're also spending plenty of time playing video games, which helped Nintendo's profits increase 428% last quarter.

The bottom line: I definitely promise to catch one of your band's gigs as soon as that's possible, probably some time in 2025.

Bryan Walsh