Jul 15, 2020

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

Welcome to Axios Future, where it's pandemic Tax Day, better known to accountants as Christmas in July.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,664 words or about 6 minutes.

1 big thing: The dire lessons of the first nuclear bomb test

The mushroom cloud of the Trinity atomic bomb test, 10 seconds after detonation. Photo: © Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

The Trinity nuclear test 75 years ago represented our first reckoning with a technology that could potentially destroy us.

Why it matters: Nuclear weapons are still with us, even as we grapple with potentially dangerous and unpredictable new technologies like gene editing and artificial intelligence. How we handle the challenges they present will help decide what kind of future we have — and whether we have a future at all.

What's happening: Emerging technologies like synthetic biology and AI present new questions of control and new challenges to our future survival. Like the bomb, these technologies are a product of scientists doing what scientists do: advancing knowledge and making discoveries, with no way of fully predicting what they are bringing into the world.

  • These technologies are also dual-use, meaning the same tools can be used for tremendous good and tremendous harm.
  • And as they advance, they become easier to use for small groups and even individuals, something that has thankfully never been true of nuclear weapons.

Flashback: At 5:29am on July 16, 1945, the first nuclear bomb was tested at Trinity Site, in a New Mexico desert valley called Jornada del Muerto, or Journey of the Dead.

  • It was successful — far more successful than expected. Before the test, the scientists at the Manhattan Project had estimated the bomb — a 194-ton metal ball they referred to as "the Gadget" — would yield the explosive equivalent of between 700 and 5,000 tons of TNT. And that assumed it would work at all.
  • In fact, after the blinding flash of light and that first awful mushroom cloud, observers discovered that Trinity's detonation force was equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT, at a time when the most powerful conventional bomb in the U.S. arsenal was equivalent to 10 tons of TNT.
  • For the authors of the bomb, "Trinity rapidly shifted their understanding of what they had made," nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein said on a recent podcast. "Many of these scientists were ecstatic about Trinity, but then they had a comedown when they realized what this thing would do if you used it on people."

The big picture: Even more than the Hiroshima bomb, which instantly killed some 80,000 when it was indeed used on people three weeks later, the Trinity test represents a hinge in history.

  • For the first time, humans had the power to destroy themselves — and before that power was put in the hands of presidents and premiers, it was made possible by the work of some of the most brilliant scientists the world had ever seen.
  • That is the lasting legacy of the Trinity test 75 years later: How do we control what science can produce when even scientists themselves can't always predict how their discoveries will be used?

The bottom line: We have to hope this generation of scientists is more cautious and more far-seeing than those of the Manhattan Project, many of whom turned against nuclear weapons only after they saw what they had done, when it was too late.

  • The good news is that scientists in AI and synthetic biology are baking ethics directly into the practice of their work.
  • Still, as Richard Rhodes wrote of Trinity's legacy in "The Making of the Atomic Bomb": "The scientific method doesn't filter for benevolence. Knowledge had consequences, not always intended, not always comfortable, not always welcome."
Bonus: How Trinity could have ended the world

The monument at Trinity Site's ground zero, from a 2018 reporting trip. Photo: Bryan Walsh

Jason Matheny, the director of Georgetown University's Center for Security and Emerging Technology, sent me this little-known story about Trinity:

"Before the Trinity Test, some Manhattan Project physicists were concerned that the test could ignite the atmosphere, killing everyone on the planet. By one account, Enrico Fermi thought the probability was as high as 10%. It was only after the Trinity Test that calculations were performed showing why this would be impossible. We should do better. In the next few decades, we'll face new risks from emerging technologies. When these technologies can be highly consequential — for example, AI applied to strategic missile warning, or gene editing applied to pandemic pathogens — we should perform careful risk assessments beforehand rather than after the fact."
2. The automated unemployment line

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A collaboration with Amazon Web Services (AWS) has helped Rhode Island survive an unprecedented torrent of unemployment claims.

Why it matters: While tech companies were well-positioned to pivot to digital-first business in the wake of the coronavirus lockdown, state governments faced paralysis. With the pandemic continuing and lockdowns potentially returning, states will need to innovate to keep their systems running.

By the numbers: More than 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the start of the pandemic.

  • Rhode Island, which has a population of just over 1 million people, received more than 140,000 jobless claims in the 45 days after a state of emergency was declared on March 9.

At the onset of the crisis, the state was trying to process those claims using 30-year-old systems. And since Rhode Island requires the unemployed to file a continuing claim each week to get benefits, "It looked like we could be facing 200,000 people calling within a 12-hour period," says Scott Jensen, the director of Rhode Island's department of labor and training.

  • At the start of the crisis, the department could only handle 75 concurrent calls. "The math didn't work anymore," says Jensen.

What happened: Rhode Island reached out to AWS, which was working to update the technological infrastructure of state governments.

  • AWS helped install Amazon Connect, the company's cloud-based contact center solution, the same system Amazon uses to handle the Black Friday sales event. That gave the department the ability to process up to 2,000 concurrent calls, ensuring that "no one was getting a busy signal."

What they're saying: "Instead of having to hire a new labor force, you can use your existing employees and scale them so they don't need to be in a call center," says Teresa Carlson, vice-president of the worldwide public sector at AWS. "They can be virtual instead."

  • AWS has worked with other states on updating unemployment systems, including Massachusetts, as has its cloud competitor Google.

The bottom line: State governments need to move fast to catch up with the digital transformation forced by the pandemic.

3. Canada poaches tech talent from the U.S.
Data: Center for Security and Emerging Technology; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

Canada is convincing an increasing number of noncitizen American residents with tech talent to instead settle north of the border.

Why it matters: The U.S. risks losing its long-standing leadership in the tech sector as restrictive laws and a hostile political climate causes highly skilled immigrants to leave for more welcoming countries.

What's happening: In a new report, CSET research fellow Zachary Arnold analyzed the success of Canada's skilled immigration system in attracting tech and scientific talent from abroad.

  • Canada's Express Entry program prioritizes potential immigrants who score high on work experience and education, as well as other factors. Those who score above a cutoff receive fast track invitations to apply for permanent Canadian residence.
  • Arnold crunched new data and found that the number of U.S. residents receiving Express Entry invites to Canada rose 75% between 2017 and 2019, more than almost any other country.
  • The U.S. rose to third in invites in 2019, after India and Canada itself. (Noncitizen residents in Canada can use the Express Entry program to apply for permanent residency.)

Context: With the White House moving to freeze green cards — including the coveted H-1B visas used in the tech sector — Canada has pushed to attract talent across the border.

  • "If this affects your plans consider coming to Canada," Tobi Lutke, CEO of the Ottawa-based e-commerce company Shopify, tweeted last month.

The bottom line: The U.S. is accustomed to being the destination of choice for the best and the brightest, but if it closes the door to skilled immigrants, its neighbor to the north will be happy to welcome them.

4. Tech hits the brake on office reopenings

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Many tech companies are realizing their reopening plans from as recently as a few weeks ago are now too optimistic, reports Axios' Ina Fried.

Why it matters: Their decision to pause their return plans is the latest sign that normalcy is likely to remain elusive in the U.S.

The big picture: Tech has become increasingly central to American life as the key gateway for entertainment, information, commerce and education. The good news is that many tech companies have found that much of their work can be done from home, without a big hit to productivity.

  • Yes, but: Not all workers can stay home. Cloud-based software companies need relatively few on-site workers, while a company like Intel needs a fairly large in-person staff. (You can't manufacture chips at home.)

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5. Worthy of your time

What happens when biology becomes technology? (Christina Agapakis — TED)

  • A biological designer for Ginkgo Bioworks gives an appealing introduction into the wonders of synthetic biology.

Tune in, drop out (Ann Babe — Rest of World)

  • The honjok, or individualistic loners, are swimming against the stream in South Korea, but that may have something to teach us in the age of social distancing.

How remote work could destroy Silicon Valley (Steve LeVine — Marker)

  • Axios Future's founding editor on how the shift to all-remote could rob the Bay Area of the in-person serendipity that sets it apart.

The mistakes that will haunt our legacy (Nicholas Kristof — New York Times)

  • As we pass a long-delayed judgment on history, it's worth considering how our own great-grandchildren will judge us.
6. One hopeful thing: Flight of the condor

OK, yes, but we don't value endangered species because of their looks. Photo: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The critically endangered California condor was seen in Sequoia National Park for the first time in nearly 50 years this spring, according to CBS News.

Why it matters: The bird's reappearance at its old stomping grounds should give hope that even the most endangered species can be brought back from the brink.

Background: Condors are the largest birds in North America, but their size didn't save them from the threat of human beings.

  • Habitat destruction, poaching and lead poisoning from hunters' bullets all contributed to the decline of the condor.
  • By the early 1980s, just 22 condors existed in the wild. Those birds were captured for breeding in an attempt to save the species.

In 1992, the condors were reintroduced into the wild, where their numbers gradually rose. Today, the total wild population is estimated to have reached 340.

  • In late May, biologists at the Fish and Wildlife Service said at least six condors were observed near popular hiking destinations in the national park, where the birds had long nested in sequoia trees until their numbers declined.

The bottom line: Humans are responsible for pushing countless species into extinction, but with careful effort, we can undo at least some of the damage.

Bryan Walsh