Apr 15, 2020

Axios Future

Welcome to Axios Future, where it's April 15 and I just wish I were doing my taxes.

Today's issue is 1,652 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: The limits of our digital-first world

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The world is learning the hard way that ramping up manufacturing of the equipment needed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic isn't as easy as scaling up the software that has come to dominate our lives.

Why it matters: The U.S. economy has thrived on manipulating bytes, but to face the threats of the future, we'll need to focus on manipulating atoms in the real world.

The big picture: "Software is eating the world," wrote venture capitalist Marc Andreessen in 2011, making the case that the tech industry was poised for years of dominance as it spread to ever more economic sectors.

  • The last nine years have mostly borne out Andreessen's prediction. The top five companies by market capitalization are all tech firms, including Microsoft, Apple and Amazon, which are all worth more than $1 trillion.
  • Even staring down a recession that some predict could rival the Great Depression, the biggest players in tech are poised not just to survive, but to become even more dominant.

What's happening: Overnight, the videoconferencing system Zoom became almost as essential to work and social life as the phone.

  • Apple and Google have put aside their rivalry to collaborate on a system for contact tracing of COVID-19 cases.
  • Software apps can be designed, tested and brought to market quickly and cheaply — enabling the tech industry to rapidly iterate potential responses to the pandemic.

Yes, but: Software can get us some of the way to beating the pandemic, but the real bottlenecks remain the lack of products needed to fight and track the spread of the coronavirus, from personal protective equipment for health care workers to the testing kits that remain in short supply.

  • If the Apple/Google contact-tracing project works — a big if — it could enable much faster contact tracing than the old-fashioned way of having workers investigate each and every case.
  • But a smartphone app tracing our contacts won't be very useful until the U.S. can catch up on mass testing and know for sure who has COVID-19 and who doesn't.

American companies like Budweiser, GM and Ford are trying to retool manufacturing lines to make vital products like sanitizer and ventilators.

  • But American manufacturing has largely declined outside a few sectors, as many products — including medical items — are outsourced to less expensive countries connected by cost-efficient but disruptable supply chains.

What to watch: One possible economic consequence of COVID-19 could be the reshoring of American manufacturing, but that will likely take years. A shortcut is a technology that takes the speed and flexibility of software and applies it to the real world: 3D printing.

  • A Duke University-led task force has been working on using 3D-printing technology to design and manufacture hundreds of face shields for medical workers short of supplies.
  • "With 3D printing, you can throw your parts in a machine and get a prototype later that day to test," says Chip Bobbert, a digital fabrication architect at Duke. "Ten years ago this just wasn't a reality."
  • Yes, but: While 3D printing is faster to get off the ground, traditional manufacturing still wins out on sheer capacity at this point, as my Axios colleague Joann Muller reported.

The bottom line: While software may be eating the world, there are still parts it can't quite digest — and those happen to be the parts we need right now.

2. National defense has a pandemic gap

USS Theodore Roosevelt. Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

A sailor on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt died this week from COVID-19, and nearly 600 sailors on the ship have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Why it matters: The effective loss of one of the U.S. Navy's prime assets because of the spreading pandemic underscores the threat infectious disease poses to American military readiness — and the failure of the national defense establishment to prepare for it.

The U.S. spends nearly $700 billion a year on national defense — more than the combined budgets of its closest competitors. But that hasn't protected the military from COVID-19.

  • The Theodore Roosevelt has essentially been knocked out by the novel coronavirus, something no enemy combatant has managed since World War II. (And crew members have reportedly tested positive on other carriers.)
  • More than 23,000 Americans have so far died from COVID-19, a number that easily exceeds U.S. combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, and models suggest the coronavirus death toll will eventually surpass casualty numbers from bloodier conflicts like the Vietnam War.

Between the lines: The U.S. military is set up to fight physical threats, not biological ones — but in an age of pandemics, that's arguably a failure.

  • "We need to think about national security not just in terms of tanks and nation-states, but in terms of viruses and disease," says Gregory Koblentz, an associate professor at George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government.
  • That may mean rethinking how we allocate funding. The Defense Department, as Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) wrote on Twitter last week, gets about 100 times as much money as non-HIV global health programs.
  • "Hopefully this will be an important moment for policymakers to realize there is more they could do with the threat of disease," says Michael Hunzeker, a Marine veteran and the associate director of the Center for Security Policy Studies at George Mason.
3. A new model for biosecurity

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Scientists are calling for a better biosecurity system to govern lab experiments involving potentially dangerous viruses.

Why it matters: COVID-19 has clearly demonstrated the tremendous human and economic damage even a relatively mild but new virus can wreak. With researchers increasingly able to create far more lethal pathogens in a lab using new gene engineering tools, science needs to rethink oversight for such experiments.

Background: A Washington Post article by Josh Rogin this week reignited speculation that the novel coronavirus could have originated in a Wuhan lab that had been studying bat coronaviruses.

  • There's no hard evidence that's the case, and the vast majority of scientists believe COVID-19 originated in animals before crossing over to human beings — a viral event known as a spillover seen in outbreaks like those that caused SARS and MERS.

But, but, but: The Wuhan lab had come under criticism in the past for conducting research that involved engineering a hybrid pathogen that contained parts of a bat coronavirus and parts of a SARS virus.

  • Such research is becoming more common around the world as scientists use new genetic tools in the lab to try to understand how viruses might evolve in the wild.
  • That's a challenge for biosecurity policies, which currently focus on work with known dangerous pathogens, rather than new ones being made in a lab.

In a piece in the journal Science, Tufts University researcher Sam Weiss Evans and his colleagues argue the field needs to rethink biosecurity governance.

  • Because new technologies could give rise to new threats, Evans believes scientists need to adopt a strategy of experimentation around biosecurity, rather than getting locked into firm categories of what is and isn't allowed.
  • "The biggest lesson we should take away from COVID-19 is that we shouldn't wait for a pandemic to demonstrate what is wrong with our assumptions," says Evans. "We need to shift our conception about what might constitute a threat."
4. The U.S. and China fumble global leadership

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As the U.S. steps away from its traditional global leadership role, China is aggressively looking to fill the void but has so far come up short, my Axios colleagues Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Dion Rabouin write.

Why it matters: The coronavirus pandemic desperately needs a united global response. But the U.S. and China are instead upping the ante in a battle for global supremacy that could leave both countries in worse positions.

The global economy is facing an economic shock "far worse" than the 2008 global financial crisis, the International Monetary Fund announced yesterday.

A win for China's self-confidence: Despite doubts about the veracity of the coronavirus data China has publicly released, its tough measures to stem the spread of infections worked.

  • But many Chinese people remain angry about the government's early cover-up and its ongoing suppression of information related to the epidemic.

What to watch: China could still draw more of the world into its orbit. COVID-19 is likely to decimate economies in much of Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, which already receive economic assistance from Beijing and will be looking for more.

  • But the U.S. remains the largest economy and home of the global reserve currency, uniquely positioning it to help offset the looming crisis by leading debt-reduction and aid packages.

Read the full story

5. Worthy of your time

The green sludge that could transform our diets (Abigail Beall — BBC Future)

  • As we all worry about the food supply, a look at how we just might end up eating microalgae.

How infectious disease defined the American bathroom (Elizabeth Yuko — CityLab)

  • The hygiene revolution of the late 19th century is felt even in the design of our bathrooms, which evolved from wood paneling to the ceramic fixtures we know, love and clean.

COVID and forced experiments (Ben Evans)

  • A top tech analyst on what will last from this period of mandated remote working, shopping and living, and who will get left behind.

This is what it will take to get us back outside (Gideon Lichfield — MIT Tech Review)

  • An overview of what needs to happen to truly make it safe for all of us to leave our houses. Hint: testing, testing and surveillance.
6. 1 pandemic thing: Return of the drive-in

A drive-in theater open during the pandemic in Germany. Photo: Sebastian Gollnow/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

Long seen as a mid-century relic, drive-ins are now one of the only public places left to watch movies.

The big picture: The pandemic and resulting lockdown policies are threatening to destroy the already wobbly movie theater business. But the natural social distancing provided by a car has opened an opportunity for old-fashioned drive-ins.

With conventional cinemas almost entirely shut because of lockdown orders, movie tickets sales through the first three months of the year fell by more than 25% compared to 2019. But a handful of drive-in theaters are still open, and owners report doing strong business catering to customers suffering from cabin fever.

  • "Customers are thrilled to death that we are open and they have something to do," John Watzke, owner of the Ocala Drive-In Theater in Florida, told Atlas Obscura. "Business is almost double what it normally is this time of year."
  • Not every state is so generous — New York refused to put drive-ins on the essential business list.

My thought bubble: As a teenager, I caught movies like "Independence Day" and "Jurassic Park 2" at the Bucks County Drive-In in suburban Philadelphia. Like most drive-ins around the country, it eventually closed as customers stopped coming, though personally at this point I would watch "Trolls World Tour" projected against an alley wall if it meant leaving my house.