Sep 18, 2021

Axios Future

Welcome to Axios Future, which is being finished on the way to New York’s CitiField for a Mets-Phillies game — watch out for the hot dog wrappers.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,762 words or about 6 minutes.

1 big thing: When AI breaks bad

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A new report about artificial intelligence and its effects warns AI has reached a turning point and its negative effects can no longer be ignored.

The big picture: For all the sci-fi worries about ultra-intelligent machines or wide-scale job loss from automation — both of which would require artificial intelligence that is far more capable than what has been developed so far — the larger concern may be about what happens if AI doesn't work as intended.

Background: The AI100 project — which was launched by Eric Horvitz, who served as Microsoft's first chief scientific officer, and is hosted by the Stanford Institute on Human-Centered AI (HAI) — is meant to provide a longitudinal study of a technology that seems to be advancing by the day.

  • The new update published on Thursday — the second in a planned century of work — gathers input from a committee of experts to examine the state of AI between 2016 and 2021.
  • "It's effectively the IPCC for the AI community," says Toby Walsh, an AI expert at the University of New South Wales and a member of the project's standing committee.

What's happening: The panel found AI has exhibited remarkable progress over the past five years, especially in the area of natural language processing (NLP) — the ability of AI to analyze and generate human language.

  • The experts concluded that "to date, the economic significance of AI has been comparatively small," but the technology has advanced to the point where it is having a "real-world impact on people, institutions, and culture."

The catch: That means AI has reached a point where its downsides in the real world are becoming increasingly difficult to miss — and increasingly difficult to stop.

  • "All you have to do is open the newspaper, and you can see the real risks and threats to democratic principles, mental health and more," says Walsh.

Between the lines: The most immediate concern about AI then is what will happen if it is cemented in daily life before its kinks are fully worked out.

  • Companies have already begun employing OpenAI's massive GPT-3 NLP model to analyze customer data and produce content, but big text-generating systems have had persistent problems with encoded bias. A new paper released this week found the biggest models tend to frequently regurgitate falsehoods and misinformation.
  • Walsh points to Australia, which this week announced it will begin experimenting with allowing police in two of its largest states to use facial recognition technology to check if people in COVID-19 quarantine are remaining at home.
  • "It's already been implemented without any debate, even though we know that facial recognition carries serious risks of bias, especially for people of color," he says.

Context: Australia's move is an attempt to use AI to solve tricky social problems like the pandemic — what the panel calls "techno-solutionism" — rather than treating AI as it should be: one tool among many.

  • An algorithm used to determine who gets a bank loan or insurance might have what the panel calls "an aura of neutrality and impartiality" because it appears to be the product of a machine rather than a human being, but the decision AI makes "may be the result of biased historical decisions or even blatant discrimination."
  • "The racism, sexism, ageism in our society is going to be part of the AI systems we create," says Walsh.
  • Unless we realize that fact, AI could inadvertently launder existing social ills, hiding human biases inside the black box of an algorithm.

What to watch: Whether governments or companies listen to critics like UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, who earlier this week called for a moratorium on the sale and use of AI that can pose a risk to human rights — especially in law enforcement.

2. Synthetic biology leader Ginkgo Bioworks goes public

Ginkgo Bioworks ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange. Photo: Ginkgo Bioworks

Ginkgo Bioworks — a Boston-based company that wants to make biology as easy to program as a computer — began trading yesterday after going public via a SPAC.

Why it matters: Ginkgo's multibillion-dollar offering is a milestone in the maturation of synthetic biology from a science to a true industry.

Driving the news: Ginkgo's shares — traded under the ticker symbol "DNA" — rose 6.6% on its first day of trading on the New York Stock Exchange, giving it a market cap of $2.6 billion.

  • That's a long way from its founding by a quartet of young MIT Ph.D.s and one veteran professor 13 years ago, at a moment when biotech startups were folding during the financial crisis.
  • "Just as Netscape's IPO was a signal that the internet was going to be a thing, Ginkgo's IPO is a signal that programming biology is a thing, and people should pay attention to it," says Jason Kelly, Ginkgo's co-founder and CEO.

By the numbers: According to the industry newsletter SynBioBeta, synthetic biology startups raised nearly $8 billion last year from VCs and IPOs, more than double the level from 2019. This year funding could surpass $30 billion.

How it works: Ginkgo is applying engineering and automation in its $500 million South Boston foundry to what has been the artisanal craft of manipulating biology, whether in creating new fragrances or in optimizing the making of mRNA vaccines.

  • The company is less interested in making products of its own than serving as a souped-up research platform for the entire synthetic biology industry, akin to what Amazon Web Services has been able to do for tech startups.
  • "Starting a biotech company can cost so much money upfront and take so long," says Kelly. "We can use some of this capital to make it easier and unleash a lot of the latent energy that's out there."

Yes, but: When it merged earlier this year with the SPAC company Soaring Eagle, Ginkgo was valued at $15 billion — a figure some biotech investors believe is excessive for a company that has produced little revenue so far and has no blockbuster products of its own.

The bottom line: A bet on Ginkgo is less a bet on the company itself than on the possibility that synthetic biology — as Ginkgo says in its own marketing materials — can "grow everything."

3. Reported firearm injuries spike in 2020
Data: Epic Health Research Network (EHRN.org); Chart: Axios Visuals

A new study found health care visits for gun injuries rose sharply last year during the pandemic.

Why it matters: The new data from electronic health records helps confirm media reports and preliminary data suggesting a surge in gun violence in many cities.

By the numbers: According to data compiled by the Epic Health Research Network, firearm injuries that resulted in a documented health care visit began spiking in the late spring of 2020 and peaked in October at 73% higher than the monthly average in 2018 and 2019.

  • After dipping in the late fall and early winter last year — while still remaining well above pre-pandemic averages — documented firearm injury rates surged again in the spring, with June 2021 levels 64% higher than in 2019.
  • People of color were particularly vulnerable — firearm injury visits increased by 76% for Hispanic patients and 89% for Black patients, while rising 40% for whites.

Between the lines: The initial surge coincided with the early summer protests over police violence and with a massive increase in gun purchases.

Background: EHRN began tracking firearm injuries at the request of the Chicago HEAL Initiative, a group of health care systems dedicated to curbing violence in vulnerable Chicago neighborhoods.

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4. The environmental benefits of lab-made dairy products

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Key components in dairy products can be made in a lab with a much smaller environmental footprint than conventional dairy products, according to an analysis by lab-made dairy startup Perfect Day.

Why it matters: Cows — and the methane they produce — are a major contributor to the overall greenhouse gas emissions of the dairy sector.

  • Taking them out of the equation could be a net environmental positive.
  • Alternative methods that use fermentation to produce dairy proteins could significantly cut the environmental cost of making milk, cheese and ice cream.

By the numbers: In a study released first to Axios, independent researchers tapped by Perfect Day found the company's process produced more than 90% less greenhouse gases, required 20% to 60% less energy, and used more than 96% less water per kilogram of protein produced compared to conventional bovine dairy protein.

  • "This shows that fermentation can unlock a more efficient way to make food that humans have a huge demand for," says Ryan Pandya, co-founder and CEO of Perfect Day.

How it works: Perfect Day adds cow genes to a strain of fungus called Trichoderma reesei, then fuels their growth in fermentation tanks with sugar.

  • The fungi churn out a mix of dairy proteins like casein and whey that are molecularly identical to what's found in cow milk.
  • The company then adds water and plant-based fats to produce dairy products — including a line of ice cream called Brave Robot — that it says has the same taste and nutritional profile of conventional ice cream.

Between the lines: Perfect Day's smaller environmental footprint largely stems from the fact that "the actual biology used in the fermentation process is a lot more efficient" than producing dairy products via cows, says Pandya.

  • "We're not using the inputs of this process to build the body parts of a cow."

Of note: The life cycle analysis was commissioned by Perfect Day, and it wasn't peer-reviewed, though Pandya notes it was reviewed by a panel of three independent outside experts.

5. Worthy of your time

Why we still haven't solved global food security (William Park — BBC Future)

  • Progress in the battle to feed the world has gone in reverse.

Can we find a new way to tell the story of climate change? (David Wallace — The New Yorker)

  • Climate change is the most global of stories, but the most effective way to write about it could be at the personal level.

The road to self-reproducing machines (Frank Wilczek — Wall Street Journal)

  • If scientists can learn to harness and program the self-reproducing nature of life, the future could be exponential.

The new economics of global cities (The Economist)

  • The suburbs are the new downtown, and downtown is the new dead zone.
6. Number of the day: 56%

Climate protesters at a "die-in" outside London's Parliament Square on Sept. 6. Photo: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

That's the percentage of young people who believe that "humanity is doomed," according to a recent survey of 10,000 people between the ages of 16-25 in 10 countries.

The bottom line: It's hard to prepare for the future when you fear there won't be one at all.