Welcome to Axios Future, where we're reading "A Journal of the Plague Year" to remind ourselves that it could always be worse.
Today's issue is 1,677 words, a 6-minute read.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
Increasingly inexpensive genetic sequencing and engineering tools could upend everything from health care to fuel.
Why it matters: This bio revolution could lead to a world that is more sustainable and even extend human lifespans. But its full extent is dependent on social acceptance — and carries serious risks as well.
What's happening: The scientific reaction to COVID-19 illustrates the rapid change in the biological sciences, says Michael Chui, a partner at McKinsey Global Institute (MGI). "For SARS-CoV-2, it took a matter of weeks between identifying the new disease and sequencing it, compared to months for the original SARS virus."
But the response to COVID-19 only scratches the surface of what the bio revolution may make possible.
How it works: The chief driver of these changes is the rapid drop in cost of the tools that enable us to understand and increasingly manipulate the stuff of life, including in our own bodies.
The catch: Because biology is far more regulated than the field of artificial intelligence, the speed of the bio revolution will depend not just on science, but on public attitudes. The MGI report estimates 70% of the total impact could hinge on consumer, societal, and regulatory acceptance.
The bottom line: AI gets much of the attention, but advances in biotechnology are poised to be just as momentous. Put those two fields together and they will transform the world.
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios
The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred new interest in a movement that wants to reverse the pace of economic growth.
The big picture: Degrowth advocates believe that the only way to save the Earth is to stop focusing on growth at all costs in favor of a more equitable redistribution of resources. The pandemic is providing a crash test of those principles — for better and for worse.
What's happening: On May 13, more than 1,100 experts from around the world released a manifesto calling for a degrowth strategy to tackle the economic and human crisis caused by COVID-19.
How it works: The degrowth movement is a radical response to the challenges of climate change and inequality. While economic growth of some kind is the stated goal of virtually every policymaker and economist, degrowthers believe that the obsession with economic growth is ruining the planet and leading to human unhappiness on a global scale.
Context: The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a period of enforced degrowth, as economies around the world have been thrown into reverse.
The bottom line: Degrowthers are arguing for the equivalent of a managed retreat from economic growth, not the helter-skelter measures we've seen with COVID-19. But it's difficult to see their ideas gaining mainstream traction at a moment when much of the world seems more interested in regaining normalcy than igniting revolution.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
Tech companies are gaming out how to bring employees back to the office, but many are expecting a new normal in which a significant portion of their workers stay home for good, Axios' Ina Fried writes.
Why it matters: Some tech firms may find they are just as productive with a remote workforce. But a shift away from in-office work will have profound impacts on everything from the commercial real estate market to the vast number of support jobs that were built around serving Silicon Valley's sprawling campuses.
Driving the news:
The big picture: Companies' stances will range from Twitter's "stay home forever if you want" to Apple's "can't wait for you to come back in." Software companies are likely to have an easier time than hardware producers relying on a largely distributed workforce.
C3.ai's COVID-19 data lake. Image courtesy of C3.ai
An AI software provider has created a sprawling new "data lake" of information about the COVID-19 pandemic for researchers around the world.
Why it matters: In just a few short months, researchers have generated an astounding amount of data about COVID-19. Putting much of that information in an easily readable source will enable researchers and policymakers to get the most out of big data.
How it works: For all the rich data being produced about COVID-19, much of it is being compiled in separate silos by the government, academia and business, often in unreadable formats. Without an integrated data set, there's no easy way to produce the AI models used to analyze the many facets of the pandemic.
The bottom line: We live in the age of big data, and the lightning-quick research around COVID-19 demonstrates our ability to produce ever more information. But data can't be meaningful unless it is accessible.
Here's why planning a trip can help your mental health (Erica Jackson Curran — National Geographic)
How will Americans commute after lockdowns end? (Laura Bliss — Citylab)
How to crisis-proof our food system (Tom Colicchio and Eric Kessler — Politico)
The first shot: Inside the COVID vaccine fast track (Brooke Jarvis — Wired)
The Poimo inflatable e-scooter, fully inflated. Photo courtesy of the University of Tokyo
A new inflatable e-scooter that can fit inside a backpack has been produced by researchers at the University of Tokyo, the BBC reports.
Why it matters: With commuters avoiding public transit out of coronavirus fears and car traffic already heavy in cities that are reopening, it's not clear how we'll get around post-pandemic. An inflatable e-scooter is a novel possibility — even if it is full of hot air.
How it works: The e-scooter, called the Poimo, has five solid detachable components and can be inflated in just over a minute using an electric pump. Altogether, it weighs about 12 lbs.
The bottom line: Provided, of course, you don't mind revving around the city in what resembles an inflatable air bed on wheels.