May 16, 2020

Axios Future

Welcome to Axios Future, where we're reading "A Journal of the Plague Year" to remind ourselves that it could always be worse.

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Today's issue is 1,677 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: A coming bio revolution is poised to change the world

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.

  • A new report from MGI predicts as much as 60% of the physical inputs to the global economy — think food, fuel, even the fabric of our clothes — could be produced through bioinnovations.
  • As much as 45% of the current disease burden could be alleviated using biological science that is at least conceivable today.
  • All told, the use cases outlined in the MGI report — most of which fall outside human health — could have a direct economic impact of up to $4 trillion a year over the next 10 to 20 years.

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 cost of DNA sequencing is decreasing at a rate faster than Moore's Law. While it cost $3 billion to map the first human genome in 2003, by 2019 it was less than $1,000 — and within a decade or less, the price could be less than $100.
  • While biological research was long the product of trial and error, advances in machine learning have enabled scientists to produce quicker and more directed insights from the vast amount of genetic data these new tools have produced. Biology research labs that depended on human labor are increasingly being augmented by robotic automation and sensors, speeding the pace of R&D.
  • As a result, biology, which has long been artisanal, is fast becoming industrial, and what can be done in the labs is migrating into the wider world of business. "These are engineerable challenges," says Peter Barrett, a co-founder of the VC firm Playground Global.

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.

  • Commercialization also presents a possible hurdle — the advanced biofuels pushed in the mid to late-2000s were never able to dislodge oil, despite being greener.
  • Because it is self-replicating, biology is inherently difficult to control, and any mistakes could have long-lasting implications for the environment and even the human body.
  • As gene editing and DNA synthesis tools become cheaper and easier to use, more and more people will be able to manipulate the code of life. That carries serious security risks, as I wrote recently for Axios.

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.

2. Coronavirus and the degrowth movement

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.

  • The open letter urged the adoption of a "democratically planned yet adaptive, sustainable, and equitable downscaling of the economy, leading to a future where we can live better with less."

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.

  • This position puts them to the left of even most environmentalists, who push for "green growth" — the idea that economic growth can be made more sustainable by reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and other pollutants.
  • To degrowthers, simply decarbonizing the economy isn't enough. Humanity has to shrink its overall footprint, while sharing what remains in a more equitable fashion.

Context: The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a period of enforced degrowth, as economies around the world have been thrown into reverse.

  • A new forecast by the Asian Development Bank predicts that the global economy could suffer losses as high as $8.8 trillion because of the pandemic — equivalent to nearly 10% of global GDP.
  • The reversal of economic growth has led to a reduction in carbon emissions, which could fall 5.5% or more this year. But that's a lot of economic and human pain to endure for a carbon footprint that would still be almost 95% as large as it was before the pandemic.

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.

3. Many tech workers won't be going back to the office

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:

  • Twitter told workers that they can work from home permanently if they want.
  • Others haven't gone that far, but many tech companies have acknowledged publicly or privately that they don't expect most workers to return to the office this year.

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.

Go deeper

4. A deep "data lake" for coronavirus information's COVID-19 data lake. Image courtesy of

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.

  • has produced a data lake that draws from scores of different sources. Researchers can explore areas that may be of interest — like diagnosis or preexisting conditions — as they build out models based on that data.
  • "As a data scientist, you don't have to spend all your time connecting all of these sets," Tom Siebel, the CEO of, tells Axios. "This enables scientists to perform very advanced research using AI, accurately predict the spread of the disease, and evaluate the efficacy of social mitigation."
  • The data lake is part of a group of other big data sets on the pandemic like CORD-19 and the 2019 Novel Coronavirus Research Compendium.

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.

5. Worthy of your time

Here's why planning a trip can help your mental health (Erica Jackson Curran — National Geographic)

  • A great look at the psychological benefits of planning a vacation. For instance, right now I'm imagining myself on the western coast of Ireland with a pint of Guinness in hand...

How will Americans commute after lockdowns end? (Laura Bliss — Citylab)

  • With public transit ridership plummeting, the return to economic life could mean epic traffic jams — or a revolution in walkable and bikeable city streets.

How to crisis-proof our food system (Tom Colicchio and Eric Kessler — Politico)

  • A Top Chef judge and a philanthropic adviser on closing the gaps COVID-19 has exposed in our food system.

The first shot: Inside the COVID vaccine fast track (Brooke Jarvis — Wired)

  • An in-depth look at Moderna's efforts to create an effective COVID-19 vaccine, which involves a brave human volunteer and bleeding-edge biotechnology.
6. 1 travel thing: Inflatable e-scooter

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 researchers behind the Poimo said they developed the inflatable e-scooter out of a desire to reduce injuries — a laudable goal since a study released earlier found that accidents in the U.S. involving e-scooters nearly doubled between 2017 and 2019.
  • But with intra-city transportation severely disrupted by the pandemic, an e-scooter that could be easily portable might be a way to get commuters around a city quickly and safely without depending on cars.

The bottom line: Provided, of course, you don't mind revving around the city in what resembles an inflatable air bed on wheels.