Mar 25, 2020

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

Welcome to Axios Future, brought to you from New York, the city that never sleeps nor leaves its home.

  • Pandemic-heavy in this edition. If that — or anything else — is an issue, email me at or just reply to this email.
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Today's issue is 1,566 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: What existential risk can tell us about the pandemic

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Humans face unprecedented peril from new technologies and from our own actions, according to a new book by Toby Ord. By Ord's reckoning, humanity has a 1-in-6 chance of suffering an existential catastrophe this century.

Why it matters: The sheer havoc COVID-19 has caused to our globally connected economy and our clear failure to prepare for such a low-probability but high-consequence threat doesn't bode well for a future where existential risk will intensify.

Ord is a moral philosopher at Oxford University, where he focuses on existential risk — catastrophes so huge they could plausibly threaten the future of humanity. His new book, "The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity," explores why that risk is on the rise and what we can do in this moment of danger to safeguard our future.

  • COVID-19 isn't a plausible existential threat, according to Ord. As diseases go, it doesn't compare to mass killers like the plague or the 1918 flu — yet we have fumbled the response.
"Humanity mostly learns through trial and error. But this only really works when we can still feel the sting of the last error — when it is within a couple of election cycles, or sometimes generations. When the last time is no longer vivid in our memories it is very hard to maintain the political will to keep investing in our defenses. This amnesia makes it extremely difficult to defend against once-in-a-century events, like COVID-19, despite how important they are, and the fact that they were predicted by experts."
Toby Ord

The big picture: While we may picture world-ending threats in the form of an incoming asteroid or something similarly cosmic, Ord's view is that the much bigger dangers are the risks humanity introduces into the world: nuclear war, climate change, bioengineered pandemics and out-of-control AI.

  • If we want to keep humanity safe, as Ord said, "current and future anthropogenic risks are where most of our efforts should be devoted."
  • He believes a bioengineered pandemic or out-of-control AI present the biggest possibility of causing not just catastrophe, but plausible human extinction.

"The Precipice" is a fascinating book, one that showcases both the knowledge of its author and his humanity. Writing a book about the plausible end of the world can be depressing — as I can say from my own experience — but Ord makes it clear that success means not just surviving for another day, but keeping the door open to a much better future.

  • "This is the beginning of one of the most important periods of our history," Ord said. "And I think we will rise to these challenges and we'll get our house in order."

The bottom line: As the stakes of existential risk rise, we won't always get the chance to learn from our mistakes in the future. So we had better take all the lessons we can from the pandemic — while we can.

2. How SARS made Hong Kong and Singapore ready for a pandemic

A teacher in Hong Kong shows students hand hygiene during the SARS outbreak in 2003. Photo: Tommy Cheng/AFP via Getty Images

Despite their proximity to China, Hong Kong and Singapore have managed to keep COVID-19 infections and death extraordinarily low.

Why it matters: As coronavirus cases surge in parts of the U.S., it's natural to look at the examples of cities that have handled the disease better. But the single most important factor may be something the U.S. can't replicate: the experience of the SARS outbreak in 2003.

I lived and worked as a journalist in Hong Kong during SARS, and what the city experienced during the spring of 2003 was every bit as terrifying and paralyzing as what is happening now.

  • In the early days of the outbreak, SARS burned through Hong Kong's hospitals, infecting dozens of health care workers and ultimately killing nine of them. Hong Kong was also the only city that experienced a widespread public outbreak of the disease, when 329 residents in the Amoy Gardens apartment complex contracted SARS.
  • Singapore weathered the outbreak better than Hong Kong, but still experienced a GDP drop of 0.47%.

The memory of SARS is burned in the minds of ordinary Hong Kongers and Singaporeans, as well as the city's doctors and leaders.

  • “While in many places, the general public tends to regard outbreaks, more or less, like a television fantasy or brief news item, in Hong Kong, the public take outbreaks, and recommendations about what to do, seriously," Keiji Fukuda, the director of the University of Hong Kong's School of Public Health, told The Atlantic this month.

The bottom line: There is plenty for the U.S. to learn from Hong Kong and Singapore's response to COVID-19. But if the most important point is that experience is the best teacher, we may be in for painful lessons.

Go deeper

3. How to run a company in self-isolation

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Millions have embarked on an enforced work-from-home experiment, but it's a little more difficult if you're the CEO of an online messaging company — and you're in self-isolation.

Why it matters: Companies that enable remote working have become virtual utilities at a moment of high demand, and they're pushing hard to remain reliable while working under the same conditions as the rest of us.

Background: Symphony was launched in 2014 with backing by some of Wall Street's biggest banks as a secure messaging platform to be used by the financial world. Today the company is valued at $1.4 billion.

Like other collaboration and communication platforms such as Slack and Zoom, Symphony's services only became more important once businesses starting sending workers home in the face of COVID-19 — especially once the markets started swooning. "In global markets, we are seeing a higher volume of activity than ever before," says Symphony's CEO David Gurle.

  • While that was good for Symphony's business, the company also had to contend with the same conditions as everyone else — though with a bit of extra warning. "When it started in January, very quickly we learned what it was to work from home and remote," says Gurle.
  • Today Symphony employees in every country the company operates save Japan are working remotely.

That includes Gurle, who has to contend with an additional impediment: Less than two weeks ago, he was exposed to an employee who had contracted COVID-19. Since then, he's been in self-isolation in southern France, though he has yet to show any symptoms himself.

  • The biggest problem, he says, is the fact that where he's had to spend his isolation lacks good bandwidth. "When I come to try to do video, I can't do a video call," he says — so he resorts to the analog technology of voice calls.
  • That's been a challenge for a number of people who even in ordinary times lack access to the kind of bandwidth needed for effective remote work, as my Axios colleague Margaret Harding McGill wrote recently.

The bottom line: As much as companies like Symphony will be playing an important role in a remote-first work future, not even Gurle knows what that will look like. "We are all doing a massive social experiment."

4. Coronavirus-related recession could spike automation

An employee at the Technical University of Munich checks a pipetting robot that prepares samples from people with suspected COVID-10. Photo: Sven Hoppe/picture alliance via Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic could accelerate the rise of the robots, according to a Brookings Institution blog post Tuesday, Margaret writes.

Why it matters: A COVID-19-caused recession will likely lead to a spike in automation, meaning some of the jobs lost to the virus will never return as companies restructure their operations to rely more on machines than people.

Details: Mark Muro, a senior fellow and policy director of Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, says an ongoing trend of companies replacing less-skilled workers with a combination of technology and higher-skilled employees has accelerated under recent downturns. A recession induced by the coronavirus would be no different.

  • Jobs most likely to be affected are those in the food service, manufacturing and transportation/warehousing sectors, with research showing roughly 36 million jobs have a “high” susceptibility to automation.
  • Rust Belt cities — already hit with industrial automation — could face further job loss as automation moves to the service industry.
  • Young workers and Hispanic workers are among those most likely to find their jobs threatened in a recession, because of their overrepresentation in food service, production and construction.

Go deeper:

5. Worthy of your time

Real estate for the apocalypse (Mark O'Connell — The Guardian)

  • You may be a little tired of apocalyptic coverage by now, but you still have to meet Robert Vicino, the bunker tycoon at the center of this piece.

What happens now for the TV industry? (Josef Adalian — New York)

  • From shared viewing to kids programming to what ESPN is doing without sports (stone-skipping competitions, apparently), how the pandemic will change what we watch.

How we can redesign cities to fight future pandemics (Adele Peters — Fast Company)

  • Reshaped airports and virus-killing buildings could be one legacy of COVID-19.

Life on lockdown in China (Peter Hessler — New Yorker)

  • One of the best writers on China today describes what life was really like in the biggest quarantine the world has ever seen.
6. 1 pandemic book: "Zone One"

Photo courtesy of Random House

Since we'll be home for the durationEaster, right? — this newsletter is recommending pop culture that jells with the themes of Future.

  • This edition: The literary zombie pandemic novel "Zone One."

Why you should read it: Before he became one of the most important novelists in America, Colson Whitehead wrote this sci-fi genre novel in 2011. It's a compelling read, and a high-class way to get your zombieland kicks.

"Zone One" takes place after a classic zombie outbreak has been partially contained. The main character is part of a team of "sweepers," clearing out the remaining undead from a secure part of New York called "Zone One."

  • Whitehead is a truly great writer — witness his more recent books "The Underground Railroad" and "The Nickel Boys" — and seeing him apply his literary talents to a zombie plot is like "an intellectual dating a porn star," as one critic put it.
  • One part that will feel particularly familiar is the way Whitehead shows that even in a post-zombie pandemic world where the U.S. capital has been moved to Buffalo, concerns about the economy and the egos of political leaders outweigh public health.
Bryan Walsh