August 12, 2020

Welcome to Axios Future, where I made the mistake of visiting New York's Penn Station recently and thought I'd stumbled onto the set of "The Omega Man."

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  • Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,717 words, 6.5 minutes.

1 big thing: The two sides of America's coronavirus response

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

America's bungled political and social response to the coronavirus exists side-by-side with a record-breaking push to create a vaccine with U.S. companies and scientists at the center.

Why it matters: America's two-sided response serves as an X-ray of the country itself — still capable of world-beating feats at the high end, but increasingly struggling with what should be the simple business of governing itself.

What's happening: An index published last week by FP Analytics, an independent research division of Foreign Policy, ranked the U.S. 31st out of 36 countries in its assessment of government responses to COVID-19.

  • That puts it below developed countries like New Zealand and Denmark, and also lower than nations with fewer resources like Ghana, Kenya and South Africa.
  • The index cited the America's limited emergency health care spending, insufficient testing and hospital beds, and limited debt relief..

By the numbers: As my Axios colleague Jonathan Swan pointed out in an interview with President Trump, the U.S. has one of the worst per-capita death rates from COVID-19, at 50.29 per 100,000 population.

Yes, but: Work on a COVID-19 vaccine is progressing astonishingly fast, with the Cambridge-based biotech company Moderna and the National Institutes of Health announcing at the end of July that they had begun phase 3 of the clinical trial.

  • Their efforts are part of a global rush to a vaccine, and while companies in the U.K. and China are jockeying for the lead, U.S. companies and NIH's resources and expertise have been key to the effort.
  • Anthony Fauci has said he expects "tens of millions" of doses to be available by early 2021, a little over a year after the novel coronavirus was discovered.
  • If that turns out to be the case, "the Covid-19 vaccine could take a place alongside the Apollo missions as one of history’s greatest scientific achievements," epidemiologist Michael Kinch recently wrote in STAT.

So which is the real American response to COVID-19? The bungled testing policies, the politically driven rush to reopen, the tragic racial divide seen in the sick and the dead? Or the warp-speed work to develop a vaccine in a year when most past efforts took decades?

Be smart: It's both.

The bottom line: It can often feel as if there are two Americas, and not even a virus that has spread around the world seems capable of bridging that gap.

2. The superforecasting guide to coronavirus

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

"Superforecasters" have shown an uncanny knack for accurately predicting major events, including the course of the coronavirus pandemic.

Why it matters: The fact that we need to take action now to change the future course of the pandemic underscores the need for accurate predictions. Adopting the techniques of superforecasters could help us better anticipate the curves of this crisis.

How it works: Superforecasting brings together teams of individuals to collectively predict the likelihood of future events.

  • Prognosticators in the media will often hedge their predictions by using verbal terms such as "likely" or "probably." "But that creates confusion, because those words might mean something different for you or me, or from today or tomorrow," says Warren Hatch, the CEO of the superforecasting company Good Judgement.
  • Superforecasters use probabilities, which provide precision and accountability.
  • That accountability extends to superforecasters' willingness to revise their predictions as new data flows in, and to keep a rigorous record of those revisions.

"Too often experts make one and done forecasts," says Hatch, who adds this puts them at a disadvantage in a new and fast-changing situation like the pandemic.

By the numbers: As of Aug. 11, some of the superforecasting communities predictions include...

Of note: Superforecasters accurately predicted early on that MLB would hold its first game between June 1 and July 31 (it was July 23), and that Disney World would reopen between July 1 and September 30 (it was July 11).

The bottom line: We depend on experts who often have a vested interest in their predictions. Superforecasting offers an empirically grounded alternative at a moment when the future feels more uncertain than ever.

3. Pandemic threatens to reverse global progress

Children in New Delhi wait to get free food during the pandemic. Photo: Prakash Singh/AFP via Getty Image

The coronavirus pandemic and accompanying lockdowns are halting a long-term decline in extreme poverty around the world.

Why it matters: The sustained drop in the poorest of the poor has been one of the few unalloyed successes of the 21st century. Now the pandemic threatens to cast tens of millions back into extreme poverty, unless rich nations step up assistance.

What's happening: Statistics from the World Bank as of June indicate that compared to pre-crisis projections, the pandemic could push as many as 100 million people into extreme poverty — defined as living on less than $1.90 a day — by the end of 2020.

  • That would represent the first increase in extreme global poverty since 1998, wiping out all progress made since 2017.
  • For lower and upper middle-income countries — where the poverty line is $3.20 and $5.50 a day, respectively — hundreds of millions are expected to fall into the ranks of the poor.

Details: In an AP piece published this week, reporters looked at Ethiopia, one of more than 100 countries where the World Bank is closely examining the economic effects of the pandemic.

  • Ethiopia was once one of the poorest nations in the world. However, between the mid-1990s and the mid-2010s, the percentage of Ethiopians living in extreme poverty fell from nearly half to 23%, and its economy grew by 9.9% a year on average between 2007 and 2018.
  • Now early surveys from the World Bank show a 61% drop in employment, with conditions expected to worsen as the pandemic lengthens.

What they're saying: "It's a huge, huge setback for the entire world," Gayle Smith, president of the ONE Campaign, told AP.

4. Seeing Earth as an alien planet

Earth seen from orbit at night. Photo: NASA

The Hubble Space Telescope observed Earth as future tools could one day see a distant, alien planet, my Axios colleague Miriam Kramer writes.

Why it matters: These kinds of analogous experiments using Earth in place of an exoplanet (a world orbiting another star) give scientists a chance to see what a habitable planet may look like through telescopes if one is eventually found.

What they did: Researchers used the Hubble Space Telescope to observe the Earth and its atmosphere during a total lunar eclipse, where the storied telescope detected ozone, a gas thought to be key to the evolution of life.

  • The scientists behind the observations — detailed in a study due to be published in the Astronomical Journal — used the Hubble to look at light that had been filtered through Earth's atmosphere reflected from the Moon.
  • That allowed the researchers to parse out the makeup of our planet's atmosphere in much the same way as future missions could when observing a planet passing across the face of its star.
  • "We want to make sure we know what the Earth, the only habitable and inhabited planet we know of, looks like using the same methods astronomers use for exoplanets," Allison Youngblood, one of the authors of the new study, tells Axios.

What's next: Scientists don't yet have the tools in orbit to confirm the discovery of a habitable planet orbiting a distant star, but future missions could one day confirm another Earth-like planet out there in the galaxy.

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5. Worthy of your time

As e-commerce booms, robots pick up human slack (Christopher Mims — Wall Street Journal)

  • The huge demand for in-person delivery, and the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, have led to what will be a lasting boom for robotic arms.

Can GPT-3 make analogies? (Melanie Mitchell — Medium)

How did I catch the coronavirus? (Carolyn Kormann — The New Yorker)

  • A science writer asks a question I wondered myself back in April, and discovers why COVID-19 has remained so elusive to contact tracers.

TikTok and the Sorting Hat (Eugene Wei blog)

  • If you finally want to understand why TikTok has become a geopolitical football — and you have a passing familiarity with Harry Potter — this is the post for you.

6. 1 tomorrowland thing: RAND's 1964 predictions of the future

Disneyland's Tomorrowland in its early days. Still don't have those personal jetpacks. Photo: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

A report by RAND from 1964 shows how people in the past envisioned the future — with surprisingly accuracy, along with a few big misses.

Why it matters: There's a long history in attempting to predict the future, and looking back to what the best and the brightest thought would come can help us refine our own forecasts.

  • Which, unlike the RAND report, likely won't include "two-way communication with extraterrestrials."

What's most surprising about RAND's 1964 predictions of scientific advances over the next 50 years is how many of them turned out more or less correct. These include:

  • "Effective oral contraceptives."
  • "New organs through transplanting or prothesis."
  • "Operation of a central data storage facility with wide access for general or specialized information retrieval." AKA, the internet.

Then there are the predictions that got halfway there.

And then there are the ones that never got off the monorail from Tomorrowland.

  • "Use of telepathy and ESP in communications."
  • "Control of gravity through some form of modification of the gravitational field." I love this because it's both bold and vague. ("Some form" of modification of the gravitational field! Seems easy!)
  • "Long-duration coma to permit a form of time travel." I'm pretty sure Washington Irving invented this in 1819.

The bottom line: Make fun of the ESP prediction all you want, but we'll be lucky if our batting average on future forecasts is half as good.