Welcome to Axios Future, where I for one am just about out of ironic one-liners.
📷 In this week’s must-see “Axios on HBO,” we dive into how the coronavirus pandemic is upending politics, business and global affairs. Don't miss:
Tune in Sunday 6 p.m. ET/PT on all HBO platforms.
Today's issue is 1,603 words, a 6-minute read.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
COVID-19 became a pandemic because too many of the countries struck by the virus failed to detect and suppress outbreaks as fast as possible. But the coronavirus could usher in an era of intense health surveillance.
Why it matters: From location-detecting smartphones to facial recognition cameras, we have the potential to track the spread of disease in near real-time. But the public health benefits will need to be weighed against the loss of privacy.
Background: Epidemiologists can lay claim to being some of the first data scientists, going all the way back to John Snow discovering the source of a cholera epidemic in London in 1854. Today they use rapid contact tracing to track an outbreak from its source to its spread in an effort to contain it.
Modern technology, though, offers the potential to surveil exactly where people are and where they've been, through the location data on their smartphones and the trail of transactions they leave in their wake.
In the U.S. and other Western countries, such efforts would likely face major ethical, legal and regulatory barriers, as my Axios colleague Scott Rosenberg wrote earlier this week.
Yes, but: We are entering unprecedented territory with COVID-19. The fundamental challenge the U.S. faces in its response is a lack of data about who is sick and contagious and who isn't. Without that information, state and local governments have been forced to rely on blunt force tools of mass closures and social distancing that seem poised to kill the economy.
"A situation like the pandemic creates a fundamental shift in how people react to technology. This is the direction we are going to be moving in."— Labhesh Patel, chief technology officer at Jumio, an ID verification company
The bottom line: We've already given up so much in the fight against COVID-19. Some elements of personal privacy may be the next to go. And don't expect the surveillance to end when the pandemic does.
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios
The massive disruption caused by COVID-19 could lead companies to tap automation to manufacture products much closer to home.
Why it matters: The pandemic is revealing that the globalized supply chain that brings us many of our products is shockingly fragile. Easily programmable industrial robots could make it simpler to produce what we use here in the U.S., reducing that vulnerability.
Even before the novel coronavirus reached the U.S., the supply chain disruptions caused by the virus' spread in China were damaging the American economy.
Context: Obviously, the U.S. needs stronger domestic manufacturing capability, especially right now. But it's not just that American companies have grown dependent on international supply chains.
If workers aren't available, one option might be robots.
These changes were already underway before the pandemic, but COVID-19 may accelerate them.
The bottom line: The first response in a pandemic is to stick close to home. That may prove true for manufacturing as well.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
Air CEO Shane Hegde last week sent an employee to the offices of a New York nonprofit to pick up more than 20 hard drives and upload their contents to the cloud to accommodate an abrupt shift to remote work, Axios’ Kia Kokalitcheva reports.
The big picture: Despite the popularity of cloud-based work tools, all kinds of sophisticated organizations ran into technological challenges when the spread of the coronavirus suddenly forced them to have employees work from home.
Between the lines: Many companies are set up to have some small portion of their employees working remotely at any given time, but few are prepared for all of them do so at once.
The bottom line: Many companies will likely rethink their policies on remote work, both culturally and technologically, after this crisis.
Photo: Kryssia Campos
A new study suggests solar geoengineering could work most effectively by trying to blunt half of expected global warming, rather than all of it.
Why it matters: Government policies to cut carbon emissions aren't on target to keep warming below dangerous levels, so geoengineering may eventually be necessary. By aiming for a more modest offset of the warming to come, researchers may be able to maximize the benefits while minimizing the risks.
How it works: Solar geoengineering involves trying to directly cool the climate by injecting aerosols into the atmosphere, which would reflect incoming sunlight.
Details: The new study, published in Environmental Research Letters, used computer models to conclude that putting enough aerosols into the stratosphere to cut expected warming in half appeared to hit the sweet spot of slowing climate change without inadvertently making it worse in some regions.
"When used at the right dose and alongside reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, stratospheric aerosol geoengineering could be useful for managing the impacts of climate change."— Peter Irvine, University College London, lead author
Hot zone in the heartland? (Elisabeth Eaves — Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
There's one way we really are "at war" with the coronavirus (Matthew Zeitlin — Slate)
History in a crisis — lessons for COVID-19 (David S. Jones — New England Journal of Medicine)
They went off the grid. They came back to the coronavirus. (Charlie Warzel — New York Times)
Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Since we'll be home for the duration — a length of time that seems to be growing — this newsletter is recommending pop culture that jells with the themes of Future.
Why you should read it: Sure, a novel about a superflu that kills nearly everyone on the planet and leads to near-total social collapse may hit a little too close to home these days, but "Station Eleven" is excellent — and even hopeful.
The novel, by Emily St. John Mandel, moves back and forth between the dawn of the swine flu pandemic and life among the few survivors 20 years later.
The bottom line: Just surviving a pandemic — this one or a fictional one — isn't enough.