Aug 26, 2020

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

Welcome to Axios Future, where I'm using my freshman-year experience with "Physics for Poets" — an actual class at my alma mater — to help explain quantum computing.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,787 words or about 7 minutes.

1 big thing: Why quantum computing matters

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A new government initiative will direct hundreds of millions of dollars to support new centers for quantum computing research.

Why it matters: Quantum information science represents the next leap forward for computing, opening the door to powerful machines that can help provide answers to some of our most pressing questions.

How it works: While AI is better known and increasingly integrated into our daily lives — hey, Siri — quantum computing is just as important, promising huge leaps forward in computer processing power.

  • Quantum computing harnesses the esoteric workings of quantum mechanics. While conventional or classical computers manipulate binary bits — the electrical or optical pulses representing 1s and 0s — to perform computation, quantum computers use what are known as qubits.
  • Qubits are subatomic particles like electrons or photons, and thanks to quantum mechanics, they can represent numerous possible combinations between 1 and 0. The ability to exist simultaneously in multiple states is called superposition, and it means a quantum computer — unlike a classical one — can compute huge numbers of potential outcomes simultaneously.
  • Pairs of qubits can be entangled, meaning that they exist in a single quantum state, and changing the state of one qubit in the pair will instantaneously alter the state of its partner, even if they're separated by vast distances. While classical computers only double their processing power when they double their bits, entanglement means that quantum computers exponentially increase their power as they add qubits.

Quantum computers won't replace classical ones wholesale — in part because the process of manipulating quantum particles is still highly tricky — but as they develop, they'll open up new frontiers in computing.

  • Cryptography: The sheer processing power of quantum computers means that at some point in the near future they'll be able to unlock all known digital encryption — which is why there's an international race to develop post-quantum cryptography.
  • Chemistry: At its foundation, nature is the process of quantum forces, but classical computers don't have the power to simulate matter at the subatomic level. Quantum computers do, which means they can be used to simulate the actions of molecules in order to break some of chemistry's toughest challenges, like making better batteries.
  • Quantum internet: Entanglement can be leveraged to send information via quantum communication, which promises to be far faster and more secure than current methods.

What they're saying: "Quantum is the biggest revolution in computers since the advent of computers," says Dario Gil, director of IBM Research. "With the quantum bit, you can actually rethink the nature of information."

The catch: While the underlying science behind quantum computing is decades old, quantum computers are only just now beginning to be used commercially.

  • Quantum computers tend to be more error-prone than their classical ancestors because of a process called decoherence.

What to watch: Who ultimately wins out on quantum supremacy — the act of demonstrating that a quantum computer can solve a problem that even the fastest classical computer would be unable to solve in a feasible time frame.

  • Last year, Google claimed to have achieved quantum supremacy, performing a computation on a quantum computer in 200 seconds that the company claimed would have taken a classical supercomputer 10,000 years to complete. Its competitor IBM, though, cast doubt on the claim.

The bottom line: The age of quantum computers isn't quite here yet, but it promises to be one of the major technological drivers of the 21st century.

2. The "expanding bull's-eye" of hurricane risk

The growth in housing density over the past 40 years in the region that's in Hurricane Laura's path. Credit: Stephen M. Strader

The population density of the Texas-Louisiana coastal region where Hurricane Laura is set to make landfall as a Category 4 storm has increased significantly over the past 40 years.

Why it matters: The damage a storm can do is a function not just of its sheer strength, but the number of people in its path. As more people live in coastal regions, we will get an increasingly "expanded bull's-eye" of hurricane risks.

What's happening: As Hurricane Laura is set to hit the Gulf Coast tonight or tomorrow morning, it has sustained winds of about 140 mph and could cause "unsurvivable storm surges" as high as 30 feet.

  • But while the storm's sheer power — and the role that climate change might play in intensifying that power — grabs attention, the more immediate multiplier is the increase in the number of people living in harm's way.

By the numbers: The population of coastline counties in the Gulf of Mexico region increased by more than 3 million, or 24.5%, between 2000 and 2016.

  • That's the fastest growth among all coastline counties, and significantly faster than total U.S. population growth over the time period.
  • The GIF above, posted on Twitter by the Villanova University geographer Stephen M. Strader, shows the growth in housing density over the past four decades for the region that's in Laura's path.

How it works: The spread of development in natural disaster-prone areas creates what experts call an "expanding bull's-eye" effect of increased risk.

  • Imagine the Gulf Coast as a dartboard. As development expands, the bull's-eye — the area where a storm might do maximum damage — expands as well.
  • That means more people and more property in the path of a possible hurricane, increasing the damage for a mild storm — and multiplying it for a severe one.

The bottom line: While more and more people move into fire, tornado and flood-prone regions, natural disasters will get worse — even before we begin factoring in climate change.

3. Disinformation and racism hurt vaccine trust
Data: Axios/Ipsos poll. Note: 1,084 U.S. adults were surveyed between Aug. 21–24 with a ±3.3% margin of error; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

Black Americans are less likely than white Americans to say they plan to get a flu vaccine this year, and significantly less likely to say they'll take a first-generation coronavirus vaccine, according to numbers from the latest edition of the Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index.

Why it matters: Black Americans have suffered disproportionately from COVID-19, which means they also stand to benefit from a successful vaccine.

  • But a legacy of medical mistreatment, systematic racism in health care and targeted efforts by anti-vaxxers means that a wide trust gap needs to be closed first.

Details: 49% of Black Americans say they are somewhat or very likely to get a flu shot this year, compared 65% of white Americans and 60% of Hispanics.

  • Just 28% of Black Americans say they would be willing to take a first-generation COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 51% of white Americans and 56% of Hispanics.

Context: During the 1930s, hundreds of Black men were recruited into what became known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, where doctors permitted the disease to progress without treatment.

  • A 2016 study indicated that Black patients were routinely under-treated for pain compared to whites patients.
  • Just 5% of active physicians identify as Black, compared to more than 13% of the total U.S. population.

The bottom line: "History absolutely plays a role as to why communities of color are hesitant to get the vaccine," says Patrice Harris, a former head of the American Medical Association. "We need to earn their trust."

4. Beyond the controversy around coronavirus convalescent plasma

A woman donates convalescent plasma in Seattle. Photo: Karen Ducey/Getty Images

The FDA's controversial decision on Sunday to issue an emergency use authorization for convalescent plasma to treat COVID-19 patients has put new attention on a very old treatment.

Why it matters: Much of the discussion around convalescent plasma has focused on the politics behind the FDA's decision. But some scientists say the antibodies harvested from recovered COVID-19 patients' blood could make a real difference for the sick.

How it works: When a patient successfully recovers from a disease like COVID-19, their body will generate antibodies that are found in their plasma — the straw-colored liquid part of the blood.

  • For over a century, doctors have experimented with the idea that transfusing plasma from recovered patients into the sick will transplant antibodies as well, boosting the donee's ability to fight off the virus.
  • To give what is known as convalescent plasma, recovered patients have blood taken, which is then spun in the centrifuge of an apheresis machine. The plasma is separated out, and the rest of the blood flows back into the donor. (I recently wrote about my own experience giving convalescent plasma.)

Details: Just how much of a difference convalescent plasma can make for COVID-19 patients isn't yet clear.

  • A nationwide study of more than 35,000 patients run by the Mayo Clinic found that those who received transfusions within three days of diagnosis had a seven-day death rate of 8.7%, compared to 11.9% for those who received plasma four or more days after diagnosis.
  • Yes, but: That study had no placebo group for comparison, so it's unclear how much of a difference the plasma really made. The lack of such randomized control trials was why so many public health leaders were against the emergency use order.

Still, the reality is that such gold-standard trials aren't easy to do in the middle of a pandemic, when patients and doctors are desperate for any treatment, noted Liise-anne Pirofski of New York's Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who ran trials on convalescent plasma. "And there's not one shred of data that suggests harm."

My thought bubble: There's promise in plasma that shouldn't be overshadowed by a political crisis.

5. Worthy of your time

How to destroy surveillance capitalism (Cory Doctorow — OneZero)

  • A long (109 minutes!) read by a noted tech writer that breaks down the surveillance economy that powers tech, and how it could be dismantled.

Gods in the machine (Chris Newens — Rest of World)

  • How the pandemic lockdown unlocked an app in India that offers VR religious worship.

Can robots stop humans from abusing other robots? (Evan Ackerman — IEEE Spectrum)

  • "Emotionally expressive bystander robots" — which is a thing — might stop you from kicking your poor Roomba.

Meet the philosopher who is trying to explain the pandemic (Christopher Caldwell — New York Times)

  • A fascinating look at Giorgio Agamben, an Italian thinker who raises questions about what he calls the "techno-medical despotism" of pandemic lockdowns.
6. 1 good thing: Polio eradicated in Africa

A boy in Uganda is immunized against polio and other diseases. Photo: Badru Katumba/AFP via Getty Images

On Tuesday, Africa was declared wild-polio free, after nearly 25 years of mass vaccination efforts.

Why it matters: The near-global defeat of a virus that has crippled millions of children over the years marks a tremendous achievement for medicine — and reminds us what the world can still do when it works together.

What's happening: Polio was declared eradicated on the continent by the Africa Regional Certification Committee, after more than 95% of Africa's population had been immunized.

  • The last country to be declared free of wild polio was Nigeria, where courageous vaccine workers reached remote villages under the threat of militant violence.

Background: While Jonas Salk's polio vaccine was released in 1955, as recently as 1988 there were still an estimated 350,000 cases in 125 countries.

  • Today, thanks to a global effort that involved more than 9 billion immunizations, wild polio is still circulating in just two countries: Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"The end of wild polio in Africa is a great day. Your success is the success of the world."
— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general

The bottom line: The dominant storyline of the COVID-19 pandemic has too often been one of failure — failure of politics and failure of public will. But the arduous effort to eradicate polio demonstrates that we are capable of so much more.

Bryan Walsh