Mar 14, 2020

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

Welcome to Axios Future, where any tips for working at home while simultaneously caring for a 2½ -year-old are very welcome.

📷 This week on “Axios on HBO”: Rep. James Clyburn, the Democratic “kingmaker” largely credited for Joe Biden’s surge, says he thinks President Trump is a racist and warns the U.S. "could very well go the way of Germany in the 1930s" (clip); DNC Chair Tom Perez talks diversity, coronavirus and the future of the Democratic Party; plus much more. Tune in Sunday 6 pm ET/PT on all HBO platforms. 

Today's issue is 1,484 words, ~ a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: The pandemic highlights the man-made disasters to come

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has fully arrived, how bad it gets will largely be a function of how our society responds at every level.

Why it matters: From pandemics to climate change to earthquakes, massive catastrophes lie in our future. But in a world that has the technological capability that ours does, we have the power to mitigate those disasters through our preparation and resilience — or to make them worse through our failures.

Today we can either directly see through technology a disaster coming or reasonably know our level of risk based on the experience of the past or the ability to model what's to come.

What this means is that in the truest sense, no disaster is really — or only — natural. The toll a catastrophe takes, especially in human lives, now has as much or more to do with our preparation, response and level of wealth as it has to do with the strength of the event itself.

  • One example: The 2010 earthquake that hit Haiti had a 7.0 magnitude and killed at least 220,000 people, while another temblor that struck a much better prepared Chile a month later was far stronger, yet killed fewer than 600 people.

The COVID-19 pandemic was entirely foreseeable, as I reported recently.

  • Yet by refusing to take that threat seriously, and even dismantling some of the response measures that were already in place, the U.S. effectively expanded its "bull's-eye of risk" for an infectious disease disaster.

Be smart: What happens next with COVID-19 will have far more to do with the steps we take in the days and weeks ahead than anything to do with the virus itself.

  • The New York Times reported on March 13 that worst-case projections by the CDC had as many as 214 million Americans being infected and as many as 1.7 million dying.
  • But those projections assume that nothing would be done to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. The wide-scale canceling of social gatherings and distancing measures being put in place will almost surely bend that curve.
  • The apparent success of China and South Korea in curbing the outbreak, and places like Hong Kong and Singapore in preventing the disease from gaining a strong foothold in the first place, demonstrates the difference that action can make.

What's true of the pandemic now will also be true of threats from megatrends that will only intensify in the future, like climate change. What we do to directly mitigate global warming and adapt to its effects will determine our level of risk.

  • Actions that make us more vulnerable — like building up development on coastlines that face rising seas or allowing vaccination rates for preventable diseases to fall — expand the bull's-eye of risk.
  • Mismanagement of a disaster while it occurs or immediately after it can make a catastrophe far worse, as we saw with Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The bottom line: There's no such thing as a natural disaster anymore. Our ability to prepare and respond to what nature throws at us is our strength — or, should we fail to do both, our vulnerability.

2. A new center for shaping new technology

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

On March 11, the Atlantic Council launched the GeoTech Center, a new think tank that will focus on the social impact of emerging technologies like AI, synthetic biology, personalized medicine and more.

Why it matters: How these technologies develop in the years ahead will have enormous impacts on society. The experts behind the GeoTech Center believe the government, the private sector and the public need to take an active role in understanding and shaping the use of "technology for good."

I spoke with David Bray, a technologist who will be running the new center. A quick excerpt of our conversation follows:

What's your aim for the center?

The hope here is that we can understand how these technologies are changing the nation, and define what we mean when we say "technology for good."

What are some of the downsides you see from emerging technology?

Technology by itself won't inherently strengthen open and pluralistic societies. It may disproportionately be advantageous to more autocratic societies. We want to figure out how to engage policymakers and private sector leaders to try to ensure that technology can benefit open societies like ours.

How will the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic influence your work?

I'm hoping this helps us realize that we need to work across sectors and partisan divides. We don't want this outbreak to demonstrate that it's better to be living in a more heavily surveilled state than in a more open one.

The bottom line: Technology isn't neutral, and active choices will help shape new advances in a way that serves democratic values.

3. The grand experiment of remote everything

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Every shutdown by an office, school, restaurant or store is stress-testing our ability to live life without leaving home.

  • Why it matters: Coronavirus is triggering a grand experiment. Remote work and remote learning have long been buzzwords. But the sudden switch to telecommuting en masse has the potential to accelerate shifts in how work is conducted and the way we think about it, Axios' Erica Pandey writes.

The coronavirus could be the catalyst that gets firms to adopt remote work policies in far greater numbers than we see now, even after the pandemic ends. But it's not as simple as just closing offices and classrooms. Most companies and universities aren't built for the virtual world.

  • They're filled with managers and professors who value face-to-face interaction.
  • Workplaces exist precisely because sharing physical space fosters teamwork and sparks creativity.

Some tech companies are already entirely remote and have set up virtual water coolers — calls where employees can join to chat about topics outside of work — to recreate the social experience of an office.

  • But the vast majority of organizations aren't built this way. And the abrupt switch to telecommuting brings a host of logistical problems.

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4. Yellowstone isn't going to blow (yet)

Yellowstone's Steamboat Geyser erupting in 2018. Photo: George Frey / Contributor

Despite some media reports about uplift of rock at Yellowstone, there's no evidence the supervolcano beneath the park is set to erupt.

Why it matters: So-called supereruptions are a real existential threat, and Yellowstone has erupted three times over the past 2.1 million years. But the chance of it happening anytime soon is vanishingly small.

Background: A study published in January found that ground deformation in Yellowstone was due to magma rising below the Norris Geyser Basin area, pushing up rock at a rate of 5.9 inches per year.

  • The study was highlighted by the U.S. Geological Survey's Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, and in turn picked up by Newsweek.
  • That led to some ... concerned tweets.
Screenshot: SkyMyGuy's Twitter feed

Reality check: The rock in Yellowstone often rises and falls in response to the active underground magma reservoir that powers the park's trademark geysers. But there's nothing in the study — or anything else happening lately — that indicates the supervolcano is any closer to erupting.

  • The USGS puts the odds of a supereruption at Yellowstone in any given year as 1 in 730,000, less than your chance of being hit by lightning.
  • Which is a good thing, because if it did, some models suggest the resulting ash could reach much of North America and cast the world into a multiyear volcanic winter.

The bottom line: Supervolcanoes are the single biggest natural existential risk, even more than asteroid impacts. But the likelihood is incredibly small for the immediate future, and anyway, we have bigger things to worry about right now.

5. Worthy of your time

The end of high-tech war (David Kilcullen — MIT Technology Review)

  • An excerpt from a new book by a former Australian Army officer and government adviser shows how insurgencies have adapted warfighting technologies like drones.

Why the web isn't working for women and girls (Tim Berners-Lee — OneZero)

  • The inventor of the internet on how the web must be changed to make it safe for women.

Dressing for the surveillance age (John Seabrook — The New Yorker)

  • How fashion is adapting to foil a world of omnipresent cameras and facial recognition.

The prepping industry wasn't prepared for the coronavirus (Kate Knibbs — Wired)

  • You would think if anyone could have seen this catastrophe coming, it would have been doomsday preppers. You'd be wrong.
6. 1 sci-fi thing: "Westworld" returns

Thandie Newton in "Westworld," which is apparently no longer in the West. Photo: John P. Johnson/HBO

HBO's futuristic robots-gone-wild drama "Westworld" returns on March 15.

Why it matters: Let's face it: We're all going to have a lot of time on our hands at home for the foreseeable future. So this newsletter will highlight streamable TV shows and movies that reflect the themes and concerns of Axios Future, starting with a series as gorgeous as its narrative timeline is convoluted.

"Westworld" has only been on for two seasons, but there's no way to fully explain what's happened so far in Axios Smart Brevity style. Suffice it to say:

  • In the future, humanity can build robots that appear indistinguishable from human beings.
  • Following the usual trends for new technology, humans immediately decided to use this for pornography.
  • Eventually some of the robots gained sentience, rebelled against their masters, and one (played by Evan Rachel Wood) is out in the real world and bent on revenge.

What's new: We'll leave the theme parks and spend time in a cyberpunky future where most humans, including newcomer Aaron Paul (always and forever Jesse on "Breaking Bad"), are run by more or less benign AI.

"Westworld" can be a puzzle of a watch, but it effectively grapples with questions about the human rights of artificial beings, and how we'll live in a world where data tracks every move we make. Also, how cool was the Shogun World last season?

Editor’s note: Axios partners with HBO for "Axios on HBO."

Bryan Walsh