Aug 29, 2020

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

Welcome to Axios Future, where today we're focusing on technology that aims to decode the 86 billion or so neurons locked inside your head.

  • I'll be off next week, but thankfully Alison Snyder and some of my other Axios colleagues will be filling in on Future.
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  • Send feedback and tips to bryan.walsh@axios.com.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,941 words or about 7 minutes.

1 big thing: The future of brain-machine interfaces

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Elon Musk gave the world a progress update on his brain-machine interface startup Neuralink on Friday, showcasing a small implant that can read and transmit the neural activity of a pig.

Why it matters: The Neuralink implant still has yet to be tested in human beings, but it's part of a wave of brain-machine interface technologies that aim to address neurological diseases and injuries, and eventually directly link human brains to the internet.

What's happening: In an online event, Musk showed the Neuralink device — roughly the size of a quarter — implanted in a pig's brain, where it was able to read some neural signals in real time.

  • While Musk had billed the event as a "product demo," Neuralink has yet to undergo clinical trials in human beings, though the company announced it had been granted FDA "breakthrough device status," which could speed efforts in humans.
  • "It's like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires," said Musk. The device's wires connect to brain centers, while the device communicates wirelessly to a computer.

The next generation of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) seek to translate brain signals into useful data or even use them to manipulate machines.

  • In 2017 Facebook announced that it wanted to create a headband that would allow people to type with just their thoughts, and last year research funded by the company showed that sheets of electrodes placed on the cortical surface could turn thoughts into text or commands on a screen.
  • BrainCo, a Massachusetts-based startup, makes non-invasive headbands that detect electrical brain signals and purport to indicate when students are in a state of concentration. "It helps students to modulate themselves to learn better and feel better," says Max Newlon, BrainCo's president.

What's next: As BCI technology improves, it could enable truly transformative applications that merge humans and machines — especially for the military, as a report released this week by researchers at the RAND Corporation outlines.

  • Cortically connecting a human brain to a machine could allow an AI to help a soldier in the field evaluate data far more rapidly than they could do alone, creating a "centaur" model combining humans and machines.
  • DARPA has funded researchers who are studying the possibility of "synthetic telepathy," involving virtual communication on the battlefield through the analysis of neural signals.

The catch: For any of the more ambitious uses of BCI to become a reality, scientists will need to figure out how to implant connections in the brain that can last for a decade or longer — most current versions corrode in a few years — and that can function effectively outside a lab.

  • BCI technology also carries the risk of malfunctions — and hacks by adversaries — as well as "the chance of relying too heavily on what you might term 'exquisite tech,'" says Anika Binnendijk, a political scientist at RAND.
  • There are also major ethical concerns that will only grow as the technology improves — worst of all the "grave possibility that it would facilitate totalitarian control of humans," as the bioethicists Ellen McGee and G. Q. Maguire, Jr. noted more than two decades ago.
  • That led a group of scientists working in the field to call in 2017 for a declaration of "neurorights" that would address the threats posed by brain-reading technology.

The bottom line: Like all the most important emerging technologies, BCI poses two questions: Can it be done? And should it be done? We shouldn't forget the second while figures like Musk focus on the first.

2. When machines want to judge your tone

Amazon's Halo wearable, with Tone feature enabled on a smartphone. Photo courtesy of Amazon.

Amazon's new Halo health wearable device will track your physical activity, your sleep patterns — and, by listening to your voice, your emotional tone.

Why it matters: The device's tone-tracking service raises questions about user privacy, but it's also part of a growing industry that employs AI and voice-recognition to analyze the emotional affect in a human voice.

How it works: In many ways, the $99.99 Halo is a standard wearable, tracking a user's health with the help of an accompanying smartphone app.

  • What sets it apart is a small mic on the band that can record snippets of your voice, which is analyzed using machine-learning to take into account pitch, intensity, tempo and rhythm.
  • Those bits of speech are timestamped and identified with labels like "content" or "hesitant," as well as measured for "positivity" and "energy level."

Not surprisingly, the idea of a device from one of the biggest tech companies analyzing the emotional tone of a user's voice raised "Black Mirror" comparisons.

Yes, but: Users have to opt in to the tone feature, and Amazon emphasized that speech samples are recorded locally on the phone — not shared on the cloud — and are automatically deleted after processing so that no one can listen to them.

Still, what's known as "sentiment analysis" is increasingly being used by businesses in voice communication, often to help sales agents interact with customers — a need that has grown as agents carry out their work remotely during the pandemic.

  • But even some of those in the field caution that machines lag behind humans when it comes to interpreting emotion. "It's natural for people to be empathetic," says Zayd Enam, the co-founder of Cresta, an AI startup that coaches sales agents in real time. "Our goal is to give agents the answers so they can focus on the human component."

The bottom line: It's still best to let human beings — not machines — police your tone.

3. The many benefits of commute-free remote work
Data: Upwork and U.S. Census Bureau; Chart: Axios Visuals

After years of U.S. commutes growing longer and longer, the pandemic has kept millions of office road warriors at home — and the financial benefits are significant.

Why it matters: Commuting was costing American workers an increasing amount of time, money and life satisfaction. After a glimpse a life without the daily slog, workers may not want to go back to normal, which could have major effects on cities around the country.

By the numbers: In a survey released Thursday, the freelancing platform Upwork found that those who were working remotely because of COVID-19 were saving an average 49.6 minutes a day because they were no longer commuting.

  • For the majority who commuted by car, staying off the roads has saved $758 million a day in time, fuel and health costs, which adds up to more than $90 billion since mid-March.

Background: This change comes after years of ever-lengthening commutes, which had increased by an average of almost 11 minutes a day since 1980, or two full days a year.

Be smart: Those savings are one reason why many surveys — like this one from the New York Times — have found that most workers are quite satisfied with working from home.

  • "Now that many have seen what it can be like without a commute, I don't anticipate most [workers] are eager to rush back to the office," says Adam Ozimek, Upwork's chief economist.
  • While workers in outer-orbit bedroom communities like East Stroudsburg, Pa., have saved the most time, Ozimek sees expensive housing areas like the New York and San Francisco metros — which also average long commutes — being hit hardest by the remote work shift.

The bottom line: If workers can save time and companies can save money by abandoning the central workplace, offices may not be coming back soon.

4. The shifting geography of telemedicine
Note: States with looser restrictions defined as CO, FL, GA, MS, MT, SC. States with tighter restrictions defined as CA, CT, NJ, NY, VT, WA. Data: Second Measure; Chart: Axios Visuals

New data shows that while telemedicine has boomed during the pandemic, its growth has varied depending on different states' lockdown policies.

Why it matters: As the pandemic begins to come under control, how lasting the telemedicine boom will be depends ultimately on whether the services can truly replace doctors.

By the numbers: A report from the consumer analytics company Second Measure demonstrates that the demand for telehealth services has skyrocketed since pandemic lockdowns began.

  • Year-over-year growth reached a five-year high of 287% in the week of May 11 and has since averaged weekly year-over-year growth of over 150%.
  • Not surprisingly, consumers have largely been turning to telehealth because doctors' offices were closed or because they feared that in-person visits could expose them to the coronavirus.

Yes, but: Growth has actually been stronger in states that had looser COVID-19 restrictions than in stricter states, a trend that grew more pronounced in recent months.

  • One possible explanation is that as the coronavirus came under control in states with stricter restrictions like New York, consumers began to feel more comfortable going back to a doctor's office, notes Liyin Yeo of Second Measure.
  • The more recent increase in telemedicine use in looser states like Georgia also coincided with a spike in COVID-19 cases, which may have discouraged consumers from in-person visits while making them more likely to need virtual care.

The bottom line: The pandemic will end — eventually — and when it does, we'll see whether telemedicine remains the future of health care.

5. Worthy of your time

The 300,000-year case for the 15-hour week (James Suzman — Financial Times)

  • A fascinating piece by an anthropologist who uses his experience with hunter-gatherer societies to make a case for a vastly reduced workweek.

The radical plan to save the fastest-sinking city in the world (Steve LeVine — Gen)

  • My Axios Future predecessor went to Jakarta — pre-pandemic — to learn about the Indonesian capital's effort to save itself from climate change.

Political violence: thinking about the unthinkable (Frank S. Robinson — The Rational Optimist)

  • A scarily plausible argument that a disputed loss by Donald Trump could lead to actual political violence in the U.S.

Remote learning exacerbates inequality. Here's how we must support the most vulnerable kids (Devorah Heitner — Fast Company)

  • Education was already unequal in the U.S. — and without dedicated action, the forced shift to remote learning will make it much worse.
6. 1 sci-fi thing: "Johnny Mnemonic"

Keanu Reeves in the 1995 sci-fi film "Johnny Mnemonic," back when his action-movie skills were a bit less developed. Photo: TriStar/Getty Images

All of this brain-machine, emotion-reading stuff takes me back to a mid-1990s film that featured a guy who carried around a hard drive in his head — and that guy, of course, was Keanu Reeves.

Why it matters: Old sci-fi movies offer us a chance to view how the past imagined the future. "Johnny Mnemonic" didn't get a lot right, but it was ahead of its time in exploring what would happen if we could link the brain to a computer. (Spoiler alert: Nothing good.)

Set in 2021, the film's main character is a "mnemonic courier" — that would be Keanu, introducing the look of Zen befuddlement he would perfect in "The Matrix" — who has a cybernetic implant in his head that allows him to smuggle information for criminals.

  • The implant allows him to store an astounding 80 gigabytes of data — or about a third of what my iPhone can hold today.

Details: The film is peak 1990s internet cybercool.

  • Heavily EDM-influenced soundtrack? Check.
  • Cult Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano as a Yakuza villain? Check.
  • Scenes involving characters interacting in a virtual-reality "cyberspace"? Check.

Of note: "Johnny Mnemonic" did make the important discovery — valuable for future films — that Keanu Reeves looks really, really good in suits.

What they said: Keanu revealing that there are no smartphones in this particular tech dystopia: "I want to get online... I need a computer!"

On the other hand: The film does envision a future where being on the internet too much literally makes you sick with something called "nerve attenuation syndrome."

  • In our world, of course, that sickness is merely metaphorical.

The bottom line: You'll probably be a bit less likely to volunteer for a brain-machine interface after watching "Johnny Mnemonic."

Bryan Walsh