Sep 5, 2020

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

Thanks for reading Axios Future. Bryan will be back at the helm next week. In the meantime, here's our latest glimpse into the future.

On the next "Axios on HBO": Mark Zuckerberg, warning of the potential for civil unrest, says Facebook and news organizations need to start "preparing the American people that there's nothing illegitimate about this election." Watch a clip.

  • Catch the full interview next Tuesday, Sept. 8 at 11 p.m. ET/PT on all HBO platforms.

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Today's newsletter is 1,566 words, about a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Copper demand pits clean energy against the wilderness

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The world's transition to renewable energy and electric vehicles will require unprecedented amounts of copper from potentially new mining operations that may harm vulnerable species and ecosystems, Axios' Jacob Knutson writes.

Why it matters: The global need for copper could increase by an estimated 350% by 2050, with current reserves depleting sometime between 2035 and 2045, as wind and solar energy generate an increasing percentage of electricity and as more people adopt electric vehicles.

Driving the news: Copper jumped this week to two-year highs above $6,800 a ton after high demand from China plunged inventories to their lowest levels in more than a decade, which traders say may trigger a further surge in prices, Yahoo News reports.

By the numbers: Worldwide copper usage jumped 38% over the last decade, from 17.8 million metric tonnes in 2009 to 24.5 million in 2019, largely driven by demand for renewable energy and cleaner vehicles.

  • Wind energy requires on average 2,000 tons of copper per gigawatt, while solar needs about 5,000 tons per gigawatt — several times higher than fossil fuels and nuclear energy, says Seaver Wang, a climate and energy analyst for the Breakthrough Institute, a California-based environmental research center.
  • Electric vehicles can contain between 40 kg and 83 kg of copper, while an internal combustion engine needs an average of 23 kg, according to research commissioned by the International Copper Association.

Of note: The proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska, which sits atop one of the world’s largest copper deposits, may be used by the clean energy sector, but the possible environmental costs could be severe.

  • Developing the mine would involve "excavation of the largest open pit ever constructed in North America," and could threaten one of the most important salmon fisheries in the world, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded in 2014. Final approval has now been delayed by the Trump administration.
  • "While we can't say for certain where Pebble copper will end up, U.S. and global demand for clean and renewable power, electrical vehicles and the grid infrastructure that supports these and other climate change adaptation solutions and technologies will clearly be important drivers for the development of new copper producers," said Mike Heatwole, vice president of public affairs for the Pebble Ltd. Partnership, which oversees the proposed mine.

The big picture: Copper is just one of several metals and minerals that are required for renewable power technologies and electric cars, and all have larger ecological and environmental considerations, Axios' Ben Geman reported this week. Other materials include lithium, cobalt and molybdenum.

  • Wang argues the benefits of renewable forms of energy outweigh the costs of obtaining the materials to produce them, as long as the best mining practices are followed and recycling rates are improved.
  • "Habitat loss is one of the most important threats to biodiversity worldwide, and anything that increases the rates of habitat loss will also have a negative impact on biodiversity," Laura Sonter of the University of Queensland in Australia said.
  • What's needed right now, Sonter says, is more data to identify and avoid sourcing from areas that support a lot of biodiversity.

What to watch: "It's important to note that a lot of people who are involved in the clean energy sector are working very hard to reduce copper demand in those technologies," Wang said.

  • Enhanced recycling methods or new composites to supplement or replace copper might also help meet future demand.
2. A decade of progress in child mortality threatened by pandemic
Data: PATH estimates from disrupted maternal, newborn and child health services, drawing on modeling from Lancet Global Health; Chart: Axios Visuals

Within a mere eight months, COVID-19 has damaged years of global progress in children's health and other areas by disrupting essential health services in many countries, Axios' Eileen Drage O'Reilly writes.

Why it matters: Disrupted services will result in a myriad of near- and long-term health problems.

  • The global health organization PATH points to a projected increase in deaths in children under the age of 5 that could erase up to a decade of progress, according to preliminary findings shared first with Axios.

What's happening: The interruption of antenatal care, facility births and immunizations caused by the pandemic now threatens recent advances made in child and maternal deaths, says Heather Ignatius, director of the U.S. and global advocacy team for the nonprofit PATH.

Details: 90% of the 105 responding nations in a recent WHO survey said they experienced at least some disruption to their essential health services, including routine immunizations, noncommunicable disease diagnosis and treatment, family planning and contraception, treatment for mental health disorders and antenatal care.

What they're saying: "With the disruptions to vaccination programs, "we're very concerned that we'll see a surge in diseases like polio, measles [and] hepatitis B" over the years to come, Ignatius said.

  • Disruptions to malaria diagnosis and treatment and malnutrition programs for children are very worrisome, she adds.
  • WHO's findings echo PATH's research and data from ministries of health already reporting increases in maternal death rates and stillbirths in Uganda, Kenya and Nepal, she says.
  • "If these estimates are right, we're looking at 20,000 kids a day dying due to preventable causes — that's a humanitarian crisis that no one's hearing about."

What to watch: Ignatius says her biggest concern is that once the situation is controlled in the U.S., people will move on.

  • "[T]hey won't want to focus on health anymore. They will be sick of it. ... That's natural but there are people who can't forget it because they'll be living it for years to come," she says.

Go deeper.

3. Tech's deepfake problem is worsening

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The run-up to the U.S. presidential election is also speeding up the arrival of a tipping point for digital fakery in politics, Axios' Ashley Gold reports.

Driving the news: This week, thousands of Twitter and Facebook users, including White House Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Scavino, circulated a manipulated video appearing to show Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden falling asleep during a live interview.

The big picture: Experts are worried about Silicon Valley's ability to meet the challenge once AI-generated deepfakes become widespread and it's easy to make any famous person appear to say anything.

Some especially tricky challenges we face or will soon face, according to experts:

  • "Cheapfakes," or "shallow fakes" — like the slowed-down video of Nancy Pelosi — can spread quickly before getting caught, and even then may not be taken down.
  • "Readfakes" are on the rise — a coinage from Graphika researcher Camille François referring to AI-generated text, which can take the form of fake articles and op-eds.
  • Generative Adversarial Networks, which can create images of nonexistent people, let disinformation campaigns make fake social media accounts or even infiltrate traditional media.
  • "Digital humans" expand on that idea, relying on voice synthesis and faked video to create entire faked personas.
  • Sheer volume is a concern, as AI gets better at generating a lot of images or text at once, flooding the internet with junk and making people less sure of what's real.
  • Those sharing faked media are getting smarter about skirting the line of breaking platform rules, such as by claiming a video is just a parody. Of course, some manipulated videos are meant as parodies, which only makes this problem tougher.

Solutions are tough to come by. Experts agree that attempting to catch and kill deepfakes and cheapfakes on a case-by-case basis may never work at scale. But some tactics can help.

  • Putting deepfake detection tools in users' hands would help platforms address the challenge of scale, François told Axios.
  • Best practices shared across the industry are a must, said Rob Meadows, chief technology officer at the AI Foundation, which recently partnered with Microsoft on Reality Defender, a deepfake detection initiative.
  • Authenticating images and videos by tracking when they're taken and every subsequent edit or manipulation could prove more effective in restoring trust than trying to detect and quash deepfakes once they're already circulating.

Go deeper.

4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The great battery race (Joann Muller — Axios)

Expert group warns editing genes for heritable conditions is not yet safe (Yours truly — Axios)

These students figured out their tests were graded by AI — and the easy way to cheat (Monica Chin — The Verge)

How to forecast armies’ will to fight (The Economist)

5. 1 forensic thing: Plants for detecting bodies

Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Human remains can be hidden by tree canopies and brush, but a team of forensic botanists is proposing plants might one day be used to actually find bodies.

Why it matters: At the end of 2019, there were almost 90,000 active or ongoing cases of missing people in the U.S. Finding people who disappear, which is crucial for closure and justice, can be difficult in forests because of the terrain, vast search areas and dense vegetation.

How it works: When bodies begin to decompose, microbes, minerals and metals enter the soil, where they can be taken up by nearby plants, changing the wavelength of light reflected by their leaves.

  • Remains release nitrogen — pounds of it in the case of a human body — that causes more chlorophyll to be produced by plants, creating a "greening effect."
  • How fast those changes may appear and whether they can be detected with drones is being investigated by researchers at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville's Anthropological Research Lab — also known as the Body Farm.
  • Another possible signature: cadmium, which is present in small amounts in the soil and large ones in people who smoke or work in certain areas of manufacturing.
  • It too changes the spectral properties of leaves and thus "provides a reasonable target for identifying clandestine graves," plant biologist Neal Stewart and his anthropologist and soil scientist colleagues write in the journal Trends in Plant Science this week.

What's next: The field project to try to determine and detect the plant signatures began in June, and Stewart anticipates one limitation may be finding signals that are specific to humans versus deer or other large mammals.

  • Even still, the approach might be used to at least quickly narrow search-and-rescue efforts, he says.
Bryan Walsh