Axios Future

A robotic hand with the palm facing upward.

June 05, 2021

Welcome to Axios Future, where it's not all bad news β€” just, you know, mostly.

  • Send feedback, tips and your personal Fully Automated Luxury Communist manifesto (see item No. 6) to [email protected].

🚨 Situational awareness: Future will be going on hiatus until later in July as I help launch a new Axios newsletter: What's Next.

  • Starting June 14, my colleagues Joann Muller, Erica Pandey and myself will be coming to your inbox daily with news and insights about post(ish)-pandemic work, cities, transport and more.
  • Future subscribers will automatically receive What's Next, but anyone else can sign up here.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,686 words or about 6 minutes

1 big thing: The world needs a chief risk officer

Illustration of Earth wrapped in caution tape.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

A future that will see escalating danger from extreme risks demands a longer-term approach to handling these threats.

The big picture: The world was caught off guard by COVID-19, and millions of people have paid the price. But the pandemic provides an opportunity to rethink the approach to the growing threat from low-probability but high-consequence risks β€” including the ones we may be inadvertently causing ourselves.

Driving the news: Earlier this week, a nonprofit in the U.K. called the Centre for Long-Term Resilience put out a report that should be required reading for leaders around the world.

  • Spearheaded by Toby Ord β€” an existential risk scholar at the University of Oxford β€” "Future Proof" makes the case that "we are currently living with an unsustainably high level of extreme risk."
  • "With the continued acceleration of technology, and without serious efforts to boost our resilience to these risks, there is strong reason to believe the risks will only continue to grow," as the authors write.

Between the lines: "Future Proof" focuses on two chief areas of concern: artificial intelligence and biosecurity.

  • While the longer-term threat of artificial intelligence reaching a level of superintelligence beyond humans is an existential risk by itself, the ransomware and other cyberattacks plaguing the world could be supercharged by the use of AI tools, while the development of lethal autonomous weapons threatens to make war far more chaotic and destructive.
  • Natural pandemics are bad enough, but we're headed toward a world in which thousands of people will have access to technologies that can enhance existing viruses or synthesize entirely new ones. That's far more dangerous.

It's far from clear how the world can control these human-made extreme risks.

  • Nuclear weapons are easy by comparison β€” bombs are difficult to make and even harder for a nation to use without guaranteeing its own destruction, which is largely why, 75 years after Hiroshima, fewer than 10 countries have developed a nuclear arsenal.
  • But both biotech and AI are dual-use technologies, meaning they can be wielded for both beneficial and malign purposes. That makes them far more difficult to control than nuclear weapons, especially since some of the most extreme risks β€” like, say, a dangerous virus leaking out of a lab β€” could be accidental, not purposeful.
  • Even though the risks from biotech and AI are growing, there is little in the way of international agreements to manage them. The UN office charged with implementing the treaty banning bioweapons is staffed by all of three people, while efforts to establish global norms around AI research β€” much of which, unlike the nuclear sphere, is carried out by private firms β€” have been mostly unsuccessful.

What to watch: The "Future Proof" report recommends a range of actions, from focusing on the development of technologies like metagenomic sequencing that can rapidly identify new pathogens to having nations set aside a percentage of GDP for extreme risk preparation, just as NATO members are required to spend on defense.

  • A global treaty on risks to the future of humanity, modeled on earlier efforts around nuclear weapons and climate change, could at least raise the international profile of extreme risks.
  • Most importantly, the report calls for the creation of "chief risk officers" β€” officials empowered to examine government policy with an eye toward what could go very wrong.

The bottom line: We are entering a frightening time for humanity. Ord estimates the chance that we will experience an existential catastrophe over the next 100 years is 1 in 6, the equivalent of playing Russian roulette with our future.

  • But if our actions have put the bullet in that gun, it's also in our power to take it out.

2. A pandemic of COVID-related poverty

Photo of protesters outside a food distribution center in Nigeria

Protesters crowd a food distribution center in Abuja, Nigeria, in October 2020. Photo: Kola Sulaimon/AFP via Getty Images

A new paper makes the case that the increase in extreme poverty triggered by COVID-19 rivals the pandemic's direct health effects.

Why it matters: The pandemic of extreme poverty could be lasting, and it deserves far more of the world's attention and help than it has gotten so far.

By the numbers: Researchers from the London School of Economics (LSE) set out to calculate the impact of the pandemic on human wellbeing by using human life-years to quantify the effects of both increased mortality and higher poverty.

  • They estimated almost 20 million life-years were lost globally between the start of the pandemic and December 2020.
  • Over the same time period β€” and using the most conservative measurements of impoverishment β€” over 120 million additional life-years were spent in poverty because of the pandemic.

The big picture: Richer countries like the U.S. β€” which tended to have older populations more vulnerable to the disease but also the financial ability to cushion their citizens β€” primarily experienced COVID-19 as a matter of mortality.

  • But most poor and middle-income countries experienced increased poverty as a bigger loss of wellbeing than the disease itself.

What they're saying: While it might seem as if developing countries like Nigeria (2,117 confirmed deaths so far) largely escaped COVID-19, "when the welfare costs of economic deprivation are taken into account poorer countries may have been just as hard hit in 2020," writes Francisco Ferreira, an economist at LSE and one of the co-authors of the paper.

What's next: A double bind for some of the poorest countries in the world.

3. Driving ourselves to death

Reproduced from U.S. Department of Transportation; Chart: Axios Visuals
Reproduced from U.S. Department of Transportation; Chart: Axios Visuals

2020 was the worst year for U.S. traffic deaths since 2007, even as pandemic lockdowns meant less driving overall.

Why it matters: Motor vehicle accidents are a major cause of death, and one that falls disproportionately on the young. The fact that fatalities are rising even as cars are becoming safer and driving declined indicates the fault can be found behind the wheel.

By the numbers: According to preliminary data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an estimated 38,680 died on U.S. roads last year.

  • That represents a 7.2% increase from the previous year, and remarkably, it came even as the total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) declined by more than 13%.
  • It adds up to 1.37 fatalities per 100 million VMT, up from 1.11 the year before.

Between the lines: As the graph above shows, U.S. roads became significantly more dangerous just as pandemic restrictions began to empty them out, likely due to riskier driving.

  • Fatalities involving speeding were up 11%, while deaths involving unrestrained passengers were up 15%.
  • Deaths that were caused by crashes so extreme that an occupant was ejected from the vehicle were up 20%.
  • In a kind of reverse COVID-19, deaths among those aged 16–24 rose 15%, while deaths in the 65 and older category declined by 9%.

Convergence: Crash deaths that involved alcohol were up an estimated 9%, which shouldn't be a surprise given that alcohol consumption spiked sharply during the pandemic.

What to watch ... whether motor fatality trends normalize as the pandemic recedes in the U.S.

4. Visible erasure in Hong Kong

Photo of an empty Victoria Park in Hong Kong on June 4, 2021

The empty soccer fields of Hong Kong's Victoria Park on June 4. Photo: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

The above picture is of Victoria Park in Hong Kong on the evening of June 4.

Why it matters: Every year since 1990, thousands of Hong Kong residents have met in Victoria Park on June 4 for a candlelit vigil in memory of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

  • This year, police blocked off the park to prevent the gathering and arrested the vigil's organizer in perhaps the most visceral sign of the Chinese government's crackdown on the city.
A tweet of an empty Victoria Park

What to watch: A long piece published in Foreign Affairs this week made a convincing case that the example of Hong Kong has eliminated any chance of peaceful reunification between China and Taiwan, which in turn raises the risk that Beijing could attempt a preemptive invasion.

The bottom line: This is history being written β€” and rewritten β€” in our time.

5. Worthy of your time

Cannabis has a carbon problem (Jonathan Thompson β€” High Country News)

  • Be it Purple Diesel or Acapulco Gold, growing marijuana indoors takes a lot of electricity. (BTW, that's High Country News in the vertical sense, not the other kind.)

Peanut the waiter robot is proof that your job is safe (Matt Simon β€” Wired)

  • The story of a Jersey Shore restaurant that installed an automated table busser shows that robots aren't quite ready for the dining room β€” or a lot of other jobs.

The age of reopening anxiety (Anna Russell β€” New Yorker)

  • What happens if you're not ready to go back?

Why are investment funds obsessed with old songs? (Ted Gioia β€” Culture Notes of an Honest Broker)

  • Or, how Bob Dylan made $400 million off short-term investment horizons.

6. 1 Utopian thing: Fully Automated Luxury Communism

Illustration of the singer Grimes in a Soviet-style poster with a Mars colony behind her and raised robot fists

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Comrades, the musician Grimes is ready to drop some knowledge: AI is the pathway to the workers' utopia.

The big picture: Grimes' vision has a name β€” Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC) β€” and it kind of makes sense, provided you forget about the meaning of all of those words.

Driving the news: In a TikTok video posted earlier this week, Grimes told her followers that "AI is actually the fastest path to communism."

  • "We could totally get to a situation where nobody has to work, everybody is provided for with a comfortable state of being, comfortable living," she continued.
  • "AI could automate all the farming, weed out systemic corruption, thereby bringing us to, as close as possible, genuine equality."

Between the lines: FALC was coined by the writer Aaron Bastani in a 2019 book of the same name that essentially posited this question: What if we could all live in "Star Trek"?

  • In "Star Trek," all material needs are taken care of by advanced technology and the limitless energy produced by, I think, dilithium crystals?
  • "Living on the USS Enterprise, visiting far-flung planets, going on adventures with your friends while wearing a modular outfit and a cute pin," Annie Lowrey wrote in The Atlantic in 2019. "Now that’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism."

The catch: There are a few, foremost among them the fact that so far AI and automation have done more to increase economic inequality than narrow it.

The bottom line: If nothing else, putting the "luxury" in Fully Automated Luxury Communism puts a happier, more tech-friendly spin on a movement that, historically speaking, has not had a great track record.

  • Because, as Grimes put it in her TikTok, "enforced farming is really not a vibe."