May 30, 2020

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

Welcome to Axios Future, where I'm sorry to admit that like Kylie Jenner, it turns out I'm not a billionaire.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,823 words or about 7 minutes.

1 big thing: Coronavirus brings the age of drones closer

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

From medical deliveries to monitoring to remote inspections, the pandemic lockdown has accelerated the use of drones.

Why it matters: At a moment when human beings can be both victims and spreaders of infection, fleets of remote drones can help keep the economy humming. But civil liberty advocates worry that drones could push the limits of real-world surveillance.

What's new: The drone company Zipline, which has been using its remote-controlled aerial fleet to deliver medicines in Africa for years, made its U.S. debut last week, ferrying COVID-19 supplies to hospitals in North Carolina run by Novant Health.

  • The mission was made possible by a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It is currently the nation's longest-range drone delivery operation.

The big picture: The Zipline run is just one of a number of new uses for drones that have emerged during the pandemic, as governments and companies seek to use the aerial robots in applications that might otherwise require human beings.

  • In France, India and the U.S., drones have been employed to monitor crowds for social distancing, while in China drones have been used to issue orders to citizens seen as disobeying pandemic rules.
  • Wing, a drone-delivery company owned by Google parent Alphabet, received the first FAA approval for commercial package delivery in April 2019. Wing drones have been used by Walgreens to deliver medications to people in quarantine.

Between the lines: One less known use of drones during the pandemic has been the remote monitoring of job sites that have otherwise been largely closed to human workers because of the lockdown.

  • The leading software platform DroneDeploy is used to fly drones over vast farms and construction sites, livestreaming data and producing real-time maps of areas far too large to easily cover on foot or by vehicle.
  • As the U.S. economy has slowly reopened over the past few weeks, DroneDeploy has seen a 90% increase in drone use among surveyors and a 56% increase in the construction industry.
  • "COVID-19 is accelerating the introduction of this technology across industries," says Michael Winn, DroneDeploy's CEO. "It's not completely changing things, but it is making the transition happen faster."

Be smart: At a moment when every consulting company worth its salt is heralding the importance of the digital transformation, drones represent the intersection of the digital world and the real world. As they become more widely adopted, they could transform everything from how we receive physical goods to how we're policed.

  • While ubiquitous drones could help relieve delivery truck congestion in crowded cities, they might also create what robotics professor Illah Nourbakhsh has termed "robot smog" — unprecedented visual and noise pollution.
  • The same remote monitoring that would seem benign when used on an empty farm or forest could be seen as sinister if employed by police forces extending passive surveillance of minority communities in cities. Despite complaints by civil rights activists, last year drones were approved for use by the LAPD in certain situations like active shooters and search warrants.
  • The Electronic Frontier Foundation warns that if "police now start to use drones to identify people who are violating quarantine and walking around in public after testing positive for COVID-19, police can easily use the same drones to identify participants in protests or strikes once the crisis is over."

The bottom line: The biggest, and maybe the only, beneficiaries of the pandemic are robots — including the ones that fly.

2. How mobility could play out after COVID-19

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Transportation came to a virtual standstill in the past few months, but how it will look in three-to-five years is difficult to predict, even for the mobility experts at Deloitte Consulting, my Axios colleague Joann Muller writes.

The big picture: A lot will depend on how long the pandemic lasts, and the degree to which governments — and even private industry — collaborate to manage the economic fallout, says Deloitte's Scott Corwin, who leads the firm's future of mobility practice.

Here are four possible outcomes, from a group of "renowned scenario thinkers" assembled by Deloitte and Salesforce. The details are worth reading, but here's a quick summary:

1. The public health and economic crises are acute but end fairly quickly.

  • After a brief pause, most transportation returns to normal, but with an increased reliance on e-commerce and home delivery and a greater emphasis on sanitation and safety.

2. Mobility companies step in to fill the transportation void left by the struggling public sector.

  • Privately owned, on-demand mobility supplants public transit in some neighborhoods, potentially leaving others without access to transportation.

3. China, Singapore and Japan become the leaders in mobility innovation, including battery technology.

  • Cities adopt China's hands-on government policies to manage the rollout of new technologies, and consumers share their data with the government in exchange for better service.

4. Economic woes drag on and globalization fades, while cities and states regulate the movement of people and goods more closely.

  • Mobility services turn into quasi-public transit.
3. Advice for the future of work

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Safety costs, digitization, and flexibility — a top consultant outlines what American workplaces may look like in the age of coronavirus.

Why it matters: As states gradually reopen, businesses will need to decide how much work can continue to be done remotely, how much needs to be done in a workplace — and how those workplaces will need to be adapted.

What's happening: This week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released sweeping new guidelines for office buildings reopening in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The recommendations include ubiquitous face coverings, keeping desks six feet apart (or separated by plastic shields) and limiting the use of elevators.

  • PwC U.S. Chairman Tim Ryan had already been thinking about how work will change during and after the pandemic, both for his own company of more than 250,000 employees and for his clients. I spoke with him about how companies can prepare for the coming changes.

1. Focus on workers, not real estate bills: With companies like Twitter talking about going permanently remote, there will be a temptation for CEOs to cut costs by cutting real estate. But Ryan says that "while you can get good returns on cost savings, it's better to have happier employees. The biggest mistake anyone can make is assuming a one-size-fits-all response will work."

2. Safety will be a cost of doing business: Just as factories have had to build in the cost of keeping workers safe in dangerous occupations, now ordinary offices will need to budget for infection prevention. "The cost is absolutely going to go up," he says.

  • At the same time, companies that show they're willing to go the extra mile to protect their workers will benefit in the competition for talent.

3. The future of work won't resemble the past — or the present: Everyone is in a race to either return to normal or declare a new one. But Ryan cautions that major shifts in workplace policies shouldn't be made in the heat of a pandemic or during the temporary honeymoon of remote work.

  • "I know work won't look like it did 12 weeks ago, and it won't look like it does today," he says.
4. The coronavirus could give bioterrorists ideas

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A security group warns that the COVID-19 pandemic could inspire terrorists to turn to bioweapons.

Why it matters: New technologies like gene-editing have the potential to make future bioweapons deadlier and easier to create, while COVID-19 demonstrates just how vulnerable the world is to any kind of biological threat.

What's happening: On May 25 the Committee on Counter-Terrorism at the Council of Europe issued a statement arguing that the pandemic had raised the risk from bioterrorism.

  • "The intentional use of a pathogen or other biological agent for the purpose of terrorism may prove highly effective and cause damage — both human and economic — on a far grander scale than 'traditional' terrorist attacks," the committee wrote.

Be smart: Scientists overwhelmingly agree that there is little evidence to suggest that the novel coronavirus was engineered in a lab, rather than emerging naturally from an animal source. But with over 350,000 deaths and trillions in likely economic damage, COVID-19 showed what even a relatively mild but contagious new virus could do.

  • A deliberately engineered and released pathogen would likely be far worse, as I noted in Axios earlier this month. That's because new tools permit the creation of viruses that could be deadlier and more contagious than anything emerging from nature — and because a bioweapon could be released repeatedly, foiling efforts at containment.
  • A 2018 pandemic simulation featuring an engineered bioweapon resulted in a fictional global outbreak that killed 150 million people.

What to watch: In its statement, the Council of Europe committee urged a coordinated international response to bioterrorism, including "a common surveillance system capable of detecting suspicious cases."

Reality check: Even though the novel coronavirus is almost certainly natural in its origins — blame the bats, probably — the global response has been anything but coordinated. It's even more difficult to imagine the world coming together in response to a biological threat that was released deliberately.

5. Worthy of your time

Virtual reality, real grief (Violet Kim — Slate)

  • A South Korean woman lost her daughter to cancer, only to meet a simulacrum of the girl in VR.

Is the "science" behind the lockdown any good? (Jemima Kelly — FT Alphaville)

  • A fascinating story digging into the challenge of translating uncertain epidemiological models into real-world policymaking in the midst of a pandemic and economic depression.

Inside Twitter's decision to fact-check Trump's tweets (Will Oremus — OneZero)

  • A recounting of the reasoning behind the social media platform's unprecedented confrontation with the president.

Libraries must change (Anthony Marx — New York Times)

  • Like the rest of us, to survive the pandemic, libraries need to go digital.
6. 1 space thing: Star wars

Photo: Kent Phillips/Walt Disney Co. via Getty Images

A recent book argues that expanding into space could actually put humanity at higher risk for species-ending war.

What's happening: After being scrubbed because of weather on Wednesday, the SpaceX-NASA launch was rescheduled for 3:22 p.m. ET on Saturday.

  • The mission, which will mark the first time a commercial aerospace company will ferry astronauts into space, represents a major step forward for space exploration.
  • SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said he is motivated in part because he believes that settlement on an off-world planet like Mars could guarantee human survival in the event of an existential catastrophe on Earth.

Such utopian ideals may be misplaced, according to Daniel Deudney, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University and the author of "Dark Skies: Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics, and the Ends of Humanity."

  • Deudney argues that if humanity successfully established colonies throughout the solar system, it would result in political fracturing of the sort that existed on Earth before globalization. The vast distances of space and its harsh environment might even lead to new subspecies of humanity that would have little in common with us here on Earth.
  • That might be fine if we evolve morally, à la Star Trek's Federation. But Deudney sees little reason to expect that the often violent power politics on Earth wouldn't be exported to the stars.
  • And that might be very bad for us remaining Earthlings because we would be vulnerable to attacks from space. Altering the orbits of asteroids — which should be easily doable if we prove capable of space colonization — would create "planetary bombs" that could be directed toward Earth.
  • The result would be "astrocide": the extinction of humanity resulting from significant space expansion.

The bottom line: As the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson once wrote: "When mankind moves out from earth into space, we [will] carry our problems with us." Including our nuclear weapons.

Bryan Walsh