Mar 7, 2020

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

Welcome to Axios Future #4, where we insist that the best time travel movie ever is Primer.

📷 This Sunday’s "Axios on HBO": Tennis legend Billie Jean King and other women sports pioneers talk equity in athletics (clip); a peek into Biden's governing plan; Housing Secretary Ben Carson on cutting housing programs and why President Trump should tweet less (clip). Catch the show Sunday 6 p.m. ET/PT. 

Today's issue is 1,753 words, ~ a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: How the coronavirus will shape the future

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

If the growing novel coronavirus outbreak becomes a lasting pandemic, it could accelerate fundamental changes in the economy, politics and the workplace.

The big picture: A truly global infectious disease event like COVID-19 can be every bit as transformative for the future as a global war or economic depression.

The impacts of major pandemics can be felt well beyond the sheer death toll.

The Black Death, which killed as much as a third of Europe's population during the 14th century, led to severe labor scarcity. The resulting higher wages helped erode feudalism and encouraged the innovation of labor-saving technologies.

  • More recently the 2003 SARS outbreak helped jumpstart China's nascent e-commerce sector.

What to watch: How lasting the changes created by COVID-19 will be depends on the extent of the virus' spread and its ultimate severity, neither of which can be known yet. But the longer the outbreak endures, the more likely it is that coping responses will remain with us.

1. Going remote: Videoconferencing and remote work have exploded as the virus has spread.

  • According to Kentik, a global provider of network analytics, videoconferencing traffic in North America and Asia has doubled since the outbreak began.
  • Led by tech firms like Twitter and Facebook, companies are encouraging and even requiring their employees to work from home, both to slow the spread of the disease now and prepare for the worst should offices be closed in a quarantine.
  • Many experts believe business leaders will come to see that central offices and face-to-face meetings are less vital than they thought. "We're going to see that work can be tied to productivity anywhere rather than putting time in an office," said Peter Jackson, CEO of the digital collaboration company Bluescape.

2. The big decoupling: After the travel industry, the companies that have suffered most from COVID-19 are those with just-in-time supply chains highly dependent on China.

  • As a result, the coronavirus has already "prompted a re-examination of the world's central reliance on China as ground zero for manufacturing," Peter Goodman wrote in the New York Times.
  • If the outbreak worsens, "we'll definitely see accelerated decoupling of manufacturing out of China," said Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group. "Changes that may have been delayed until the next recession will happen right now."

3. Nastier politics: The ideal reaction to a global outbreak would be a globally unified response. Don't bet on it.

  • Far-right leaders in countries like France, Italy and Spain have already taken advantage of the outbreak to call for tightening borders. As a result, wrote Pawel Zerka of the European Council on Foreign Relations, "populism could flourish as the coronavirus spreads."
  • COVID-19 has already become politicized in the U.S. According to one online survey, nearly 70% of Republicans believe the nation is prepared for the outbreak, compared with just 35% of Democrats.
  • While China badly mismanaged the initial outbreak, more recently the country has tried to spin its apparent success in containing the virus as a triumph of its autocratic system. Expect that argument to gain force if the U.S. bungles its response.

4. Faster science: While governments have struggled to respond to COVID-19, scientists are making the most of new tools to track and potentially counter the virus.

  • Rapid analyses of the genetic makeup of the virus in Washington state indicated the outbreak there was likely underway well before the first official cases were confirmed in late January.
  • Scientists at Stanford University developed a diagnostic test for the novel coronavirus that can deliver test results in as little as 12 hours, much faster than current methods.

The bottom line: The year is less than three months old, but we have every reason to believe that COVID-19 will be one of the most significant events of the decade — if not beyond.

2. A landmark nuclear arms treaty shows its age

An intercontinental ballistic missile aboard the USS Arizona. Photo: Michael Dunning

March 5 marked the 50th anniversary of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) going into force.

Why it matters: While the number of atomic warheads in the world has fallen considerably since the darkest days of the Cold War, the club of nuclear-armed countries has expanded. With countries including the U.S. updating their nuclear arsenals and arms control treaties in danger of collapsing, many experts believe the risk of nuclear conflict is rising.

Flashback: It once seemed inevitable that we would face "a world in which 15 or 20 or 25 nations may have [nuclear] weapons," President John F. Kennedy said in 1963.

  • That didn't happen, thanks to renewed arms control efforts in the 1960s that led to the signing of the NPT, under which nations that lacked nuclear weapons pledged not to acquire them and existing nuclear powers committed to eventual disarmament.
  • Another factor was Washington's willingness to extend its nuclear umbrella to its allies so that they didn't need to develop their own nuclear programs.

Yes, but: More recently that commitment has wavered, as former U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder wrote in the New York Times.

  • Russia has shown its willingness to use force in Ukraine, while North Korea has defied Washington in developing a growing nuclear program. Last year the Trump administration withdrew from a treaty banning short-range nuclear missiles.
  • The New START Treaty between the U.S. and Russia is set to expire in less than a year. If it isn't extended, it would signal that for the first time in more than four decades "there is no arms control regime in the world," Sen. Jack Reed said in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last month.

The bottom line: The NPT was one of the first steps the world took to reduce the threat of a global nuclear holocaust. If we forget its lessons, we will be risking our future.

3. The youth vote goes missing

Supporters cheering at a political rally for Sen. Bernie Sanders in Phoenix on March 5. Photo: Caitlin O'Hara/Stringer

Youth voter turnout so far in the Democratic primaries is either flat or declining compared with the 2016 primaries.

Why it matters: Sen. Bernie Sanders has based much of his strategy on the hope that he could turn out large numbers of young voters. The apparent decline is bad news for him, but it will also make it more difficult for future-focused issues like climate change to gain political traction.

Context: According to the Harvard Institute of Politics, while raw turnout is up in all 12 of the states with competitive elections, the youth vote has only risen in four states, and is flat in two other states.

  • Of the 14 states that held primaries on Super Tuesday, participation by voters younger than 30 didn't exceed 20% in any state, according to exit poll analyses.

Young voters have always turned out at lower percentages than their older counterparts. But in Sanders, young Americans had a candidate who is explicitly pushing for their support — yet so far it hasn't seemed to matter.

Yes, but: Some experts suggest that the picture isn't as bad as it looks.

  • The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University told the Washington Post that youth turnout so far is mostly higher compared with 2012.
  • "It's possible this cohort is less ideological than we thought, and is willing to show up to combat Trump more than they're willing to show up to support a Democratic socialist agenda," said Charlotte Alter, a national correspondent for Time and the author of the book "The Ones We've Been Waiting For." 

The bottom line: Young people have the greatest stake in the future. But they can't shape it if they don't vote.

Go deeper: 2020's new voters

4. GM's electric reset button

GM CEO Mary Barra with the company's flexible electric vehicle platform. Photo: GM

GM laid all its cards on the table this week in an effort to convince investors, journalists and, ultimately, consumers that it is all-in on electric cars, writes Axios' Joann Muller.

Why it matters: GM has occasionally pulled back the curtain on strategy before — usually when its future is in doubt.

This time company executives went deep into detail to try to show that their electric vehicle strategy is more than a regulatory-driven ploy and instead represents a complete transformation of GM's business.

Driving the news: GM laid out a comprehensive, $20 billion strategy to produce a wide array of electric vehicles between now and 2025.

  • It showed prototypes of the first 10, including a Hummer pickup and SUV and a high-tech Cadillac crossover utility.
  • Those vehicles will be revealed publicly in the next few months and go on sale in 2021.

Here are my key takeaways. GM's EV strategy is:

  • Bold: It skips over bridge technologies like hybrids and plug-in hybrids.
  • Efficient: It leverages existing plants and equipment, and the modular battery architecture is easy to manufacture.
  • Comprehensive: It touches every brand (Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac) and includes EV chargers and dealer support.
  • Growth-oriented: It targets new customers, especially on the East and West coasts, as well as tech licensing revenue.
  • Risky: It's a $20 billion bet that assumes skeptical buyers will change their minds about electric vehicles.

The bottom line: GM is trying to thread a needle by maximizing sales of today's profit-spinning trucks and SUVs while delivering on its long-term vision for a cleaner, less congested world.

Go deeper: GM begins historic shift to electric vehicles

5. Worthy of your time

Live facial recognition is coming to U.S. police body cameras (Dave Gershgorn — OneZero)

  • A company named Wolfcom is pitching body cameras for police that would be equipped with live facial recognition, further eroding privacy in public.

Freeing the snow (Jameson McBride — The Breakthrough Journal)

  • A close look at the skiing industry shows how adaptation to climate change will be as unequal as its effects.

The lure of "cool" brain research is stifling psychotherapy (Allen Frances — Aeon)

  • Since the 1990s, big science has focused on brain biology, at the expense of therapy that can help people in pain.

How to prepare for the complete end of the world (Nellie Bowles — New York Times)

  • A profile of the wonderfully named Lynx Vilden, who teaches people how to live Stone Age-style.
6. 1 sci-fi thing: "Devs"

Sonoya Mizuno in "Devs." Photo: FX

A new drama airing on FX on Hulu and created by "Ex Machina" director Alex Garland has things to say about the tech industry, quantum computers and very shiny office decor.

Quick take: "Devs" has ideas — so many ideas — and visual style to spare, but is burdened by a dramatic style as inert as a noble gas.

The show centers on a fictional company called Amaya, a tech giant that develops cutting-edge quantum computers. Amaya is run by a fantastically bearded tech genius played by Nick Offerman, last seen (at least by me) on the comedy "Parks and Recreation."

Of note: The extremely serious "Devs" is nothing like "Parks and Recreation."

Amaya's real project is a top-secret program run by elite programmers called the "Devs," who work in a vacuum-sealed cube in the middle of the forests of northern California. What they do there is a mystery.

  • Time travel?
  • AI?
  • The blockchain? (I really hope it's not the blockchain.)

What they're saying: Critics have praised the concepts behind "Devs," while finding flaws in the execution.

  • The New York Times called it "breathtakingly grand in its ideas and ambition," while Slate described it as "a philosophically minded, prestige sci-fi cock-up."

The bottom line: Hey, there are worse ways to learn about quantum computing.

Bryan Walsh