Axios Future

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October 07, 2020

Welcome to Axios Future, where resistance is like football in New York: entirely futile.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,854 words or about 7 minutes.

1 big thing: COVID-19 is accelerating an unfair future

Illustration of a justice scale weighed down dramatically by Coronavirus on one side

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The coronavirus pandemic is revealing entrenched inequalities in everything from health care to economic opportunity.

Why it matters: The growing sense that there is something fundamentally unfair about American life is one of the biggest challenges the country faces. If COVID-19 is permitted to widen those inequalities unchecked, the political and economic ramifications could be dire.

Driving the news: After an unprecedented course of treatment that included an experimental therapy, President Trump returned to the White House from Walter Reed hospital this week, proclaiming on Twitter: "Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life."

  • While the president of the United States clearly deserves world-class medical treatment, it did not escape notice that few if any of the 7.5 million Americans who have been sickened by COVID-19 received such assistance in their fight against the coronavirus.
  • A New York Times investigation estimated Trump's treatment so far would have cost more than $100,000 in the American health care system.

Details: The Kaiser Family Foundation has found the COVID-19 death rate is more than twice as high for Black patients and almost twice as high for American Indian and Alaska Native patients.

  • The same data showed roughly 35% of patients with household income under $15,000 became seriously ill, compared to 16% of patients with income over $50,000.
  • The elderly have made up the vast majority of COVID-19 deaths, and the very fact that their deaths are seen by some as less important represents a kind of inequality of empathy.

Between the lines: There's no greater inequality than who lives and who dies, but the economic impact of COVID-19 has been just as unfair.

Perhaps nowhere is the unfairness of COVID-19 more apparent than among children, the one age group in America that has no direct political voice.

  • The burden of the COVID-19 schooling failures is falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic students, who are three times more likely than white students to start the school year remotely.
  • The long-term economic effects for the U.S. of millions of students losing access to decent education could run to the trillions, and individual students may never fully recover.

Be smart: It would be a mistake to imagine the weight of this unfairness will go unnoticed.

The bottom line: The U.S. was already facing a future where a combination of technology and policy threatened to lock the country into ever-worsening inequality. Now the pandemic may be accelerating the arrival of that future.

2. Protecting a smarter grid against cyberattacks

Illustration of a shield electrical outlet

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A smarter, more connected electrical grid is more efficient and more resilient against natural threats — but more vulnerable against cyberattacks.

Why it matters: As electricity shifts to more distributed and intermittent renewable sources, updating the grid has become a necessity. But unless cyber defense keeps pace, digitizing the grid will also open up new points of approach for cyber threats.

By the numbers: Over the next two years, 2.5 billion industrial devices are set to be connected to the energy industry's critical infrastructure, a sign that the 20th century U.S. electrical grid is finally entering the 21st century.

  • But as the grid is connected to the internet, it will be exposed to the same kind of cyberattacks that have become a regular part of online life. The difference is that a cyberattack on something as vital as electricity service would have enormous real-world implications.
  • "The attack surface is increasing," says Leo Simonovich, global head of industrial cyber and digital security at Siemens Energy. "At the same time, the cost of attacks have gone down and are being deployed by sophisticated actors like nation-states."

Flashback: in March 2019, the U.S. power grid was hit for the first time by a cyberattack that affected several Western states, though there was no disruption to service.

How it works: Simonovich says that "you can't protect what you can't see," so the first step to defending the grid against cyberattacks is improving visibility into operations.

  • The company last week launched an AI-based Managed Detection and Response system that can sift through billions of data points to determine "what is not normal and understand the context" of a possible attack, he says.
  • Context is vital — unlike online systems, real-world infrastructure like the grid can't be easily turned on and off every time there's a potential cyberattack.
  • Siemens Energy is working with utilities including the New York Power Authority to implement its defense system.

What to watch: Whether the prolonged period of remote work caused by the pandemic leads to an increase in cyberattacks on the grid, as it already has with wider ransomware attacks.

3. Survey says we worry about the wrong risks

Data: The Lloyd’s Register Foundation World Risk Poll Report; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios
Data: The Lloyd’s Register Foundation World Risk Poll Report; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

A new global risk poll surveyed tens of thousands of people in 142 countries to determine what people worry about when it comes to risk and safety.

Why it matters: The poll offers a telling snapshot of how people around the world perceive the risks they face, which often turn out to be different than the risks they are actually experiencing.

By the numbers: The poll, which was carried out by Gallup and the Lloyd's Register Foundation (LRF), found that people around the world were most worried about the effects of severe weather, violent crime and food.

Be smart: The survey found that what people around the world thought was a major risk didn't always line up with the risks they were actually experiencing, notes Sarah Cumbers, director of evidence and insight at LRF.

  • That was especially true of violent crime, where nearly twice the percentage of respondents reported being very worried about violence as those who had actually experienced it.
  • 43% of Americans were worried about violent crime, even though the U.S. murder rate in 2019 — the year the survey was done — was lower than it was in 1960.
  • By contrast, respondents tended to underplay less dramatic but more common threats like malfunctioning appliances and mental health.

The bottom line: Availability bias means we tend to pay more attention to risks that demand lots of attention — like the violence that plays heavily in the media. But we risk ignoring the threats that are statistically more likely to get us.

4. Gene editing pioneers win Nobel Prize in chemistry

2020 Chemistry Nobel Prize winners

Biochemist Jennifer Doudna (left) and microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier in 2016. Photo: Alexander Heinl/picture alliance via Getty Images

Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier won the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for their work developing the gene-editing tool CRISPR, my Axios colleague Alison Snyder writes.

Why it matters: Gene editing could transform biology and medicine with its wide-ranging applications for understanding and treating disease, optimizing crops, and eradicating pests. But its potential use in treating human diseases by changing genes that can be inherited raises major ethical questions that will challenge scientists for decades.

The backdrop: Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR, are sequences of genetic code that bacteria evolved to find and target invading viruses.

  • In 2012, Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, and Charpentier, a microbiologist now at the Max Plank Institute for Infection Biology, reported CRISPR can be programmed to lead enzymes to genetic sequences that the enzyme then precisely snips or edits, turning a gene on or off or changing its function.

Between the lines: Doudna and Charpentier have been considered top candidates for the prize for several years, but there's an ongoing fight over patents for CRISPR and its use.

What to watch: Earlier this week, Doudna launched Scribe Therapeutics, a startup that aims to use engineered CRISPR molecules and delivery technologies to edit cells while they are in the body. (Other approaches remove cells from the body, edit them and reintroduce them.)

  • Scribe, which is collaborating with Biogen, is looking to treat amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) first, per FierceBiotech.

Of note: Just seven women have won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, and only 22 have won in the sciences altogether — including Andrea Ghez, who co-won the Nobel Prize in physics this week.

5. Worthy of your time

We made this heat, now we cool it (Kim Stanley Robinson — Bloomberg Green)

  • An acclaimed sci-fi author takes on the hard reality that our only way to survive a much hotter world will be to adapt to it — through cooling the entire planet.

Bot or not (Brian Justie — Real Life)

  • The ins and outs of CAPTCHA, the way the internet figures out who is human and who is not.

The robots are coming to harvest your food. What will it mean for farmworkers and rural communities? (Twilight Greenaway — Civil Eats)

  • Automation will help machines take over some of the most physically demanding jobs in farming, but those doing the work now could be left behind.

How GPT-3 is shaping our AI future (Azeem Azhar — Exponential View)

  • One of the smartest podcast hosts in emerging tech talks with Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, about his organization's breakthrough writing prediction program.

6. 1 sci-fi thing: The case for joining the Borg

Image of a cosplayer doing the Borg at a Star Trek convention

Resistance is futile ... but the health care plan is great. Photo: Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images

A forthcoming paper argues that joining a future "hivemind society" — like Star Trek archvillains the Borg — might not be such a bad thing.

The big picture: Technology is already leading us into a hivemind-lite society, and the authors make a reasonable argument that joining our minds with others could really represent the best of both worlds.

What they're saying: Writing in their paper, John Danaher and Steve Petersen admit that "the idea that humans should abandon their individuality and use technology to bind themselves together into hivemind societies seems both farfetched and frightening."

  • That's certainly the lesson of Star Trek, which portrayed the Borg — an amalgamation of species assimilated into a single faceless collective — as the antithesis of the Federation's individualistic Enlightenment values.

Yes, but: They go onto argue that while the Borg themselves are not exactly ideal — what with the "you will be assimilated" and the "resistance is futile" talk — there are future versions of a hivemind society that they write "could be desirable."

  • Humans have always depended on some form of group mind — the tools, techniques and culture we share collectively — to survive.
  • Our phones — which are now as much a part of our selves as an assimilation tubule is to a Borg drone — connect us to the hivemind that is the internet, where we can share basic forms of experience in the form of social media.
  • Brain-interface startups like Neuralink are working on technology that can connect our minds to computers, and then potentially each other. It's a long way away, but it's more feasible than, for example, faster-than-light warp drives.

More provocatively, Danaher and Petersen argue that surrendering some of our individualism in joining a hivemind could actually help us be more ethical and better able to achieve goals beyond ourselves.

The bottom line: So should we join the Borg? I'll give the last word to Captain Picard.

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The captain breaks his little ships. Credit: mikey2363