Welcome to Axios Future, where our scenario planning mostly consists of possible takeout orders.
"Axios on HBO” is expanding its 2020 season and moving to a new night and time! We return with can't-miss episodes airing biweekly, starting Monday, April 27 at 11 p.m. ET/PT on all HBO platforms.
Today's issue is 1,748 words, a 6 1/2-minute read.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
COVID-19 appears to be accelerating the adoption of workplace automation — and the trend is likely to stick around after the pandemic.
Why it matters: Adopting robots and AI could keep businesses going during social distancing and reduce the health risk to human workers. But with unemployment already at Great Depression levels, many of the jobs lost to automation might never be regained.
What's happening: Brain Corp, a San Diego-based company that develops software for use in autonomous cleaning robots, reports its customers are employing robots about 13% more than they were in the months before the pandemic.
The big picture: Past experience suggests the advance of automation happens in sudden surges — and economic downturns are often a trigger.
What to watch: Robots will be particularly attractive to front-line businesses that have to stay open during the pandemic.
"When you have the effect of social distancing and infection, it adds to the rationale for the substitution of machines for humans at point-of-sale positions like a cashier for food service, or in hospitals."— Mark Muro, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution
Yes, but: Companies in the robotics business say their products are meant to augment human workers, not replace them. But with tens of millions of Americans unemployed, it's impossible not to fear that a surge in automation could make a post-pandemic job recovery even more difficult.
The other side: Some experts believe the immediate threat to jobs from automation during the pandemic is overstated.
The bottom line: The robots were already coming for jobs, and the pandemic will give employers additional incentive to automate where they can. But for now, the far bigger threat to jobs is the brute fact of an economic depression.
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios
A recent report by Deloitte posits four potential scenarios for how the COVID-19 pandemic could affect the economy and society.
Why it matters: It's almost impossible to predict how an event as unprecedented as the pandemic will play out. But scenario planning allows business leaders to identify the most important questions a crisis poses, and prepare for a number of possible outcomes, rather than being locked into one future.
The Passing Storm: After a slow start, the pandemic is contained through an increasingly effective health care system and political response.
Good Company: Governments struggle to control the pandemic. Large companies step up in their stead, accelerating the trend toward a more empathetic stakeholder capitalism.
Sunrise in the East: Western countries like the U.S. struggle to manage the pandemic compared to China and other East Asian nations. As a result, Beijing seizes geopolitical primacy.
Lone Wolves: The pandemic lasts longer than anyone expects, and in response, governments turn isolationist and tech-enabled surveillance becomes more common.
The bottom line: "My one prediction is that the future will surprise us," Blau told me. But the scenarios outlined here at least give us a platform on which to try to prepare.
Credit: van Klink et al., Science 
A comprehensive new assessment of insect diversity finds that while the overall population of land-dwelling insects has fallen by more than a quarter over the past 30 years, some species are increasing in numbers.
Why it matters: A raft of studies in recent years have raised alarms about an "insect apocalypse." The new assessment offers some room for hope, while making it clear that insects and arachnid populations are still under tremendous pressure.
The new meta-analysis, published in this week's Science, examined 166 long-term surveys of land-dwelling and freshwater insect populations across the globe.
"Insect populations are like logs of wood that are pushed under water. They want to come up, while we keep pushing them farther down. But we can reduce the pressure so they can rise again."— Roel van Klink, lead researcher on the Science study, to CNN
The bottom line: Insects are an invaluable part of the Earth's ecosystem and food web. Their future is tied into ours — and vice versa.
GM workers collaborate as we all will some day: wearing masks. Photo: Joann Muller/Axios
Whether you work in a factory, a retail store, a restaurant or an office, you're going to have to get used to wearing a mask at work for the foreseeable future, my Axios colleague Joann Muller writes.
Context: I visited a former GM transmission factory Thursday that is now a hub of mask-making activity.
To be allowed inside, I had to practice all of the new health safety protocols that GM is instituting at its factories and that are likely to be similar for any workplace.
Gerald Johnson, GM's executive vice president of global manufacturing, says people just have to get used to it.
'Immunity passports' could create a new category of privilege (Emily Mullin — OneZero)
All the things COVID-19 will change forever, according to 30 top experts (Mark Sullivan — Fast Company)
Why we need worst-case thinking to prevent pandemics (Toby Ord — Guardian)
The pandemic can be a catalyst for decolonization in Africa (David Mwambari — Al Jazeera)
Map of emotions on social media in the U.S. and UK on April 24. Credit: Expert System and Sociometrica, April 24, 2020
An Italian-based artificial intelligence company is regularly analyzing social media posts about the coronavirus for their emotional content.
Why it matters: Classifying tens of thousands of posts by their emotional tone provides a snapshot of how people feel about the pandemic. Spoiler alert: not great!
How it works: Expert System specializes in semantics and natural language reading, a branch of AI involving computer systems that attempt to make sense of written language.
For the past few weeks, Expert System has been collecting English language social media posts each day that feature frequently used hashtags like #coronalockdown and #covid19. Its AI can extract the emotional content of those posts, which is then analyzed and interpreted by Sociometrica.
But, but, but: Such negative feelings have been declining over the past 10 days, from 62.4% to 45.5%. At the same time, neutral and positive feelings are on the rise, with particular growth around posts showing "hope."
The bottom line: A natural language AI can tell you what you probably already know: the pandemic is terrible, but if you squint hard enough, there's light at the end of the tunnel.