Aug 15, 2020

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

Welcome to Axios Future, where the safest place in America is apparently the NBA bubble — unless you're Sixers star Ben Simmons' left kneecap.

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📺 Sneak preview: Find out why Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf “would be concerned” about Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in office (clip), then tune in for the full interview on Monday at 11 p.m. ET/PT on all HBO platforms. 

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,713 words or about 6 minutes.

1 big thing: The coming age of digital reality

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The next decade of technological advances — in virtual reality and AI — is poised to move more of human life into the digital realm.

The big picture: Moments of great upheaval are often followed by major technological and social innovations. Prompted in part by the pandemic, the 2020s could see the development of a new reality that captures the best of the analogue and virtual worlds.

What's happening: In a recent report, L'Atelier, a foresight company that is part of the French banking giant BNP Paribas, mapped the development of more than 80 current technologies in an effort to predict how they'll change life by the next decade.

  • The technologies were evaluated with NASA's Technology Readiness Level method, which charts them on a scale of 1 (basic principles in the process of being tested) to 9 (already being incorporated into daily life).
  • The advances were broadly grouped into major areas like immersive reality, human enhancement and artificial intelligence.
  • The bigger challenge to prediction isn't forecasting technological change, "but understanding societal change," L'Atelier CEO John Egan tells me.

Egan sees the pandemic — which has made the physical environment outright dangerous — accelerating the penetration of businesses and technologies that "develop and maintain in virtual space."

  • That includes what L'Atelier classifies as "immersive technology" — virtual reality (VR) that departs physical space for one that exists entirely online, augmented reality (AR) that adds virtual overlays to the bricks-and-mortar environment, and mixed reality that allows a user to jump between the two.
  • Take Fortnite: The tens of millions of users who regularly play it aren't just shooting each other in between dance moves — they're taking part in a virtual space where they can socialize and even watch films and concerts.
  • By the 2030s, says Egan, "tech will facilitate a new digital infrastructure that sits on top of the physical infrastructure, one that will be unique to individuals through AR glassware and eventually through contact lens and even neural implants."

Details: Apple is said to be developing an AR headset, while Google recently bought the smart glasses company North.

  • Holoride, a spinoff of the German car company Audi, has developed in-car VR technology for passengers that matches the speed and moves of the vehicle, eliminating the motion sickness that often accompanies virtual reality.
  • Nils Wollny, Holoride's CEO, notes that non-driving passengers take more than 1.5 billion rides a day, and that technology like theirs opens up a huge potential audience to new ways of virtually experiencing games, media and more.

Yes, but: The pandemic has yet to lead to the takeoff of virtual reality that many experts expected.

  • While lockdowns may have provided the perfect environment to try VR, the tech is still trapped in what my Axios colleague Ina Fried called "the trough of disillusionment" — not good enough to meet the expectations of consumers raised watching "The Matrix."
  • Still, VR and AR wouldn't be the first technologies to initially fail to meet expectations before eventually changing the world when both the tech and the world were ultimately right for each other.

The bottom line: Both the path of technological development and the societal changes accelerated by the pandemic point toward a world where the virtual will make a desert of the real.

2. The cardiac threat coronavirus poses to athletes

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Cardiologists are increasingly concerned that coronavirus infections could cause heart complications that lead to sudden cardiac death in athletes.

Why it matters: Even if just a tiny percentage of COVID-19 cases lead to major cardiac conditions, the sheer scope of the pandemic raises the risk for those who regularly conduct the toughest physical activity — including amateurs who might be less aware of the danger.

Driving the news: Both the Big 10 and Pac-12 conferences announced this week that they wouldn't play college football in the fall because of health concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • According to ESPN, a major factor driving those decisions has been fear that COVID-19 could lead to a rise in myocarditis among athletes.

Myocarditis is an inflammation of the heart caused by viral infections that can lead to rapid or abnormal heart rhythms and even sudden cardiac death.

  • Myocarditis causes about 75 deaths per year in young athletes between the ages of 13 and 25, often without any warning.
  • While research is still in its infancy, a July study of 100 adult patients in Germany who recovered from COVID-19 found 60% had ongoing myocardial inflammation.
  • Worryingly, patients with mild COVID-19 symptoms developed myocarditis as frequently as those who were hospitalized, raising the possibility that those who may not even know they have COVID-19 could be at risk.
  • That's important because athletes with myocarditis must cease intense physical activity for weeks or even months until the condition clears up. Otherwise, says Emory University sports cardiologist Jonathan Kim, they put themselves in danger of "cardiac arrest and a catastrophic outcome."

College athletes and to a greater extent professional ones have the benefit of more frequent COVID-19 tests and oversight from doctors who know to look out for signs of myocarditis.

  • But amateur athletes may be largely on their own, even though they too would be at risk from myocarditis and sudden death should they continue to engage in vigorous exercise after a COVID-19 infection.
  • "For your high-end marathoners and triathletes, [myocarditis] is a reasonable consideration," says Kim. "It's something to discuss with your doctor or consult with a sports cardiologist before you get back to training."
  • Yes, but: Those of us who exercise to stay healthy but have no intention of entering the Ironman Triathlon likely don't have much to worry about.
3. Patients are more open with their health data

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Americans are more willing in the wake of the coronavirus to share their medical data in order to take advantage of the benefits of telemedicine.

Why it matters: For telemedicine to succeed, patients have to be open to sharing possibly sensitive personal health information online — and the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic seem to have helped lower that bar.

What's happening: A new survey released by Deloitte this week examined health care consumers attitudes toward virtual medicine, both before and during the pandemic.

  • Deloitte found that consumers using virtual doctors visits rose from 15% in 2019 to 28% in April 2020, mirroring a massive increase in the use of telemedicine during the early months of the pandemic lockdown.

Details: The most notable result was consumers' increased willingness to share their health data — a reversal of the skepticism that had been growing before the pandemic.

  • 71% of consumers said they would share personal heath data with a health insurer, up from 65% before the pandemic.
"There's an increasing awareness among consumers that if they share data, they can get more value and more insights from it."
— David Betts, principal in Deloitte's Life Sciences and Health Care practice

The bottom line: If virtual health care shows that it can directly benefit health care consumers — as it largely has during the pandemic — data privacy worries may recede.

4. The statistics crisis

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

If you don't know how broken something is, you're not going to be able to fix it, my Axios colleague Felix Salmon writes.

  • That's the crisis facing policymakers trying to repair a devastated economy without knowing the true degree to which the pandemic has hurt the country.

Why it matters: Some parts of what ails America, like the nascent mental-health crisis, are by their nature hard to measure. But other aspects of the recession, like the unemployment rate or national GDP, are foundational statistics upon which multitrillion-dollar decisions are made.

  • Never in living memory have those statistics been less reliable.

How it works: The unemployment rate — the single most important statistical data point in America — is derived from a survey of a representative sample of Americans who are asked whether they worked in the past week.

  • Historically, more than 9 out of 10 Americans answered the questions. That ratio has been falling in recent years, but during the pandemic it has plunged to just 2 in 3.

The bottom line: "There's nothing like a crisis to shine a light on inadequacies that need addressing," says Erica Groshen, a former Bureau of Labor Statistics official who's now at Cornell University.

  • "There's a little hole in the roof that was sometimes damp, and then a storm comes through. A crisis like this reveals a lot of those things. It is stressing many of our systems, and you can see that in the statistics."

Go deeper.

5. Worthy of your time

GaryVee is still preaching the hustle gospel in the middle of the pandemic (Sarah Kessler — Marker)

  • A look at why the online evangelist of "hustle culture" — turning a buck however and whenever you can — is undaunted by a collapsing economy.

Population immunity is slowing down the pandemic in parts of the U.S. (Antonio Regalado — MIT Tech Review)

  • COVID-19 has spread so widely in the U.S. that recovered people are likely already serving as a buffer against further spread. But we're still far from herd immunity.

What it may look like to safely reopen schools (Anya Kamenetz — KQED)

  • If we want to have in-person school and crush the coronavirus, we'll need to make major changes — immediately.

The Post Office is deactivating mail sorting machines ahead of the election (Aaron Gordon — Vice)

  • The USPS is not exactly a forward-facing institution, but there may be no more important pre-election story than what's happening at your local post office.
6. 1 disease thing: Social distancing in the animal kingdom

American crows are sometimes attracted to the bodies of dead crows, which rather dings their reputation as Earth's smartest birds. Photo: Kaeli Swift

Some animal species respond to the emergence of new diseases by social distancing from other members of their species.

The big picture: Social distancing remains the most direct way to reduce the spread of disease, as we've discovered with COVID-19. The behavior may be so basic to survival that some animals do it instinctually — a model skeptical human beings might want to follow.

What's new: In a study published this week in Proceedings of the Royal Academy B, researchers reviewed studies from across the animal kingdom — including ones involving human beings — to see how members of a species behaved toward each other in the face of novel diseases.

  • Caribbean spiny lobsters were more likely to den alone in the presence of another lobster infected by the Panulirus argus virus 1.
  • On the other hand, grey wolves showed no evidence of isolating themselves to protect against infections of sarcoptic mange, in part because the harm of the disease was outweighed by the long-term survival benefits of remaining with the pack.

Be smart: Whether or not animals socially distanced appears to come down to balancing the risk posed by the pathogen with the clear negative effects of isolation.

  • That goes for human beings as well, whose responses "vary with the actual or perceived vulnerability to disease," the researchers write.

The bottom line: With a new disease like COVID-19, it's difficult for even the smartest animals in the world — us, at least currently — to properly gauge their vulnerability, and therefore decide whether or not to socially distance.

Bryan Walsh