Jun 24, 2020

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

Welcome to Axios Future, where I'm really looking forward to my Apple Watch telling on me for not washing my hands long enough.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,614 words or about 6 minutes

1 big thing: The U.S. divide on coronavirus masks

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Mask-wearing has become the latest partisan division in an increasingly politically divided pandemic.

Why it matters: It's becoming increasingly clear that wearing even a basic cloth mask is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But whether or not people are willing to wear one has less to do with the risk of the pandemic than their political affiliation.

By the numbers: Results from months of the Axios-Ipsos coronavirus polls show a clear and growing political divide between Democrats and Republicans on mask-wearing habits.

  • Nationally, the percentage of Democrats who reported wearing a mask all the time when leaving home rose from 49% between April 10 and May 4 to 65% between May 8 and June 22.
  • During the same time period, the percentage of Republicans who reported constant mask-wearing rose from 29% to just 35%.

Context: The political divide Americans are reporting on mask use echoes one seen within nearly all levels of the government.

  • President Trump has not been seen to wear a mask, and he told Axios last week that attendees at his Tulsa campaign event on June 20 should "do what they want" on masks, which were not required at the rally.
  • Governors in many red states like Nebraska have refused to mandate facial masks in public, even as cases have begun to rise in recent weeks. At the same time, leaders in blue states — especially those that grappled with large outbreaks of COVID-19 — have urged residents to wear masks, with California Gov. Gavin Newsom mandating their use last week as cases in the state passed 4,000 a day.
  • The situation is even more divided at the local level, with leaders of red towns in blue states pushing back against mask mandates, and vice versa.

Flashback: Some of the blame for the divide can be traced back to muddled public health messaging on mask use in the early stages of the pandemic, when Americans were urged not to go out and buy masks in bulk because of concerns that there wasn't enough personal protective equipment for front-line health care workers.

  • Those fears were real, as government virus expert Anthony Fauci pointed out in congressional testimony yesterday. And public health officials worried that pushing masks would inadvertently encourage Americans to continue going out in public at a moment when lockdowns demanded they stay inside.

Health experts now know that cloth masks are most effective not so much at protecting individuals from infection as protecting the community from infected individuals. But that makes masks as much about social signaling as they are about public health.

  • Conservatives who prize individual autonomy over social responsibility experience "a massive pushback of psychological resistance" when presented with mask mandates, says Steven Taylor, the author of "The Psychology of Pandemics."
  • That reaction is reinforced "if leaders like Trump downplay the significance of COVID-19 or if they won't wear masks," says Taylor. As a result, wearing a mask in conservative communities means visibly going against public opinion, while the opposite is true in communities where mask use is common.

What to watch: The one factor that seems capable of breaking the political deadlock is the outbreak itself. As cases have skyrocketed in red states like Arizona recently, there's been a significant increase in Google searches for masks.

2. Experts oppose AI crime prediction research

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

More than 1,000 experts signed an open letter opposing the publication of research into using artificial intelligence to predict criminal behavior.

Why it matters: The real-life datasets that any machine-learning algorithm on criminality prediction would be trained on are inevitably biased, which means the technology would be as well. Allowing such research to go forward risks encoding injustice.

Driving the news: A New York Times investigation of a man wrongfully fingered for a crime by a faulty facial recognition algorithm demonstrates it can be even harder for the innocent to fight automated bias than the human version.

Background: In early May, Harrisburg University sent a press release about the development of automated computer facial recognition software that researchers at the university claimed was capable of predicting with 80% accuracy whether someone is likely to be a criminal based solely on a picture of their face.

  • That release was deleted after harsh criticism by other researchers, but later a mostly unchanged new release was posted, stating the research would appear in a book series put out by the science publisher Springer Nature.

The news prompted a handful of experts in AI on Monday to send an open letter calling on Springer Nature to rescind its offer to publish the study and for all scientific publishers to commit to not publishing similar work in the future.

  • By Wednesday, the letter had been signed by more than 1,000 people.
  • The signatories criticized research on predicting criminality through biometric data as being based on "unsound scientific premises, research, and methods."
  • Springer eventually responded on Twitter that it would not publish the paper.

Context: Earlier this month, major tech companies like IBM and Amazon announced an end or partial suspension of facial recognition products in part out of response to those concerns.

  • But smaller firms have made it clear they will continue to develop and market such products to the police.

The bottom line: The decisions made on research now will help decide whether AI becomes another tool of injustice.

3. A prize for putting people back to work

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

XPRIZE, a nonprofit organization that holds grand competitions to inspire innovation, announced this week that it would launch a $5 million contest to help retrain workers who lost employment to automation.

Why it matters: The pandemic has only accelerated the job-destroying effects of automation. As the U.S. looks to put tens of millions of people back to work, truly big solutions will be needed.

How it works: In the new contest, called XPRIZE Rapid Reskilling, teams will take a cohort of people who had been in lower-skilled occupations, attempt to retrain them over a period of 60 days, and then place them in more sustainable new occupations.

  • "We hope this competition is really going to stimulate a conversation about using technology to create a better future for jobs," says XPRIZE CEO Anousheh Ansari.

Background: XPRIZE has run a number of innovation competitions since it was founded in 1995, including the Ansari XPRIZE, which offered $10 million to the first privately financed team that could build and fly a three-passenger vehicle 62 miles into space twice within two weeks.

  • The contest, which was won by Mojave Aerospace Ventures after more than eight years of work, arguably helped kick off the private spaceflight era.
  • Such innovation competitions have a historical pedigree that goes back to the Longitude Prize, which the British government awarded in 1714 to the first person who developed a way for a seagoing ship to measure longitude.

The bottom line: Prize contents can encourage out of the box thinking, which is something the field of reskilling desperately needs.

4. The pandemic's lost years

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As the pandemic continues, we're already starting to see long-term effects of lost schooling, curtailed travel and shuttered businesses, Axios' Fadel Allassan writes.

Job losses have disproportionately affected women, resulting in a prolonged dip in their income and participation in the job market.

  • The female unemployment rate has reached double digits for the first time since 1948 — a swift reversal from December, when women had more payroll jobs than men for the first time in nearly 10 years.

Education: Research shows the shift to remote learning could set the average student seven months behind academically, according to a McKinsey analysis.

  • Racial disparity in access to computers and home internet connections could exacerbate achievement gaps that existed before the pandemic. Black and Hispanic students could face even greater setbacks, with Hispanic students losing nine months and Black students losing 10 months.

Young people graduating from college face health and financial effects from entering the job market during a recession — including lower starting salaries, according to Stanford research.

  • Graduates who start working during such times see their incomes depleted for an average of 10–15 years, according to the study.

Restaurants: Many restaurant owners who permanently closed their businesses said they will likely never return to the industry.

5. Worthy of your time

My dad launched the quest to find alien intelligence. It changed astronomy (Nadia Drake — National Geographic)

  • The daughter of legendary alien hunter Frank Drake on how an outsider came to change his field.

The promise and peril of virtual health care (John Seabrook — The New Yorker)

  • Telemedicine has exploded during the pandemic lockdown, but the field still has major kinks it needs to work out.

Rising seas threaten an American institution: The 30-year mortgage (Christopher Flavelle — New York Times)

  • Mortgages represent the longest of long-term planning most Americans do, but climate change could render them meaningless.

Why lockdown silence was golden for science (Philip Ball — The Guardian)

  • The world got very quiet during the pandemic lockdown — and researchers of all stripes took full advantage of the silence.
6. 1 mobility thing: Good night, sweet Segway

Segway inventor Dean Kamen aboard his creation in 2002. Photo: Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images

The extremely 2001 Segway, a two-wheeled electric personal transportation device, will end production.

Why it matters: How are we supposed to get around airports and malls now? Walk?

Fast Company broke the story that the Segway brand will cease manufacturing the Segway PT next month.

  • While a handful of employees will remain on the job to service repairs on existing Segways and work on the Segway Discovery scooter, for the most part the Segway is dead.

Background: It's an inglorious end to a product that Steve Jobs once said would be bigger than the personal computer.

  • In 2000, rumors about a secret invention created by Dean Kamen, who had grown rich developing technology for use in medical IVs, began percolating. Some even assumed it would be an anti-gravity device.
  • Nope. Instead, it was a personal transport device that went on sale in December 2001 for $5,000.

The Segway did not end up being "to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy," as Kamen originally predicted. Instead, it became more of a rolling punchline, as seen in comedies like "Arrested Development" and "Paul Blart: Mall Cop."

  • Ironically, the Segway is being phased out even as the creation of the e-scooter industry has demonstrated there is demand for similar forms of urban micromobility.

The bottom line: Now I really wished I'd asked for one of these for Father's Day.

Bryan Walsh