Axios Future

A robotic hand with the palm facing upward.

August 22, 2020

Welcome to Axios Future, where we are all for the idea of canceling August.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,846 words or about 7 minutes.

1 big thing: Better testing can fight more than the pandemic

Illustration of gloved hand holding a petri dish with a key

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

New coronavirus diagnostics could eventually enable near-constant testing — and herald a future where even common infections no longer go undiagnosed.

Why it matters: Rapid testing could be especially important during the winter, when it will become vital to quickly distinguish between an ordinary cold or flu and a new disease like COVID-19.

What's happening: New testing technologies are being developed that, while not always as accurate as the PCR tests currently in use, can be done cheaply and quickly, at an accelerated rate that "matches the kinetics of the virus," says Jeff Huber, vice chairman of the cancer diagnostics company Grail and the science lead for the XPRIZE Foundation's $5 million rapid COVID testing contest.

  • University of Illinois researcher Martin Burke has created a rapid saliva-based test that has received emergency authorization from the FDA. That will help the university reach its goal of testing all 50,000 students and staff on campus twice a week — frequent enough to catch infected people before they can significantly spread the virus.
  • Researchers at Yale University have received emergency authorization for a similar saliva-based diagnostic that was tested on NBA players and can produce results within hours, at just $10 a sample.
  • Mammoth Biosciences last month received backing from the National Institutes of Health to scale up its CRISPR-based diagnostic, which uses the gene-editing technology to create a handheld, disposable test that can produce results in 20 minutes.
  • A Princeton University spinout called NeuTigers has developed an AI-powered diagnostic that identifies COVID-19 infections using health data from wearable devices like smartwatches. "You don't need nasal swabs or PCR," says Greg Nicola, chief medical officer at NeuTigers. "Just a device with a sensor."

The key is speed and frequency. Modeling done during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa found that if 60% of new Ebola cases had been detected within a day of patients becoming infectious — using rapid tests — the epidemic could have been immediately stopped.

  • "What makes COVID-19 so challenging is two things," says Huber. "Asymptomatic and presymptomatic spreading, and the possibility of super spreaders" — infected people who for some reason spark huge outbreaks."
  • Simply screening for symptoms is insufficient because too many people are able to spread the coronavirus without showing clear symptoms. Rapid tests can solve that problem and ensure potential super-spreaders are taken out of circulation before they begin super-spreading.

What's next: The burst of innovation around disease diagnostics — as well as the growth of at-home health tracking devices — could lay the groundwork for a range of tests that rapidly detect infections of all kind, says Jack Regan, the CEO of the molecular diagnostics company LexaGene.

The catch: Testing populations twice a week or more would require a massive leap in current capacity. As of Aug. 20, the U.S. had performed fewer than 70 million tests throughout the entire pandemic — not even enough to test a quarter of Americans once.

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2. A quantum leap for e-commerce

Data: U.S. Census Bureau; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: U.S. Census Bureau; Chart: Axios Visuals

The pandemic and lockdown significantly accelerated the rise of online commerce, compressing years of projected growth into a few months.

The big picture: Stuck at home for weeks on end, we turned to the internet and delivery to meet our consumer needs. That's been a boon for many tech companies, but it's not yet clear whether consumers will return to the real world once the pandemic ends.

By the numbers: Data released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau indicated that U.S. e-commerce retail sales for the second quarter of 2020 rose to $211.5 billion, up 31.8% from the first quarter and 44.5% from the same period last year.

  • E-commerce in the second quarter reached 16.1% of all retail sales, up from 11.8% in the previous quarter.
  • That means that as a share of total retail sales, e-commerce grew as much in three months as it had over the past five years combined.
  • In the U.K., which had a stricter lockdown than the U.S., e-commerce penetration was even greater.
  • The retailer Target experienced 195% year-on-year growth in its e-commerce sales in the second quarter, while Walmart nearly doubled its online sales.

What they're saying: "This was a time when the digital shopping shows what it is really capable of," Biju Dominic, the chairman of FinalMile Consulting, said in a briefing on Thursday. "The question is whether this trend will continue after COVID."

The bottom line: Q2 2020 may be looked back upon as a lockdown aberration, but over the long run, more and more of our economic activity will migrate to the internet — just like the rest of our lives.

3. Over 3.5 billion lack reasonably reliable access to electricity

Photo of children in Kenya studying by firelight

Children study by firelight in Kenya. Photo: Tony Karumba/AFP

New research suggests that the true number of people around the world who lack reliable and regular access to electricity is many times higher than previously estimated.

Why it matters: Access to affordable, reliable and sustainable electricity is a requirement for modern life, and enshrined in the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. But fair access needs to go beyond a few lightbulbs and enable full participation in an electrified world.

Background: According to the UN — which has the goal of achieving universal energy access by 2030 — the number of people without access to electricity declined from 1.2 billion in 2010 to 789 million in 2018.

  • That still leaves 1 in every 10 people around the world in the dark. But gaining access to electricity doesn't necessarily mean you can rely on it.

What's happening: In a paper published this week in The Electricity Journal, researchers tried to calculate global numbers around what they termed "reasonably reliable" access to electricity.

  • The researchers examined the frequency and duration of power outages around the world to determine what they categorize as a base level for electricity service.
  • Based on their calculations, more than 3.5 billion people — most of them concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia — lack reasonably reliable access to electricity.

Yes, but: That number includes the population of India, which has uneven but improving electricity service.

  • Even with a more generous definition of electricity access that would include India, the researchers still conclude that more than 1.6 billion lack reasonably reliable service — twice the UN figures.

Of note: Even these numbers don't get at the yawning gap in energy access between rich countries and poorer ones.

  • The development expert Todd Moss, one of the authors of the new paper, noted in a piece last year that Californians alone use more electricity for video gaming than the entire country of Kenya uses for everything.
  • " The data shows that basic access is just the very first step," says Moss. "Nearly half the planet is still being held back."

The bottom line: The future will be electrified, and those who can't plug in will be left behind.

4. Robot beetle runs on booze

Video of robot beetle

Here go RoBeetle. Credit: Xiufeng Yang et al./USC

A tiny, lightweight beetle-inspired robot fueled by alcohol can crawl on its own for up to two hours, my Axios colleague Alison Snyder writes.

Why it matters: Researchers have long dreamed of creating tiny autonomous robots that could explore small spaces to inspect infrastructure, assist in disaster relief or drop pollen on flowers. But bringing the required power and control to insect-sized robots has been challenging.

How it works: The RoBeetle's artificial muscle is powered by methanol instead of batteries, freeing it from tethered power sources.

  • The wee robot's muscle is a nickel-titanium alloy wire covered in platinum powder that catalyzes the combustion of methanol vapor into heat, Xiufeng Yang and his colleagues at the University of Southern California report in Science Robotics.
  • The wire contracts from the heat and then extends again after the methanol fuel is gone, mimicking the contraction of biological muscles.
  • RoBeetle could move along different surfaces and carry up to 2.6 times its own body weight.

Yes, but: The robotic beetle is slow, moving about 0.05 body lengths per second.(The video above is sped up.)

  • "Other critical challenges to address include how to refuel chemically powered robots for long-term, continuous operation and how to program or communicate with them for certain tasks," Ryan Truby and Shuguang Li of MIT, who weren't involved in the work, wrote in an accompanying article.

What's next: Yang says a different fuel — for example, propane — might help to speed up the robot. Ultimately, he says, they hope to generate enough force to create a robotic butterfly.

My thought bubble: I've also crawled for long periods of time while fueled by alcohol, though not since college.

5. Worthy of your time

Welcome to Conspiracy, Inc. (Keith Kloor — Substack)

  • One of the smartest (and most skeptical) science reporters I know has launched a newsletter based around all things conspiratorial — which couldn't be more timely.

Inside NSO, Israel's billion-dollar spyware giant (Patrick Howell O'Neill — MIT Tech Review)

  • A rare up-close examination — including an interview with the reclusive CEO — of a company that makes some of the most controversial spyware on the market.

Why we need inclusive nationalism (John Halpin — Democracy)

  • An argument for retaking nationalism as a force for good by abandoning the culture wars and enlarging the idea of country.

California reveals that the transition to renewable energy isn't so simple (Alex Trembath and Zeke Hausfather — Slate)

  • The Golden State had set itself up as a leader in renewable energy, but lack of storage and the premature closing of nuclear plants has left it in the dark.

6. 1 post-apocalyptic thing: The foresight of Kevin Costner

Photo of a poster for the Kevin Costner movie "The Postman"

"The Postman": the film that answered the question: "What if 'Mad Max' but with mail carriers instead of this guy?" Photo: Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images

Current concerning trends offer an opportunity to reassess a famous post-apocalyptic box office bomb — and its star.

Why it matters: OK, no, the 1997 Kevin Costner vehicle "The Postman" is not a good movie. But if you're worried about the world ending and suddenly find yourself interested in the Postal Service, you could do worse this weekend.

Background: Only two years after starring in "Waterworld" — the sci-fi, ocean-going catastrophe that launched a thousand puns about sinking — Costner returned to the dystopian vein with an adaptation of the David Brin novel "The Postman."

  • Set in a near-future America that had collapsed into primitive, warring states, Costner stars at the unnamed nomad who finds a postman's uniform and begins delivering mail, claiming he is a representative of the newly restored U.S. government.
  • He ends up rebuilding an ersatz postal service, which gives hope to survivors but leads him to a war with a militia leader bent on domination.
  • At one point he meets Tom Petty, who for some reason is playing Tom Petty.

"The Postman" was a historic bomb, making only $20 million against an $80 million budget.

  • Unlike "Waterworld," Costner had only himself to blame — he starred in "The Postman," had the script rewritten, directed its 3-hour running time, and even sang a duet with Amy Grant over the closing credits.

What they said: "It's about as inspiring as a movie about a vengeful meter reader," wrote Paul Tatara for

Yes, but: I've seen "The Postman." It's not quite as bad as its reputation — and today it practically feels ripped from the headlines.

  • The collapse of the U.S. begins because of hate crimes and racially motivated attacks by a militia founded by a violent, misogynistic survivalist.
  • A round of plagues essentially finishes off a functioning government.
  • The Postal Service somehow becomes the institution that makes Americans feel like Americans.

The bottom line: If you want to comfort yourself by imagining how things could ever be worse than they are now, try renting "The Postman."