Axios Future

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April 10, 2021

Welcome to Axios Future, where we're playing "Stop Being Greedy" in honor of the departed rapper DMX. (Parental advisory: explicit lyrics.)

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,902 words or about 7 minutes

1 big thing: The global future is looking dark and stormy

Illustration of stormy raindrops falling onto an umbrella with the world map on it
Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

A new 20-year-forecast for the world: increasingly fragmented and turbulent.

The big picture: A major report put out this week by the National Intelligence Council reflects a present rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic. How the next two decades will unfold depends largely on whether new technologies will ultimately unite us — or continue to divide us.

Driving the news: Many, if not most, of those trends identified in the new report from the U.S. government are trending negative.

  • "Shared global challenges — including climate change, disease, financial crises, and technology disruptions — are likely to manifest more frequently and intensely in almost every region and country," the report's authors write.
  • They predict that those intensifying challenges will collide with a geopolitical structure that will become increasingly fragmented and fragile, as the U.S. competes with China for global leadership while citizens of both democracies and autocracies grow more dissatisfied with their leaders.

Details: The clearest trend lines are in demographics: Over the next 20 years, richer countries will grow older and in some cases even begin to shrink, while whatever slowing population growth exists will be concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

  • That will produce "extensive strains on infrastructure, education, and healthcare" in megacities that aren't prepared for it, the report's authors write.
  • Another fairly certain trend line is intensifying climate change, which my Axios colleague Andrew Freedman reports "will lead to a less secure, more crisis-prone world that will strain global institutions."

The social responses to these trends are less certain, but they'll play an even more important role in what the world will look like in 2040.

  • The scarcest resource in the decades ahead won't be oil or rare earth metals, but social trust.
  • According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, the majority of respondents in more than half of the countries polled are pessimistic that they and their families will be better off in five years — an increase of 5% from the previous year.

By the numbers: There is real fear that decades of global progress against extreme poverty and disease may be petering out and even reversing. About 150 million people fell out of the global middle class last year, the first time that demographic shrank since the 1990s.

  • Raised expectations suddenly dashed by the reversal of growth is a recipe for pessimism, anger and social fragmentation — all of which could be further stoked by the spread of the internet.

What's next: The report lays out five scenarios for the future, ranging from a democratic renaissance led by a stronger and more united America to a chaotic world where no country is powerful enough to counter the challenges we face.

  • Which future we get will depend in large part on technology — AI and automation, clean energy, gene editing and more.
  • If technological progress can jump-start economic growth for all while forestalling the worst effects of climate change, the world in 2040 will be a much easier place to navigate.
  • If it can't, we may look back on 2020 as the good old days.

What to watch: Unexpected X-factors.

  • Should we experience something truly world-changing — a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, a pandemic much more severe than COVID-19, a leap forward to true artificial general intelligence — all bets for the future are off.

2. Illumina CEO on a genomics-forward future

Photo of a scientist using an Illumina genetic sequencer
A researcher in San Francisco uses the Illumina NextSeq 550 genetic sequencer to decode a COVID-19 infection. Photo: Jessica Christian/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

The head of the world's leading genetic sequencing company predicts a future where genomic data will increasingly drive health care.

Why it matters: As our ability to read genes gets faster and cheaper, genetic sequencing could pave the way for everything from enhanced disease surveillance to truly personalized care.

Driving the news: Illumina, which controls roughly 90% of the market for genetic sequencing machines in the U.S., announced earlier this week it earned record revenue of $1.09 billion in the first quarter of 2021.

  • The company is projecting revenue growth of 25–28% in fiscal year 2021 over the previous year.

Details: That growth is due in large part to "the extraordinarily massive and urgent human needs of the pandemic," Illumina CEO Francis DeSouza told Axios in an interview.

  • Genetic sequencing machines like the ones produced by Illumina were how scientists were able to rapidly decode the genome of SARS-CoV-2 and start building both tests and the mRNA vaccines that will ultimately curb the pandemic.
  • Our ability to track more dangerous virus mutations like B.1.1.7 was only possible because gene sequencing technology had gotten faster, cheaper and more widespread.

What's next: It cost $1,000 for Illumina to sequence a human genome in 2014, but the company expects to reach the $100 level within a couple of years.

  • Ultra-cheap sequencing — combined with an ever-increasing understanding of the genome — will result in genetics becoming "the foundational element of your health record," he says.

What to watch: The growth of liquid biopsies — tests that can find the genetic markers of cancer in blood samples.

  • Illumina is in the process of a $7.1 billion acquisition of Grail, a company that has developed liquid biopsies for dozens of cancers, but the Federal Trade Commission last week moved to block the acquisition on competitive grounds.
  • DeSouza contests the FTC's case that the acquisition will ultimately increase the cost of liquid biopsies, arguing Illumina can help get Grail's diagnostics to market faster and accelerate reimbursements for "underserved populations that can't afford the test."

The bottom line: Just as WWI helped accelerate the development of airplanes and WWII nuclear technology, "I believe we will look back and view the pandemic as ushering the era of biology and the era of the genome," says DeSouza.

3. Using brain interfaces to learn about learning

Illustration of brain connected to computer mouse
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A new study uses a brain-computer interface (BCI) to observe the neural activity in monkeys during the process of learning.

Why it matters: The internal state of the brain is often a mystery — including to ourselves — but new neural interfaces are making it easier for scientists to observe the mind in action.

How it works: In a paper published recently in Nature Neuroscience, a large team of researchers hooked up a group of monkeys to BCIs while the study subjects were trained to play a basic computer game.

Details: The researchers found that neural fluctuations took place when the monkeys were surprised by something happening during the game.

  • Those monkeys that showed greater engagement performed better during following rounds of the test, indicating that arousal and engagement — internal states that can be difficult to track without a BCI — can affect the act of learning something new.

What they're saying: "Our understanding of what happens in the brain as one learns is super limited right now," says Byron Yu, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a co-author of the paper. But BCI "gives us an amazing window into how this happens."

Context: BCI technology has emerged as a major area of scientific research and increasingly consumer technology as the interfaces have slowly improved.

  • On Friday, Elon Musk's BCI company Neuralink released a video of a monkey with chips embedded on each side of its brain as it played a basic video game using only its thoughts.
Elon Musk Tweet

Yes, but: BCI technology would have to progress significantly — and the applications would need to go beyond video games — before many people would be willing to have an interface drilled into their skull.

Go deeper: Elon Musk's Neuralink wants to read your brain

4. Breaking the link between GDP and CO2

Data: The Breakthrough Institute; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

A new analysis finds "increasing evidence" of a fraying connection between economic growth and higher carbon emissions — a needed first step toward steep CO2 cuts, my Axios colleague Ben Geman reports.

Driving the news: The Breakthrough Institute's Zeke Hausfather finds that since 2005, emissions have become "decoupled" from GDP growth in 32 nations with a population of at least 1 million people.

  • That is, emissions have fallen while the economy has grown in these nations (some of them are seen in the chart above).
  • This applies to territorial emissions, or "those within national borders," and consumption emissions, which means "emissions embodied in the goods consumed in a country."

Why it matters: "[W]ith the rapid cost reductions of clean energy and an expected peak in Chinese emissions in the next five to ten years, it is only a matter of time before absolute decoupling becomes the norm," writes Hausfather, a climate scientist.

Yes, but: "The extent to which this will occur rapidly enough to avoid dangerous levels of warming depends on both the degree of technological progress and the willingness of governments worldwide to invest in mitigating climate change," his analysis adds.

Read the analysis.

5. Worthy of your time

"Here to stay": How the pandemic helped build a burgeoning home testing industry (Erin Brodwin — STAT)

  • Why COVID-19 heralds a future where more and more health tests will be taken not at clinics or doctors' offices, but at home.

Harvard and its peers should be embarrassed about how few students they educate (Jeffrey J. Selingo — Washington Post)

  • Far more students could make the grade at elite universities than are admitted, and the biggest impact these schools could have is by opening their doors wider.

As locusts swarmed East Africa, this tech helped squash them (Rachel Nuwer — New York Times)

  • A smartphone app that uses basic AI to track locust swarms demonstrates a way that modern tech can help defeat a Biblical scourge.

How to make small talk after we've been through... a pandemic (Rachel Miller — Vice)

  • The biggest — and perhaps only — thing I'll miss from the pandemic is the Zoom ability to instantly end a conversation by pressing a button, which I've found does not translate so well IRL.

6. 1 frightening thing: Revisiting "Contagion"

Poster of movie "Contagion"
Only four people on this poster survive the movie, and one of them is definitely not Gwyneth Paltrow. Credit: Participant Media

A year into the COVID-19 pandemic is as good a time as any to revisit the best and most realistic plague movie ever made: 2011's "Contagion."

Why you should watch: You really want to relive the cold terror of the uncertain early days of COVID-19.

Background: Screenwriter Scott Burns and the director Steven Soderbergh decided to collaborate on what Burns called an "interesting thriller version of a pandemic movie" that "really felt like what could happen."

  • Mission accomplished!
  • "Contagion" is a nail-gripping movie, and as we've all experienced over the past year, amazingly accurate in its portrayal of how the medical community and the broader public would respond to a severe pandemic.

Details: The film tracks the emergence of a new virus called MEV-1 that emerges from a zoonotic spillover — a bat infecting a pig that ends up spreading to American Gwyneth Paltrow during a business trip to Hong Kong.

  • She in turn brings the virus back to suburban Minneapolis, where she promptly has a death scene you will likely not see on the Goop website.
  • From then on, the virus begins spreading exponentially around the U.S. and the world, as helpfully explained by CDC epidemiologist Kate Winslet.
Kate Winslet Film GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
All you need to know about R0. Credit: Giphy

MEV-1 is far worse than COVID-19, with a fatality rate of 25–30%. But the near-total social collapse that follows in the fictional virus' wake — complete with runs on disinfectant and supposed herbal cures — is all too real.

  • As is Jude Law's blogger character, who takes advantage of the pandemic to spread misinformation online in an early glimpse of COVID-19's "infodemic."

What's weirdly missing: Masks!

  • Even as the characters grapple with a virus capable of killing a quarter of those it infects, surprisingly few wear masks — a sign of where the Western medical establishment was on the subject in 2011.
  • And possibly a sign that no studio wants to cast Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne and Matt Damon and have their faces covered by surgical masks.

The bottom line: The world manages to survive MEV-1, thanks to a government response that appears to be miles better than what we've endured during COVID-19.