I’m Azeem Azhar. I convene Exponential View to help us understand how our societies and political economy will change under the force of rapidly accelerating technologies.
I decided to make today’s issue of the Sunday newsletter open to all. If you like what you see please become a member of Exponential View. Group and education discounts are available (email email@example.com for more information).
Navigating daily through the Corona Crisis, I am sure many of us have realized how interconnected our modern world is. It is a complex system, where changes in one far-off corner can have magnified effects somewhere else—or indeed right across the system itself.
Increasingly, as I put this wondermissive together, I am mindful of the words of Donella H. Meadows in Thinking In Systems:
[w]ords and sentences much, by necessity, come only one at a time in linear, logical order. Systems happen all at once. They are connected not just in one direction, but in many directions simultaneously.
The newsletter might merit a second read, to help you pick up the connections between elements that your brain missed the first time.
The near future
🇪🇪 “Nobody had to go to the doctor’s office [to] spread the disease,” says the President of the Republic of Estonia in our discussion on how the Estonian digital state is handling the pandemic.
🗞️ “Media are no longer the deliverers of information. The information has already been delivered,” argues EV reader, Jeff Jarvis. “[News] is delivered already: via blogs, social media, direct connection from officialdom and companies to the public, scientific papers, open databases, and means yet unimagined.” This poses a problem for news organisations and how they find a role in all this.
⚠️ “The provision of misinformation in the early stages of a pandemic can have important consequences for how a disease ultimately affects the population,” suggest researchers from the Becker Friedman Institute in a non-peer reviewed working paper. The research looked at the effects of news coverage by the Sean Hannity Show and Tucker Carlson Tonight, two of the most widely-viewed cable news shows in the US, on viewers’ behaviour and health outcomes. One early finding, points out Zeynep Tufekci, is “one standard deviation more viewership of Sean Hannity (denied seriousness of COVID) versus Tucker Carlson (took the pandemic seriously) is associated with 20% more deaths at the county-level”.
(I’ve alluded to this in previous essays, including in Democracy, Trust and the Virus. In EV#266, I strongly urged that “[w]e have the tools to equip ourselves with the knowledge, debates, critical questions—and our leaders should admit that. I’d encourage you all to level up.”)
💯 Bill Gates: The first modern pandemic. (Essential reading, level-headed.)
🌏 Kishore Mahbubani: “The era of Western domination is ending. The resurgence of Asia in world affairs and the global economy, which was happening before the emergence of Covid-19, will be cemented in a new world order after the crisis.” There are some challenging themes here and the claims about just how the Chinese government has acted probably merit deeper scrutiny.
🏙️ Is urban density an enemy in the fight against coronavirus? EV reader Sameh Wahba analyses 284 (!) Chinese cities and suggests not. “Higher densities, in some cases, can even be a blessing rather than a curse in fighting epidemics. Due to economies of scale, cities often need to meet a certain threshold of population density to offer higher-grade facilities and services to their residents.”
This paper on the spread in New York City suggests that mass transit could facilitate the spread of the virus. “Maps of subway station turnstile entries, superimposed upon zip code-level maps of reported coronavirus incidence, are strongly consistent with subway-facilitated disease propagation. Local train lines appear to have a higher propensity to transmit infection than express lines.”
🚴 Cities may take the opportunity to reframe their relationship with the car. Take Milan which will turn 35km of streets over to cyclists and pedestrians, and create space for them to maintain physical distance.
🔓 Coronavirus is the first trial of the EU’s unofficial religion—privacy. For an analysis of the ethical considerations of using technology to transition from the Covid-19 crisis, I recommend Carly Kind and her colleagues’ excellent report, Exit Through the App Store. This report reviews three technologies in particular: digital contact tracing, symptom tracking apps and immunity certification. (Disclosure: I am on the board of the Ada Lovelace Foundation which published the report.) See also, the section of Leviathan and Liberty in my essay The Three Cleavages.
Dept of uncertainty
Even though we could reckon on a virus like this becoming a pandemic there is still quite a lot we don’t know about this one and its spread. Bill Gates identifies a number of key questions: Bill Gates identifies a number of key questions:
- How many people who never get symptoms have enough of the virus to infect others? What about people who are recovered and have some residual virus—how infectious are they?
- Why do young people have a lower risk of becoming seriously ill when they get infected?
- What symptoms indicate that you should get tested?
- Which activities cause the most risk of infection?
- Who is most susceptible to the disease?
I’ll put it this way. As we battle coronavirus, we are pilots flying a plane without an altimeter. Are we at 5,000ft or 25,000ft? Our attitude indicator is broken. Are we trending upwards or downwards? Are we still over the Himalayas or heading toward the Gobi desert? We are lost.
Fortunately, we do have more than a bottle of disinfectant and a hypodermic to hand. We have incredible scientists, a massive public health response and truly huge analytical resources building better and better instrumentation. With that, we’ll find our way. (See also, Dept of New Normal below.)
But for now, the uncertainty lingers like a fog (or is it a cloud? Depends on our altitude). It is unclear how many people are dying, even in countries which have not been accused of fiddling their numbers. The Financial Times estimated that coronavirus deaths in the United Kingdom are double the reported official figure.
Nor do we know how many people have actually contracted SARS-Cov-2. The antibody surveys are coming in, but the results can be interpreted differently and are open to error. For a good discussion why read this. As one biostatistician points out we are getting a sense that “[t]he harder hit places have higher seroprevalence, but even the hard-hit places don’t seem to have crazy numbers. Certainly not at the herd immunity level.” (Sweden is an interesting experiment, of course.)
And so, as we all know by now, understanding of the actual infection fatality rates is strengthening but still limited. A good discussion from the Oxford Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine on this topic is here. There is some consensus that as a condition this is likely, across the population, to be at least ten times worse than flu and substantially worse for those over 65 and apparently more manageable for the young.
One topic that has been under-discussed is the long-term impact of suffering Covid-19. Does it leave permanent lung damage? Will it affect a child’s development?
This (nightmare) piece on Science takes us through the “ferocious rampage through the body, from brain to toes.” A report out of the University of Innsbruck talks of potential long-term impacts, including massive changes in lung capacity. In the case of divers, this might mean never diving again. Others have noted: “[y]oung and middle-aged people, barely sick with Covid-19, are dying from strokes.” But to what extent can these cases be generalised and to what extent are there specific confounding factors in play?
We still don’t have a clear picture of how the virus spreads. An upcoming paper in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, although limited in scope,suggests that crowded indoor spaces, such as call centres, might be hotspots.
Readers in Hong Kong and Singapore are experiencing their second and third waves. Those of us in Europe are waiting for our second. When will that hit? And how? And why aren’t we talking about Taiwan more? Their exceptional handling of this manifesting as a strengthening economy, export orders up 4.3% year-on-year, as it becomes a safe-short term bet for manufacturers.
We would all welcome a vaccine appearing in 12-18 months. I’m cautious. Since February, I’ve been hearing about year-to-year-and-a-half range. It is now April. So should the media be talking about a vaccine in 10-16 months? Or is the vaccine is like virtual reality, always a few years away?
As Bill Gates says “the typical development time for a vaccine against a new disease is over five years,” and while we can speed it up, we need to get one, manufacture it to scale and get people vaccinated. In the UK, US and Europe alone, this would mean just shy of 800m doses would need to be administered. (And what if we needed two doses?)
In the meantime, we might slowly find that a certain percentage of the population gets infected with every subsequent wave, it might change the quantum of vaccine needed but not really the order of magnitude.
Before we start planning our 2021 trips to Fyre Festival, it is worth being sanguine about how and what would need to happen for a vaccine to be in place.
Here is what biotech analyst Geoffrey Porges has to say:
We believe that a 2-3 year timeline is the most optimistic for seeing a general use vaccine introduced, and as importantly, in the remote possibility that an approved, effective, safe general use vaccine was available a year from now, it would still take several years to confer sufficient “herd immunity” to prevent endemic spread of COVID19.
More details of Porges’ view are available here. (If anyone can get me the full document, I’d appreciate it.)
Of course, we have 76 (count ‘em) vaccines under consideration, five of which are in clinical trial. It is possible that a few finish the punishing journey to safety and efficacy, and that in a couple of years we have two or three functioning vaccines widely available. This, in turn, might create commercial competition between manufacturers to scale up production and win market share. Incentives to the rescue! (For a thrilling account of the teams racing to produce a workable vaccine and the “unthinkable shortcuts” under consideration, I suggest Julie Steenhusyen’s story.)
At that point, the next stage would be to determine who gets the vaccine first. That is where data from mild and severe cases across different demographic and clinical categories may matter. Authorities may take a utilitarian, or risk-adjusted view, which assesses the impact of vaccination against yardsticks like disability-adjusted life years. The better the data authorities have, the better the assessments they can make.
Continued application of scientific expertise, medical capacity, testing and innovation might clear a path through the fog.
🌡️ Climate breakdown: 415.47ppm | 3,686 days
Each week, we’re going to remind you of the CO2 levels in the atmosphere and the number of days until reaching the 450ppm threshold.
The latest measurement (as of April 23): 415.47ppm; April 1, 2019: 411.69ppm; 25 years ago: 360ppm; 250 years ago, est: 250ppm. Share this reminder with your community by forwarding this email or tweeting this.
💥 Scientists have attempted for years to realise the dream of fusion energy, but it’s always felt far away. Now, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor —based in provincial France—is supposed to be operational in 2025. It is the only “viable hope” that we have to secure the energy that we need over the next millenia. Questions about the environment feel very far away right now, but projects like this demonstrate that we are getting closer to sustainable energy production. “To get the atoms whipping around the inner chamber of the Russian-nesting-doll-like machine, a magnet will drive 15 million amperes of electricity through them.”
📅 We are hosting a members-only briefing on the hydrogen economy, with Professor Dame Julia King (Baroness Brown of Cambridge), one of the co-authors of the report that was instrumental in the UK becoming the first country to put into law the ambitious goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. RSVP here.
Dept of new normal
This section is open to members only. Here, I cover:
- A realistic take on the stock market,
- How manufacturers are using data and predictive algorithms to keep the factories running,
- How restaurants could survive the pandemic.
Chart of the week
Great piece on how epidemiological models are adjusting to new information.
Short morsels to appear smart while staying at home
Microsoft might be powering the next push of the open data movement.
🌊 Russia’s titanium-enhanced super-deep diving sub.
Australia is deploying a code of conduct for social media behemoths, requiring them to share ad revenues with media companies. (See also, Facebook is trying to break onto India’s market with its latest investment.)
This is what massive scale US intensive farming looks like. (cf wet markets and logs in your own eye.)
🐙 It’s time to take octopus civilization seriously. Great piece.
⛑️ Emirati police deploy smart helmets to detect temperatures of hundreds of people per minute.
🤖 The unsung heroes of the pandemic? Robots. (See also: In a decade or two, having a human being bring you food could seem as anachronistic as paying for long-distance phone calls.)
There is just one last thing. This coming Thursday, I am hosting a discussion with uber-oil analyst, Gregor Macdonald. We are going to be discussing the state of the oil market and what this means for the energy future. It is on Thursday, 30 April, at 5pm UK time. We will make a recording available for those who can’t make it, but it is live and interactive. RSVP
Respectful comments and discussion from members are welcome below!
What you are up to—notes from EV readers
Matthew Gould on how the NHS is delivering at pace using technology.
Gemma Milne’s debut book Smoke & Mirrors: How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It is out now—read more and order it here!
Christina Colclough warns: “The Covid-19 crisis must not lead to a watering down of human rights and workers’ rights.”
If you have something to share with EV community, email firstname.lastname@example.org
My discussion with Parag Khanna on the Asian Century.
My discussion with Elad Gil on scaling businesses.