The People the Suburbs Were Built for Are Gone

[Note:  This item comes from friend David Rosenthal.  DLH]

The People the Suburbs Were Built for Are Gone
A new book documents the “retrofitting” of obsolete suburban malls, box stores, office parks, parking lots, motels, and more.
By Shayla Love
Jan 21 2021

Last summer, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, then Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, co-bylined an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal promising to “protect America’s suburbs,” describing how they reversed policies that would allow for the creation of denser living structures in areas zoned only for single-family homes.

“America’s suburbs are a shining example of the American Dream, where people can live in their own homes, in safe, pleasant neighborhoods,” they wrote. 

But the suburbs, in the sense of the idyllic American pastoral Trump and Carson referenced, have been changing for some time—not necessarily the physical homes, stores, roads, and offices that populate them, but the people who live there, along with their needs and desires. Previous mainstays of suburban life are now myths: that the majority of people own their homes; that the suburbs are havens for the middle class; or that the bulk of people are young families who value privacy over urban amenities like communal spaces, walkability, and mixed-use properties. 

This mismatch has led to a phenomenon called “suburban retrofitting,” as documented by June Williamson, an associate professor of architecture at the City College of New York, and Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor of architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology. They have a new book out this week: Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Strategies for Urgent Challenges.

Since the 1990s, Williamson and Dunham-Jones have been watching the suburbs evolve. They have found that much of the suburban sprawl of the 20th century was built to serve a very different population than the one that exists now, and so preserving what the suburbs once were doesn’t make sense. 

Their book describes 32 recent instances in which suburban structures have been transformed into something new. Many of the cases in Williamson and Dunham-Jones first book from 2011 on the same topic were focused on underused parking lots being transformed into mixed-use spaces. But in this new book, the retrofitting projects have become more ambitious, as cities and towns turn old box stores, malls, motels, or office parks into places for people to live, work, eat, play, exercise, go to the doctor, or even watch Mexican wrestling.

They have found that when the suburbs are retrofitted, they can take on an astonishing array of modern issues: car dependency, public health, supporting aging people, helping people compete for jobs, creating water and energy resilience, and helping with social equity and justice.

Motherboard talked with Williamson and Dunham-Jones about why and how we should retrofit the suburbs, and whether or not the COVID-19 has made the suburbs appealing again, or instead accelerated the desire to retrofit the burbs. 

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Motherboard: How do you define the suburbs—a slippery term with no concrete definition? You write in the book that you define something as suburban based on its “suburban form,” not necessarily on location or city lines—what do you mean by that? 

June Williamson: We’re architects and urban designers and so we are focused on the built environment. That means that when we’re looking at places, generally, that have been built out in the second half of the 20th century to be car dependent, not walkable, and have comparatively lower density. 

Ellen Dunham-Jones: Similarly, you can look at the street networks. If you’ve got a grid, more or less, with small, walkable-sized blocks, that’s urban form. If you have a highway leading off into cul de sacs, that’s suburban form, which is a more treelike kind of pattern. 

JW: That kind of development certainly characterizes most of the peripheral areas around the older urban cores in Northern American cities. But it can also be found within municipal boundaries of cities. We advocate for an erosion of oppositional thinking that you’re either in the city or the suburbs. When you look at a larger metropolitan area, suburban form can also be found near the center in need of retrofitting. 

You argue that many of these suburban forms are obsolete today because they don’t fit the needs of the people who live there now. Can you walk me through some of the major demographic changes that have led to these suburban forms becoming obsolete? 

EDJ: One of the biggest shifts is that the U.S. now is a majority of one to two person households. And yet, the majority of land within regional urban boundaries is zoned for single-family houses. That already is something of a mismatch.

The expectation going forward is that something like 80 percent of new households that will form over the next 15 years will be these one to two person households. A lot of them would prefer an apartment or a condo—smaller units.

Plus you have the aging of the society, that’s the other really big piece. Especially in the suburbs, a lot of elderly people loved their single-family house while they were raising the kids. But now that they’re empty nesters and retiring, it’s kind of lonely. They want to stay in their community with doctors and friends nearby. But a lot of them are looking for, frankly, a more urban lifestyle.

It’s pretty interesting how the desires of both the younger millennials, Gen Z, and a lot of those aging boomers are converging on an interest in more walkable, mixed-use, compact urban places out in the burbs. 

JW: Commuting has also been transformed dramatically over the past decade or so, too. The notion that people live in the suburbs and work in the cities just isn’t true anymore.

EDJ: We tend to think that the jobs are downtown. Since the 1980s, the majority of jobs have been more than three miles from the central business district. In places like Atlanta, where I live, it’s closer to 90 percent of jobs are way outside. The central business district often has high rises and so it’s really visible, but we’re really seeing something called job sprawl. I certainly see in Atlanta, we have a lot of reverse commuters in that situation. 

So when you talk about retrofitting, you mean finding and altering underused or abandoned suburban buildings to better accommodate the demographics and desires of the people who live there now?

JW: Absolutely. And in most of the cases we’ve studied, this is happening because the built places have failed or are struggling to some degree. 


Apple’s Tim Cook warns of adtech fuelling a ‘social catastrophe’ as he defends app tracker opt-in

[Note:  This item comes from friend Desire Banse.  DLH]

Apple’s Tim Cook warns of adtech fuelling a ‘social catastrophe’ as he defends app tracker opt-in
By Natasha Lomas
Jan 28 2021

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has urged Europe to step up privacy enforcement in a keynote speech to the CPDP conference today — echoing many of the points he made in Brussels in person two years ago when he hit out at the “data-industrial complex” underpinning the adtech industry’s mass surveillance of internet users.

Reforming current-gen adtech is now a humanitarian imperative, he argued in a speech that took a bunch of thinly veiled swipes at Facebook.

“As I said in Brussels two years ago, it is certainly time, not only for a comprehensive privacy law here in the United States, but also for worldwide laws and new international agreements that enshrine the principles of data minimization, user knowledge, user access and data security across the globe,” said Cook.

“Together, we must send a universal, humanistic response to those who claim a right to users’ private information about what should not and will not be tolerated,” he added.

The message comes at a critical time for Apple as it prepares to flip a switch that will, for the first time, require developers to gain opt-in user consent to tracking.

Earlier today Apple confirmed it would be enabling the App Tracking Transparency (ATT) feature in the next beta release of iOS 14, which it said would roll out in early spring.

The tech giant had intended to debut the feature last year but delayed to give developers more time to adapt.

Adtech giant Facebook has also been aggressively briefing against the shift, warning of a major impact on publishers who use its ad network once Apple gives its users the ability to refuse third-party tracking.

Reporting its Q4 earnings yesterday, Facebook also sounded a warning over “more significant advertising headwinds” impacting its own bottom line this year — naming Apple’s ATT as a risk (as well as what it couched as “the evolving regulatory landscape”).

In the speech to a data protection and privacy conference, which is usually held in Brussels (but has been streamed online because of the pandemic), Cook made an aggressive defence of ATT and Apple’s pro-privacy stance in general, saying the forthcoming tracking opt-in is about “returning control to users” and linking adtech-fuelled surveilled of internet users to a range of harms, including the spread of conspiracy theories, extremism and real-world violence.

“Users have asked for this feature for a long time,” he said of ATT. “We have worked closely with developers to give them the time and resources to implement it and we’re passionate about it because we think it has great potential to make things better for everybody.”

The move has attracted a competition challenge in France where four online advertising lobbies filed an antitrust complaint last October — arguing that Apple requiring developers ask app users for permission to track them is an abuse of market power by Apple. (A similar complaint has been lodged in the U.K. over Google’s move to depreciated third-party tracking cookies in Chrome — and there the regulator has opened an investigation.)

The Information also reported today that Facebook is preparing to lodge an antitrust lawsuit against Apple — so the legal stakes are rising. (Though the social media giant is itself being sued by the FTC that alleges it has maintained a social networking monopoly via years of anti-competitive conduct.)

In the speech Cook highlighted another recent pro-privacy move made by Apple to require iOS developers to display “privacy nutrition” labels within the App Store — providing users with an overview of their data collection practices. Both the labels and the incoming ATT apply in the case of Apple’s own apps (not just third parties), as we reported earlier.

Cook said these moves align with Apple’s overarching philosophy: To make technology that “serves people and has their well-being in mind” — contrasting its approach with a rapacious “data-industrial complex” that wants to aggregate information about everything people do online to use against them, as a tool of mass manipulation.

“It seems no piece of information is too private or personal to be surveilled, monetized and aggregated into a 360 degree view of your life,” Cook warned. “The end result of all of this is that you are no longer the customer; you are the product.

“When ATT is in full effect users will have a say over this kind of tracking. Some may well think that sharing this degree of information is worth it for more targeted ads. Many others, I suspect, will not. Just as most appreciated it when we built this similar functionality into Safari limiting web trackers several years ago,” he went on, adding that: “We see developing these kinds of privacy-centric features and innovations as a core responsibility of our work. We always have, we always will.”

Apple’s CEO pointed out that advertising has flourished in the past without the need for privacy-hostile mass surveillance, arguing: “Technology does not need vast troves of personal data stitched together across dozens of websites and apps in order to succeed. Advertising existed and thrived for decades without it. And we’re here today because the path of least resistance is rarely the path of wisdom.”

He also made some veiled sideswipes at Facebook — avoiding literally naming the adtech giant but hitting out at the notion of a business that’s built on “surveilling users,” on “data exploitation” and on “choices that are no choices at all.”

Such an entity “does not deserve our praise, it deserves reform,” he went on, having earlier heaped praise on Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) for its role in furthering privacy rights — telling conference delegates that enforcement “must continue”. (The GDPR’s weak spot to date has been exactly that; but 2.5 years in there are signs the regime is getting into a groove.)

In further sideswipes at Facebook, Cook attacked the role of data-gobbling, engagement-obsessed adtech in fuelling disinformation and conspiracy theories — arguing that the consequences of such an approach are simply too high for democratic societies to accept.

“We should not look away from the bigger picture,” he argued. “At a moment of rampant disinformation and conspiracy theories juiced by algorithms we can no longer turn a blind eye to a theory of technology that says all engagement is good engagement, the longer the better. And all with the goal of collecting as much data as possible.

“Too many are still asking the question how much can we get away with? When they need to be asking what are the consequences? What are the consequences of prioritizing conspiracy theories and violent incitement simply because of the high rates of engagement? What are the consequences of not just tolerating but rewarding content that undermines public trust in lifesaving vaccinations? What are consequences of seeing thousands of users join extremist groups and then perpetuating an algorithm that recommends even more,” he went on — sketching a number of scenarios of which Facebook’s business stands directly accused.

“It is long past time to stop pretending that this approach doesn’t come with a cost. Of polarization. Of lost trust. And — yes — of violence. A social dilemma cannot be allowed to become a social catastrophe,” he added, rebranding “The Social Network” at a stroke.

Apple has reason to appeal to a European audience of data protection experts to further its fight with adtech objectors to its ATT, as EU regulators have the power to take enforcement decisions that would align with and support its approach. Although they have been shy to do so so far.


WHO platform for pharmaceutical firms unused since pandemic began

[Note:  This item comes from friend Andy Maffei.  DLH]

WHO platform for pharmaceutical firms unused since pandemic began
The ‘pool’ to share Covid-19 information has received no contributions since May 2020
By Michael Safi
Jan 22 2021

A World Health Organization program for pharmaceutical companies to voluntarily share Covid-19 related knowledge, treatments and technology so they can be more widely distributed has attracted zero contributions in the eight months since it was established, the Guardian has learned.

The Covid-19 technology access pool (C-Tap) was launched in May last year to facilitate the sharing of patent-protected information to fight the virus, including diagnostics, therapeutics and trial data. The “pooling” of treatments and data would allow qualified manufacturers from around the world to produce critical equipment, drugs or vaccines without fear of prosecution for breaching patents.

The goal would be to lower production costs, ease global shortages of key drugs and technology and, advocates say, ultimately end the pandemic sooner.

Consultations have been held in recent months including in the UK to persuade pharmaceutical companies to engage with the pool, but as of January no technology or treatments have been shared, a WHO spokesman confirmed to the Guardian.

“C-Tap is an innovative initiative and has potential for the middle to longer term, but we were aware from the outset that it would take greater efforts and a longer timeframe to bring the different interest groups together,” a WHO spokesman said.

Other global-access initiatives such as Covax, a vaccine-sharing scheme, were being relied on “to deliver results more rapidly”, he added.

Another United Nations-backed patent-sharing platform, the medicines patent pool (MPP), widened its mandate last year to include Covid-19 treatments, but it too has so far not negotiated any deals for drugs, data or technology to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Charles Gore, the executive director of the MPP, said the lack of engagement was symbolic of a widespread failure to tackle the pandemic in a global way. “Unfortunately what we’ve seen is too little of, ‘Let’s do this all together as a world’, and a little too much of me-first,” Gore said.

He said the pharmaceutical industry was following the lead of governments, who have sought to strike their own deals for vaccines, technology and treatments rather than prioritise global distribution.

“That means inevitably that industry is also having to respond to that,” Gore said. “If countries are saying the most important thing is, ‘I want you to do a deal now with me’, the companies can’t say, ‘We’ll come back to you later, we’re trying to do a deal for global access’.”

Thomas Cueni, the director of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, a lobby group for the industry, said patent rights were “the engine that has fuelled groundbreaking research and development” including the record-fast delivery of several safe Covid-19 vaccines. “Circumventing IP rights will not solve perceived access challenges,” Cueni said in an email.

He pointed to several examples of companies entering into specific agreements to improve global access including AstraZeneca’s licensing deal that allows the Serum Institute of India, one of the largest vaccine manufacturers in the world, to produce billions of doses.

Moderna, another vaccine developer, has agreed not to enforce its patent for the course of the pandemic – though medical rights groups say this pledge has little value unless it also transfers the technology used to produce its mRNA vaccine, something C-Tap was designed to facilitate.

But others said this piecemeal approach to global access had contributed to shortages of lifesaving technology and treatments, scarcities that would also mark the rollout of vaccines until at least 2023, according to one analysis.

The WHO director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned on Monday the world was on the brink of “catastrophic moral failure” in the distribution of vaccines, with mostly wealthy countries hoarding much of the supplies that will be produced in 2021.

Ellen ‘t Hoen, a medical IP expert and campaigner, said wealthy governments around the world had poured billions of taxpayer dollars into developing vaccines that would be ultimately owned and controlled by companies and their shareholders.

“The companies raked in billions in public money and are now making the same statements we’ve heard for the past 30 years … that IP is the underpinning of innovation,” she said.

“But the underpinning of innovation for Covid-19 is the massive public financing, and now that public financing is being privatised through the IP system – and that’s something C-Tap could have prevented.”

On Thursday, a coalition of public-health and humanitarian groups including the People’s Vaccine Alliance sent a letter to the WHO raising their concerns about the management of C-Tap and calling for public clarification of the programme’s strategy, regular briefings on its progress and details of its current financial support.

India and South Africa are leading a push at the World Trade Organization to allow countries not to prosecute patent breaches on Covid-19 vaccines, treatment and data for the course of the pandemic. It has been opposed by countries including the US, UK and Australia, who have cited the existence of patent-sharing schemes such as C-Tap and the MPP to argue against waiving patent rights across the board.


With All Eyes on Covid-19, Drug-Resistant Infections Crept In

With All Eyes on Covid-19, Drug-Resistant Infections Crept In
The spread of other dangerous germs is surging — a result, in part, of the chaotic response to the pandemic.
By Matt Richtel
Jan 27 2021

As Covid-19 took hold over the last year, hospitals and nursing homes used and reused scarce protective equipment — masks, gloves, gowns. This desperate frugality helped prevent the airborne transfer of the virus.

But it also appears to have helped spread a different set of germs — drug-resistant bacteria and fungi — that have used the chaos of the pandemic to grow opportunistically in health care settings around the globe.

These bacteria and fungi, like Covid-19, prey on older people, the infirm and those with compromised immune systems. They can cling tenaciously to clothing and medical equipment, which is why nursing homes and hospitals before the pandemic were increasingly focused on cleaning rooms and changing gowns to prevent their spread.

That emphasis all but slipped away amid an all-consuming focus on the coronavirus. In fact, experts warn, the changes in hygiene and other practices caused by the Covid-19 fight are likely to have contributed to the spread of these drug-resistant germs.

“Seeing the world as a one-pathogen world is really problematic,” said Dr. Susan S. Huang, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California at Irvine Medical School, noting that the nearly singular focus on the pandemic appears to have led to more spread of drug-resistant infection. “We have every reason to believe the problem has gotten worse.”

A few data points reinforce her fears, including isolated outbreaks of various drug-resistant infections in Florida, New Jersey and California, as well as in India, Italy, Peru and France. Overall figures have been hard to track because many nursing homes and hospitals simply stopped screening for the germs as resources were diverted to Covid-19.

When even modest screening picked up again early in the summer, the results suggested that certain drug-resistant organisms had taken root and spread. Particularly troublesome have been growing case counts of a fungus called Candida auris, which authorities had tried to fight before the pandemic with increased screening, isolation of infected patients and better hygiene.

These intensive efforts had limited the spread of C. auris to a handful of cases in Los Angeles County. Now there are around 250, said Dr. Zachary Rubin, who leads the county’s infection control efforts at health care facilities.

“We saw a blooming in Candida auris,” said Dr. Rubin, who attributed the change to a handful of factors, notably the challenges in testing for the germ when so many testing resources went toward Covid-19.

Noxious drug-resistant bacteria are surfacing too, including Carbapenem-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii, which is considered an “urgent health threat” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In December, the C.D.C. reported a cluster of Acinetobacter baumannii during a surge of Covid-19 patients in an urban New Jersey hospital with about 500 beds. The hospital was not identified. And hospitals in Italy and Peru saw the spread of the bacteria Klebsiella pneumoniae.

In an acknowledgment of the issue, three major medical societies sent a letteron Dec. 28 to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services asking for a temporary suspension of rules that tie reimbursement rates to hospital-acquired infections. The three groups — the Society of Healthcare Epidemiology of America, the Society of Infectious Diseases Pharmacists, and the Association for Infection Control and Epidemiology — feared that the infection rates may have risen because of Covid-19.

“Patient care staffing, supplies, care sites and standard practices have all changed during this extraordinary time,” the letter stated.

Not all types of drug-resistant infections have risen. For instance, some research shows no particular change during the pandemic in the rate of hospital patients acquiring the bacterium Clostridioides difficile — a finding that suggests the overall long-term impact of the pandemic on these infections is not yet clear.

Dr. Huang and other experts said they are not suggesting that the priority on fighting Covid-19 was misplaced. Rather, they say that renewed attention must be paid to drug-resistant germs. Earlier research has shown that as many as 65 percent of residents of nursing homes carry some form of drug-resistant infection.

Over the years, critics have charged that hospitals and, in particular, nursing homes, have been lax in their efforts to confront these infections because it is expensive to disinfect equipment, train staff, isolate infected patients and screen for the germs.

In response to these and other concerns, a greater effort was beginning to be made before the pandemic to monitor patients for these infections, particularly as they cycled in and out of nursing homes and intensive care units. This revolving door is known to spread germs that are carried by infected patients.

But after the pandemic began, there was much less monitoring and even, at times, a wholesale breakdown of communications about the transfer of such patients, experts said. Plus, the sickest Covid-19 patients were put on ventilators, where drug-resistant infections can cling and then spread.

Another possible contributor has been the heavy and regular use of steroids to treat Covid-19. These drugs help alleviate the virus’s most dangerous symptoms but can leave the immune system compromised in a way that allows other germs to more easily infiltrate the body.

The combination of these factors “is perfect” for the fungus to “take hold,” said Dr. Tom Chiller, the head of the fungal division of the C.D.C.

Earlier this month, the Florida Department of Health published a case report of four Candida auris cases at a hospital in Florida. (The hospital’s identity is masked by the C.D.C. and the state.) In an effort to understand the spread, the Florida department of health visited the Covid unit there in August. Their inquiry found that 35 of 67 patients admitted to the unit from Aug. 4 to 18 were colonized with C. auris, meaning that the fungus was on their skin but they were not yet infected. Subsequently, six of the patients became infected.


Big Tech is trying to take governments’ policy role

Big Tech is trying to take governments’ policy role
Google, Facebook and others want to set the rules, but without a mandate or oversight
By Marietje Schaake
Jan 27 2021

The writer is international policy director at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center

Last week, Google and Facebook stepped up their row with the Australian government, over a new law that would make the online platforms pay for sharing news content. Google warned that the move would force it to stop offering its web search function, which is used by 95 per cent of Australians — prompting the nation’s prime minister to say: “We don’t respond to threats.” 

At the same time, Facebook announced that its decision to ban former US president Donald Trump from posting messages would be reviewed by its own oversight board of handpicked experts. They will now decide whether the social media group was correct in its judgment of different users’ rights and interests. 

Both events demonstrate an ever-growing trend: technology companies think they should be deciding public policy, not governments. 

It is not just social media platforms, either. These days, all kinds of businesses set rules for how technology affects people’s lives. Encryption standards, for example, determine the extent of national security. Facial recognition systems deny the right to privacy.

Since all of society is touched by such digitisation, this puts companies in the position of policymakers — but without the governance mandate, independent oversight or checks and balances deemed vital in a democratic process. 

In fact, tech groups’ governance powers are encroaching on the role of the state at ever greater speed. Minting digital currencies, verifying digital identities, even building cyberweapons — it is all under the direction of boardrooms, not parliaments.

One consequence of this private sector digitisation is that governments have, in effect, outsourced cyber security and personal data protection to companies — companies that do not always have duties of disclosure.

We witnessed as much in the hacking of SolarWinds’ networking software, to distribute malware. Had it not been for cyber security firm FireEye, we may never have learnt of the intrusions on companies and many US institutions. Software made by the likes of SolarWinds and Microsoft forms the backbone of digital operations globally, yet a decision to forgo proper security safeguards by SolarWinds was taken without anyone noticing. There are too few processes to ensure the public interest is systematically safeguarded. 

That is why laws need to be updated fast. This is not about “regulating the internet” but rather about upholding existing principles, such as democracy — online or offline. And it is surely an erosion of democracy when the agency of an elected government is reduced proportionately to the pace with which private companies are empowered.

For technology groups wondering how they can avoid being accused of failing to protect democracy — as social media platforms have of late — there is a simple solution. Before the ink is dry on new rules granting regulatory oversight of digitised processes, such as search algorithms, companies can embrace the rule of law today. 

Aligning with democratic and human rights principles can be done now.


Apple CEO sounds warning of algorithms pushing society towards catastrophe

Apple CEO sounds warning of algorithms pushing society towards catastrophe
Tim Cook says there will be consequences to having ‘rampant disinformation and conspiracy theories juiced by algorithms’.
By Chris Duckett
Jan 29 2021

Apple CEO Tim Cook has said it is time to face the consequences of having algorithms push users towards more engagement at any cost. 

Speaking at the Computers, Privacy, and Data Protection conference on Thursday, Cook said too many companies are asking what they can get away with, rather than what happens if they follow through on boosting metrics. 

“At a moment of rampant disinformation and conspiracy theories juiced by algorithms, we can no longer turn a blind eye to a theory of technology that says all engagement is good engagement — the longer the better — and all with the goal of collecting as much data as possible,” he said. 

“What are the consequences of seeing thousands of users join extremist groups, and then perpetuating an algorithm that recommends even more?” 

Cook touched on the recent US Capitol riots in Washington, saying the time was over to pretend there are no costs to boosting conspiracy theories and incitements to violence simply because users get engaged. 

“It is long past time to stop pretending that this approach doesn’t come with a cost — of polarisation, of lost trust and, yes, of violence,” he said. 

“A social dilemma cannot be allowed to become a social catastrophe.”

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The Apple CEO said his company might be naive, but the tech giant believes the best measure of technology is how it improves lives. 

“Will the future belong to the innovations that make our lives better, more fulfilled and more human?” Cook queried. 

“Or will it belong to those tools that prize our attention to the exclusion of everything else, compounding our fears and aggregating extremism, to serve ever-more-invasively-targeted ads over all other ambitions?” 

Earlier on Thursday, Apple released a report that took a swipe at the ad industry and pointed out that apps, on average, have six trackers from other companies that “have the sole purpose of collecting and tracking people and their personal information”, and the industry collects $227 billion in revenue each year.


Starship Delivery Robots Complete One Million Deliveries To Become #2 Autonomous Transport Company

Starship Delivery Robots Complete One Million Deliveries To Become #2 Autonomous Transport Company
By Brad Templeton
Jan 27 2021–2-autonomous-transport-company/

Starship, a U.S./Estonian company which provides urgent delivery via small self-driving robots on sidewalks, announced today it has completed over one million robotic deliveries (and 1.5 million unmanned miles) to paying customers, a milestone unmatched by any other company and which places them only behind Waymo in the autonomous transportation space when it comes to production operations.

(As an important disclaimer, I was a strategic advisor to Starship during its early growth, and while I am no longer compensated by it, I remain a stockholder. While you should consider this bias in reading this article, I nonetheless believe this milestone is an important one in the annals of robotic transportation worthy of reporting.)

Many teams are tackling the problem of building robotic vehicles to carry passengers and deliver cargo. This takes place at many levels, from automated freight trucks, to transit vehicles, to robotaxis, to small road-based delivery robots and a surprisingly large number of smaller robots which use sidewalks and paths rather than the traffic lanes. This problem is considerably easier — speeds are lower, robots are smaller, and the environment, while quite complex, does not have cars in it. Teams have tackled this problem because it can be solved sooner than the problem of driving on general roads. 

Starship was the first such company, founded in 2014, and it and began commercial deliveries to paying customers in 2018. Starship robots are small and light and thus inherently much less dangerous — even if one were to hit something or somebody, the risk of damage and injury is extremely small. Some sidewalk robots are similarly sized, others are much larger and heavier, but all take advantage of the low-speed environment.

Small robots never have a driver in them — it’s impossible — and as such they are the first to have entered no-human-aboard commercial service. Among self-driving road vehicles, only Waymo, AutoX and Nuro have performed deliveries or rides for ordinary paying customers and only Waymo has done it at significant scale, reporting 60,000 miles of passenger-only taxi service near Phoenix, AZ in their report late last year. Waymo has done over 6 million miles of service (most with paying customers) with a safety driver on board but with extremely few necessary safety interventions and no at-fault accidents. Waymo has given over 100,000 rides to paying customers according to a Waymo spokesperson. As such they are generally considered the undisputed number one in the space. Lyft LYFT -7%/Aptiv APTV -5.7%/Motional have also given rides (always with a safety driver in Las Vegas but did not respond to a query on the volume.) Nuro pure delivery robots have done deliveries in Arizona but are few in number. AutoX just announced today they have opened their robotaxi service up for paying customers in a suburb of Shenzhen.

Can this be compared?

The challenge of carrying passengers and driving at speed on public roads is clearly much greater, and so it’s difficult to do a fair comparison. At the same time, the fact that it’s easier is the reason that Starship, Amazon Scout AMZN-2.8%, Uber UBER -7.3%/Postmates Serve, Kiwi and others have developed in that space. (Uber is rumored to be selling off its Postmates Serve business, as it has sold of several side units recently.)

Aimed primarily at urgent and semi-urgent delivery, in many cases a delivery robot will replace a human driven vehicle making the delivery — either the customer driving to the store or restaurant to pick up their take-out or package, or a delivery driver making the run. Each such robot trip takes a car off the road, and replaces it with a robot not on the road, reducing road use, energy consumption, congestion and safety risks on the road. Some trips will have replaced a walking trip or a group delivery (ie. big UPS truck) and thus not have produced this benefit, but a large proportion would indeed provide the gain. It’s even more benefit than might be provided by road-based delivery robots such as the Nuro R2 or those that use a traditional car or van.

Group delivery is efficient, but is only for non-urgent packages, and generally not for restaurant and grocery orders with perishable cargo.

Robotic transportation promises much lower cost as well as safety and low energy use. Food and grocery delivery with delivery drivers has become particularly expensive recently. Customers may not know it, but the various food order/delivery companies like UberEats and DoorDash don’t just charge the relatively small delivery fee, they also take 20-30% of the price of the meal from the restaurant. Many restaurants have ended up just increasing their prices by some or all of that amount, because they can’t afford that much loss of margin. Often, a tip is added because the driver is not getting enough of this margin. In spite of all this, delivery of low cost baskets is not sufficiently profitable. Low cost robots offer the potential to greatly reduce these added costs — and they usually don’t take tips. (You may laugh, but people do sometimes try to tip delivery robots.)

Starship’s initial market was campuses, which feature a population that loves to order out and often doesn’t own cars. They’re also cheap and love the lower cost of robot delivery. The pandemic closed many campuses for a temporary period, but created a boost of demand for no-human delivery in cities.


America Has a GPS Problem

America Has a GPS Problem
The system is essential but also vulnerable. We need a backup.
By Kate Murphy
Jan 23 2021

Time was when nobody knew, or even cared, exactly what time it was. The movement of the sun, phases of the moon and changing seasons were sufficient indicators. But since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve become increasingly dependent on knowing the time, and with increasing accuracy. Not only does the time tell us when to sleep, wake, eat, work and play; it tells automated systems when to execute financial transactions, bounce data between cellular towers and throttle power on the electrical grid.

Coordinated Universal Time, or U.T.C., the global reference for timekeeping, is beamed down to us from extremely precise atomic clocks aboard Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites. The time it takes for GPS signals to reach receivers is also used to calculate location for air, land and sea navigation.

Owned and operated by the U.S. government, GPS is likely the least recognized, and least appreciated, part of our critical infrastructure. Indeed, most of our critical infrastructure would cease to function without it.

The problem is that GPS signals are incredibly weak, due to the distance they have to travel from space, making them subject to interference and vulnerable to jamming and what is known as spoofing, in which another signal is passed off as the original. And the satellites themselves could easily be taken out by hurtling space junk or the sun coughing up a fireball. As intentional and unintentional GPS disruptions are on the rise, experts warn that our overreliance on the technology is courting disaster, but they are divided on what to do about it.

“If we don’t get good backups on line, then GPS is just a soft rib of ours, and we could be punched here very quickly,” said Todd Humphreys, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas in Austin. If GPS was knocked out, he said, you’d notice. Think widespread power outages, financial markets seizing up and the transportation system grinding to a halt. Grocers would be unable to stock their shelves, and Amazon would go dark. Emergency responders wouldn’t be able to find you, and forget about using your cellphone.

Mr. Humphreys got the attention of the U.S. Department of Defense and the Federal Aviation Administration about this issue back in 2008 when he published a paper showing he could spoof GPS receivers. At the time, he said he thought the threat came mainly from hackers with something to prove: “I didn’t even imagine that the level of interference that we’ve been seeing recently would be attributable to state actors.”

More than 10,000 incidents of GPS interference have been linked to China and Russia in the past five years. Ship captains have reported GPS errors showing them 20-120 miles inland when they were actually sailing off the coast of Russia in the Black Sea. Also well documented are ships suddenly disappearing from navigation screens while maneuvering in the Port of Shanghai. After GPS disruptions at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport in 2019, Israeli officials pointed to Syria, where Russia has been involved in the nation’s long-running civil war. And last summer, the United States Space Command accused Russia of testing antisatellite weaponry.

But it’s not just nation-states messing with GPS. Spoofing and jamming devices have gotten so inexpensive and easy to use that delivery drivers use them so their dispatchers won’t know they’re taking long lunch breaks or having trysts at Motel 6. Teenagers use them to foil their parents’ tracking apps and to cheat at Pokémon Go. More nefariously, drug cartels and human traffickers have spoofed border control drones. Dodgy freight forwarders may use GPS jammers or spoofers to cloak or change the time stamps on arriving cargo.

These disruptions not only affect their targets; they can also affect anyone using GPS in the vicinity.

“You might not think you’re a target, but you don’t have to be,” said Guy Buesnel, a position, navigation and timing specialist with the British network and cybersecurity firm Spirent. “We’re seeing widespread collateral or incidental effects.” In 2013 a New Jersey truck driver interfered with Newark Liberty International Airport’s satellite-based tracking system when he plugged a GPS jamming device into his vehicle’s cigarette lighter to hide his location from his employer.

The risk posed by our overdependency on GPS has been raised repeatedly at least since 2000, when its signals were fully opened to civilian use. Launched in 1978, GPS was initially reserved for military purposes, but after the signals became freely available, the commercial sector quickly realized their utility, leading to widespread adoption and innovation. Nowadays, most people carry a GPS receiver everywhere they go — embedded in a mobile phone, tablet, watch or fitness tracker.

An emergency backup for GPS was mandated by the 2018 National Timing and Resilience Security Act. The legislation said a reliable alternate system needed to be operational within two years, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Part of the reason for the holdup, aside from a pandemic, is disagreement between government agencies and industry groups on what is the best technology to use, who should be responsible for it, which GPS capabilities must be backed up and with what degree of precision.

Of course, business interests that rely on GPS want a backup that’s just as good as the original, just as accessible and also free. Meanwhile, many government officials tend to think it shouldn’t be all their responsibility, particularly when the budget to manage and maintain GPS hit $1.7 billion in 2020.

“We’re becoming more nuanced in our approach,” said James Platt, the chief of strategic defense initiatives for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, a division of the Department of Homeland Security. “We recognize some things are going to need to be backed up, but we’re also realizing that maybe some systems don’t need GPS to operate” and are designed around GPS only because it’s “easy and cheap.”

The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act included funding for the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Transportation to jointly conduct demonstrations of various alternatives to GPS, which were concluded last March. Eleven potential systems were tested, including eLoran, a low-frequency, high-power timing and navigation system transmitted from terrestrial towers at Coast Guard facilities throughout the United States.

“China, Russia, Iran, South Korea and Saudi Arabia all have eLoran systems because they don’t want to be as vulnerable as we are to disruptions of signals from space,” said Dana Goward, the president of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for the implementation of an eLoran backup for GPS.


What the Hell Is Going On With GameStop’s Stock?

[Note:  This item comes from friend Tim Pozar.  DLH]

What the Hell Is Going On With GameStop’s Stock?
How an army of Reddit users massively inflated the price of a flailing video game chain—in no small part to stick it to Wall Street.
By Alex Kirshner
Jan 26 2021

In April, GameStop was a struggling video game and electronics retailer trying to sort out its future as the pandemic worsened consumer trends that were already working against it. The chain was losing money and staring down a long-underway shift in the gaming industry that pushed business away from GameStop’s brick-and-mortar model. (It turns out people don’t like walking into stores during a pandemic to buy games they could just download from home.) The company had posted $470 million in losses in 2019, eight years afterreporting a $340 million profit. Right as the pandemic hit, it announced it would close 300 locations permanently. GameStop’s stock price on April 1 was $3.25.

It’s not clear things have improved much for GameStop. The company is actually closing more stores than it expected at the onset of the pandemic. But one thing has changed for the better: When trading ended on Monday, GameStop stock had hit $76.79—four times its price to end 2020 and 23 times its price from the early days of the pandemic. (The stock then jumped to $96.67 on Tuesday morning before dropping into the 80s as its roller-coaster run continued onward.)

GameStop has not, as far as anyone knows, completed the greatest comeback story in the history of free enterprise. But it has had one of the most memorable runs on the stock market ever. It’s a story that encapsulates quite a lot about life in 2021: the democratization of financial markets, the mobilization of a giant online community, and the ability of obsessed amateurs to alter reality when they put their minds to it, especially when there isn’t much else to do.

The tale of GameStop’s stock price—and the central role of a subreddit called r/WallStreetBets—will be taught in business schools one day, no matter how it ends. The stock had been in steady decline since late in 2015, when the company reported disappointing earnings. GameStop, which was founded in 1984, had a simple business model: selling video games and equipment out of its physical locations. That became less lucrative as it became more common for gamers to buy games online, generally from non-GameStop sources, and download them directly to their consoles or PCs. The pandemic crash in March brought the stock to an all-time low, and a slight rebound over the spring and summer lagged behind the major indexes.

In August, the well-known investor Ryan Cohen—founder of online pet food giant Chewy—took a 13 percent stake in GameStop. In November, he wrote a harshly worded letter to the company’s board, lambasting it for not keeping up with “the transition from physical hardware to digital streaming,” among other errors. He took specific aim at GameStop’s CEO and blamed the company for squandering billions of dollars and “a massive amount of market share.”

The letter generated a lot of press. By January, GameStop appointed Cohen and two associates from his investment company to serve on a newly expanded board. Cohen’s arrival turned GameStop into a “cult stock,” one financial analyst explained to Bloomberg News, where retail investors believed he’d be a corporate savior. Two days after the announcement that Cohen had joined the board, GameStop’s stock surged more than 50 percent, going from $20.42 to $31.40 after reaching as high as $38.65. That’s when the company’s story went from typical to bizarre.

Around this time, institutional investors, apparently including at least one well-known hedge fund, took out massive short positions against the stock, which trades as GME. These investors figured that amateur investors saw Cohen’s big name and ignored the difficult fundamentals facing the business, overvaluing the stock as they bought it up in droves. So the professional investors tried to make money off GME’s decline by borrowing the stock, selling it high, buying it back low, and pocketing the difference, minus the fees to borrow the stock.

Lots of investors tried to short-sell the stock. (How many investors have “long” and “short” positions is not difficult to figure out.) As of Monday, 71.2 million shares of GameStop stock involved a short position, per Bloomberg, more than the total amount of publicly tradable shares, something that’s only possible because not all shares of GME are available for purchase.

One group that noticed the shorts on the stock was r/WallStreetBets. The Wall Street speculation community has more than 2 million members, hundreds of thousands of whom are online at any given time, to say nothing of lurkers. In September, an enterprising subredditor had posted a seven-point treatise titled “Bankrupting Institutional Investors for Dummies, ft GameStop.” The subredditor noted the stock already had a significant short exposure (months before Cohen joined the board) and predicted that short sellers would be forced to abandon their positions and, in buying back their stocks, drive the price up. R/WallStreetBets users delighted in the idea and took it as a chance to egg one another on.

Hype around GME continued bubbling up around r/WallStreetBets over the ensuing weeks, from posters who apparently saw it all along as a profit opportunity. The stock’s boom has made some of them big money. The most famous is a user calling themselves “DeepFuckingValue” who had apparently turned a six-figure investment into nearly $14 million by this Monday.

Others may have just wanted to screw short sellers, who are by definition rooting for shareholders and companies to suffer. They’re also often considered to be sophisticated investors, cast against the determined amateurs populating internet forums. At the end of November, the subreddit ascertained that hedge fund Melvin Capital Management was shorting GameStop, and the community rallied with fury against the New York–based fund.

“When these boomers made their bet, GME wasn’t a big thing on WSB yet,” one poster wrote. “I don’t feel bad at all taking money from these rich greedy hedge fund managers.”

“They’re not even playing with their own money,” another wrote.

“I’m an old millennial. I’m tired of getting screwed by the globalist elites,” said another. “This isn’t left or right republican or Democrat. It’s the 1% versus everyone else.”

Whether for profit or ideological reasons, the Redditors are winning. They’ve bought the hell out of GME, and short sellers have begun to abandon their positions en masse, leading the stock to go up even more as they buy it back. It’s a classic short squeeze. Melvin Capital was down 15 percent for the year on Jan. 22, according to the Wall Street Journal, leading the fund to take a $2.75 billion rescue package from other rich investors. On that day alone, short sellers against GameStop lost $1.6 billion, financial analytics firm S3 Partners said.

It’s not clear how the story ends. Some professional analysts think the stock is due for a crash. Citron Research managing partner Andrew Left has argued the stock will fall to $20 per share. He tried to explain his reasoning in a livestream last week but couldn’t because his Twitter account got locked after too many people tried to guess his password. He posted the video on YouTube and said GameStop backers were sending pizzas to his house and signing him up for dating profiles. Left decided to stop bashing GameStop, citing harassment by the “angry mob.”

It isn’t just a technological shift that has worked against GameStop. Gaming companies now offer subscription plans, like Xbox’s Game Pass, that have made individual game purchases obsolete for some players. Future consoles might not even have a slot for a disc, further pushing the industry into downloaded games. GameStop does have a loyal fan base that enjoys the experience of walking into a store and buying a title. It also has a large trade-in business, though it’s not clear how the post-pandemic world will affect that.

All of which is to say: GME’s future could go any number of ways, but the reason its stock price quadrupled in three and a half weeks isn’t that its business fundamentals are just that great. It’s that, under a strange set of colliding circumstances, one group of stock traders sees GameStop as the perfect weapon against another.

If this feels outrageous, it might only be because a bunch of supposedly unwashed Reddit users are involved. After all, GameStop isn’t the first stock to be subject to a giant short squeeze or to see its resulting value make little sense. When Porsche bought up a bunch of Volkswagen stock in 2008, short sellers scrambled to get out of their positions and briefly made VW the world’s most valuable company. It’s not clear why Porsche’s boardroom should have any more authority to dictate what happens in the market than a group of internet users operating in public view.


COVID-19 will likely be with us forever. Here’s how we’ll live with it.

[Note:  This item comes from friend Mike Cheponis.  DLH]

COVID-19 will likely be with us forever. Here’s how we’ll live with it.
Eventually, the virus could become a much milder illness—but for now, vaccination and surveillance are critical to end the pandemic phase.
Jan 22 2021

As COVID-19 continues to run its course, the likeliest long-term outcome is that the virus SARS-CoV-2 becomes endemic in large swaths of the world, constantly circulating among the human population but causing fewer cases of severe disease. Eventually—years or even decades in the future—COVID-19 could transition into a mild childhood illness, like the four endemic human coronaviruses that contribute to the common cold.

“My guess is, enough people will get it and enough people will get the vaccine to reduce person-to-person transmission,” says Paul Duprex, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Vaccine Research. “There will be pockets of people who won’t take [the vaccines], there will be localized outbreaks, but it will become one of the ‘regular’ coronaviruses.”

But this transition won’t happen overnight. Experts say that SARS-CoV-2’s exact post-pandemic trajectory will depend on three major factors: how long humans retain immunity to the virus, how quickly the virus evolves, and how widely older populations become immune during the pandemic itself.

Depending on how these three factors shake out, the world could be facing several years of a halting post-pandemic transition—one marked by continued viral evolution, localized outbreaks, and possibly multiple rounds of updated vaccinations.

“People have got to realize, this is not going to go away,” says Roy Anderson, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Imperial College London. “We’re going to be able to manage it because of modern medicine and vaccines, but it’s not something that will just vanish out of the window.”

The long road to another common cold

One of the essential factors governing the future of COVID-19 is our immunity to the illness. Immunity to any pathogen, including SARS-CoV-2, isn’t binary like a light switch. Instead, it’s more like a dimmer switch: The human immune system can confer varying degrees of partial protection from a pathogen, which can stave off severe illness without necessarily preventing infection or transmission.

In general, the partial protection effect is one of the reasons why the four known endemic human coronaviruses—the ones that cause a common cold—have such mild symptoms. A 2013 study in BMC Infectious Diseases shows that on average, humans are first exposed to all four of these coronaviruses between the ages of three and five—part of the first wave of infections that young children experience.

These initial infections lay the foundation for the body’s future immune response. As new variants of the endemic coronaviruses naturally evolve, the immune system has a head start in fighting them off—not enough to eradicate the virus instantly, but enough to ensure that symptoms don’t progress much beyond the sniffles.

“The virus is also its own enemy. Every time it infects you, it tops up your immunity,” says Marc Veldhoen, an immunologist at Portugal’s University of Lisbon.

Past studies make clear that partial immunity can keep people from getting seriously ill, even as coronaviruses successfully enter their systems. Long-term, the same is likely to be true for the new coronavirus. Emory University postdoctoral fellow Jennie Lavine modeled SARS-CoV-2’s post-pandemic trajectory based on the 2013 study’s data, and her results—published in Science on January 12—suggest that if SARS-CoV-2 behaves like other coronaviruses, it will likely morph into a mild nuisance years to decades from now.

This transition from pandemic to minor ailment, however, depends on how the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 holds up over time. Researchers are actively examining the body’s “immunological memory” to the virus. A study published in Science on January 6 tracked the immune response of 188 COVID-19 patients for five to eight months post-infection, and while individuals varied, about 95 percent of patients had measurable levels of immunity.

“Immunity is waning, but certainly not gone, and I think this is key,” says Lavine, who wasn’t involved with the study.

In fact, it’s even possible that one of the cold-causing coronaviruses sparked a serious outbreak in the 1800s before fading into the litany of mild, commonplace human pathogens. Based on the spread of its family tree, researchers estimated in 2005 that the endemic coronavirus OC43 entered humans sometime in the late 19th century, likely the early 1890s. The timing has led some researchers to speculate that the original version of OC43 may have caused the “Russian flu” pandemic of 1890, which was noted for its unusually high rate of neurological symptoms—a noted effect of COVID-19.

“There’s no hard proof, but there are a lot of indications that this wasn’t an influenza pandemic but a corona-pandemic,” Veldhoen says.

The crucible of evolution

Though the carnage of past coronaviruses has faded over time, the road to a relatively painless coexistence between humans and SARS-CoV-2 will likely be bumpy. In the medium-term future, the impact of the virus will depend largely on its evolution.

SARS-CoV-2 is spreading uncontrollably around the world, and with every new replication, there’s a chance for mutations that could help the virus more effectively infect human hosts.

The human immune system, while protecting many of us from serious illness, is also acting as an evolutionary crucible, putting pressure on the virus that selects for mutations that make it bind more effectively to human cells. The coming months and years will reveal how well our immune systems can keep up with these changes.

New SARS-CoV-2 variants also make widespread vaccination and other transmission-blocking measures, such as face masks and distancing, more crucial than ever. The less the virus spreads, the fewer opportunities it has to evolve.

Current vaccines should still work well enough against emerging variants, such as the B.1.1.7 lineage first found in the United Kingdom, to prevent many cases of serious illness. Vaccines and natural infections create diverse swarms of antibodies that glom onto many different parts of SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein, which means that a single mutation can’t make the virus invisible to the human immune system.

Mutations may produce future variants of SARS-CoV-2 that partially resist current vaccines, however. In a preprint posted on November 19 and updated on January 19, Duprex and his colleagues show that mutations that delete parts of the SARS-CoV-2 genome’s spike protein region prevent certain human antibodies from binding.

“What I’ve learned from our own work is how deviously beautiful evolution is,” Duprex says.

Other labs have found that mutations in 501Y.V2, the variant first found in South Africa, are especially effective at helping the virus elude antibodies. Out of 44 recovered COVID-19 patients in South Africa, blood extracts from 21 of the patients didn’t effectively neutralize the 501Y.V2 variant, according to another preprint published on January 19. Those 21 people had mild to moderate cases of COVID-19, however, so their antibody levels were lower to begin with, perhaps explaining why their blood did not neutralize the 501Y.V2 variant.

So far, currently authorized vaccines—which spur the production of high levels of antibodies—seem to be effective against the most concerning variants. In a third preprint published on January 19, researchers showed that antibodies from 20 people who had received the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines didn’t bind quite as well to viruses with the new mutations as they did to earlier variants—but they still bound, suggesting the vaccines will still protect against severe illness.

The new variants bring other threats as well. Some, such as B.1.1.7, appear to be more transmissible than earlier forms of SARS-CoV-2, and if left to spread uncontrollably, these variants could make many more people severely ill, which risks overwhelming healthcare systems around the world and even higher death tolls. Veldhoen adds that new variants also may pose a greater risk of reinfection to recovered COVID-19 patients.

Researchers are closely monitoring the new variants. If vaccines need to be updated in the future, Anderson says that it could be done quickly—in roughly six weeks for currently authorized mRNA vaccines, such as those made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. That timetable, though, doesn’t account for the regulatory approvals that updated vaccines would need to go through.

Anderson adds that depending on how the evolution of the virus progresses, lineages of SARS-CoV-2 may arise that are distinct enough that vaccines will need to be tailored to specific regions akin to vaccines for pneumococcus. To successfully guard against SARS-CoV-2 going forward, we will need a global monitoring network similar to the worldwide reference laboratories used to collect, sequence, and study variants of influenza.

“We’re going to have to live with it, we’re going to have to have constant vaccination, and we’re constantly going to have to have a very sophisticated molecular surveillance program to keep track of how the virus is evolving,” Anderson says.

The promise and challenge of widespread vaccination

Experts agree that transitioning beyond a pandemic depends on the prevalence of immunity, especially among older and more vulnerable populations. Younger people, especially children, will build up immunity to SARS-CoV-2 over a lifetime of exposure to the virus. Today’s adults have had no such luxury, leaving their immune systems naive and exposed.

The exact threshold for achieving population-wide immunity that slows down the virus’s spread will depend on how contagious future variants become. But so far, research of early variants of SARS-CoV-2 suggest at least 60 to 70 percent of the human population will need to become immune to end the pandemic phase.

This immunity can be achieved in one of two ways: large-scale vaccination, or recovery from natural infections. But achieving widespread immunity through uncontrolled spread comes at a terrible cost: hundreds of thousands more deaths and hospitalizations around the world. “If we don’t want to push forward vaccines and champion vaccines, we have to decide collectively how many old people we want to die—and I don’t want to be the one making that decision,” Duprex says.