We could know soon whether vaccines work against a scary new coronavirus variant
When it was first detected, the South African variant looked worrisome because of the large number of mutations it had gained, 23 in all, and how many of these were in the critical spike protein, which the virus uses to attach to human cells. That strongly suggested the virus was evolving to avoid antibodies.
Since then, researchers have gathered more alarming clues about 501Y.V2, including from a study that showed that antibodies in blood serum from around 50 people previously infected were frequently unable to block the new variant.
“When you test the blood from people in the first wave [we find] in nearly half the cases there is no recognition of the new variant,” Penny Moore, a researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said during the same broadcast.
That’s concerning, but vaccinations may elicit a broader, more powerful immunity than a passing infection, so it’s impossible to say they won’t still work. And Moore said that blood from some patients, especially those who’d become very sick, were still able to neutralize the variant, at least in lab tests. “That is important when we think of vaccine, some vaccines elicit very high level of antibodies and others do not,” she said.
Another signal in favor of vaccines is that, so far, there is no clear evidence that the new strain is more likely to re-infect people who’ve had covid-19 before. If natural immunity does in fact hold up, then immunity gained from a vaccine likely would as well. “Are we seeing a systematic increase in reinfection? The data don’t allow us to say,” Karim says. Reinfection could still be prevented, he says, because the body “has two immune mechanisms, B cells that make antibodies, and T cells that go around gobbling things up and killing them.”
Researchers say that laboratory tests alone can’t prove whether vaccines will work against the new variants, and why they hope results from actual ongoing trials of vaccines in South Africa, the UK, and elsewhere may soon give better answers. “We are expecting an answer pretty soon,” Karim says. “But we want to see the actual data, and it is not yet available.”
Scientists are looking at two major possibilities where these variants are coming from. One hypothesis is the virus is evolving inside immune-compromised people, where it can persist for months while learning to dodge the immune system. Another idea is that variations are arising in cities like London, which suffered big infection waves early in 2020. Millions were infected, but if their antibodies waned over the year, then their bodies could be selecting for virus variants able to resist what remains of their immune response.
Some scientists now think that evolved variants are probably cropping up everywhere, not just in Britain and South Africa, but just haven’t been detected yet. “We expect as people increase genomic surveillance, multiple variants will be discovered, especially in places that have had a lot of cases for a long time,” says Tulio de Oliveira, who studies viral genomes at the University of Washington. “Unless we can suppress transmission to almost zero, the virus will keep outsmarting us.”
Scientists say they are fairly sure the variants in South Africa and the UK spread faster, causing about 50% more follow-on infections than the original strain from China. Part of the evidence is how fast the UK variant, called B.1.1.7, has taken hold elsewhere, outcompeting older versions. It already accounts for nearly half of cases in Israel, which is facing a peak in infections despite a big vaccination campaign. The 501Y.V2 variant, meanwhile, has already been seen in at least 10 countries.
The emergent industrial metaverse
Annika Hauptvogel, head of technology and innovation management at Siemens, describes the industrial metaverse as “immersive, making users feel as if they’re in a real environment; collaborative in real time; open enough for different applications to seamlessly interact; and trusted by the individuals and businesses that participate”—far more than simply a digital world.
The industrial metaverse will revolutionize the way work is done, but it will also unlock significant new value for business and societies. By allowing businesses to model, prototype, and test dozens, hundreds, or millions of design iterations in real time and in an immersive, physics-based environment before committing physical and human resources to a project, industrial metaverse tools will usher in a new era of solving real-world problems digitally.
“The real world is very messy, noisy, and sometimes hard to really understand,” says Danny Lange, senior vice president of artificial intelligence at Unity Technologies, a leading platform for creating and growing real-time 3-D content. “The idea of the industrial metaverse is to create a cleaner connection between the real world and the virtual world, because the virtual world is so much easier and cheaper to work with.”
While real-life applications of the consumer metaverse are still developing, industrial metaverse use cases are purpose-driven, well aligned with real-world problems and business imperatives. The resource efficiencies enabled by industrial metaverse solutions may increase business competitiveness while also continually driving progress toward the sustainability, resilience, decarbonization, and dematerialization goals that are essential to human flourishing.
This report explores what it will take to create the industrial metaverse, its potential impacts on business and society, the challenges ahead, and innovative use cases that will shape the future. Its key findings are as follows:
• The industrial metaverse will bring together the digital and real worlds. It will enable a constant exchange of information, data, and decisions and empower industries to solve extraordinarily complex real-world problems digitally, changing how organizations operate and unlocking significant societal benefits.
• The digital twin is a core metaverse building block. These virtual models simulate real-world objects in detail. The next generation of digital twins will be photorealistic, physics-based, AI-enabled, and linked in metaverse ecosystems.
• The industrial metaverse will transform every industry. Currently existing digital twins illustrate the power and potential of the industrial metaverse to revolutionize design and engineering, testing, operations, and training.
The Download: China’s retro AI photos, and experts’ AI fears
Across social media, a number of creators are generating nostalgic photographs of China with the help of AI. Even though these images get some details wrong, they are realistic enough to trick and impress many of their followers.
The pictures look sophisticated in terms of definition, sharpness, saturation, and color tone. Their realism is partly down to a recent major update of image-making artificial-intelligence program Midjourney that was released in mid-March, which is better not only at generating human hands but also at simulating various photography styles.
It’s still relatively easy, even for untrained eyes, to tell that the photos are generated by an AI. But for some creators, their experiments are more about trying to recall a specific era in time than trying to trick their audience. Read the full story.
Zeyi’s story is from China Report, his weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on tech in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.
Read more of our reporting on AI-generated images:
+ These new tools let you see for yourself how biased AI image models are. Bias and stereotyping are still huge problems for systems like DALL-E 2 and Stable Diffusion, despite companies’ attempts to fix it. Read the full story.
Evolutionary organizations reimagine the future
The global technology consultancy Thoughtworks describes organizations that can respond to marketplace changes with continuous adaptation as “evolutionary organizations.” It argues that, instead of focusing only on technology change, organizations should focus on building capabilities that support ongoing reinvention. While many organizations recognize the benefit of adopting agile approaches in their technology capabilities and architectures, they have not extended these structures and ways of thinking throughout the operating model, which would allow their impact to extend beyond that of a single transformation project.
Global spending on digital transformation is growing at a brisk pace: 16.4% per year according to IDC. The firm’s 2021 “Worldwide Digital Transformation Spending Guide” forecasts that annual transformation expenditures will reach $2.8 trillion in 2025, more than double the spending in 2020.1 At the same time, research from Boston Consulting Group shows that 7 out of 10 digital transformation initiatives fall short of their objectives. Organizations that succeed, however, achieve almost double the earnings growth of those that fail and more than double the growth in the total value of their enterprises.2 Understanding how to make these transitions successful, then, should be of key interest to all business leaders.
This MIT Technology Review Insights report is based on a survey of 275 corporate leaders, supplemented by interviews with seven experts in digital transformation. Its key findings include the following:
• Digital transformation is not solely a technology issue. Adopting new technology for its own sake does not set the organization up to continue to adapt to changing circumstances. Among survey respondents, however, transformation is still synonymous with tech, with 70% planning to adopt a new technology in the next year, but only 41% pursuing changes to their business model.
• The business environment is changing faster than many organizations think. Most survey respondents (81%) believe their organization is more adaptable than average and nearly all (89%) say that they’re keeping up with or ahead of their competitors—suggesting a wide gap between the rapidly evolving reality and executives’ perceptions of their preparedness.
• All organizations must build capabilities for continuous reinvention. The only way to keep up is for organizations to continuously change and evolve, but most traditional businesses lack the strategic flexibility necessary to do this. Nearly half of business leaders outside the C-suite (44%), for example, say organizational structure, silos, or hierarchy are the biggest obstacle to transformation at their firm.
• Focusing on customer value and empowering employees are keys to organizational evolution. The most successful transformations prioritize creating customer value and enhancing customer and employee experience. Meeting evolving customer needs is the constant source of value in a world where everything is changing, but many traditional organizations fail to take this long view, with only 15% of respondents most concerned about failing to meet customer expectations if they fail to transform.
• Rapid experimentation requires the ability to fail and recover quickly. Organizations agree that iterative, experimental processes are essential to finding the right solutions, with 81% saying they have adopted agile practices. Fewer are confident, however, in their ability to execute decisions quickly (76%)—or to shut down initiatives that aren’t working (60%).