It’s nighttime on the streets of Ibaraki prefecture in Japan when the Olympic torch comes through. A viral video shows the torch bearer’s slow jog past spectators lining the road. Then, as the flame passes, a woman in the crowd shoots a water gun.
“Extinguish the Olympic flame! Oppose the Tokyo Olympics!” she shouts. Security rushes around her.
Such is the backdrop for the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic games, set to begin on July 23 in Tokyo—where covid-19 cases are rising, prompting the city to announce its fourth state of emergency since the start of the pandemic. The rising caseload is especially troubling because the country’s vaccination rate remains low. Just 18% of Japan’s population is fully vaccinated.
Nevertheless the International Olympic Committee is pressing on. At stake are billions of dollars in sunk costs—Tokyo’s Olympic stadium alone cost $1.4 billion—as well as billions more in potential revenue for the IOC, Japan, local organizers, and broadcasters.
A global health crisis that is far from over, a staggering amount of money, and a government set on making its gamble pay off: the forces colliding in Tokyo are unprecedented. And even with strict new rules at the games, experts worry that covid-19 could worsen in Japan.
Keeping athletes safe
Nearly 100,000 athletes, staff and family members, and others are expected to enter Japan for the Olympic and Paralympic games, and organizers say they’re trying their best to keep them safe.
Brian McCloskey, chair of an independent panel advising the IOC on covid-19 mitigation measures for Tokyo, acknowledges the concerns. To reduce the risk of the virus spreading, athletes, staff, and others will be closely monitored, he says.
“The target is not to have no coronavirus in Tokyo,” says McCloskey. “The target is to stop those individual cases becoming clusters and spreading events.”
Athletes, staff, and officials will be tested at various intervals during the games. Residents of the Olympic Village will be tested every day, for example, while the Japanese workers who come in close contact with athletes will be tested more frequently than the people directing traffic. McCloskey says a contact tracing system will be used in the Olympic Village to help contain any cases that emerge. Anyone entering Japan will be required to download a contact tracing app, and athletes and members of the media are asked to turn on GPS tracking on their phones. Organizers say location data will only be used if there are covid cases.
As the games have drawn closer, measures have grown more and more strict. Audience members from other countries were barred months ago, and it was announced earlier this month that there won’t be any audiences at all at venues in and around Tokyo.
McCloskey says there is precedent for running the games amid a public health threat—even if earlier ones were not on the same scale as covid. When he advised the IOC for the 2012 London Olympics, organizers considered the potential for a SARS pandemic to emerge, he says. And before the 2016 games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, there were concerns about Zika (the WHO later said there were no reported cases in athletes or spectators).
For Tokyo, the IOC has released several “playbooks” of instructions for athletes, staff, volunteers, and press.
But despite stringent rules, the games will inevitably mean people mixing and interacting in ways that otherwise wouldn’t happen.
“It’s not just the event itself,” says Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, who is a leading expert in airborne transmission of viruses. “It’s everything else associated with the event: the hotels, the restaurants, the means of transportation.”
The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush
The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania.
Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.
Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.
A changing way of life
The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.
Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.
One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.
Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.
The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.
The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan
Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.
Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost.
But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.
Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation
—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures
The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.
Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI
A strategic imperative
Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.
According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.
Mapping out a generative AI pathway
One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.
The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.
Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.
All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.
The benefits of third-party experience
Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).
Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”