Even amid a global pandemic, the world of tech keeps on turning. Some companies have responded directly to the outbreak, offering up smartphone-based contact tracing and wearable solutions to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. But none of these options is perfect, and many of them raise ethical concerns about the information they ask for in return.
This week on Gadget Lab, we talk with WIRED senior writer Sidney Fussell about Apple and Google's plans for contact tracing and whether anyone is going to buy a new iPhone right now.
Read Sidney and Will Knight’s story about contact tracing. Also read Andy Greenberg’s report on the strengths and weaknesses of the Google/Apple plan. Lauren’s story about wearables detecting COVID-19 is here, and her story about whether anyone is going to buy new smartphones is here. Follow all of WIRED’s coronavirus coverage here.
Sidney recommends the show Devs on Hulu. Mike recommends the novel Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang. Lauren recommends Sandra Upson’s WIRED story “The Devastating Decline of a Brilliant Young Coder.”
Sidney Fussell can be found on Twitter @sidneyfussell. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our executive producer is Alex Kapelman (@alexkapelman). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.
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Lauren Goode: Hi everyone. Welcome to Gadget Lab. I'm Lauren Goode, I'm a senior writer at WIRED and I'm joined remotely by my cohost, WIRED senior editor, Michael Calore.
Michael Calore: Hello, hello, podcasting in exile.
LG: Podcasting in exile, that's going to be the name of our next podcast. Or maybe we should just stick with Gadget Lab for now. We're also joined this week, for the first time, by WIRED senior writer, Sidney Fussell. Sidney, thanks so much for joining us.
Sidney Fussell: Thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited to be here, remotely, also an exile.
LG: This week on the show we're talking about how tech has responded to the coronavirus pandemic. And later in the show we'll look at all the ways that consumer demands are changing and how that might affect upcoming product launches, like for example, the new iPhone that was just announced this week. But first we're going to talk about tech that's going to run on your existing devices, and might affect the pandemic directly. On April 10th, Apple and Google announced a joint plan to track the spread of the virus by using people's smartphones to track who they come in contact with. Sidney, you and our other WIRED colleague Will Knight, wrote a story about this, which is known as contact tracing, this week for WIRED.com. So how does contact tracing work exactly? What is it?
SF: Right. So contact tracing is a public health response to the outbreak of a virus. And it's sort of like a buzz word now, but it's been used for a very long time for really any type of transmissible virus via, sexual transmitted diseases, Ebola, whatever. But contact tracing is essentially just if someone tests positive for a virus, in this case coronavirus, public health officials will isolate that person, make sure they're not infecting anyone else and they will then go back and find the people that they may have come across, that they may have unknowingly or unwittingly spread that virus to. So it's good to think of it as an investigative tool. So you have someone who was sick, you try to see who they may have infected along the way. It's especially really important for coronavirus because a lot of people can be infected and infecting other people while they themselves are healthy and don't have symptoms.
LG: And what's the actual technology on our smartphones that's used to exchange this information?
SF: Right. So the Google/Apple proposal, first and foremost has a lot of caveats, but best case scenario, essentially it uses what's called Bluetooth low energy transmission. And so essentially what that means is it doesn't track you everywhere you're going like GPS, it makes a note, it makes a record of whenever your phone is in contact with other phones, usually around six to 10 feet. That's also, obviously six to 10 feet is what can start to be an exposure in public health terms. So if I'm walking down the street, if I come across someone that's within that six to 10 feet, my phone under this sort of proposal, would make a note of that event. And the goal is that if I test positive, my phone will have an internal list of all the other phones that I came across and it'll make it much easier for public health officials to then go and send a message to all the phones that I came across over the past two weeks.
The Google/Apple proposal says that they only keep this data for two weeks, which is the infectious period. And so the goal is that they can, rather than having an actual person go through and interview you and try to find every single person you've come across, you can anonymously find all the phones you've come across, and those people would then get a message or notification that will say, "You've been in contact with someone exposed to the virus", and it'll link out to some information, like testing centers or places where they can go for other resources.
MC: Is the technology keeping track of the amount of time that you're spending in proximity to somebody? For example, if you go to the grocery store and you interact with somebody who is stocking shelves or helping check you out at the register, versus you had a 15 to 30 minute conversation with somebody and then perhaps, at some point, maybe they test positive for COVID. Are there any kind of timestamps?
SF: So the answer to that question is there's supposed to be, it's supposed to. I mean the thing that they really make to really pay attention to is that this hasn't actually happened yet. Right now we just have the best case scenarios, the proposal. So the answer to that is, it is supposed to make note of a certain threshold. I think the threshold it's set for right now is 10 minutes, but that can be raised or lowered. But it's supposed to keep note of whether you've been around that person for the 10 minutes. And there was a lot of, not necessarily controversy, but there was some pushback on that because what exactly characterizes an exposure is something that's kind of up for debate among epidemiologist and Bluetooth, if someone is within six feet of me, but on the other side of a wall, there's a risk that the phone could flag that as contact when it wasn't contact.
Or for example, you may come across someone, be around them for 10 minutes, but you were both wearing gloves and masks, your phone wouldn't necessarily have that context, but it would still flag that as a contact even though you're unlikely to transmit with people if they're undergoing the right sort of like face coverings and things like that. So there are lots of contexts and nuances that we can't quite fit into an app. But this is sort of like the Google, Apple's best shot about how do I approach this right now.
MC: So I think it's important to note that Apple and Google aren't actually making apps. They're making a way for other people to easily build contact tracing apps that show up in the App Store or the Play Store, so that everybody can go out and download them and install them on their phone. Is that right?
SF: Yes, that's right. They're releasing an API that can be used by public health organizations to release their own phones. And it's really important to note that because before you can make that submission to say I've tested positive and therefore contact all these people about getting tested, that has to come through a public health organization. And so that does a really good job of making sure that people aren't faking it, people aren't going through and marking themselves as positive just for the sake of chaos or a malicious attack. So yes, it is, it has to go through a public health organization. But that leads to the second biggest caveat, which is testing availability. A lot of people live in areas where it's very difficult to find a test. So if you're only testing people who are very, very sick because you don't have a lot of tests there, it calls the question how useful would an app be that tells people to get tested all the time. So if I get three or four notifications a week, am I supposed to go and get three or four tests? That's not realistic, where we are right now. According to COVID tracker, closer to like between one and three percent of people have been tested. There aren't enough tests for the scale of the notifications that the proposal is proposing that we do.
MC: And, I mean in order for this to work properly, we would essentially have to test everybody, right? Because as far as we know, there are a lot of people walking around who are infected with the virus but don't show any symptoms at all. So they could be passing it onto people. But we need to be able to catch them too, in order to be able to trace who they've been in contact with. Right?
SF: Yes, exactly. And to a certain extent, this automated contact tracing goal is slightly different from the public health goal. Right now, since they have such few tests, they're only testing people that have very specific symptoms, like the shortness of breath, the fever, etc, and healthy single people generally aren't going to be able to get tests because there's not enough for everyone who feels like they may need one. That's sort of the opposite of what you would want right now. You would want to be testing people who are asymptomatic, who seem healthy. You would want to give them tests because they're the ones who feel totally fine, who are probably not altering their schedule as much. They may or may not be following face coverings and things like that.
So the sort of best case scenario for this app, this proposed app, is that you would be able to notify asymptomatic carriers to people who can affect people who don't have symptoms. You can notify them and they'll self isolate before they pass on the virus. But at this point, unfortunately, we don't have the resources to widely test asymptomatic people who may or may not be positive, negative. And that's like really like the brick wall, that sort of gap between public health resources and the scale at which they want to notify people. It's very difficult to bridge that right now.
LG: It feels like so many stories that we're working on these days and even the podcast conversations that we're having, for the past few weeks, all come back to that, just the woeful lack of testing that we have here in the United States and how without that data, it's very challenging to make the right kind of decisions that we can make to try to protect the public and hopefully move beyond this.
Sidney, both you and Mike mentioned this is not a specific app that Google and Apple are developing. It's an API, an application programming interface. So they're sort of providing this kit or laying the groundwork for other app makers to build their apps on top of it. But that makes me wonder whether or not the settings for these kinds of contact tracing apps will vary, depending on which country or market they're being deployed in, since some nations are notoriously more privacy concerned than others and have a deep distrust of what "surveillance capitalism." Whereas others, surveil their populations. So how will we see different instances or will we see different instances of these apps being deployed?
SF: Right. And so that's probably the third of the big four, there's four huge caveat, that's the third one. And the third caveat is that, for this to be useful, there is a threshold for adoption. So unless at least minimum, lowest number I've seen is 60 percent, so unless minimum 60 percent of the population is using this app, it's not going to work because you could potentially come across lots of people who aren't using the apps and those transmissions won't be recorded. It's very difficult because if you're living in a, and this is sort of like one of the things we found through the reporting, which is that if you're living in a country that is a little bit less privacy focused, there's going to be widespread distrust of any type of public health or State supported app. And so those privacy fears become security risks in themselves.
They become public health risks themselves because if you don't trust the government or the State enough to adopt, or excuse me to download the app, you're going to end up with a lot of people not using it, which defeats the purpose of the entire endeavor. And so user trust is crucial for this to work. But like you said, because there's so many different ways that this can be configured and different ways this can be deployed, user trust is going to vary widely from country to country, from state to state, from community to community. So it's very difficult to imagine a scenario where you can get 60 to 80 percent of people to say, "Oh sure, let's download this and let's all work together", when there's no guarantees for the privacy.
MC: OK. Before we move on, I feel like you're dangling a worm on a hook in front of me and I have to snatch at this bait. What is the fourth caveat?
SF: The fourth caveat is simply you get the notification and then what happens? So that answer is going to be completely different depending on who you are, who you live with, what your job is. So a single young person who gets this notification can potentially self isolate easily. Let's say they have a job where they're already working from home. OK great. A single mother gets this notification, a single mother of two kids get this notification, she's going to have a different scenario. An essential worker, someone who's at a grocery store, someone who works at a senior care facility, completely different scenario. So one of the issues is this app is making it easy to notify people and tell them they need to self isolate, potentially. But there isn't anything on, well how do I do that? Where do I go? If I live with a family, if I am already struggling with housing, for example, where do I go to self isolate? I need food, I need groceries, I need toiletries, I need medicine. Some people live in places where they can easily just get TaskRabbit or Grubhub or whatever and get that stuff delivered. Some people, that's not the case at all. And so, in talking to human contact tracers, I asked them, "What's that process like in person and how would it be different via an app?" And they were like, every single person you talk to has a drastically different scenario. And their job is coaching people through what resources do you have, who can you call, etc, etc. And so if an app tells you, "Hey, you need to self quarantine, need to isolate, etc, etc", there's very little followup in terms of how do I do that? Where do I go? I don't have alternative housing, I don't have transportation, I take the bus to work, etc, etc.
And so the biggest caveat to how this is going to work is even if everything we just said, if the first three caveats go perfectly, you still need a place for those people to go, you still need to be able to send them food and things like that. And there isn't really a real set way for us to respond to that. We don't have alternate housing for people right now. We don't have restaurants and delivery services that are helping people in that scenario. So again, this is all a proposal. It's all a plan. It's all a very good on paper idea. But there's a lot of caveats and there's a lot of questions about what will happen when this is actually out in the wild, and we need people to follow through.
LG: Sidney, thank you so much. That was a really great breakdown of contact tracing and how it works and how it might not work. And I'm sure that you'll continue to cover this closely for WIRED.com. So anyone who wants more information, please go check out Sidney and Will's story this week. We're going to take a quick break and we'll be back shortly.
LG: Welcome back after that short break. So as we covered just now with Sidney, big tech companies are responding to the pandemic in varying ways. They've also been eager to keep their product lines moving, or at least make it seem like their product lines are still moving. Earlier this week Apple even announced a new iPhone, the iPhone SE, which at one point in time was the tiny iPhone because it had a four inch display, and now it's pretty regular sized. But it's still just $400. The big question is whether people are still going to buy the latest iPhone or any new phone, like a Samsung Galaxy phone, at a time of economic downturn and skyrocketing unemployment. So that's what we're covering in this segment. Sidney, what's your take on how people are going to receive shiny new gadgets this year?
SF: Well, I asked a few of my friends that are more on the iPhone gadget enthusiasts, I'll say charitably, and they all said that, they were pretty honest, it was actually pretty interesting that one of the joys of the new iPhone is showing it off to people and going through new features with people and going out to social events. And so I think what I was surprised with was how much new iPhone releases are tied to the public space, going out to parties and clubs or whatever and showing it off to people and like, "Oh check out the new, the slofie or whatever. And so I was surprised to hear that because we don't have that right now, most of my friends that I asked about this were sort of like, "Ah, whatever, like you don't get the most important thing", which is that praise from your friends and coworkers that you'd normally get if you were to go out and things like that. So I mostly heard that they were going to pass. The iPhones that are out now and the Galaxy that are out right now, you can still make really, really good clear continent home with. So they already have everything they need for the IG Live party. So I think people are going to stick with what they've got.
LG: Mike, what are your thoughts on this?
MC: Well, I think people are still going to go out and buy new iPhones. There are a lot of people who just need a new phone at this point, and this is the way it always is, like there's always somebody who you who's like, "I really just need to upgrade my phone. I really just need a new phone." Those people are always going to find a way to buy a new thing because they need it. Or maybe they dropped their phone and shattered the screen, or maybe they haven't upgraded in four or five years. The new iPhone is only $400, which makes it a really easy way for people to do that and feel good about it, even during an economic downturn. But also, I think it's important to look at the time of year that it is right now because it's the spring. This is traditionally the time of year that the big smartphone manufacturers put out their low cost phones. Right?
So the iPhone SE comes out in April. We are expecting the next low cost Pixel, the $400 Pixel, which would be the Pixel 4a, to come from Google within about a month. Earlier this month or late last month, Samsung put out its low cost phones. They have phones that range from like $150, $200 up to about five or $600. So the spring is the time of year for the low cost phone. I think the really important tell here, will be in the fall, because in the fall is when the big flagships come out, the $1,000 phone, the $1,400 phone. If the economy is still not moving, which we fully expect that it will not be moving by September or October, when the higher priced devices come out, I think that's when we're going to see the real impact of the pandemic on consumer spending, specifically around smartphones, because it might make sense to buy a $300 phone or a $400 phone right now, and it is probably not going to make sense to buy $1,000 or $1,500 phone come October.
LG: I think you're right. I think that there are going to be some lagging indicators here and that we won't see the full effects of the pandemic on the electronics business until perhaps, later in the year. And that's for a couple of reasons, I mean one is that all of the products we're seeing launch right now, whether it's the Samsung Galaxy phone that launched in February, the Samsung Galaxy tablets and the iPad Pro that launched last month, this month, there's a new iPhone. All of these things were planned out so many months in advance, that they were pretty much already done, right, by the time the new year came around.
And so I think we're starting to see things that were planned for the first quarter of this year launch as planned. It might be some of the later products that could be affected either by disruptions to supply chains or, as you're pointing out Mike, consumer demand. I mean the current unemployment levels, they're pretty bad. It was reported today that 5.2 million people filed for unemployment this week in the U.S., and now that's up to 22 million people total, I believe since the start of the shelter in place sort of orders that went into effect. And the joblessness is really, really bad.
And one economist I spoke to for a story on WIRED.com last week said that in a recession, the first consumer goods to go typically are durables, which includes discretionary gadgets. So we're going to see these interesting trends sort of arise where certain gadgets, for example, the demand for PCs has been really high right now because everyone's working from home, and they're also homeschooling their kids. And people need to figure out solutions in order to get their jobs done, to help their kids, or a family might just need a laptop so they can stay connected to the world right now while they're home. But there are probably some other gadgets that they won't be deemed as necessary. Now smartphones, of course, I think a lot of people would argue they're pretty necessary in our lives right now, but the question is going to be the upgrade cycle. The upgrade cycle was already slowing by the time this pandemic really hit. And so I wouldn't be surprised if we see a lot of people resisting upgrades for a lot longer.
MC: Yeah, I think a phone is absolutely essential. There are a lot of people in this country and elsewhere in the world for whom their phone is their only computer. It's the only thing that keeps them connected to the internet. And if that phone breaks, they're going to need a new one. However, there are a lot of people who are going to just deal with a phone that's old or doesn't really work that well or has a cracked screen for a lot longer than they would normally deal with it, because they don't have a job, or if they do have a job, but they're just nervous about spending money. As far as like discretionary goods, yeah, people are not going to be buying soundbars. People are not going to be buying OLED televisions. People may not even be buying like new cars, just keeping things running for as long as possible, just so they can avoid new expenses. And honestly, I think that's fine. It may not be great for the economy, but you probably will get just as much use out of last year's phone or two years ago's phone or six years ago's car as you would out of something that's brand new.
LG: That's right. And I will say this about the iPhone SE too: We haven't had the chance to actually play with the phone yet. You can expect at some point down the road, WIRED will be reviewing this, so we'll have more information then. But so, far based on what we know about this new iPhone SE, it kind of goes to show that you may not need an $800 or $1,000 smartphone. You can buy a $400 phone and yeah, it has not a tremendous amount of internal storage, but it's got Apple's best chip in it, and the camera's probably going to be pretty OK.
So if you're looking for a fast phone and you're looking for something that takes decent photos and you're looking for something you can play games on, I mean what else do you need at this point? So all of these, and Google Pixel phones too. We've said the same thing about the Google Pixel phones that tend to come out in the spring. Last year it was the Pixel 3a, I believe, right? Last spring, Mike? Pretty darn good phone. Also not very expensive. So this could be the start of more people gravitating towards mid-range phones, who typically would've held out for the flagships.
MC: Exactly. We've been making this argument for a few years, cheap phones, phones $400 and under, are perfectly adequate for almost everybody. You don't necessarily need to be able to unlock your phone with your face, if you can unlock it with a fingerprint. You don't need to be able to wirelessly charge your phone if you can plug in a cable and accomplish exactly the same thing. So I think this is probably going to open a lot of people's eyes to that cold hard reality.
LG: Last thoughts from Sidney on this?
SF: I would have to say that everyone I know, that is a gadget person, is feeling probably very uncomfortable with having to skip a cycle. So it could be that the force of habit will have people going for whatever is new or just for some added novelty.
LG: Well hopefully if they line up at stores come this fall, they'll stand six feet apart. Sorry, that was terrible. Let's take a break and we'll come back with our recommendations for this week.
LG: All right, Sidney, what's your recommendation this week?
SF: This week, I'm going to recommend Devs, on Hulu. It's from Alex Garland. I'm a big fan. He's a fan of WIRED as well. You may know him from I, I, I where he was the screenwriter. I think he's brilliant and the new show is everything you love about Alex Garland. It's bizarre, it's cerebral, it's a thriller. There's a lot of creepy sci-fi stuff happening. It's on Hulu and it's more of a mystery, I think. It's a definitely a slower burn the last couple movies, but I think if you liked Annihilation or Ex Machina, and you just want something mind blowing and surreal and sci-fi, definitely check it out. Do give it a couple of episodes though. I think probably around the third episode is when the action only starts off, but it's fantastic. I highly recommend it.
LG: That has been on my list of things to watch for at least four weeks now. So I'm going to have to give it a go, now that I get your wholehearted recommendation, Sidney.
SF: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
LG: Mike, what's yours?
MC: So my recommendation this week is a novel, that I'm almost done with. It is called, Days of Distraction, and it's written by Alexandra Chang. Alexandra Chang is an acquaintance of mine. She actually used to work at WIRED many years ago. So when I found out that she had written a book, I got all excited and I got an advanced copy of it, and it's out now, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it.
It is a fictional story about a young woman living in San Francisco, working at an unnamed technology publication, as a technology journalist. And then she quits her job and moves across the country with her boyfriend so that he can go to grad school in Ithaca, New York. And along the way, and when she gets there, she decides that she's going to dive deep into her cultural identity as an Asian American woman. And I won't give anything away, but it is very good. It's very emotional. It's also just beautifully written. It has a really interesting style, where it isn't like numbered chapters necessarily. It's written in scenes. So some scenes go on for two or three pages. Some scenes are exactly one sentence long. So it's sort of a nice burst style, stylistically really cool. And also it makes it easy to consume in large chunks or in small bites, whatever you're feeling like. So that's my recommendation. The new book from Alexander Chang, it's called, Days of Distraction.
LG: So as you were reading this and she was writing about writing for a technology publication, were you seeing shades of WIRED?
MC: Well, I will reiterate that it is fiction, but I will also admit that I do recognize places, events and people that are in the book.
LG: That sounds great.
MC: Oh, it was a nail biter. Anyway, Lauren, what is your recommendation?
LG: My recommendation is for a story written by a current WIRED writer, Sandra Upson, our colleague who wrote a story in Backchannel this week. It's headlined, The "Devastating Decline of a Brilliant Young Coder." And it's about one of the co-founders of Cloudflare, which some of you may be familiar with, his name is Lee Holloway. And the story is about the sudden changes in behavior that were happening to Lee over the years, that family and friends and colleagues were noticing. And sudden life changes that he made, that shocked some people. And really what it's about is a surprising and stunning cognitive decline, ultimately, and now how his family is grappling with that. And Sandra, I think, did a really great job telling a complicated and nuanced story. And I think it's worth reading because it explores sort of the whole idea of what identity is, who we are as people, and whether or not it's our memories kind of stitched together throughout the years that make us who we are. And if that stitching becomes loose, what that means for just who we are as people. So check that out, "Devastating Decline of a Brilliant Young Coder" on WIRED.com, written by Sandra Upson. That's my recommendation for the week.
All right, that's our show. Thank you so much Sidney for joining us.
SF: Thank you for having me.
LG: Thanks to my cohost, Mike Calore, as always, and thanks to all of you for listening. If you have feedback, you can find all of us on Twitter. Just check the show notes. This show is produced by Boone Ashworth. Our executive producer is Alex Kapelman, and we'll be back next week. Until then, stay healthy.
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