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We reviewed three at-home covid-19 tests. Here’s what happened

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shipping Abbott tests


As a result, I don’t think home tests are as useful as some have hoped. If used at scale to screen for covid, they could send millions of anxious people in search of lab tests and medical care they don’t need.

Still relevant?

As the covid-19 pandemic spread around the globe last year, economists and scientists called for massive expansion of testing and contact tracing in the US, to find and isolate infected people. But the number of daily tests in the US has never much exceeded 2 million, according to the Covid Tracking Project, and most of those were done in labs or on special instruments.

Home tests will now be manufactured in the tens of millions, say their makers, but some experts aren’t sure how much they will matter at this point. “The real value of these tests was six months ago,” says Amitabh Chandra, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. “I think that the move to over-the-counter is great, but it has limited value in a world where vaccines become more widely available.” Vaccination credentials could be more important for travel and dining than test results are.

Companies selling the tests say they are still a relevant strategy for getting back to normal, especially given that kids aren’t getting vaccinated yet. For employers who want to keep an office or factory open, they say, self-directed consumer tests might be a good option. A spokesperson for Abbott told me that they might also help people “start thinking about coordinating more covid-conscious bridal showers, baby showers, or birthday parties.”

The UK government started giving away covid antigen tests for free, by mail and on street corners, on April 9, saying it wants people “to get in the habit” of testing themselves twice a week as social distancing restrictions are eased. Along with vaccines, free tests are part of that nation’s plan to quash the virus. Later, though, a leaked government memo said health officials were privately worried about a tsunami of false positives.

In the US, there’s no still no national campaign around home tests or subsidy for them, and as an out-of-pocket expense, they are still too expensive for most people to use with any frequency. That may be for the best, given my experience.

Types of tests

The three tests we tried included two antigen tests, BinaxNow from Abbott Laboratories and a kit from Ellume, as well as one molecular test, called Lucira. In general, molecular tests, which detect the genes of the coronavirus, are more reliable than antigen tests, which sense the presence of the virus’s outer shell.

Everything you need is in one box, except in the case of the Ellume test, which must be paired with an app. Overall, the Lucira test had the best combination of advertised accuracy and simplicity, but it was also the most expensive at $55.

We didn’t try Quidel QuickVue, another antigen test, or a molecular test from Cue Health. Those tests, while authorized for home use, are not being sold directly to the public yet.

After trying all the tests, I am not planning to invest in using them regularly. I work from home and don’t socialize, so I don’t really need to. Instead, I plan to keep at least one test in my cupboard so that if I do feel sick, or lose my sense of smell, I will be able to quickly find out whether it’s covid-19. The ability to test at home might become more important next winter when cold and flu season returns.

ABBOTT LABS

BinaxNow by Abbott

Time required: about 20 minutes
Price: $23.99 for two
Availability: At some CVS stores starting in April. Abbott says it is making tens of millions of BinaxNow tests per month.
Accuracy: 84.6% for detecting covid-19 infections, 98.5% for correctly identifying covid-19 negatives

This is the at-home version of the fast, 15-minute test the White House was using last year to screen staff and visitors. It’s an antigen test, meaning that it examines a sample from a nasal swab to detect a protein in the shell of the virus. It went on sale in the US last week, and I was able to buy a two-test kit at CVS for $23.99 plus tax.

The technology used is called a “lateral flow immunoassay.” In simple terms, that means it works like a pregnancy test. It’s basically a paper card with a test strip. As the sample flows through it, it hits antibodies that stick to the virus protein and then to a colored marker. If the virus is present, a pink bar appears on the strip.

I found the test fairly easy to perform. You use an eye dropper to dispense six drops of chemical into a small hole in the card; then you insert a swab after you’ve run it around in both nostrils. Rotate the swab counterclockwise, fold the card to bring the test strip in contact with the swab, and that’s it. Fifteen minutes later, a positive result will show up as a faint pink line.

The drawback of the test is that there’s room for two different kinds of user error. It’s hard to see the drops come out of the dropper, and using too few could cause a false negative. So could swabbing your nose incorrectly. Unlike the other tests, this one can’t tell if you’ve made a mistake.

And besides the prospect of user error, the test itself has issues with accuracy. BinaxNow is the cheapest test out there, but it’s also the most likely to be wrong, missing about one in seven real infections. Abbott cautions that results “should be treated as presumptive” and “do not rule out SARS-Cov-2.”

But a buyer won’t find the accuracy rate without digging into the fine print. The company also buries a crucial requirement imposed by regulators: to compensate for the lower accuracy, you are supposed to use both tests in the kit, at least 36 hours apart. I doubt a casual buyer will realize that. The two-test requirement is barely mentioned in the instructions.

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A nonprofit promised to preserve wildlife. Then it made millions claiming it could cut down trees

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A nonprofit promised to preserve wildlife. Then it made millions claiming it could cut down trees


Clegern said the program’s safeguards prevent the problems identified by CarbonPlan.   

California’s offsets are considered additional carbon reductions because the floor serves “as a conservative backstop,” Clegern said. Without it, he explained, many landowners could have logged to even lower levels in the absence of offsets.

Clegern added that the agency’s rules were adopted as a result of a lengthy process of debate and were upheld by the courts. A California Court of Appeal found the Air Resources Board had the discretion to use a standardized approach to evaluate whether projects were additional.

But the court did not make an independent determination about the effectiveness of the standard, and was “quite deferential to the agency’s judgment,” said Alice Kaswan, a law professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, in an email.

California law requires the state’s cap-and-trade regulations to ensure that emissions reductions are “real, permanent, quantifiable, verifiable” and “in addition to any other greenhouse gas emission reduction that otherwise would occur.”

“If there’s new scientific information that suggests serious questions about the integrity of offsets, then, arguably, CARB has an ongoing duty to consider that information and revise their protocols accordingly,” Kaswan said. “The agency’s obligation is to implement the law, and the law requires additionality.”

The recipe

On an early spring day, Lautzenheiser, the Audubon scientist, brought a reporter to a forest protected by the offset project. The trees here were mainly tall white pines mixed with hemlocks, maples and oaks. Lautzenheiser is usually the only human in this part of the woods, where he spends hours looking for rare plants or surveying stream salamanders.

The nonprofit’s planning documents acknowledge that the forests enrolled in California’s program were protected long before they began generating offsets: “A majority of the project area has been conserved and designated as high conservation value forest for many years with deliberate management focused on long-term natural resource conservation values.”

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Meet Jennifer Daniel, the woman who decides what emoji we get to use

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Meet Jennifer Daniel, the woman who decides what emoji we get to use


Emoji are now part of our language. If you’re like most people, you pepper your texts, Instagram posts, and TikTok videos with various little images to augment your words—maybe the syringe with a bit of blood dripping from it when you got your vaccination, the prayer (or high-fiving?) hands as a shortcut to “thank you,” a rosy-cheeked smiley face with jazz hands for a covid-safe hug from afar. Today’s emoji catalogue includes nearly 3,000 illustrations representing everything from emotions to food, natural phenomena, flags, and people at various stages of life.

Behind all those symbols is the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit group of hardware and software companies aiming to make text and emoji readable and accessible to everyone. Part of their goal is to make languages look the same on all devices; a Japanese character should be typographically consistent across all media, for example. But Unicode is probably best known for being the gatekeeper of emoji: releasing them, standardizing them, and approving or rejecting new ones.

Jennifer Daniel is the first woman at the helm of the Emoji Subcommittee for the Unicode Consortium and a fierce advocate for inclusive, thoughtful emoji. She initially rose to prominence for introducing Mx. Claus, a gender-inclusive alternative to Santa and Mrs. Claus; a non-gendered person breastfeeding a non-gendered baby; and a masculine face wearing a bridal veil. 

Now she’s on a mission to bring emoji to a post-pandemic future in which they are as broadly representative as possible. That means taking on an increasingly public role, whether it’s with her popular and delightfully nerdy Substack newsletter, What Would Jennifer Do? (in which she analyzes the design process for upcoming emoji), or inviting the general public to submit concerns about emoji and speak up if they aren’t representative or accurate.

“There isn’t a precedent here,” Daniel says of her job. And to Daniel, that’s exciting not just for her but for the future of human communication.

I spoke to her about how she sees her role and the future of emoji. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed. 

What does it mean to chair the subcommittee on emoji? What do you do?

It’s not sexy. [laughs] A lot of it is managing volunteers [the committee is composed of volunteers who review applications and help in approval and design]. There’s a lot of paperwork. A lot of meetings. We meet twice a week.

I read a lot and talk to a lot of people. I recently talked to a gesture linguist to learn how people use their hands in different cultures. How do we make better hand-gesture emoji? If the image is no good or isn’t clear, it’s a dealbreaker. I’m constantly doing lots of research and consulting with different experts. I’ll be on the phone with a botanical garden about flowers, or a whale expert to get the whale emoji right, or a cardiovascular surgeon so we have the anatomy of the heart down. 

There’s an old essay by Beatrice Warde about typography. She asked if a good typeface is a bedazzled crystal goblet or a transparent one. Some would say the ornate one because it’s so fancy, and others would say the crystal goblet because you can see and appreciate the wine. With emoji, I lend myself more to the “transparent crystal goblet” philosophy. 

Why should we care about how our emoji are designed?

My understanding is that 80% of communication is nonverbal. There’s a parallel in how we communicate. We text how we talk. It’s informal, it’s loose. You’re pausing to take a breath. Emoji are shared alongside words.

When emoji first came around, we had the misconception that they were ruining language. Learning a new language is really hard, and emoji is kind of like a new language. It works with how you already communicate. It evolves as you evolve. How you communicate and present yourself evolves, just like yourself. You can look at the nearly 3,000 emoji and it [their interpretation] changes by age or gender or geographic area. When we talk to someone and are making eye contact, you shift your body language, and that’s an emotional contagion. It builds empathy and connection. It gives you permission to reveal that about yourself. Emoji can do that, all in an image.

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Product design gets an AI makeover

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Product design gets an AI makeover


It’s a tall order, but one that Zapf says artificial intelligence (AI) technology can support by capturing the right data and guiding engineers through product design and development.

No wonder a November 2020 McKinsey survey reveals that more than half of organizations have adopted AI in at least one function, and 22% of respondents report at least 5% of their companywide earnings are attributable to AI. And in manufacturing, 71% of respondents have seen a 5% or more increase in revenue with AI adoption.

But that wasn’t always the case. Once “rarely used in product development,” AI has experienced an evolution over the past few years, Zapf says. Today, tech giants known for their innovations in AI, such as Google, IBM, and Amazon, “have set new standards for the use of AI in other processes,” such as engineering.

“AI is a promising and exploratory area that can significantly improve user experience for designing engineers, as well as gather relevant data in the development process for specific applications,” says Katrien Wyckaert, director of industry solutions for Siemens Industry Software.

The result is a growing appreciation for a technology that promises to simplify complex systems, get products to market faster, and drive product innovation.

Simplifying complex systems

A perfect example of AI’s power to overhaul product development is Renault. In response to increasing consumer demand, the French automaker is equipping a growing number of new vehicle models with an automated manual transmission (AMT)—a system that behaves like an automatic transmission but allows drivers to shift gears electronically using a push-button command.

AMTs are popular among consumers, but designing them can present formidable challenges. That’s because an AMT’s performance depends on the operation of three distinct subsystems: an electro-mechanical actuator that shifts the gears, electronic sensors that monitor vehicle status, and software embedded in the transmission control unit, which controls the engine. Because of this complexity, it can take up to a year of extensive trial and error to define the system’s functional requirements, design the actuator mechanics, develop the necessary software, and validate the overall system.

In an effort to streamline its AMT development process, Renault turned to Simcenter Amesim software from Siemens Digital Industries Software. The simulation technology relies on artificial neural networks, AI “learning” systems loosely modeled on the human brain. Engineers simply drag, drop, and connect icons to graphically create a model. When displayed on a screen as a sketch, the model illustrates the relationship between all the various elements of an AMT system. In turn, engineers can predict the behavior and performance of the AMT and make any necessary refinements early in the development cycle, avoiding late-stage problems and delays. In fact, by using a virtual engine and transmissions as stand-ins while developing hardware, Renault has managed to cut its AMT development time almost in half.

Speed without sacrificing quality

So, too, are emerging environmental standards prompting Renault to rely more heavily on AI. To comply with emerging carbon dioxide emissions standards, Renault has been working on the design and development of hybrid vehicles. But hybrid engines are far more complex to develop than those found in vehicles with a single energy source, such as a conventional car. That’s because hybrid engines require engineers to perform complex feats like balancing the power required from multiple energy sources, choosing from a multitude of architectures, and examining the impact of transmissions and cooling systems on a vehicle’s energy performance.

“To meet new environmental standards for a hybrid engine, we must completely rethink the architecture of gasoline engines,” says Vincent Talon, head of simulation at Renault. The problem, he adds, is that carefully examining “the dozens of different actuators that can influence the final results of fuel consumption and pollutant emissions” is a lengthy and complex process, made by more difficult by rigid timelines.

“Today, we clearly don’t have the time to painstakingly evaluate various hybrid powertrain architectures,” says Talon. “Rather, we needed to use an advanced methodology to manage this new complexity.”

For more on AI in industrial applications, visit www.siemens.com/artificialintelligence.

Download the full report.

This content was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

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