Feb 26, 2020 - Technology

The megatrends that will shape the 21st century

Robot hand over a map

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

An enormous amount of change has been crammed into the first two decades of the 21st century — but what’s coming next will break every speed record.

The big picture: The world is being buffeted by rapid yet uneven advances in technology that will revamp work and what it means to be human. At the same time, fundamental demographic changes will alter democracies and autocracies alike while the effects of climate change accumulate, physically redrawing our globe.

  • In his forthcoming book, "The Precipice," Toby Ord of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute gives 1 in 6 odds that humanity will suffer an existential catastrophe during the next 100 years — almost certainly due to our own actions.
  • It’s little wonder then that a Pew Research survey last year found Americans “broadly pessimistic” about the state of the country in 2050.

But, but, but: Ord and others argue if we properly harness threatening technologies and mature as a species, we could not only survive the 21st century, but thrive in it.

1. Emerging technologies: AI and biotech are classic “dual-use” tech that can be exploited for good and for ill.

  • The same machine learning methods that enable researchers to discover new types of antibiotics underpin the development of autonomous weapons systems.
  • The gene editing technique CRISPR is poised to revolutionize medicine, but its affordability and ease also threatens to make the creation of bioweapons far easier.

Controlling emerging technologies is most effectively done before they’ve fully matured — but that means getting ahead of the rapid pace of development.

2. The new way of work: Tech-driven disruptions to working life will only grow, challenging a core part of human identity and remaking the economy.

  • 82% of respondents in that same Pew survey believed that by 2050, robots and computers will definitely or probably do much of the work currently done by humans.
  • Those fears are likely overblown, but even in the absence of widespread automation, technology is degrading the status and income of many workers.

Past technological shifts have destroyed entire occupations, but still boosted overall employment and economic growth. Whether this time really is different will depend as much on policy choices as on the tempo of innovation.

3. A remade (geo)politics: As the postwar era finally ends, politics domestic and foreign will be forced to grapple with a world that looks fundamentally different.

  • The single biggest factor is the continued rise of China, which is leveraging its authoritarian capitalism to author new power structures in the 21st century.
  • Global population increases will be slower but spiky, with more than half of projected global growth to 2050 coming from nine countries, according to UN projections.
  • Abroad the U.S. will confront inevitably declining influence, while at home the country will be majority minority by 2045 — clashing with a political system that over-represents white people in rural areas.

4. Climate change’s long tail: One thing we can know for sure about the future: when it comes to the climate, tomorrow will be worse than today.

  • Even if we somehow stopped all greenhouse gas emissions today, the Earth would still keep warming by more than 0.5°F, according to a 2017 study.
  • That won’t happen, which leaves coastal cities beginning to spend millions now to prepare for rising seas and other consequences of climate change.

We're running out of time to curb greenhouse gases. If the climate proves more sensitive to rising carbon emissions, we could be forced to take the drastic option of geoengineering — with unknowable consequences.

The bottom line: Given the disorienting pace of change, it’s understandable to view the future as frightening. But our destiny isn’t written yet.

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