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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.

For more content like this, sign up for the re-launched Axios Future newsletter.

Go deeper

Updated 6 hours ago - World

Mexican President López Obrador tests positive for coronavirus

Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador during a press conference at National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico, on Wednesday. Photo: Ismael Rosas/Eyepix Group/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced Sunday evening that he's tested positive for COVID-19.

Driving the news: López Obrador tweeted that he has mild symptoms and is receiving medical treatment. "As always, I am optimistic," he added. "We will all move forward."

6 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Sarah Huckabee Sanders to run for governor of Arkansas

Sarah Huckabee Sanders at FOX News' studios in New York City in 2019. Photo: Steven Ferdman/Getty Images

Former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders will announce Monday that she's running for governor of Arkansas.

The big picture: Sanders was touted as a contender after it was announced she was leaving the Trump administration in June 2019. Then-President Trump tweeted he hoped she would run for governor, adding "she would be fantastic." Sanders is "seen as leader in the polls" in the Republican state, notes the Washington Post's Josh Dawsey, who first reported the news.

Coronavirus has inflamed global inequality

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

History will likely remember the pandemic as the "first time since records began that inequality rose in virtually every country on earth at the same time." That's the verdict from Oxfam's inequality report covering the year 2020 — a terrible year that hit the poorest, hardest across the planet.

Why it matters: The world's poorest were already in a race against time, facing down an existential risk in the form of global climate change. The coronavirus pandemic could set global poverty reduction back as much as a full decade, according to the World Bank.