Feb 26, 2020

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

Welcome to the new Axios Future! I'm taking as over your guide to the most important trends that will shape the years and decades to come.

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  • Smart Brevity count: 1,650 words, ~ 6 minute read.
1 big thing: A roadmap to the future

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.

  • Our response to these megatrends will drive the 21st century — and this newsletter.

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 a 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.

The U.S. will confront inevitably declining influence abroad, while at home the country will be majority minority by 2045 — clashing with a political system that overrepresents 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.

2. Work goes remote in the face of the coronavirus

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The coronavirus outbreak has already forced millions to work from home in China, and as the outbreak goes global, remote work could emerge as a vital public health strategy.

Why it matters: Businesses should be ready to "replace in-person meetings with video or telephone conferences and can increase teleworking options," Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters Tuesday.

What's happening: The videoconferencing company Zoom has been one of the few stocks to rise even as fears about the coronavirus pull down the market.

  • In China, Alibaba's collaboration platform DingTalk became the most-downloaded free iOS app in the country in early February.
  • In Hong Kong, where classes are suspended until at least March 2, schools are experimenting with creating an interactive educational experience for homebound students using Zoom, according to the South China Morning Post.
  • For some companies, telework may prove a boon — a 2015 Stanford University study found that productivity among call center employees at one Chinese travel agency increased by 13% when they worked from home.
"The combination of limiting travel due to coronavirus fears and the desire to lower carbon footprints tells me that we may have reached videoconferencing’s moment."
— Fred Wilson, co-founder of Union Square Ventures, writes

But, but, but: Not every business can easily operate remotely.

  • Apple has warned investors it expects to fall short of its revenue goals as its China factories slowly reopen after forced closures.
  • Worse is the possibility that the coronavirus could disrupt the global supply chains that produce the medicines and protective gear needed to combat the outbreak itself.

As the coronavirus spreads around the world, it's inevitable that we'll see more office closures. If employees can't work remotely, the economic effects of the virus could rival the human toll.

  • SARS killed fewer than 1,000 people, but travel and trade disruptions cost the global economy an estimated $40 billion.
  • The coronavirus has already infected and killed far more people than SARS, and it's brought a far more important China to a standstill. Analysts at Oxford Economics estimate that an international coronavirus outbreak could cost the global economy more than $1 trillion.

The bottom line: Investing in resilient remote work infrastructure can soften the economic blow of a pandemic, says David Henshall, CEO of the remote work company Citrix. "This is where remote work can stand up to the challenge."

3. Dual-use dilemma in synthesizing the coronavirus

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A lab in North Carolina is working to synthesize a sample of the coronavirus from its genetic code, according to MIT Technology Review.

Why it matters: Creating a pathogen from scratch would allow researchers to rapidly experiment on it without waiting for live samples from an outbreak zone.

  • But it also raises the risk that someone could eventually try to recreate a dangerous virus as a weapon.

Driving the news: Coronavirus expert Ralph Baric at the University of North Carolina took the genetic code of the pathogen, posted online last month by Chinese researchers, and ordered custom DNA.

  • He will be able to stitch the genes together into a virus indistinguishable from the one that has so far infected more than 81,000 people and killed more than 2,700, MIT Tech's Antonio Regalado writes.
  • "This is the future in terms of how the medical research community responds to a new threat,” Baric told Regalado.

Once they've synthesized the virus, researchers will be able to edit it as they might a document, adding and subtracting genes in an effort to understand how it spreads and sickens.

  • Past disease events like the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic and the 2014 Ebola outbreak often ran their course before new countermeasures could be developed and distributed.
  • Synthesizing the virus could help health officials move almost as fast as the pathogen itself.

The catch: If a virus can be synthesized from nothing more than its genetic code and mail-order DNA, it means a deadly pathogen can never really be eliminated.

  • The International Gene Synthesis Consortium, a group of DNA synthesis companies that screens gene orders, prohibits its members from synthesizing the gene sequences of dangerous viruses like smallpox. Only labs registered with the CDC to work with SARS — as Baric's is — will be able to order a complete synthetic copy of the new coronavirus.
  • But the consortium only represents 80% of the global DNA synthesis market.

My thought bubble: Synthesizing viruses from scratch still requires considerable resources and skill. But as that changes, synthetic biology will present a troubling dual-use dilemma — the same tools that could help counter an outbreak could be employed to create one.

Read more

4. Two visions for the climate in 2050

Christiana Figueres at the 2019 Web Summit. Photo: NurPhoto/Contributor

Two architects of the Paris Agreement are presenting a pair of possible scenarios for the Earth's climate in 2050 — one in which we've met the carbon reduction targets laid out in the agreement, and one in which we've failed.

  • The authors argue we have a decade left to pick which path the planet will take: catastrophe or hope.

Background: Former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres and climate diplomat Tom Rivett-Carnac were instrumental in guiding the Paris climate accord, which committed countries to reducing carbon emissions sufficiently to keep global temperature rise below at least 2° C by 2100.

What's new: In their book published yesterday, "The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis," the pair sketch out what the climate could look like by mid-century, depending on whether we meet the Paris goals.

  • If we succeed, they foresee a world where forests cover half the land surface, air pollution has disappeared and fossil fuels have been eliminated.
  • If we fail, warming will be on a pace for a 3°C increase by 2050, the air will become unbreathable and the very future of human civilization will be in doubt.

What they're saying: "If we continue where we are now, we are going to be irreparably going down a course of constant destruction," Figueres told The Guardian. Altering that path will require sharp technological and political change, especially in the United States.

The bottom line: The choices made in 2020 will help decide the climate in 2050.

5. Worthy of your time

The end of Moore's Law (David Rotman — MIT Technology Review)

Waiting for the end of the world (Lauren Groff — Harper's)

The future of housing may be $2,000 dorm rooms for grownups (Andrew Zaleski — OneZero)

Gary Kasparov has made peace with AI (Will Knight — Wired)

The city that sees all (Grady McGregor — Fortune)

6. 1 back to the future thing: Alternative meats

Burger King's Impossible Whopper. Photo: NurPhoto/Contributor

This may be a newsletter about the future, but look hard enough and you’ll see that what’s new is almost always old.

The market for plant-based meats is exploding — but there's a long history to developing a tasty burger without the beef, according to Retro Report.

The backstory: Frances Moore Lappé's bestseller "Diet for a Small Planet" was published nearly 50 years ago. The book was one of the first to make the environmental case against eating meat, per Retro Report.

  • But while Lappé wanted readers to forgo animal protein altogether, other environmentalists suspected Americans were more likely to opt for vegetarian products that looked —somewhat — like the meat dishes they loved.
  • Hence Tofurky, introduced by Scott Tibbott in 1995.

A Tofurky roast won't fool anyone who grew up on turkey for Thanksgiving. But the alternative burgers produced by startups like Impossible Foods are shifting plant-based meats out of the health food aisle and into Burger King.

Go deeper: The next frontier for plant-based meat

Bryan Walsh