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