2020 was a year like no other in modern history. A once-in-a-generation pandemic caused widespread tragedy and upended much of daily life as we knew it.
Around the world, there was also a common collective effort to solve the monumental challenges created by Covid-19. This has led to some huge breakthroughs, including in the pace and methods used to develop vaccines.
As we look ahead to 2021, the challenge of overcoming Covid-19 still stands before us. The primary focus is on rolling out vaccines, but as worries about new variants come to the fore, we really do need to act at warp speed to get shots in arms and take additional measures if necessary.
However, if the pandemic is public enemy number one, there are a number of other issues that should be on our hitlist today. On issues such as green energy, food production and health, we should be looking at how we do more from less. And in order to achieve this, technology and innovation will be essential.
The key questions for policymakers then becomes: How do we incentivise and stimulate these technologies, and how do we encourage progress? Or put another way: Covid-19 has provided a forcing function that has accelerated progress in many areas, but post-crisis, how do we create a similar sense of urgency for issues key to our collective future?
To look at some of the challenges we face and some of the solutions we have in place, we asked a number of the world’s leading thinkers what their “moonshots” would be, and what grand visions for society we should pursue today.
They encompass health, energy, space, food and more, with contributions from the following people:
David B. Agus
“Biology can solve all our biggest challenges”
Vijay Pande, General Partner, Andreessen Horowitz
Our biggest problems today are biological in nature. Climate change, global hunger, even disease: All of these are nature’s response to systems we designed attempting to manage biology – taming it, or working around it. We used tools like chemical engineering to optimise for output over process, then hoped biology would take care of itself, only introducing more problems (c.f., petroleum!).
But we are entering a fundamentally new era, with tools that allow us to engineer biological solutions to biological problems. Because of technologies that greatly increase how we read, write and edit biology at all scales – from molecules to cells to organisms – we are building revolutionary new capabilities in both design and prediction: the hallmarks of an engineering approach. So although faced with the greatest biological crises humankind has ever seen, we need no longer wait for a miracle (discovery) to solve them.
Whether through engineering nature to reimagine energy creation, distribution and use, through engineering healthy food to be produced sustainably at scale, or through engineering our health-care system and the therapeutics we use to fight and prevent disease within our own bodies, we will soon use biology itself to solve not just one but all of our worst biological problems.
“Space does not offer an escape from Earth’s problems”
Professor Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal
Since 1972, no human has travelled more than a few hundred miles from Earth, and to today's young people the exploits of Neil Armstrong and the Apollo Program are ancient history. But space technology has burgeoned, and we depend on it every day. It has benefited from the reduction in launch costs and by the miniaturisation familiar from smartphones. There are plans to launch thousands of microsatellites into low orbit, to provide global broadband coverage, and a few dozen shoebox-size satellites could provide a huge flow of environmental data. One system claims to observe every tree in the world, every day.
But what about human spaceflight? Advances in robotics and AI erode the practical need for astronauts. Nonetheless, I hope people will follow the robots, though it will be as adventurers rather than for practical goals. NASA's manned programme, ever since Apollo, has been impeded by public and political pressure and become exceedingly risk-averse. But private-enterprise ventures bring a Silicon Valley culture into a domain long-dominated by NASA. A few aerospace conglomerates can cut costs and tolerate higher risks than a government. It is these ventures that should front manned missions.
Within this century, courageous thrill-seekers may establish “bases” independent from the Earth. But don't ever expect mass emigration. It is a dangerous delusion to think that space offers an escape from Earth's problems. We've got to solve them here. Coping with climate change is a doddle compared to terraforming Mars. Nowhere in our solar system offers an environment even as clement as the Antarctic or the top of Everest. There truly is no Planet B for ordinary risk-averse people.
"Coping with climate change is a doddle compared to terraforming Mars."
“Our interplanetary communication network is growing stronger”
Vint Cerf, VP & Chief Internet Evangelist, Google
Wonder about the universe has captivated our imaginations for millennia. Human eyes, aided by telescopes, have been cataloguing outer space only in the past few hundred years. Only in the last half-century or so have we been able to pursue this ambition physically with spacecraft that have now penetrated into interstellar space. Our appetite for further exploration is, if anything, increasing with our capacity to satisfy that urge. Since 1998, a small group of researchers have been extrapolating their experiences with the internet to conceive and develop protocols for an interplanetary extension.
Distances in space are literally astronomical. The planets are rotating, interrupting communications from the surface. The TCP/IP protocols of the internet will not work well under these conditions, and a new suite of Delay and Disruption Tolerant (DTN) protocols has been developed to cope with these constraints. Prototype software for DTN has been delivering data from Mars since 2004. The latest protocols are on board the International Space Station and are standardised by the UN Consultative Committee on Space Data Systems and also by the Internet Engineering Task Force. This next decade will see the deployment of a growing interplanetary communication network in support of both manned and robotic missions.
“Technology is needed to solve climate change”
Vinod Khosla, Founder, Khosla Ventures
Of all the challenges currently facing humanity, reducing carbon emissions is the largest and hardest to solve. But if entrepreneurs, with support from policymakers, can focus on innovations in 12 key high-emission industries, the impact will be more profound than the next hundred efforts combined. The climate emergency can be solved only if we tackle these.
The dozen areas of innovation needed to make a large dent in a substantial portion of carbon emissions are as follows: (1) electric vehicles and automotive batteries; (2) food and agriculture, especially meat; (3) low-carbon transportation: air transportation (jet fuel), shipping (electrofuels, biofuels); (4) cement or substitute construction material; (5) low-carbon dispatchable electricity generation (fusion, geothermal, nuclear); (6) public transit; (7) grid storage (long-duration battery storage); (8) HVAC; (9) industrial processes (hydrogen); (10) fertiliser (hydrogen); (11) water; and (12) steel.
Policy alone will not be sufficient to drive this change. It is entrepreneurs who will develop the technologies needed to “solve” climate change. These entrepreneurs will be the “instigators” who prove to establishment players that transformation is possible. Whether these early entrepreneurs are successful or they fail, they will help to change conventional wisdom and make the seemingly impossible possible in each of the segments critical to climate and sustainability. And traditional players may then come in to scale the new approaches.
Efforts are underway that lead me to be hopeful, but if we are to effect change by 2040 through the mass adoption of low-carbon technologies in these 12 areas, they will need to be somewhat “proven” by 2025.
“Fusion is the process that powers the stars”
Bob Mumgaard, CEO, Commonwealth Fusion Systems
Commonwealth Fusion Systems was founded with the mission to deliver a fundamentally new source of clean energy to the world to combat climate change. Fusion is the process that powers the stars. It’s the most abundant source of energy in the universe. Scientists have created fusion in devices around the world for decades, yet we have not yet been able to harness it as an energy source. However, we are making significant progress towards this goal as more and more private companies and governments emerge with accelerated plans to bring fusion to market.
If realised, fusion power would offer a new carbon free, safe, dispatchable source of energy that would disrupt the world’s energy landscape. Fusion is the type of bold innovation we need to meet the world’s increasing demand for electricity and decarbonise our planet to make meaningful progress towards combating climate change. We envision a future with thousands of fusion power plants providing clean energy around the world.
"Fusion is the type of bold innovation we need to meet the world’s increasing demand for electricity and decarbonise our planet."
“We need to reimagine our future in the AI economy”
Kai-Fu Lee, Chairman & CEO, Sinovation Ventures
Artificial intelligence brings the promise of economic growth, of unparalleled technological benefits, of people relieved of the burden of repetitive work, and of the chance to refocus our lives on creativity and human connectedness. But with this opportunity comes the huge challenge of job displacement. To face this, we need to reimagine our future in this new AI economy. We are the generation that will inherit the unprecedented wealth from AI, so we must also bear the responsibility to reorient our economies and ourselves.
We will need to raise an astronomical amount of money and redistribute it to fund this transition; to retrain a huge number of displaced workers; to reinvent education to produce creative, social and multidisciplinary students and to redefine the work ethic of society and our work/life balance. This amounts to complete rethinking of how we live and work, and we all have a role to play: citizens, corporations and governments.
As we look back at the year that has passed and what lies ahead, let us start with an honest acknowledgment that critical discussions about ethics in AI and technology remain tethered to the echelons of prestigious universities influenced by powerful tech companies. These privileged perspectives are detached from the lived experiences of those rendered invisible by the entrenched power structures that dictate who gets access to and benefits from these technologies.
My “moonshot” for 2021 and beyond is building a world where we realise the true promise of AI and technology for everyone, not just for the privileged and powerful. We reframe incentive structures such that they are guided by the aspirations and needs of minoritised communities, not maximising of shareholder value. We fund responsible innovation where discussions about ethics are not merely a thought exercise in academic circles or eloquent speeches to make questionable technologies more palatable but rather are a true reflection of marginalised voices across gender, race, orientation, ability, region and socio-economic status.
“We must elevate the best of humanity to achieve a more equitable, sustainable future”
Brad Smith, President, Microsoft Corporation
Although the steady march of technological and social progress has made our world more connected, better resourced, and more advanced than ever before, this rising tide has not lifted every boat. As a result, we see widening gaps in quality of life across geographies and demographics. Even for seemingly borderless challenges like the pandemic and climate change, the impacts are often borne disproportionately by the most vulnerable.
Closing these gaps in opportunities and consequences – many of them systemic – represents one of our greatest challenges. While each issue requires its own toolset, they all share a need for us to work together. Our approach to problem-solving must be not just multilateral but also multi-stakeholder – bringing citizens, governments, civil society and the private sector into a common conversation. Democracies clearly have a special role to play here, and so does technology. As the response to the pandemic has shown, thoughtful technology can help build bridges, overcome barriers and achieve extraordinary feats. But we also must stand guard against the pitfalls of innovation and never absolve ourselves of responsibility for them. Shaping our future is ultimately a human endeavour, and elevating the best of humanity will be key to achieving a more equitable, inclusive and sustainable future.
“Technology can help democratise health outcomes around the world”
David B. Agus, MD, Professor of Medicine and Engineering, Founding Director & CEO, Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine of USC
In 1948, Claude Shannon penned a paper that laid the foundation for information theory and modern-day computers. He solved the issue of error in data streams, which was thought to limit the ability to accurately transmit or calculate large data streams, through redundancy and error correction, enabling the explosion of computing technology and the digital economy. Health data is now at that same critical juncture that computation found itself 70 years ago. We currently have the ability globally to collect health data in a standardised way, analyse it and interpret it – and to use this information to improve care. Very simply, health will transition to be data-driven at the individual level with a feedback loop.
Presently, doctors’ offices and hospitals are the health-care data collectors, and they do so episodically, whenever a patient visits their office or facility. They are then reactive to anything abnormal that’s found. But soon, data collection will switch to the home and to places in the world that historically haven’t had the required equipment. It will be more frequent and go into structured databases (in a privacy-protected way). This will then enable patients to receive medical advice through an AI-driven system that learns from and makes correctors based on data from others in the database. Globally, health care will evolve one day to become a monitoring system, empowered by technology, that can help with disease prevention and early detection, as well as data-driven treatment. This is an exciting future: the lower cost and ease of use will democratise better health outcomes and care will converge to the same quality across the globe.
“We expect to dramatically extend healthspan”
Michael Snyder, Chairman & Professor, Department of Genetics, Stanford
Our management of human health has been driven primarily by response to the onset of disease when medical attention is sought and needed to diagnose causes and address symptoms. While massive progress has been made in this area, this approach nonetheless misses the most important aspect: How can we maintain health? Is that ache innocent or not? Has that new diet made a real difference?
The way we currently access health care and medical research has made getting answers to these kinds of questions harder: It is just not feasible to have thousands of participants come into a central clinic for even just one kind of scientific measurement, let alone the thousands of measurements we’re now capable of generating! But with a smart combination of wearable biosensors that can be used for health monitoring and remote collection of blood and saliva samples and their subsequent rapid analyses, it is now possible to monitor health for large numbers of people at low cost while bringing health management to millions of people who presently lack any health care. Moreover, coupled with intervention in lifestyle (e.g., diet, exercise) and individualised plans driven by machine learning and AI, we expect to see human health switch to personalised prevention and management plans to dramatically extend healthspan.
“Virtual worlds will offer the chance of more life”
Herman Narula, Co-Founder & CEO, Improbable
The way we live and work is becoming virtual. The pandemic lockdowns have given us a clearer glimpse of a more digital future, and the challenge will be for us to understand, anticipate and adapt. A revolution in how we build and interact with virtual worlds is coming – one that will substantially alter the way we think of our economies and our connections between one another.
A tipping point towards these “multiversal” digital lives will be when objects and experiences in a virtual world become just as meaningful to humans as the same things in the real world. Younger generations are already finding meaning online, cutting across cultural and geographic boundaries to find common ground and shared value in making, watching and participating in games and game-like social experiences.
Soon the technology will reach a point where it will be possible for thousands, even millions of people to inhabit persistent, immersive virtual worlds. New economies and new societies will spring up and our challenge will be to come together as humans in these new shared experiences. This will not be an either/or choice between the real world and the virtual. These new worlds will offer the chance of more life – more of the things that fulfil us and make us human.
“We can produce food out of thin air”
Pasi Vainikka, Co-Founder & CEO, Solar Foods
The global food system causes multiple problems: burning forest for agricultural land, loss of natural habitat, eutrophication, extensive irrigation and use of pesticides, continuous decline in marine catch, animal-originated pandemics, methane emissions by ruminants, extinction of species, vulnerability to extreme weather and more.
All are due to the need for increasing use of natural resources to respond to increasing global demand for food. The solution has been the extrapolation of conventional agriculture since it was invented thousands of years ago.
However, recently, we have learned something new: to produce eggs without a chicken, milk without a cow and meat without killing. This technological breakthrough will make industrialised animal keeping – the key environmental problem – absurd.
This will happen faster than we think, but developments do not end there. We are today producing food out of thin air by applying fermentation technology. The gift to society of this technology is that it disconnects food production from agriculture for the first time. We are already producing nutritious protein and in the future, we will be able to produce food identical to today’s soy, egg, milk or meat. It means the concept of “animal” can be removed from the equation for good.
"Recently, we have learned something new: to produce meat without killing. This technological breakthrough will make industrialised animal keeping absurd."
“Food technology inspired by nature’s own efficiencies can feed our growing population”
Thomas Jonas, Co-Founder & CEO, Nature’s Fynd
The single greatest challenge for decades to come is how we feed everyone. Ensuring our growing population has access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food, specifically high-quality protein, is critical. So, our problem becomes one of managing our shrinking resources to feed our growing population. Simply put: How can we do more with less?
Fortunately, new technologies are being developed that allow us to do just that. These technologies will be scaled in the coming years, enabling us to deliver nutritious food using just a fraction of the land, water and energy of traditional agriculture. It is critical that governments and regulators see themselves as enablers in scaling those technologies at an accelerated pace. We must prioritise bringing food innovations to the forefront through collaborative efforts and policies that overcome long-standing resistance to change.
To tackle this challenge, our company has developed a food technology inspired by nature’s own efficiencies. Our liquid-air interface fermentation innovation grows a nutritional fungi protein, creating a complete protein efficiently at scale. We then turn this into a variety of meat and dairy alternatives, across flavours and cuisines. That’s how we’ll help do more with less, for ourselves and future generations to come.
“Agriculture doesn’t lack for data – it needs better organisation of data to feed 10 billion”
Sonia Lo, CEO, Sensei Ag
Data is collected in the millions of data points every second around the world, in food and agriculture systems. In lesser developed economies, informational offers abound, to help even the smallest small-hold farmer. However, this is not relevant or helpful in the absence of the attendant ecosystem infrastructure of financing; robust, weather-resistant and inexpensive physical facilities in which to farm; and real-time feedback for the farmers about their critical inputs. The world today is capable of imaging and analysing every edible plant on the planet and yet there isn’t an international data infrastructure to be able to do that. We believe that indoor agriculture can transform the way we capture data about edible plants, help transform land and water usage at least tenfold through better use of that data, and be part of the critical new infrastructure of post-pandemic economies. Organising data across countries and providing unified data sets across climates and crops not only helps individual farmers but also enables a new generation of “agricultural fintech” which helps those farmers with much needed, but now, well informed capital. Our vision is to enable the building of a multitude of indoor farm types – to stabilise food supply around the world but also to build the next generation data sets for all farmers.
“We need new advances in transportation to reshape the world”
Daniel Wiegand, CEO & Co-Founder, Lilium
If you consider all the technological progress of the last 50 years, it’s remarkable how little change we saw in transportation. Travelling by car, train or airplane did not get significantly faster and, meanwhile, some limitations have become clear. Our roads are too congested, but new road or rail infrastructure is extremely costly and CO2-intensive. Passenger jets emit too much C02 and are limited by large airports. I think the greatest challenge for transport today is to reduce trip time and accelerate how we travel while making it sustainable.
At Lilium, we are one of the leading developers of electric Vertical Take Off and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft. Battery technology has reached an inflection point allowing us to build electric jet aircraft which shuttle between city centres. These aircraft enable emissions-free, high-speed mobility without the need to build new infrastructure. We are already working with cities and governments helping to alleviate urban congestion using this technology, saving billion-dollar investments in rail tracks and road.
You have to look back to milestones such as the introduction of motorways, high-speed rails or long-haul commercial flights for advances in transportation that truly reshaped the world. Like those revolutions, I believe eVTOL jets will help solve some of the most pressing problems in mobility of our time.
“Solving the world’s challenges requires true global collaboration”
Andrew Chung, Founder & Managing Partner, 1955 Capital
Many of the world’s great challenges don't recognise borders and cause harm without regard for race, nationality or politics: how to grow the world’s food supply sustainably by billions of tons, deliver clean water to a billion people, save the 7 million lives lost annually due to air pollution, mitigate climate change, and effectively treat fast-growing diseases like heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Revolutionary scientific advances in animal-free foods, gene editing, vehicle electrification, energy storage, sustainable manufacturing, gene-based health diagnostics, new therapeutic discovery and delivery platforms, and AI-driven surgical robotics are the key to solving these challenges.
However, breakthrough technology is not sufficient on its own. The most cutting-edge research is often performed in countries missing the survival-driven need located elsewhere, including in developing countries. Investor interest, corporate imperatives, government support and consumer urgency – typically found where the need is greatest – are not always matched with the technology being developed. The world’s greatest challenge then is not the absence of “moonshot” solutions, but rather the difficulty of working across borders to allow such advances to access markets with the most severe need. Solving this will require policymakers to lower barriers to cross-border collaboration and to enable innovators to find trusted partners in regions desperate for their inventions. Technologists can no longer operate in silos and must let their solutions serve as an olive branch to unify nations against common obstacles.