Before the pandemic, there was talk of an impending ‘Great Stagnation’ — that the world economy was doomed to lackluster growth because we were in a technological rut. But COVID — and lockdown — have changed that, making us reevaluate how we understand the timescale of innovation. Early on there was much doubt over the prospect of a vaccine because they normally take at least 10 years to develop. Now, in the space of 10 months, we have six working ones. The same creative catalyst that saw the vaccine rolled out at breakneck speed is active across a variety of sectors, hastening the arrival of emerging technologies, from transport and energy to medicine and science, and even in the financial world.
Take transportation and energy: the demand for driverless cars and delivery vans boomed last year because people were fearful of getting infected. In response companies quickly scaled up their plans. Last October, for example, Waymo announced the launch of a taxi service that is fully driverless. Walmart announced in December its plans to use fully autonomous box trucks to make deliveries in Arkansas later this year. As retail goes online as a result of the pandemic, massive delivery volumes are now placing greater pressure on others to follow suit.
Meanwhile the aviation and space sectors are also getting creative. Supersonic air travel may return, 20 years after the retirement of Concorde. Boom Supersonic, a startup, will test the XB-1 this year as a prelude to a larger aircraft capable of carrying up to 90 passengers at twice the speed of sound. Airbus has given itself five years to develop a commercially viable aircraft that runs on hydrogen, a Herculean task that could revolutionize the whole aviation industry. SpaceX could be working on a human mission to Mars by the end of the decade.
Two researchers from Cambridge and Columbia have even suggested building a space elevator they call the Spaceline. This would involve extending a line, anchored on the moon, to deep within Earth’s gravity well. Its purpose? To have a cable allowing free movement from Earth to the Moon. Ideas once imagined as long-term projects are now treated as achievable aims. COVID could have accelerated development not only of greener vehicles and travel, but energy production itself. Scientists are now developing a compact (trash-can-sized) version of a nuclear fusion reactor, renewing hopes that the long-elusive goal of mimicking the way the sun produces energy might be achieved and eventually contribute to the fight against climate change.
Geothermal options, too, seem poised for a big breakout. With better drilling technology, it may finally be possible to scale up and become a major player in clean energy. In fact, if the technology’s more enthusiastic backers are correct, geothermal may hold the key to making 100 percent clean electricity available to everyone in the world.
There are also unmistakable signs that a new age of technological change has begun in medicine, following the vaccine success. Indeed, the ability to encode and deploy messenger RNA in our bodies will have applications far beyond the new vaccines. The potential of mRNA lies less in its platform: the ability to code a vaccine to hit a variety of targets. Both Moderna and BioNTech have vaccine candidates targeting cancer. BioNTech has made progress already: four years ago it reported that all of the first 13 people with advanced-stage melanoma to receive its personalized immunotherapy showed elevated immunity against the mutated bits of their tumors. Moderna reported similar findings.
Then there are developments in our understanding of the way proteins fold up in 3D. To function properly, the body’s proteins (which make up more or less everything) must be correctly folded into specific shapes. If proteins are misfolded, they don’t function properly and disease — Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s — can follow. But predicting the 3D structure of proteins has long been one of biology’s most problematic challenges.
Now, however, it may be on the way to a solution. Four months ago, DeepMind trained its AI system to develop highly accurate predictions of the underlying physical structure of proteins. Why is this significant? Because knowing the structure of every protein that the human body can produce will likely allow us to determine which molecules would be good templates for drugs to treat a variety of awful diseases.
The breakthrough was remarkable not just because of its predictable impact on biomedicine and health, but also because it shows, perhaps for the first time, what machine learning can achieve. As the technology commentator Eli Dourado has pointed out, most applications of machine-learning so far are essentially toys. But protein folding is the real deal: computers have proved able to think of real solutions to serious medical problems.
Would we have seen this advancement without COVID? It seems highly doubtful that it would have happened so quickly. The pandemic has not only sped us up, it has made us more open to risk and disruption. We can expect many more scientific developments with profound benefits.
The pandemic was also the moment when Bitcoin went mainstream. Having continued to grow and solidify in previous years, the cryptocurrency was perhaps always destined for a successful year, but COVID contributed. As central banks announced larger stimulus packages, Bitcoin became a shield against inflationary dynamics. Dollar weakness was a dominant factor, but for many investors it was also a question of looking in new directions after traditional investment strategies failed to respond to an unexpected external shock.
As historians argue about the profound consequences of COVID-19 for how societies will be organized in the future — and many singular theories are put forward — the answer is staring us in the face. The pandemic is not the beginning of the Chinese century. It is not the end of globalization or the return of socialism. What is starting today is a new age of technological wonder, the Great Acceleration.
Bruno Maçães was the Portuguese Europe minister from 2013-2015 and is the author of History Has Begun (Hurst 2020). His book on the pandemic will be out in September. This article was originally published in The Spectator’s April 2021 US edition.