The coronavirus will influence everyday life in the foreseeable future – and it also sets track for three world-scale revolutions hurtling forward: the atomic, the digital, and the genomic revolution. An essay on the pandemic's enormous impact by Daniel Hamilton, Professor at Johns Hopkins University and currently fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.
is Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC. He has been a senior U.S. diplomat and has also taught at various universities in Europe. Daniel Hamilton has had a long cooperative relationship with the Robert Bosch Stiftung. In 2008 he served as the first Robert Bosch Foundation Senior Diplomatic Fellow in the German Foreign Office. He is currently a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.
What will the world look like after the corona hurricane has passed? So far, most answers have focused on the impact of the plague itself – societies in lockdown, health systems in turmoil, economies in crisis, national and international institutions weakened. Getting humanity back on its feet is such a massive challenge that decision-makers are understandably focused on the immediate task at hand.
We will have better eyes for our post-corona reality, however, if we lift our gaze and consider how the world-shattering forces set loose by the pandemic are influencing, and being influenced by, three other global-scale revolutions, derived from the discovery of what Albert Einstein’s biographer Walter Isaacson calls “the three fundamental kernels of our existence: the atom, the bit, and the gene.”
The revolutions around the atom, the bit, and the gene
The atomic revolution, brought to us by Einstein and his fellow physicists, gave us transistors and semiconductors; lasers, radar, clean electricity and GPS; nuclear medicine and particle accelerators. It put us on the moon and has pushed us to Mars and beyond. It has also given us atomic, hydrogen and neutron bombs; mutually assured destruction (appropriately shortened to MAD); radioactive waste; Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima.
The digital revolution, driven by our ability to encode binary digits known as bits, is connecting people and continents as never before. It has given us the computer and the Internet, smartphones and social media, 3D printing, the Internet of Things, 5G technologies, precision agriculture, and artificial intelligence. It has also disrupted entire industries, accelerated income disparities and widened skills gaps. It has produced hackers and trolls, the dark web and autonomous weapons. It has amplified racism, fueled xenophobia, and stoked many other forms of prejudice and hate. It has given rise to surveillance states and empowered autocrats to suppress dissent.
The genomic revolution, driven by our ability to sequence our genes and those of every living thing, is giving us possibilities to develop new medicines and vaccines, detect and deter viruses, and anticipate and repair mutations – all more precisely and personally than ever before. That same knowledge, however, can be used to make viruses more virulent, render the synthesis and modification of viruses and bacteria for criminal purposes more likely, produce the raw materials for building known and unknown pathogens from scratch, even create pathogenic bioweapons.
How COVID-19 sets the course
Not only has each revolution transformed the human prospect; each has entered a new stage. The largely bipolar nuclear order of the Cold War has given way to a diffuse unorder of multiple nuclear powers. The role of arms control and other mechanisms to govern nuclear competition is deteriorating, the threshold for nuclear use is falling, the ability of non-state actors to access nuclear materials is growing, and the capacity of non-nuclear weapons to inflict destruction equal to their nuclear counterparts is rising.
The digital revolution based on bits of 1s and 0s looks soon to be superseded by the transformative power of “qubits,” which can be 1 and 0 at the same time, and thus generate quantum volume that will enable future computers to do in a minute what current ones do in a year. One consequence will be that digital encryption systems will be hackable, endangering secure flows of people, money, goods and services.
The next phase of the genomics revolution is perhaps the most profound: it is transforming humans from biological rule-takers to rule-makers. The ability to augment our brains and our bodies and those of future generations raises profound ethical, legal, political and security issues about the very meaning of the word “human.”
As these world-scale revolutions hurtle forward, COVID-19 is flashing green, yellow and red for the road ahead.
Where we must stop, and then start again
The pandemic is flashing green for the digital revolution. When the hurricane subsides, more government services will be online, more people will work and learn more flexibly. E-commerce is surging and contactless commerce is emerging; both herald the arrival of a conversational economy whose operating system will be the human voice. Digital finance is transforming the way we move and spend our money; it holds promise for deploying funds more nimbly to places and people in need.
The plague is also flashing green for the digital-genomic frontier. Digital tools are powering an unprecedented worldwide sharing of gene sequencing data to track the disease and find a vaccine. Artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT) could limit the spread of other pathogens. This year the first humans will deploy digital gene-editors inside their bodies to fight disease. Telemedicine is booming; telesurgery is next.
The virus is flashing yellow, however, when it comes to our ability to manage the consequences of our own innovative power. Contact tracing has helped to flatten the curve, but raises privacy concerns. Genomic techniques such as xenotransplantation – transferring animal organs into humans – should give us pause at a time when humanity is being assaulted by a virus that jumped the species line. And this crippling health crisis should make us ponder anew the world-scale devastation that could be possible if we fail to address global nuclear disorder. Human-induced climate change is a slow-moving pandemic that threatens the health of the planet, yet treaties and accords have done little to stop its advance.
“The 'national security' world of the atomic age must make room for the transnational security realities of the post-corona era.”
Where COVID-19 is flashing red – where we must stop, and then start again – is the dysfunction of global institutions, most of which were designed for the state-centric world of the 20th century, rather than for the overlapping state-centric, network-centric, and health-centric challenges of the 21st century.
At the dawn of the nuclear age, Einstein noted that “the release of atom power changed everything except our way of thinking.” At that time, we didn’t even have the words to describe how such a revolutionary force would change the world. We needed a completely new vocabulary.
So it is again today. The “national security” world of the atomic age must make room for the transnational security realities of the post-corona era. Governments accustomed to protecting their territories must think harder about how to protect their connectedness – the flows of food, medicine, goods, services, money, people and ideas that are the lifeblood of their nations’ well-being. Go-go globalization networks built to maximize efficiency and speed need to make space for diversification and redundancy. As the EU learned from the current crisis, it can be dangerous to be overly dependent on one source for critical materials – in this case pharmaceuticals and medical supplies from China. “Just in time” delivery must be balanced by “just in case” resilience.
Most importantly, we must move beyond a country-by-country “stockpile” mentality that drives governments to compete in a hopeless race to protect themselves against specific pathogens. The genomic revolution has given us the knowledge to be able to eliminate large epidemics of infectious disease in our lifetimes. We have the capacity to create a network-centric, health-centric “rapid reaction” capacity to produce and deliver whatever vaccines and medicines will be needed, to defeat whatever plagues may arise, wherever they appear. We can enhance our health as we enhance our security. But we must first change our ways. That will require imagination, commitment and leadership.