Jan 1, 2020: 10 Black Swan Surprises for the 2020s

Jan 31, 2020 Update: These predictions were meant to be about this decade not this month. These predictions were written in the weeks leading up to Jan 1: the Pandemic prediction was written before news of the SARS-CoV-2 (novel coronavirus) spreading in Wuhan broke in the US.

Below are 10 predictions for surprises that I think could take place in the 2020s, the likelihood of which is underestimated by the average professional investor. My subjective definition for a Black Swan Surprise is an event to which a professional investor would assign about a 1-5% probability of taking place, but that I think has at least a 20% chance of occurring. Meaning that while the average professional investor would expect on average zero of the below to occur, I would not be surprised if at least two of the items below happen in the 2020s.

I have not attempted to rank these predictions, so am simply putting them in alphabetical order.

  1. Cures: The 2020s could be a decade of cures. Cancer, aging, chronic diseases, cardiovascular health, diabetes, stroke, respiratory function, mental health and a host of other conditions could see step-function improvements in treatment. Maybe even cures. Probably through significant advances leveraging personalized medicine, AI/ML, novel datasets, genetics, gene therapy, digital and behavioral health, connected devices, and targeted therapeutics manufactured & delivered in innovative ways.
  2. First Contact: I think discovering a nearby earth size planet in a star’s habitable zone is extremely likely to happen soon. The step after that is likely spectral analysis of a Goldilocks-zone planet’s atmosphere confirming liquid water, gaseous oxygen, methane gas, or some other sign of an ability to support life or gaseous evidence of biological activity. This step is much harder to do with current sensor technology and techniques than simply detecting the planet’s presence. So while I am not necessarily predicting actual “first contact” communication with an extraterrestrial intelligence (although something like the Wow! signal could certainly be repeated and I personally believe some compelling technosignature candidates will emerge this decade), I do think the 2020s will see a steep accumulation of evidence towards the probable existence of extraterrestrial biological activity / life. Most intelligent life capable of sending interstellar signals is probably smart enough to recognize that the game theory of doing so is not rational, and so likely won’t send such signals in the first place — my favorite explanation of the Fermi paradox. That said, such human activity serves as an existence proof that species would do so. Per the indefatigable trajectory of science (astronomy in particular) proving that humans are not exceptional (the Earth is not the center of the universe, our solar system is not the only star system with orbiting habitable-zone planets, i.e., the Copernican principle) we’re probably not that unique in the cosmos and there may be other semi-intelligent signal-senders.
  3. Fusion Energy: Net energy output from a fusion reactor could very well be achieved in the 2020s. More interesting would be if output is at meaningful magnitude. More game-changing still would be if fusion energy production that’s economically competitive with traditional sources is achieved. This would be a massive boon for the planet and for human society, and would change the game in myriad ways (e.g., mass scale desalination and irrigation, redefining the cost equation in mining, material production/refinement/recycling, manufacture, transportation, spawning a new wave of innovation in energy storage technologies).
  4. Mars: Prediction is an OR statement — either humans reach mars in the 2020s or a non-government entity (probably SpaceX, but could be one of the other players) reaches Mars with an unmanned mission (the significance here would be that it’s a private company/organization reaching another planet).
  5. Nation-Level Cryptocurrencies: Several nations could re-architect or complement their existing national currencies using digital ledger technology. The countries that do this may benefit from their currency becoming an increasingly popular medium of exchange due to lower transactional friction.
  6. Natural or Anthropogenic Disaster: Aside from the intensifying climate crisis (which I’m not including in this list as I think the average professional investor would ascribe a more than 5% probability to continued climate crisis-related economic impact, therefore it does not fit the definition of a Black Swan), some other major natural disaster could occur. Like a major shift in biological patterns (likely due to humans) that has massive impact (shifting balance of bacteria, insects, fungi, etc.), a major earthquake in the Bay Area or other highly populous and under-prepared urban center, a large volcano or supervolcano eruption, a significant magnetic pole shift, space object impact, nuclear detonation, a solar coronal mass ejection (like the Carrington Event) etc. To be clear, I am not suggesting there is any reason to think the odds of an earthquake, volcanic eruption, solar coronal mass ejection, space object impact, etc. are higher this decade than any other.
  7. New HCI: Mass adoption of deeper/more tightly integrated HCI (Human Computer Interface). Could take the form of AR glasses or contact lenses, other HUD (heads-up display) tech, ambient computing using voice and natural language interfaces (ubiquitous airpods/minimalist headphones, smart speakers, etc.), eye tracking and other gesture-based input and output, and perhaps novel or dramatically improved BCI (Brain Computer Interface) technologies including improved near-infrared spectrometry (NIRS), electroencephalography (EEG), magnetoencephalography (MEG), fMRI, optogenetics, microelectrodes, etc.
  8. Pandemic: Could be another flu pandemic. Or MRSA. Or something else entirely. But the global health community is woefully unprepared for another SARS, HIV/AIDS, Cholera, Black Plague, etc. Overuse of antibiotics (both in humans and in animals), climate change (enabling magnified disease vectors like mosquitoes carrying Dengue or shifting bacterial balances), fringe political movements and pseudoscience (anti-vaxxers, bioterrorists, crystal healers), general increased travel/tourism and mobility of the global population enabling rapid worldwide spread, and a host of other factors could contribute.
  9. Peak Oil/Fossil Fuel: I really hope this one comes true. Increasing scrutiny on energy sources due to the growing recognition that the anthropogenic climate crisis is a real thing begins to chip away at demand for oil and other fossil fuels. Global oil/coal production peaks in the 2020s not due to a Hubbert peak on the supply side, but due to a shift in preferences on the demand side — away from fossil fuels, in favor of other, cleaner production methodologies. This would be bolstered by the increasing electrification of previously fossil-fuel dominant energy uses (e.g., transport, heating, electricity generation), increasing efficiency, a renewed interest in investment in the climate tech sector and an increase in the pace of climate tech innovation.
  10. Quantum and Other Advanced Computing: General purpose quantum computation (and achievement of “quantum supremacy” in a way that actually matters) could be achieved this decade. The impact would be meaningful not just in cryptography (which is likely one of the last areas quantum computing will impact), but in molecular simulation, physics research, materials science, energy research, chemistry, catalyst design, medicine, etc. Quantum computing is not the only candidate for a computing architecture that could change the game in the 2020s — other approaches like neuromorphic computing, optoelectronic and photonic computing, and massive waferscale chips, may have a large impact. In short, an increasingly heterogeneous and specialized computing landscape, including classical approaches (FPGAs, ASICs, etc.), could dramatically boost humanity’s ability to process information in the 2020s.

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Andrew Schoen

Venture Capital Investor at NEA (New Enterprise Associates). Co-Founder of Flicstart. Schwarzman Scholar.