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Years that define eras

The 21st Century is still in its infancy, yet it has already produced a host of events that are quickly reshaping the world

A Ukrainian soldier looks at a wrecked Russian tank during the first days of the invasion, in Bucha (Ukraine).Luis de Vega

Just mentioning certain years in history like 1789 (the French Revolution), 1945 (the end of World War II) or 1989 (the fall of the Berlin Wall) is enough to bring to mind profound transformations. So it’s worth asking, what will we eventually look back on as the first iconic year of the 21st century?

Until recently, 2016 was a clear favorite. That was the year of Brexit (June 23) and the election of Donald Trump (November 8) as well as the starting point of a new wave of global populism, polarization and post-truth that continues to threaten many democracies. But what about March 13, 2020? That was the fateful day when the US Center for Disease Control officially declared that we were in the midst of a global pandemic. Could it be that Covid was just the first of a long string of outbreaks that could end up overshadowing the entire century? Only time will tell.

Another event in 2020 that symbolizes the revolutionary changes that are heading our way was the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna for the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR/Cas9. Manipulating our DNA using this technique promises tremendous progress in curing hitherto lethal diseases, but it also creates serious threats. CRISPR in the wrong hands is a danger to humanity.

And so is the development and dissemination of new artificial intelligence techniques. On November 30, 2022, the OpenAI company unveiled ChatGPT, a technology that finally, emphatically passes the Turing test. It’s a robot that replicates natural language so fluently that its responses are indistinguishable from those of a human being. This was what the founder of modern computing, Alan Turing, had defined as “artificial intelligence” in a seminal essay published all the way back in 1950. Now, as of 2022, what once seemed like science fiction has become a reality. Because ChatGPT is not just another product release or app from Big Tech. Artificial intelligence is going to be as transformative to knowledge industries as the introduction of machines was to the industrial revolution. Perhaps even more.

But the young 21st century has not only brought pandemics, technological change and polarized politics, it has also brought us wars that resemble those of the last century, or the century before that. On February 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine. This surprise was followed by others: instead of lasting a few days, Putin’s war is about to reach its one-year mark. In response, Europe realized that it can act as a cohesive strategic unit. This newfound realization implies that, instead of limiting itself to speeches and exhortations, it can act as a first-rate military power. The ferocious cyberattacks expected from Russia never materialized or were neutralized. In addition, the ineptitude of the Russian military is only surpassed by the medieval savagery with which it operates. Barbaric daily attacks on Ukrainian civilians and the country’s infrastructure seem to be the only response the Kremlin has.

As a result, in September 2022 Putin reintroduced an option that was long thought outdated or unthinkable: deploying nuclear weapons. “If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will without a doubt use all available means to protect Russia and our people,” Putin said. At face value, this seems like the kind of thing that any sovereign leader would say about the defense of his country. The important detail here is that this particular leader has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal at his personal disposal. “This is not a bluff,” Putin warned. Clearly, what happens in Ukraine has geopolitical ramifications of the most profound type.

Another important change in world politics occurred on October 23, 2022, when Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, managed to break the rule that would have forced him to leave power at the end of his term, a precedent that every other Chinese leader since Mao was obliged to follow. On that day, Xi was re-elected China’s president and Communist Party general secretary for the third time, clearing all obstacles to becoming China’s first dictator-for-life since Chairman Mao’s death.

Finally, so far this century, climate change has manifested itself with ferocious intensity. The frequency and magnitude of human suffering – as well as the material damage – that have taken place this century from climate change alone are profoundly and rapidly altering our planet. There is no symbolic date for this: climatic catastrophes have become everyday events.

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