How can we prepare for an unforeseen future?
We come from a long era in which we’ve talked a lot about revolutions, a word implying very deep transformation. We’ve spoken about the industrial revolution, the scientific revolution, the Soviet revolution… Now, instead of that, we talk about disruption, and not because the word is fashionable, but because disruption implies the same concept of deep change as revolution, but with two extra features: that the change is quick, and that it’s unforeseen. What we see is that a disruptive era is coming that can be split into six areas: geoeconomic, geopolitical, technological, environmental, social and anthropological.
What might we expect in these areas?
In the geoeconomic sphere, disruption is easy to justify. Since the crisis of 2008, we’ve been on a roller coaster. We’ve just been through a decade of fire and fury in economic terms, which no doubt in conjunction with the other disruptions will keep repeating, but it isn’t the most relevant disruption.
The geopolitical area is extremely important. Ever more experts say that if in the next few years we get a disruption similar to that of Lehman Brothers in 2008, it will not be in the economic or financial sphere but in the geopolitical sphere. In front of our eyes we’re seeing some significant ruptures: the power shift towards China and Eurasia, and the de facto divorce between the US and Europe. This type of shift in power is no small thing. Seeing the problem of Huawei as a simple spat in a trade war is to fail to see what’s behind it: a geopolitical contest for who will wield power in the next decade.
Can we be optimistic about the technological disruption?
Technological disruption is the one that provides most hope, even though there is some uncertainty. Whoever dominates artificial intelligence will dominate the world. The changes we’re seeing in technology are not linear, they’re exponential, they’re leaps forward, it’s not an arithmetical increase but a geometric one. When technology, through big data from 5G and artificial intelligence, can analyse billions of data, that will be turned into information, and then into knowledge. And this knowledge will lead to exponential leaps. We don’t know whether future diagnoses of cancer will be made by a doctor or a machine. The Watson program can make a correct diagnosis with twice the success of an experienced doctor. It updates 24 hours a day, continually. But a person can’t update like a mobile app. This disruption will also frame another important change in society: we’ll have to train people to deal with problems we are unaware of, with technology that still hasn’t appeared and to do tasks that still don’t exist. Many of the classic tasks that derive from AI will be automated. It’s estimated that 30% of jobs will disappear by 2030. Yet that doesn’t mean new ones won’t appear; there’s no need to see everything negatively.
Are we ready for these advances?
The most negative part of all this technology is the bad use of algorithms, the possibility we’re investigated, studied, recognised and manipulated. Not only Google, but many digital platforms can know more about our emotions, identities, work, eating and sexual habits than we do ourselves.
What about environmental challenges?
The environmental disruption is here to stay. Despite being right in front of us, either we don’t see it or we see it but think it will be solved by magic. This will be as exponential as that of technology, and will bring huge threats. Managing a world like that will be complicated. We are talking about exponential changes. While we make decisions in a linear way – for example, the process of passing a bill in parliament – the world is experiencing exponential changes. In the environmental sphere, scientists have been monitoring the planet’s constants year after year for the past few decades. These constants shoot up from the 1950s onwards. During industrialisation, from 1800 to 1950, the Earth could deal with the adversities caused by humans, such as pollution, deforestation, the loss of biodiversity… From the 1950s, the Earth has no longer been able to compensate for all that, and the consequences are accelerating. By 2030, it’s forecast that there will be almost no ice in the Arctic. With the Arctic frozen, the most important routes for trading goods have been the Suez and Panama canals. Since August 2017, South Korean, Chinese and Danish vessels have been moving through the Arctic without the need of icebreakers. This will continue, it’s irreversible. And it will lead to a new type of environmental migrant. This year it’s estimated there were four million in the world, but by 2030 that number could rise 100-fold. Infrequent phenomena, such as flooding, will become ordinary, as what has been exceptional becomes normal.
Yet, the US has withdrawn from the Paris accord...
Trump’s attitude contradicts the science, but not geopolitics. His is one response to climate change, seeking refuge in his own form of nationalism and a return to isolationism. He wants to close off his territory to migrants and give protection, not to humanity, but his own citizens, and among those, the ones with the most resources.
Politics, the economy, climate change, technology... Is it all related?
Yes, these four disruptive spheres are related. The only way to avoid the destruction of the planet is to substitute today’s economy, which is based on fossil fuels, with one of controlled growth. That means questioning the current economic model. What could sink capitalism will not be – as Marx thought – the class struggle, but environmental impact.
How will social disruption manifest itself?
This disruption, and the anthropological one, are transversal and derive from those that came before. As for social disruption, it’s obvious that society will change. Everything will change: power, the economy, the environment… For example, people could think twice about having children when looking at these future scenarios. And if power shifts to south-east Asia, what will happen to western European societies? And what will happen to societies completely controlled by technology? Some German experts, Angela Merkel’s advisors, say temperatures will have gone up 3º in the Mediterranean by 2050. This will turn the centre and south of the Iberian Peninsula into a new Sahara. Europe’s breadbasket will be left barren. And all of this is linked to the war for resources, such as fresh water. There are also other very serious issues, such as vectors of new diseases that could see Europe affected by tropical diseases. If Siberia’s permafrost melts, and it could if temperatures go up 4º, there are viruses and bacteria, such as the bubonic plague or Spanish flu, that could thaw and become active. For the first time, we’re opening Pandora’s box.
How will we evolve in the anthropological sphere?
The anthropological disruption will imply a change in the concept of what human nature is. The applications of biotechnology to humans could bring many positive aspects, such as avoiding congenital illnesses, increasing life expectancy, incorporating technological applications to improve physical performance, or sight, or memory… In the best of cases, these would be available to all of humanity and we could improve human evolution, or we could end up with a premium humanity, in which the improvements are only for certain people, such as those who can pay for them. We could be able to choose what qualities our children have. This will force us to rethink what a human being is. We have to tighten our seatbelts because there’s a very interesting decade ahead.
“Technological disruption is the one that provides most hope” “We’ll have to train people to deal with problems we are still unaware of”