Trilogy [3 of 3]: future of humanity – for optimists, pessimists and realists

Final part of the trilogy ‘Future of humanity – for optimists and pessimists’. According to Steven Pinker, Yuval Harari and the 15th edition of the World Economic Forum’s ‘Global Risk Report 2020’, what are the critical risks that are currently manifesting themselves? The economy is facing an inevitable recession, possibly similar to the Great Depression at the beginning of the last century. Climate change is hitting harder and faster than expected. And third, a fragmented “cyberspace” threatens our democracy, freedom, and most importantly, the full potential of next generations of technologies. Globally, protests are becoming louder and more intense, and the raised voices and swelling protests are increasingly directed against the economic and political conditions and systems that exacerbate inequality.

According to Pinker and Harari, climate change is the most obvious threat to humanity. And we are not really solving this problem and have every reason to believe that the consequences will be disastrous for our prosperity, well-being and the future of future generations.

The renewed threat of nuclear conflict is also not negligibly unlikely. It is more than likely that we will become increasingly concerned about it. Especially when water, food and other important resources are becoming increasingly scarce and start to threaten our way of life and especially our well-being. The Chinese fleet is almost at the level of the Americans in terms of range and potential impact, and China’s intention is not to conquer or herd the world, but to protect the transports of crucial raw materials and food – particularly from Africa – to China and its one and a half billion inhabitants.

The risk of disruptive technologies, especially artificial intelligence, is also enormous, according to Harari. Optimists especially see the enormous promise and potential of this technology for humanity, while pessimists warn of an integral social tilt due to major changes. These include fundamental shifts in the labor market and the rise of totalitarian powers – governments and corporations – that are more devastating than we have ever experienced before. And the greatest challenge, and therefore the greatest risk, is that we can only neutralize the three greatest threats to humanity – climate, nuclear conflict and disruptive technology – in global cooperation. A transformation from geopolitics to a more global biosphere policy is absolutely necessary. It seems that spiritually we are on our last legs and are in need of a “refill. A full tank of new values and beliefs that align with the presenting future and your presenting self. What do you want to mean to other people and how will you fill this out as a conscious leader within your organization and in your personal life? And not just during the crisis or until your retirement, but until your last breath. Because if you are doing what you are rock solid at, that unleashes your passion every day and that has a positive impact on people and organization, you don’t want to stop doing that at retirement age, do you?

The challenges and risks are relatively easy to neutralize because we know exactly what to do…?

Yet the challenges and risks are relatively easy to neutralize because we know exactly what to do, the optimist will think. The pessimist points out to us in great detail that this may be so, but shows us bluntly that we are doing (far too) little. That is the greatest crisis that the realist and his pessimism present us with. Our inability to do something about crisis structurally and to solve it structurally with each other, in radical dependence, in the common interest. Of course, everyone wants to do something about it, optimists, pessimists and realists alike. No sensible person says, hey climate change is great or let’s immediately start a nuclear war to solve overpopulation. But with respect to artificial intelligence and bioengineering, there is absolutely no consensus and certainly no consensus with respect to intent and the common good. According to Harari, this is also an enormous risk to humanity and its humanity that is grossly underestimated.

n the final part of this triptych, I outline the 10 biggest risk challenges facing current and future generations. In a sequel to this triptych, I will further describe the risks in the coming weeks, including the opportunities we have to do something about them immediately. At all levels (individual, family, society, business and government) and everywhere (local, regional, national and international).

Ten biggest global threats to humanity

The 15th edition of the World Economic Forum’s “Global Risk Report 2020” describes the critical risks that are currently manifesting themselves. The economy is facing a recession that may become larger than the Great Depression at the beginning of the last century, climate change is striking harder and faster than expected, and a fragmented “cyberspace” is threatening our democracy, freedom, and above all the full potential of next generations of technologies. Globally, protests are becoming louder and more intense, and the raised voices and swelling protests are increasingly directed against the economic and political conditions and systems that exacerbate inequality.

The challenges and risks require immediate and collective action, but the rifts within the global community only seem to be growing. Almost everyone feels that we cannot wait for the fog of the corocona crisis and geo-economic uncertainty to clear. The crucial window to contain and neutralize urgent and important risks is closing and hoping for a speedy recovery only encourages this. ‘Free lunches’ have sold out and are not coming back. And the problems and risks are too great and strutured that a ‘quick fix’ does not exist. There is no way back to our old habits and patterns of exploiting the planet and people.

This means that in the coming years and decades we will have to learn to live with a troubled and unstable world.  Existing and especially new economic, social, environmental and technological forces will form a new balance of power. The geo-political and national political landscape will remain unsettled with great opportunities for parties that dare to tackle the big problems and risks and do not hide behind support and consensus. Leadership is not for frightened people who consider re-election more important than the common good in the here and now and of future generations. Existing alliances will die out as states and especially societies increasingly question the value of existing frameworks, systems and institutions. We are already seeing at the beginning of the great transformation and increasing chaos the automatic impulse of retreat into nationalism, populism, individual agendas and the geopolitical consequences of economic and social disengagement. At the same time, new, international alliances will emerge. Not only within politics itself, but also from within society. The democratic experiments of Volt and Diem25 are fascinating examples to follow in Europe.

The focus in the coming years and decades must be on forming an international alliance of science, business and politics. Together they must devise new mechanisms and structures for global coordination and cooperation. Failure to do so will not only eliminate opportunities to address the crisis, but will also increase the risk of conflict, including the nuclear threat.

Risks to social and economic stability

In the Global Risk Report 2020, the World Economic Forum warns of downward pressure on the global economy due to macroeconomic vulnerabilities and financial inequality – a pressure that has continued to increase in 2019. In this sense, the upcoming recession is not just the result of the corona crisis, although politicians will soon be telling us this and hoping we will believe it so that their alley remains clean.

Social and economic instability will continue to increase due to the erosion of existing fundamental factors for economic growth, including minimal trade barriers, strong governments, and global investment. This will lead to increased populism that will go hand in hand with nationalism. Meanwhile, the margins for monetary and fiscal stimulus are smaller than they were before the 2008-2009 financial crisis, which also increases uncertainty about the efficacy of the medicine called “countercyclical policy.

All this will lead to economic confrontations and domestic political polarization that are part of the main risks in 2020 and beyond.

Amid growing economic uncertainties and social darkness, citizen discontent is rising. Their voices will grow louder and actions harder, targeting the politics and business that have led societies to a state of controlled chaos. In particular, they will be severely blamed for maintaining and protecting systems and mechanisms that have held back progress. Disapproval of the ways in which governments and corporations have denied, ignored and dealt with profound economic, social and environmental problems will become even more transparent and lead to many more global protests and unrest. The problem facing crucial stakeholders is that their ability to do something about crisis is diminishing as economic and social stability crumbles.

Risico climate change and loss of biodiversity

Climate change is hitting harder and faster than many expected. The past five years have been among the warmest on record. Natural disasters are becoming more intense and frequent, and 2019 saw unprecedented extreme weather worldwide. Downright alarming is the warning from a large majority of climate scientists that the Earth’s average temperature will have increased by at least 3°C by the end of the century. Twice the 1.5°C agreed to in Paris, which these same scientists say is the limit to avoid serious economic, social and environmental damage.

The World Economic Forum surveyed more than 75,000 scientists, politicians, entrepreneurs, young start-ups and together they believe that climate change will already lead to a planetary emergency in the near future that will result in the loss of human life, social and geopolitical tensions and negative economic impacts, among other things.

For the first time in the history of the World Economic Forum, risks and concerns about the environment and habitat dominate the top long-term risks. Three of the top five risks with immense impact on our prosperity and well-being are ecological in nature. Failure of mitigation and adaptation to climate change ranks first as the biggest risks in terms of impact and second in the top 10 most likely problems over the next 10 years. The network of young members of the Global Shapers Community show even more concern and rank ecological issues as the biggest risks in both the short and long term.

The network of “Multistakeholders” rates the loss of biodiversity as the second most impactful risk and the third most likely risk over the next decade. The rate of extinction is now tens to hundreds of times higher than the average for the past ten million years, and it is still accelerating. Biodiversity loss has crucial implications for humanity, from the collapse of food and health systems to the disruption of entire supply chains.

Risico of digital fragmentation

More than 50% of the world’s population is online and the number of people “going online” for the first time is growing by about a million a day. Two-thirds of the world’s population owns a mobile device. Digital technologies bring enormous economic and social benefits, but they also pose significant risks. Issues such as unequal access to the Internet and the lack of a global framework for technology governance and ethics and ‘cyber insecurity’.

Geopolitical and geo-economic uncertainty, and the risks of a fragmented cyberspace, threaten the full maturity of the potential of the next generations of technologies. Many multi-stakeholders and members of the Global Shapers Community rated the failure of the “digital and information fabric” as the sixth most impactful risk for the next 10 years.

Risks to our health and health systems

Health systems around the world are under increasing pressure, and this was a fact before the advent of the coronavirus. New vulnerabilities resulting from changing social, environmental, demographic and technological patterns threaten to undo the progress of humanity – both in terms of prosperity and well-being – that has been achieved over the last century. This includes the enormous progression that the healthcare and health system has experienced.

Non-communicable diseases – such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic stress, obesity and other mental illnesses – have overtaken traditional infectious diseases as the leading cause of death. Increased life expectancy and the economic and social costs of combating chronic (welfare) diseases has led to a risky situation within the healthcare system and an explosion in costs. Furthermore, we are now experiencing in a very painful way that the progress against preventing and fighting pandemics has also been greatly undermined, partly due to the reluctance of doing research and developing vaccines and the resistance to drugs and especially antibiotics. As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult to protect humanity from some of the greatest potential killers.

With existing health risks on the rise again and new risks emerging, past successes are not a guarantee nor an automaticity for future results. There is still time and space to address the risks, but again, the window of opportunity is closing fast. Global action and structural collaboration between science, industry and governments is the only effective means to combat and reduce the increasing risks to our health. Only then can we maintain and grow resilience between communities, governments and businesses.

In the next blog titled ‘Turbulence: the new normal’, I will further explain the above-mentioned treatise by paying more attention to the backgrounds of shifting geopolitical borders, both economically, as well as ecologically and technologically. Also, an answer will be given as to whether we can still prevent an imminent disconnection and how we should approach this through an adaptive biosphere policy.

Back again to Steven Pinker and Yuval Harari, who, by the way, are in excellent agreement with the above reflections and findings.

Fake news, surveillance states and malicious cybercorps

Pinker is skeptical about the speed at which technology will develop. He does not expect artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and psychological manipulation to quickly become a major threat to humanity and democracy. People are naturally distrustful when it comes to new technologies and this distrust will only grow in the coming period. Especially if it remains unclear what these technologies mean for humanity and its future. Much less than at the start of the Internet and the rise of Google will people unconditionally and naively sit down in an autonomous vehicle or cast their vote over a 5G network. With every step they take and every thought they form, they will increasingly ask themselves: who and what is listening and thinking and what is the purpose and impact of this? This critical attitude will inhibit and hopefully put and keep technological progress on the right track. The big and complex question is whether intellectually lazy modern humans are robust enough to connect as a collective and resist technology and oversight that is harmful to themselves and the common good. And by extension, to humanity and its humanity.

Studies of the effects of fake news and the impact of real news that misleads show that impact on elections is relatively small and not critical. It was different when technology was used, which made a Brexit possible and brought Trump to power. “Fake news and misleading real news, on the other hand, are usually consumed by people who are already convinced by what they (want to) read. They see a confirmation in their prejudices and limiting beliefs and distort them into a truth with which they try to convince others. So fake news rarely changes and poisons people’s opinions, and it’s really not easy to manipulate people’s behavior as we fear in our worst, dystopian nightmares,” Pinker said.

Algorithmic discrimination

Of course, we also need to talk about clinical decision-making and the possibilities of technology and the dangers of algorithmic discrimination. Five algorithmic predictors are already more likely to make a decision better or make the right diagnosis than a typical judge, judge or doctor. We have known this for more than half a century. Human, subjective impressions and perceptions are subject to bias and error. But we can’t (yet) program these, like racial bias, into our algorithms. So we run the risk of getting versions of digital dictatorship and totalitarian states and other entities based on clinical analysis and surveillance of people. This is happening on an increasing scale around the world. And not just by the Chinese government, but especially by corporations. The risk looms that computers will determine who is invited for an interview when recruiting, what we will eat tomorrow and who we will date on Saturday.

Pessimists wonder what happens when efficiency and ethics go in opposite directions. What monstrosity is created when the totalitarian becomes very effective, but is also extremely unethical? Are our ethical ideas and limitations still valid in this circumstance? We need not fear the science fiction scenario, where machines “micro-manage” our every move on a daily basis. It starts much more simply, with the increasing shifting of authority and decision-making to artificial intelligence. Who gets admitted to college, who do we hire, and to whom do we give a mortgage or loan?

The optimists see only opportunities and possibilities, while the pessimists warn us about the dark side and the potential threats to our free will, democracy and the power and splendor of our spontaneity and impulsiveness. After all, we want to remain human above all, who occasionally falls flat on his face and is not after what is ultimately only effective and perfect. So what do we learn? Exactly, that the phenomenon of fear will fester until we are completely paralyzed by it. Instead of striving to be the best and most effective in the world, wouldn’t it be better to become and remain the best for the world?

Politicization and accountability of science

There is good reason to be concerned about intellectual openness in our institutions and those that should be encouraging and promoting it. In recent decades in particular, there has been, to some extent, ideological narrowing, which has bogged down universities in mono-cultures of leftist thinking. On the other hand, we see optimism among those who are concerned about authoritarian populism, because it is a dated idealism that will decline by generational cohort. When cutting down a tree, a pattern of annual rings becomes apparent. Rings that reflect the annual growth of the tree. Since the growth of a tree depends on the conditions that prevailed during its growth, the rings faithfully reflect those conditions. Years of drought, for example, are permanently identifiable by a succession of thin rings, which indicate low growth. To some extent, cohorts are the sociological equivalent of annual rings, namely in that cohorts, like annual rings, are permanently characterized by the conditions that prevailed during their formation. This is why populism will never really take root, because there is no lasting foundation for it. Nor should we compare our domestic, cultural wars to the chronic oppression of people in countries like Turkey, Russia, Hungary and Poland. Gender and ethnic studies fuel oppression, but it is not science; it is politics and ideology. We must fiercely oppose this and prevent climate science, for example, and in the future computer science, from becoming politicized, as various populists are increasingly insistent on.

Good, independent information from scientists is eminently important for the future of humanity and especially our humanity. We need to develop a better understanding of what is happening every day and what will happen next. The delusion of the day is important, but it must not take root in our souls. Understanding reality and predicting what might happen is extremely relevant to political decisions and therefore to our future. We cannot do this without science, nor without science that does not make the best use of technology. But it must be done in the service of science and for the common good.

Science also needs to take much more responsibility for what they do and be transparent in the results they (don’t) achieve. If you have a brilliant idea or a unique invention in mind, ask yourself first what the politician or enemy you fear the most could do with your idea or invention? And above all, let’s help and guard each other in doing so, because at the same time, academics also have the trait of thinking only about the best conceivable scenarios.

Sources and more information:

> Once Upon A Future, ISBN 9789461562647 [19,95 euro] – Ruud Veltenaar
> Enlightenment Now, ISBN 9789045040462 [14,50 euro] – Steven Pinker
> 21 lessons for the 21st century, ISBN 9789400404984 [12,50] – Yuval Harari
> Global Risk Report 2020, PDF [free] – World Economic Forum
> Interview Pinker en Harari, by Dr. Maksym Yakovlyev [sept 2019]

Trilogy – the other two parts

Link to Part I of III

Link to Part II of III

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