The state of the world – is the glass half empty or half full?

“NOW is the best time in history to be alive. Our world has experienced a sustained period of positive change. The average person is about eight times richer than a century ago. Nearly one billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty over the past two decades, living standards have soared, life expectancy has risen, the threat of war between great powers has declined, and our genetic code and universe have been unlocked in previously inconceivable ways. Many of today’s goods are unimaginable without collective contributions from different parts of the world, through which more of us can move freely with a passport or visa, provided we have the means to do so. Our world is functionally smaller, and its possibilities are bigger and brighter than ever before. Never before have so many people been optimistic about their future.”

 

This is the opening paragraph of the Oxford Martin Commission For Future Generation’s Report (2013, available online). It continues by listing the challenges facing future generations. These are read about and viewed daily. The details sell newspapers by attracting audiences for advertisers. But is Armageddon approaching, or is there a more hopeful story to be told? It depends on how the issue is framed. On population/overpopulation, is it where people live, what they have to eat, what illnesses they have, the environment they live in, the conflicts they face? Pick an issue and depending on geography (one of the frames), the future seems ultra bleak or extremely hopeful.

 

The statement about the threat of “war between the great powers” was written about 365 days before a Malaysian airliner was shot down over the Ukraine, increasing the probability of serious conflict between powerful countries either directly or through their sidekicks. Unexpected, if not unknown, events can change the landscape overnight. The 1914 assassination in Sarajevo was followed by a world war. What are the known unknowns which will occur in the next twelve let alone sixty months? Nobody knows but we can make more and less informed guesses.

 

One difference today from 50 years ago, that’s 1964, is globalization, an omnibus term which, through overuse, has become almost meaningless. But if the focus is on the shrinkage effect of technology and how it has connected all parts of the world, then the implications of how things have changed become clearer. Examples abound. At the firm level, production and distribution involve supply chains so that many final goods involve activities in several countries with intermediate goods and services being traded internationally and domestically. It applies to services as well, such as newspaper publishing where content is collected from around the world with much greater ease than in the past. Haircuts and burials may still remain unaffected by globalization, except that the fashions and practices of one country are imported into another.

 

A second example of increasing interdependence is social media undertaken via a myriad of means, many of which confuse me, from email to text messaging, SnapChat, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Facetime, Skype and many others. People interact with each other much more so than in the past. Is this beneficial or harmful? A bit of both. It can be used to further corruption and criminal activities like child abuse, but it can be used to catch child-abusers who were there long before the internet. (The New York Times August 24, 2014, has an article about the Vatican’s representative in the Dominican Republic who has been engaged in child abuse for a number of years. It was detected by a Dominican reporter without the use of the internet, but the internet quickly spread it.)

 

Today is different from the past as might be expected but many things are the same, not necessarily worse, such as the “bads” like corruption, conflict, abuse of human rights, treatment of children, women and disadvantaged groups in society. Today, there are means and a greater willingness to address and alleviate if not eradicate these issues. There is a good news side of the story to be told about the “bads” which are the main focus of the media and of public discourse. Most of the Oxford Martin report is given over to discussing the “bads” and what the commissioners feel needs to be done. Fair enough, but context is required in order to understand and evaluate the state of the world. Many things have got better over time.

 

The environment

I have deliberately avoided mentioning the environment because the debate has become toxic, and whatever is said will result in being branded as a supporter of one side or the other. I will back into this by presenting some facts on the basis that “everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts.” (Attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a four time elected US senator who died in 2003).

In 1972, a group of distinguished writers drafted a report entitled The Limits To Growth (LTG). It became a catalyst for the environmental movement, and had dire warnings about the exhaustion of various natural resources which would limit future growth. Forty-one years later in 2013, LTG was found to be wrong in many respects both about pollution and resource use – see http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/economic-growth-and-its-critics-by-bj-rn-lomborg, posting by Professor Lomborg in June 2013.

In 1980, Professor Julian Simon, an economist bet Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb that the inflation adjusted price of any five commodities Ehrlich chose would have declined in ten years time. Ehrlich chose chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten. The world population grew by 800 million in the decade and the price of all five fell – three in nominal terms and all five in inflation-adjusted terms. Ehrlich lost the bet. (More details on other resource bets are discussed in “Simon-Ehrlich wager” in Wikipedia.)

The environment and global warming is a topic with many facets so that selective use of facts and data can lead to a wide range of conclusions which are then used selectively to support a viewpoint. My non-expert view of this topic notes the following:

  1. The earth has experienced periods of cooling and warming with the onset and decline of ice ages. I vacation in a part of Ontario covered by lakes which were gouged out as the ice retreated northwards. Whatever the temperature data records today it has been subject to change in earlier times.
  2. The extent to which warming is taking place is measurable. The extent to which it is due to human activity is open to debate, as is the extent to which this is a disaster for mankind.
  3. Matt Ridley, a columnist for the Times (London) and a member of the British House of Lords has reported on this issue for 25 years. His summary of the 2014 Report of the International Panel on Climate Change is published in The Financial Post, June 19, 2014, p.FP9

“The IPCC commissioned four different models of what might happen to the world economy, society and

technology in the 21stcentury and what each would mean for the climate, given a certain assumption about the atmosphere’s “sensitivity” to carbon dioxide. Three of the models show a moderate, slow and mild warming, the hottest of which leaves the planet just 2 degrees Centigrade warmer than today in 2081-2100. The coolest comes out just 0.8 degrees warmer.

Now two degrees is the threshold at which warming starts to turn dangerous……That is to say, in three of the four scenarios considered by the IPCC, by the time my children’s children are elderly, the Earth will still not have experienced any harmful warming, let alone catastrophe.”

The fourth scenario produces 3.5 degrees of warming by 2081-2100. It is based on the following assumptions:

The global population will increase to 12 billion – this is at least one billion more than the UN expects, and the rate of population growth is presently declining.

The world will burn ten times as much coal as today, producing 50% of primary energy in contrast with 30% today. Assumptions made in the report about nuclear and renewable energy sources mean that fossil fuels will dominate energy production – Ridley considers these assumptions “very, very implausible.”

“That is to say, even if you pile crazy assumption upon crazy assumption till you have an edifice of vanishingly small probability, you cannot even manage to make climate change cause minor damage in the time of our grandchildren, let alone catastrophe. That’s not me (Ridley) saying this – it’s the IPCC itself.”

  1. The rate at which icebergs and ice sheets melt is one measure of global warming. For Greenland, ice sheet data are reported at http://nsidc.org/greenland-today/ I urge anyone concerned with this topic to interpret the results so as to give an unqualified yes or no re global warming. One comment on what summer 2014 data mean so far is that sea levels might rise 2 mm.

 

Conclusion

My partial list of issues of concern for future generations includes the rate of global population growth, urbanization of populations, age structure of populations, old and new forms of criminal activity facilitated by communications technology – cyber-crime and cyber-terrorism, terrorism combined with the use of nuclear and chemical weapons, and the breakdown of the working of democratic institutions including a growing sense of entitlements which the democratic process generates to plant the seeds of its own destruction. If forced to provide an answer, I see the glass as being half full. More appropriate perhaps would be to apply to the future William Goldman’s conclusion about Hollywood, that despite there being smart people involved “nobody knows anything” that is about the future success of a film.

***************************************

Some afterthoughts

A related topic for future generations is a recent Pew study of the impact of robotics on future jobs – see  http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/08/06/future-of-jobs/

AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs

By Aaron Smith and Janna Anderson

“Key Findings

The vast majority of respondents to the 2014 Future of the Internet canvassing anticipate that robotics and artificial intelligence will permeate wide segments of daily life by 2025, with huge implications for a range of industries such as health care, transport and logistics, customer service, and home maintenance. But even as they are largely consistent in their predictions for the evolution of technology itself, they are deeply divided on how advances in AI and robotics will impact the economic and employment picture over the next decade.

Key themes: reasons to be hopeful:

1) Advances in technology may displace certain types of work, but historically they have been a net creator of jobs.

2) We will adapt to these changes by inventing entirely new types of work, and by taking advantage of uniquely human capabilities.

3) Technology will free us from day-to-day drudgery, and allow us to define our relationship with “work” in a more positive and socially beneficial way.

4) Ultimately, we as a society control our own destiny through the choices we make.

Key themes: reasons to be concerned:

1) Impacts from automation have thus far impacted mostly blue-collar employment; the coming wave of innovation threatens to upend white-collar work as well.

2) Certain highly-skilled workers will succeed wildly in this new environment—but far more may be displaced into lower paying service industry jobs at best, or permanent unemployment at worst.

3) Our educational system is not adequately preparing us for work of the future, and our political and economic institutions are poorly equipped to handle these hard choices.

Some 1,896 experts responded to the following question:

The economic impact of robotic advances and AI—Self-driving cars, intelligent digital agents that can act for you, and robots are advancing rapidly. Will networked, automated, artificial intelligence (AI) applications and robotic devices have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025?

Half of these experts (48%) envision a future in which robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers—with many expressing concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.

The other half of the experts who responded to this survey (52%) expect that technology will not displace more jobs than it creates by 2025. To be sure, this group anticipates that many jobs currently performed by humans will be substantially taken over by robots or digital agents by 2025. But they have faith that human ingenuity will create new jobs, industries, and ways to make a living, just as it has been doing since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

These two groups also share certain hopes and concerns about the impact of technology on employment. For instance, many are concerned that our existing social structures—and especially our educational institutions—are not adequately preparing people for the skills that will be needed in the job market of the future. Conversely, others have hope that the coming changes will be an opportunity to reassess our society’s relationship to employment itself—by returning to a focus on small-scale or artisanal modes of production, or by giving people more time to spend on leisure, self-improvement, or time with loved ones.

A number of themes ran through the responses to this question: those that are unique to either group, and those that were mentioned by members of both groups.”

In sum, the experts agree that technology will make a difference to employment opportunities in the near future, but are divided on what that impact will be. There is however a broader consensus on the failure of the educational infrastructure to adapt to the swift changes which are taking place.

 

 

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