We are going through individual and societal change at warp speed, now testing our capacity to adjust, adopt, and prosper. One hundred years ago F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “The Great Gatsby”, and his main character Gatsby explains how he went from riches to bankruptcy, saying “Slowly, then suddenly.”
A similar challenge was described 60 years ago in Future Shock by futurist Alvin Toffler, where he dealt with a society undergoing a revolution from an industrial society to a “super-industrial society” with the accelerated rate of technological and social change leaving people disconnected and suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation’. He characterized the symptoms as “information overload.”
Add to the mix global politics and expanded nuclear power, and the Doomsday Clock is now at 90 seconds ticks away from midnight, in part because of the war in Ukraine.
The IMF’s “World Uncertainty Index”, created in 2020, covers 60 years and 143 countries with respect to change in the economic and political situation by text-mining country reports from its Economic Intelligence Unit. Here too, the news is not good.
And as the just issued IFRC Disasters Report for 2022 points out, “The COVID-19 pandemic has been the biggest disaster in living memory, on almost any measure” with over 6.5 million people confirmed to have died in less than 3 years, with change and indirect impacts affecting “virtually every community on the planet”.
None of the above are reasons for unbridled optimism, but nor is it so worrisome that we should behave like ostriches or build survival bunkers. But what does deserve our current concern and attention is the rate of societal and technological change.
Couple that with the acceleration in the societal and environmental problems we have been facing for over 60 years: Since Rachel Carson’s famous “Silent Spring” was published in 1962, alarm bells have continuously rung around the state of our planet.
Temperature changes from 1850 – 2021. Notice a pattern?
We’re in a #climatecrisis. There is no planet B. #actress #ClimateEmergency #climate #energy #renewables #nature #GreenNewDeal pic.twitter.com/sD64BzuAh6
— Mike Hudema (@MikeHudema) February 2, 2023
As everything accelerates – from technological progress to societal problems – there is a sense of big impending change
Change is everywhere and major sources of concern include: The global demographic explosion, pollution and environmental degradation, the Sixth Mass Extinction of species, accelerating climate change and the continuing weaknesses displayed by democracies together with the multiplication of autocracies in low and middle-income countries but also in advanced countries, notably Russia and China.
In 1968, the Club of Rome convened a first meeting of European scientists in Rome, and core ideas that still guide the scientific community today were born: A global and long-term perspective, and the concept of “problématique”, a cluster of intertwined global problems, be they economic, environmental, political or social.
That “problématique” concept opened the gates, and over the next fifty years, scientists, writers, and climate activists have vied with each other to come up with improved methods of diagnosis and a vast array of possible solutions. The UNFCC panel of experts led the charge with increasingly dire reports on the climate emergency, warning of a“tipping point” from where there will be no return.
A sign that scientists are close to giving up hope of a solution is the fact that the latest UNFCC report focused on damage mitigation and adaptation to a warmer world rather than focus on how to change and reverse the impact of climate change.
We are going through many accelerated “sudden” changes – both good and bad – which test human adaptability and resiliency to their fullest. This is a unique moment in human history when both our progress and all the problems we face come to a climax together.
What we, as a society are facing is a conundrum of challenges arising from technological progress that requires us to adapt to it and the impact of our fast-spreading industrial production systems that threaten to destroy our environment.
The ultimate outcome, a sustainable world, is in our hands: This could be the “third act” in human history.
Our lives are not the same as yesteryear, whether at work or the workplace; how we now interact personally and professionally, communicate, socialize or produce art; learn distantly; monitor our health; move around or conduct our finances.
Virtually all of the above are directly or indirectly addressed in the United Nations’ seventeen Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved by 2030.
In essence, that is what this article is about: Taking a look at the tip of that proverbial iceberg – even a peek has intrinsic value and gives us a sense of where the change is taking us and how fast.
In technology, one overarching new development: AI
Worthy of special mention, with far-reaching implications everywhere, is Artificial Intelligence (A.I.). This technology has been around in some form for years, but for the first time, it is available to anyone through at least one free, easy-to-use web interface. Deloitte’s latest Tech Trends Report makes this clear: 2023 will be about how to learn to “trust our AI colleagues”.
Open AI, an artificial intelligence laboratory produced groundbreaking products, the latest being ChatGPT-3 a strikingly human-like language system that can write, argue, and code. The potential for generative AI is tremendous and has garnered interest (and fears) from some of the wealthiest and most powerful companies in the world, including Microsoft, Google, and Baidu, the Chinese search company.
And A.I. isn’t just the domain of the big companies: Bulgarian programmer, Georgi Gerganov, on his own has created Whisper. cpp, a highly proficient open-source speech transcription program that shows us where machine learning is headed.
Yet where this is going to end up is impossible to predict: Many people’s jobs are clearly threatened and how easily the transition will be, and whether we will actually hit the famous “singularity” – the point in the future where technological progress is guided by an AI that outruns and outdoes the human brain – is, as yet, unclear.
EMBED VIDEO: SINGULARITY TIMELINE | ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE + AGI + ASI (2023 – 2100¹⁰⁰)
Nor is it certain that the benefits will outweigh the risks of misuse. There is little doubt that we will need to address this challenge very soon: The first lawsuit “against a computer” is already upon us, as “Tesla’s self-driving technology comes under Justice Dept. scrutiny” this month.
A sampling of where the change in our world is occurring the fastest
1. At work and in the workplace: AI threatens to replace both white and blue-collar workers worldwide: As to the “blue”, according to a 2019 report from Oxford Economics, 20 million manufacturing jobs, about 8.5% of the global manufacturing workforce, will be replaced by robots by 2030, with China taking the brunt (about 14 million jobs lost).
With the dramatic increase in the number of “white collar” tasks that can be performed remotely, cities are bracing themselves for fundamental change – in terms of occupancy and the vitality of downtowns, with less need for office buildings, lunch places, after-work watering holes, etc. The main policy focus now is on implementing “sustainable urban logistics” and here again, AI can help in how to make the best use of data.
2. In the entertainment industry and culture: With streaming and multi-channel places to view entertainment displacing physical venues, the industry is poised for major change. Accelerated by the pandemic, many movie houses closed down, especially in the United States, making it look like the industry was going through major shrinkage. But now, blockbuster movies touted by the Oscars are seen as a potential lifesaver, drawing enough viewers back to the big screen and the joys of popcorn.
Even the arts – artists, writers and musicians – are poised for a rough ride, shaken by increasingly sophisticated AI capable of producing works of art with deceptively human-like qualities. Last year, art made by AI won a fine arts competition in the US, sparking fury among artists and discomfort among viewers.
3. Social interaction: As a media scholar, MIT Professor Sherry Turkle argues in Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (2015), we have sacrificed communication for mere connection: When you communicate with people face-to-face, on the phone, or over a video call—any means that’s not text-based—it stretches your mental muscles for social interaction, forcing you into reading body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions.
In short, conversation—not connection—is a rich human experience that hones social skills, and we are doing less of it. How this plays out over the long term is anyone’s guess.
4. New learning techniques that change education and the transmission of knowledge: Education technology is now everywhere, underpinning open-access teaching and zoom-based learning models, and here too, accelerated by the pandemic.
One example is Bridge International Academies for elementary schoolchildren, working with governments in developing countries where the needs are greatest. Another is the top Premium School in Dubai which offers International Baccalaureate World School for students aged 3-18 and bilingual teaching in English, French, German, and Arabic.
Higher education is also revolutionized by online learning, and here too the pandemic has accelerated the process: According to UNESCO, 194 countries and regions temporarily closed their educational institutions due to COVID, affecting more than 1.5 billion students worldwide.
Even before the pandemic, the e-learning market in America was growing fast and the US, India, China, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and Côte d’Ivoire are known to invest most in e-learning while Germany leads in the EU.
Bernard Marr, an author, futurist and technology advisor is a strong advocate of the use of AI in education.
Others argue that there is nothing like face-to-face instruction from a well-qualified teacher. Evidence of this has shown up in lower math and language testing scores during the COVID pandemic. And in fact, Marr believes a mix of the two approaches – online and classroom – is likely to work best and could be the better solution in isolated communities or where teachers are either too few or ill-prepared.
Overall, for online higher education, students’ opinions are very positive, suggesting that it is here to stay:
5. Personal transportation: The electric vehicle (EV) revolution, initially led by Tesla, has now morphed into a widespread endorsement by consumers, governments, and the auto industry, all embracing EVs. Electric transport in all its forms – from total electric cars to hybrids and electric scooters – is being touted as our future. Statista projections to 2027 (as of Jan. 2023) show a remarkable yearly growth rate in revenues of around 17%, with China leading the pack.
But as with many things, EVs have a dark side, negatively impacting the environment with high energy required to produce key materials. In some places, devastating mining industry practices call for active regulatory oversight – as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the source of 70% of the world’s cobalt:
6. Finance and Banking: Digital platforms offer the ability to conduct banking and financial transactions entirely online, a plus in our daily lives and a major change for developing countries where mobile banking coupled with phone penetration allowed the delivery of the ‘first wave’ of digital financial services.
Notably, sub-Saharan Africa has become a leader in mobile money, with over a fifth of the adult population having a mobile money account. This has opened the gates providing a basis for more sophisticated financial services, helping to lift the poor out of poverty, a harbinger of things to come in low- and middle-income countries.
And of course, there is the newness of cryptocurrencies. Many countries like Sweden, China, and the UK are moving forward toward a cashless lifestyle.
However, the way forward is not without danger. Bitcoin and its crypto cousins have had a very checkered history, not just in terms of reliability but huge energy requirements and potentially damaging impact on the environment. Far from being a positive factor in a more sustainable future, they could be negative.
7. Personal Health: We are familiar with the new technologies in vaccine development such as for COVID using CRISPR, and antiviral treatments. But other major health stories and medical breakthroughs are also of pivotal importance for different populations, now and in the future. A brief list includes a first-time malaria vaccine, better cancer detection and treatment, new discoveries related to Alzheimer’s Disease and Multiple Sclerosis, 3-D health-related printing capabilities, and better understanding and prevention of “One Health”, the human, animal and environmental interface and disease transmission.
On the minus side, intellectual property (IP) issues plague the health industry, with copyrights systematically misused and protecting business revenues rather than people’s health or for that matter, the innovators responsible for medical breakthroughs. Of course, IP issues plague other sectors of society, notably the music industry, as illustrated in the recent Netflix mini-series The Playlist.
Looking forward: What needs to be done
The depth and breadth of “newness” in virtually every aspect of human endeavor and societal engagement developed so far is exciting and at the same time overwhelming. The changes are of such major consequence and coming so fast, we need to consider now what is needed for adjustment and adaptation.
If we simply carry on with business-as-usual, it will be too late to avoid ecological and social disasters.
The overriding takeaway is that one way or another our future will be very different. If we can recognize the challenges, deliberate and act soon, we may end up with better lives and a more sustainable environment.
As Aristotle said over 2300 years ago:
“The now is a sort of a middle thing.”
A “middle thing” may not be exciting but there is no alternative to the now.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Artificial intelligence – resembling human brain Source: Flickr cc photo by Deepak Pal www.iqlect.com.