As the great and the good and the financially well upholstered meet and greet in Davos it’s worth taking a look at the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report.
It may seem unlikely but this document, typically as dry as the Sahara, really does contain some radical thinking.
If you just read the executive summary, its findings for the year ahead would leave you somewhat underwhelmed. Their conclusions are thorough, probably pretty accurate but not exactly unexpected. To get to the radical part you have to dig into the Future Shocks section of the report where their writers are given free rein.
Mind enhancing drugs that cause societal division, artificial intelligence grabbing the internet our of our hands and causing the next financial crash, it’s all here and more. Some of it reads like science fiction and begs the question as to whether their writers are already enjoying some mind enhancing drugs.
But curb your enthusiasm, because before we get to the part of the report where they uncork the good stuff we had better have a brief look at their more immediate concerns. The primary risks they identify are environmental, cyber-security and geopolitical.
The report highlights the fact that environmental risks have grown in prominence in recent years. They cite recent super-storms and hurricanes, extreme temperatures and the first rise in CO2 emissions for four years. Possibly taking a swipe at the US president the report says this may be difficult to reverse in the face of ‘nation-state unilateralism and may make it more difficult to sustain the long-term, multilateral responses that are required to counter global warming and the degradation of the global environment’.
When it comes to cyber, the report worries that attacks against businesses have almost doubled in five years, and incidents that would once have been considered extraordinary are becoming commonplace. Notable examples cited include the WannaCry attack—which affected 300,000 computers across 150 countries—and NotPetya, which caused quarterly losses of US$300 million for a number of affected businesses.
Also identified are cyber-attacks targeting critical infrastructure such as aviation comms and power grids which are raising fears that attackers could trigger a breakdown in the systems that keep societies functioning. For those planning crisis simulations this might be fertile ground.
Not surprisingly the WEF are not too keen on nativism or the policy, seen notably in the US, of protecting the interests of native-born or established inhabitants against those of immigrants. The report comments: ‘Re-establishing the state as the primary locus of power and legitimacy has become an increasingly attractive strategy for many countries’ but warns that this creates new risks and uncertainties: rising military tensions and economic and commercial disruptions.
So, looking at the above: Alarming? Yes, but not entirely surprising. The interesting sometimes almost apocalyptic stuff contained in the report is in the Future Shocks section. They freely admit these shocks are speculative and a massive caveat is inserted at the outset when they say these are not predictions, but rather food for thought.
Seemingly coming straight from a sci-fi novel, one writer looks at the possible adverse impacts of artificial intelligence that involves not a super-intelligence that controls us and takes our jobs but rather so-called “AI weeds”—low-level algorithms that slowly choke off the internet.
If I understand it correctly, the fear here is that code will write code and we will be unable to control it. Perhaps this seems far-fetched but if in some form the internet were compromised, became less efficient or some governments decided to wall off parts of it, which some authoritarian regimes already attempt, this could undermine the business model of countless firms across the globe.
Perhaps unsurprisingly a further Future Shock is another financial crash, but this time with even more far reaching and devastating consequences. As we are seeing with President Trump in America and with Brexit in the UK, protectionism is gathering pace. Globalism is under threat and while some will welcome this, according to the report we could see trade disputes spreading rapidly, triggering adverse impacts and retaliatory moves between countries. As the report says: ‘A breakdown of the global trade system would roil supply chains and reduce overall economic activity’. Jobs might be unevenly distributed within and between countries, creating new inequalities and frustrations. Aggressive protectionism could see proliferating trade disputes triggering deeper geopolitical tensions.
Mind enhancing drugs
But saving the best Future Shock until last, and surely this has to make its way to Hollywood, what about societal division and unrest caused by mind enhancing drugs? Medication for human enhancement is still in its early stages, but science moves fast.
In a world of entrenched inequality, many people might choose to disregard potential health risks and take the equivalent of steroids for the brain. It would be impossible to monitor who had taken the drugs and even if bans were put in place the dark web would provide the perfect market place.
For those wishing to indulge, the price-tag would likely be eye-watering resulting in even greater inequality which might then trigger civil unrest. Then of course it would latterly be discovered that the drugs are flawed and after a number of years those who have taken the medication start to deteriorate, creating a massive public health crisis. I see Tom Cruise in the lead role.