Thursday, August 06, 2009

Projections, not prognostications

Attended a lecture by Peter Schwartz, author of Inevitable Surprises. His Wiki entry calls him a "futurist", and in fact his lecture was about examining today's trends and extrapolating from them how future scenarios might play out.

That was kinda' cool because part of our GP lectures next week will be about evaluating our preparations against future crises. Also because during this morning's heated discussions at our weekly level meeting, quite a number of similar or related themes came up and got debated over. Good to know we are keeping up with the times.

In summary, our biggest problem right now is climate change which we are no longer in a position to avert, we simply have to get used to the fact and adapt as best we can... and try not to make it any worse, while we're at it. And by not making it worse, fossil fuels will be priced out of anybody's reach because if not, global warming will make the planet unsustainable long before we run out of fossil fuels to burn. But current technology will help us keep our beloved cars running thanks to developments in hybrid, fuel-cell and electric drives. Until we find a better substitute, we'll be turning to nuclear energy, but with much smaller-scale reactors. Recent advances in biotechnology will prolong our life expectancy: those under 30 today have a good chance of undergoing anti-ageing treatments and be able to replace worn out body parts with new body parts grown from their own stem-cells, or bio-mechanical parts. They could live for a couple of centuries with this new direction medical technology is taking. Sadly, those of us past 30 today have screwed up our bodies too much already to fix, though we could still live up to 150 or thereabouts. That would mean SM Goh's estimate that we need to keep our workforce going till the retirement age of 75 is a slight underestimate. Because of our recalcitrance in reproducing ourselves and hence the greying population of post-centenarians who refuse to grow up, we have to expect lots of demographical movement as we continue to attract talent to pick up the slack (and here I think the faster we accept that as reality and quit whining over the so-called FT problem, the better it will be for all of us). The control of water will become a major issue and will probably be a flashpoint for major future conflicts. Another source of trouble are places in the world where there are large numbers of young males who for the lack of females to impress tend to violence instead. But I guess if they just focus on beating each other up and leave the rest of the world alone, they'll just be thinning out their numbers to a more manageable level. Come to that, I also suspect that the idea of getting 70 virgins in heaven after you die originally meant "in your dreams, buddy" or in Singlish, "tang ku-ku!", but somehow some people started to take the idea literally. So people will keep blowing themselves up, and that will be a factor in how the future will shape up, though apparently not a very big factor (Schwartz was a bit vague about this point). Meantime, China and India will become the strongest economies on earth, along with some of the other knowledge-based economies this side of the Greenwich Meridian, us included. Where we stay on the edge of the curve against the Chindian giant will be in pushing education and R&D, particularly in much needed areas like green tech, biotech and water purification, as well as serving as a model for effective social order and good governance that others can learn from. Two scenarios could play out in shaping our view of the near future: if the US can recover out of this economic crisis it would continue to be a major player influencing the world, although sharing power with China the way it once did with the Soviet Union. Or, if the US goes into decline because it cannot recover, then world politics will be dominated by China, and going by China's historical record of centralizing power supported by vassal states, that's not looking like too rosy a picture. So power relationships will be organized along the lines of institutions and rule-of-law if the US recovers, or by the Chinese concept of "guanxi" (interest and alliance) should China emerge as the sole superpower of the 21st century. While all this is going on, the people of the developing nations will be starting to get hooked on cheap to free Internet content -- basically free knowledge -- and by the power of Wiki and Google will slowly pull themselves up by their own bootstraps (heck, they'll pull themselves up by their own toenails if they had to) and slowly join the rest of us in the 21st century.

There, I think I got most of the lecture down here. Note that I didn't make a point to memorise all this info -- I didn't bother to write anything down until now, in review mode. But I did my readings before the lecture, I listened intently to the lecturer and matched new info with stuff I already knew (HP patiently bore the brunt of my frequent comments and other random utterances; we all need friends like her). Yeah, we were prepared to be bamboozled by brainy bombast but, to our great relief, we got a great lecture in good-humoured plain-speak instead.

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