ISSUE 2/19


Expect the unexpected      08/04/2019 by Sarah Pursey


“Is the world sleepwalking into a crisis? Global risks are intensifying but the collective will to tackle them appears to be lacking. Instead, divisions are hardening,” begins the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Risks Report. From slowing global growth and persistent economic inequality to climate change, geopolitical tensions and the accelerating pace of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the WEF’s annual paper presents a litany of complex, interconnected global challenges – and the pressing need to work together to overcome them.

For the most part, the report is characteristically dry, itself something of a soporific stroll (through no less than 114 pages) – yet its ‘Future Shocks’ chapter is always an intriguing read. The segment essentially serves as the paper’s thought-experiment zone, whereby its authors are temporarily released from the shackles of mid-term risk prediction to prospect the speculative depths for wild ‘what if’ scenarios from a far-flung future – often sounding more akin to a treatment for a new dystopian movie than a sober forecast. 


The first explores the risk of ‘weather manipulation tools’ (e.g., cloud-seeding to induce or suppress rain) and their increased adoption as the impacts of climate-related changes in weather patterns intensify. Amidst a mood of climbing geopolitical tensions, “perceptions would be paramount: a neighbouring state might see large-scale cloud-seeding as theft of rain or the reason for a drought”. With hostile intent, such tools might even be deployed to “disrupt a neighbour’s agriculture or military planning”.


Another shock could arrive in tandem with the dawn of “quantum computing”. When this focus of enormous research budgets finally bears fruit, many tools that today form the basis of digital cryptography will be rendered utterly obsolete, while public key algorithms will become effortlessly crackable. Quantum also promises new modes of encryption, of course – although, “by the time new protections have been put in place, many secrets may already have been lost to prying criminals, states and competitors”. And a collapse of cryptography – at the root of online authentication, trust and even personal identity – “would take with it much of the scaffolding of digital life”.


Elsewhere, the authors take up the very present threat posed by climate change on the global food system, and up the ante by adding into the mix the prospect of “geopolitically motivated food-supply disruptions” or even “a clandestine biological attack” on an adversary’s crops. Food shortages would naturally lead to hoarding and theft, in turn undermining social order. And if such suffering were to be inflicted on more powerful countries, the responses would undoubtedly be “both swift and severe”, the authors predict.


In another scenario, we could see a “Digital Panopticon”, whereby advanced and pervasive biometric surveillance paves the way for new forms of social control. A world in which everything about us is captured, stored and subjected to AI algorithms makes possible “new forms of conformity and micro-targeted persuasion”, while more machines in crucial decision loops could create greater social rigidity and prejudice, and impact the geopolitical balance. “Authoritarianism is easier in a world of total visibility and traceability, while democracy may turn out to be more difficult”, notes the paper, which elsewhere explores how AI capable of recognising and responding to emotions (“Woebots”) could create “new possibilities for harm”.


Various other scenarios include one in which “the widening gulf between urban and rural areas reaches a tipping point”; how mega cities could struggle to cope in the event of reaching “water day zero”; and how low Earth orbit could become a new stage for geopolitical conflict.


The authors emphasise that such shocks are very much ‘what if’ scenarios. Yet, like the very best dystopian science fiction, all achieve resonance as their seeds are firmly rooted in the here and now. Indeed, it seems perfectly plausible to envision any of the cascading risks outlined in ‘Future Shocks’ quite effortlessly crystallising – and at dizzying speed. If nothing else, such scenarios should therefore serve as a reminder of the need to think creatively about risk, and to expect the unexpected.

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