Fac­ing the fu­ture

IN HIS NEW BOOK, LEO BUR­NETT’S HONORARY CHAIR­MAN FARID CHE­HAB SAYS HU­MAN­ITY MUST BUILD A BRIDGE TO THE 21ST CEN­TURY IF IT IS TO THRIVE IN AN AGE OF UN­PRECE­DENTED TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGE

ArabAd - - INTERVIEW - I.A.

It’s been some time since Farid Che­hab was in­volved in the day-to-day run­ning of an agency, yet Leo Bur­nett’s honorary chair­man still refers to him­self as an ad­man. A cu­ri­ous one at that. Once an avid reader of Ayn Rand, Che­hab has turned his mind to the fu­ture. Not just any fu­ture ei­ther, but one that out­lines how hu­man­ity can build an out­stand­ing, yet re­al­is­tic des­tiny for hu­mankind in light of the un­prece­dented technological ad­vance­ment un­leashed by the Fourth In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion.

It’s a huge topic, and one that Che­hab has cho­sen to tackle in his third book, A Bridge to the 21st Cen­tury. Pub­lished by L’ori­ent-le Jour, it has been in­spired in part by Che­hab’s con­tin­u­ous read­ing of Thomas Fried­man, Stephen Hawk­ing, Jac­ques At­tali, Edgar Morin, Alain Minc and Yu­val Noah Harari, all of whom have con­fronted the fu­ture in their work.

In many ways Che­hab views his book as a wake-up call. He be­lieves the new age has brought about a par­a­digm shift in the way we think, be­have and act, with the pace of change faster than our cur­rent abil­ity to adapt.

“Bom­barded by new tech­nolo­gies that con­tinue to trans­form ev­ery­day life, we find our­selves stunned by a dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion that will over­turn the global eco­nomic en­vi­ron­ment,” he says. “As such, it is no won­der we’re con­cerned about our fu­ture, as a con­fus­ing in­flux of in­for­ma­tion and unan­swered ques­tions over­whelm us.

“The 21st cen­tury mer­ci­lessly counts down as a tick­ing time bomb. Are we to be­come a sac­ri­ficed gen­er­a­tion? And what

of those to come? How will our chil­dren sur­vive? The great Stephen Hawk­ing pre­dicted that, should noth­ing be done to com­bat waste or global vi­o­lence, we could all dis­ap­pear within the next few cen­turies. His ob­ser­va­tion should frighten us all into en­rich­ing our val­ues.”

You only need to look as far as ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence to find jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for Che­hab’s con­cern. The physi­cist Stephen Hawk­ing said its emer­gence could be the “worst event in the his­tory of our civil­i­sa­tion” un­less so­ci­ety finds a way to con­trol its de­vel­op­ment. Elon Musk, the bil­lion­aire tech­nol­ogy en­tre­pre­neur be­hind Tesla and Spacex, has also re­ferred to AI as hu­man­ity’s “big­gest ex­is­ten­tial threat”, with the key con­cern be­ing that we are cre­at­ing the means for our own de­struc­tion.

The po­ten­tial im­pact, of course, is colos­sal, with ac­cel­er­at­ing change – where the rate of technological ad­vance­ment in­creases ex­po­nen­tially as time passes – lead­ing to Ray Kurzweil’s The Law of Ac­cel­er­at­ing Re­turns. That is, technological sin­gu­lar­ity, where ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence ac­quires the abil­ity to cre­ate ever smarter and more pow­er­ful ma­chines than it­self.

In the eyes of many a daunt­ing world awaits us – one that pro­fes­sor Klaus Sch­wab, founder of the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum, has de­scribed as be­ing built around “cy­ber-phys­i­cal sys­tems”. In other words, a world where the phys­i­cal, dig­i­tal and bi­o­log­i­cal spheres are blurred.

“Those who are not pre­pared to adapt might be­come the col­lat­eral vic­tims of the new age,” warns Che­hab. In A Bridge to the 21st Cen­tury he dis­cusses the ‘stum­bling blocks’ and ‘per­ils at hand’ that face us.

“Jack Ma is pre­dict­ing that by 2030, 800 mil­lion jobs will van­ish,” says Che­hab. “This con­cerns more than three bil­lion peo­ple. Among these peo­ple are our kids who, born in 2020, will be 10 years old by then. To­day’s cur­rent be­lief is that when jobs dis­ap­pear, new jobs will be cre­ated. This is only partly true. As a mat­ter of fact there will be far less jobs avail­able around the world.

“Be­sides un­em­ploy­ment, the per­ils are go­ing to in­clude the in­ter­fer­ence of AI in our very or­ganic ex­is­tence. Gen­er­a­tion 2040 will have to face the chal­lenges of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence in the fields of ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing, the pro­lon­ga­tion of life, nano-tech­nol­ogy, robotics, and the econ­omy as well.

Gen­er­a­tion 2050 will have to elab­o­rate on and prac­tice new sys­tems that will run the world econ­omy. Gen­er­a­tion 2070 and above will be fac­ing the chal­lenges of aug­mented hu­man­ity.”

How we han­dle these chal­lenges will de­ter­mine our fate, says Che­hab.

The an­swer? Re­silience, ideas, val­ues and tol­er­ance. It is these four ‘pil­lars’ that Che­hab be­lieves will help hu­man­ity thrive. A new set of val­ues must be adopted to help us cope with the evo­lu­tion of in­tel­li­gence as we per­ceive it to­day. And ev­ery­thing starts with ed­u­ca­tion, which must evolve from by-the-book learn­ing to a sys­tem that al­lows the cre­ative mind to flour­ish.

“We tend to think ed­u­ca­tion will evolve and adapt as al­ways in the past, but this is not true,” says Che­hab. “Tech­nol­ogy evolves at a higher speed than nat­u­ral evo­lu­tion, es­pe­cially ed­u­ca­tion. The new age re­quires a par­a­digm shift in the gen­er­a­tion of ideas. This means that the cur­rent knowl­edge ac­qui­si­tion pro­gramme may well be­come ob­so­lete. In­stead of only learn­ing, chil­dren must be ed­u­cated in the di­rec­tion of ‘cre­at­ing’. To­day, only Fin­land is at the fore­front of in­no­va­tion in this field.”

“I have a grand­son who was born just one year ago,” he adds. “I am writ­ing this book for him and his young par­ents as much as I am for all young fam­i­lies.”

We tend to think ed­u­ca­tion will evolve and adapt as al­ways in the past, but this is not true. “Tech­nol­ogy evolves at a higher speed than nat­u­ral evo­lu­tion, es­pe­cially ed­u­ca­tion. The new age re­quires a par­a­digm shift in the gen­er­a­tion of ideas. This means that the cur­rent knowl­edge ac­qui­si­tion pro­gramme may well be­come ob­so­lete. In­stead of only learn­ing, chil­dren must be ed­u­cated in the di­rec­tion of ‘cre­at­ing’

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