Time to face up to reality and stop looking for scapegoats: automation is coming

An anti-trade, anti-globalisation narrative has grown to become one of the most important political discourses of 2016. But, we hear from former European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, former president of the UN's General Assembly Mogens Lykketoft and WTO director-general Roberto Azevêdo, about a far greater problem on the horizon

On the day of the 2016 US elections, when Americans up and down the country were queuing up to vote for Donald Trump, three experts on world affairs gathered at Web Summit to discuss the reality we now live in.

José Manuel Barroso, former president of the European Commission, former Prime Minister of Portugal and now the non-executive chairman of Goldman Sachs, was joined by Roberto Azevêdo, director-general of the World Trade Organization, and Mogens Lykketoft, former president of the United Nations General Assembly and former Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs. These are men that play or have played key roles in running our world, and it’s clear that they have serious concerns about the future we now face.

“Frankly speaking, we are now in a very existential fight globally between the forces of openness and the forces of nationalism, protectionism, chauvinism, as we see in American election,” summarises Barroso.

“We are seeing all over the world a backlash against globalisation, against trade. We are seeing protectionism from the voting in Wallonia in Belgium against the agreement in Canada – that has blocked an agreement between Europe and Canada – to the positions of the candidates in the United States election against trade in the Pacific region,” he adds.

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Featured image courtesy of Web Summit

Azevêdo’s reasoning for this backlash is a familiar one. “Today in the marketplace there are feelings of uncertainty, feelings of being abandoned, feelings of being left behind and a sense of not enough opportunities out there.

“If you’re young, if you’re 20, 30 years old it’s one thing. If you’re [in your] late 40s, 50s and you lose your job, what do you do next? What’s out there in the marketplace for you? How do you support your family; where do you go from there?”

However, the focus on globalisation-driven trade and its role in job losses is not, Azevêdo argues, going to resolve the problem.

“I think that a lot of this blame on trade is just finding the easy targets, finding the easy enemy: it’s the different, it’s what’s coming from outside,” he says.

Automation is the problem

According to Azevêdo, the real source of our problems is staring us in the face; and it’s time we faced up to it.

“If we’re honest with each other and we look at the marketplace and we know what’s happening, it has nothing to do with trade,” he says.

“Two in 10 jobs that are lost in advanced economies today are due to trade and to imports. Eight out of 10 or more, it’s about new technologies, it’s about higher productivity, innovation.”

In summary, automation and other productivity gains are driving job losses and a lack of opportunities, and that isn’t something you can legislate against.

“Those things, you cannot fight them, you cannot be against them, you have to embrace them, you have to see that that is the future and to adapt and be ready for that,” urges Azevêdo, adding that there is far more to come.

“What are you going to do when you have a full-scale delivery of parcels by drones? Or when you have self-driven trucks delivering cargo?” he asked, adding that the first automated deliveries are already being made.

“Now in the US alone there are three and a half million truck drivers. Those guys are going to lose their jobs and it’s not only them, it’s all the roadside assistance, hotels, cafes, restaurants, service stations. What you going to do with all those people?

“Now don’t tell me a few years from now that you didn’t know this was going to happen. This is going to happen. And what do you do, how do you handle that?”

Politicians combating the wrong problem 

Amidst all the vitriol, politicians, the panel argues, have so far failed to face the reality of the situation, instead tailoring policies to a false cause.

If you don’t realise what the problem is, you will prescribe the wrong medicine, and the wrong medicine is protectionism

“If you don’t realise what the problem is, you will prescribe the wrong medicine, and the wrong medicine is protectionism, is stopping trade,” says Azevêdo. “You smother the chances of thousands of people.”

But ignoring trade is only part of it.

“I really believe that the missing variable is leadership, because we are seeing, including in Europe, that the leaders of the centre-left and centre-right parties are giving up to more extremist forces, including the very dark forces of nationalism, and we know in Europe what happened when nationalism was winning: the First and the Second World Wars,” says Barroso.

The panel agree that there is a trend of, as panel moderator Tom Nuttall of The Economist puts it, “the inability or unwillingness of some of our elected politicians to deliver hard truths to their electorate about the difficulties to come”.

But why are politicians failing to acknowledge automation’s impact on the job market?

“I think the politicians will get their way as long as the electorate is responding to the easy answer,” answers Azevêdo with nods of agreement from Barroso and Lykketoft.

“[Politicians] don’t want to give a complicated answer, and answer where you have to reform the whole system of education, training, skills, offering opportunities for small entrepreneurs, financing, investment for them. It’s much easier to say ‘oh it’s an import from that country over there’.

“At the end of the day they have to be held accountable and the people who can hold them accountable is the electorate. And the voter, at the end of the day has got to accept that finding the easy solution is going to cut it.”

What’s important to acknowledge, says Azevêdo, is that this is a problem that isn’t going away.

“Most of the problems that we face today are structural changes in modern society. I hear: ‘oh, the economy is going to pick up again’. That’s not going to change things. These are structural changes and you have to come to grips with that, and the political system has to respond to that.”

Globalisation for all

Whether we like it or not, globalisation cannot be stopped, and there will be job losses. But if politicians can face the fact that this is a structural change, the panel says, they can respond to the future in a way that works for us.

“Globalisation is going to happen, with the support or not [of] politicians,” says Barroso. “Of course it will be great if the political leaders try to have a human globalisation where we can defend some values, values that are dear to us in Europe: of human dignity, human rights, of social care.

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“But at the same time the point cannot be to resist the wave of globalisation because globalisation is going to take place, so we need enlightened leadership, but I believe in democracy and I believe the pressure of our civil societies is decisive for having this kind of enlightened and active leadership.”

But in order to achieve this, we as citizens need to hold our politicians accountable, and make them face the reality we’re entering.

“Hold them accountable,” says Azevêdo, “It’s the electorate who has to inform themselves, have a more rational conversation about this and say look, this answer doesn’t convince me. We need much more than that, and that’s the first step.”

60% of primate species threatened with extinction

A new study has called for urgent action to protect the world’s rapidly dwindling primate populations after figures revealed that 60% of the world’s primate species are threatened with extinction. There are over 500 currently recognised primate species, with the percentage considered at risk having increased by 20% since 1996.

The study draws attention to the incredible impact that humans have placed on primate environments. Agriculture, logging, construction, resource extraction and other human activities have all placed escalating and unsustainable pressure on the animals’ habitats, and are predicted to only worsen over the next 50 years.

Unless immediate action is taken, the scientists predict numerous extinctions.

“In 1996 around 40% of the then recognised primate taxa were threatened. The increase to 60% at present is extremely worrying and indicates that more conservation efforts are needed to halt this increase,” says Serge Wich, professor by special appointment of Conservation of the Great Apes at the University of Amsterdam.

Interestingly, one of the main suggestions for helping the primates is first helping humans. Most primates live in regions characterised by high levels of poverty and inequality, a fact that the study authors believe leads to greater hunting and habitat loss.

They suggest that immediate actions should be taken to improve health and access to education, develop sustainable land-use initiatives, and preserve traditional livelihoods that can contribute to food security and environmental conservation.

While it may be tragic to some, it could be easy to see the loss of these primates as unimportant to humans. However, it is important to note that the non-human primates’ biological relation to humans offers unique insights into human evolution, biology, behaviour and the threat of emerging diseases.

Additionally, these species serve as key components of tropical biodiversity and contribute to forest regeneration and ecosystem health. If they are struck by mass extinction, it is hard to predict the impact it could have on their ecosystems.

“‘If we are unable to reduce the impact of our activities on primates, it is difficult to foresee how we will maintain this fantastic diversity of our closest relatives in the near future,” added Wich. “That will not only be a great loss from a scientific point of view, but will also have a negative influence on the ecosystems that we all rely so much upon. It is therefore important to drastically change from the business as usual scenarios to more sustainable ones.”

The threat posed to delicate ecosystems by human expansion is nothing new, but it is perhaps shocking to have such a blunt figure out there as to the damage being caused.

More than half of these species – species that are far closer to us than we may be comfortable discussing – could die unless current policy is reversed.

The study’s authors have called on authorities across the world to take action and raise awareness of the issues raised.

The article itself is published in the latest edition of the journal Science Advances.

Mark Zuckerberg: VR goal is still 5-10 years away

Mark Zuzkerberg has said that the true goal of virtual reality could still be a decade away, in a testimony during a high-profile court case against his company.

Facebook, as owner of Oculus, is currently in the middle of being sued by ZeniMax Media for allegedly stealing technology for the virtual reality device. If proved guilty, they will be pursued for the amount of $2bn by ZeniMax.  However, perhaps more pertinent to the actual future of virtual reality are comments arising from Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony.

As it currently stands, virtual reality is still a far cry from being integrated into everyday life on a wide scale. Oculus, HTC Vive and Playstation VR are still largely targeting gamers and the idea of entertainment experiences. While they have found varying levels of success, all three platforms are being held back by the youth of the technology and, in the case of Vive and Oculus, the limited by the need for a high performing computer to plug into.

Image and featured image courtesy of Oculus

“I don’t think that good virtual reality is fully there yet,” said Zuckerberg. “It’s going to take five or 10 more years of development before we get to where we all want to go.”

The revelation isn’t a particularly shocking one; even the most ardent believer in virtual reality has to admit that we’re a fair way off the goal. Indeed, we can be seen as being in the first wave of mainstream virtual reality, with the main players in the tech using gaming as a way to introduce the technology to a group that are most likely to be interested from the off.

Zuckerberg has far grander plans than simply expanding the user base however, as seen with projects such as Facebook Social VR. If games are the entry, the idea is to expand virtual reality to become a whole new computing platform used for a bevy of experiences and containing a whole load of tools. The ambition is high, the reality slightly lagging behind.

Mark Zuckerberg with Priscilla Chan in 2016

When asked about the realisation of VR as this new computing platform, Zuckerberg replied: “These things end up being more complex than you think up front. If anything, we may have to invest even more money to get to the goals we had than we had thought up front.”

He then went on to add that the probable investment for Facebook to reach that goal is likely to top the $3bn mark over the next ten years. Considering the social media giant spent $2bn just to acquire Oculus, this represents a truly colossal investment in something that seemed to be initially set to hit a lot sooner. Admittedly the goal is rather grand: providing hundreds of millions of people with a good virtual reality experience transcending gaming alone.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, it’s very important that you know that Mark Zuckerberg did in fact wear a suit to trial. Whether Palmer Luckey, making his first public appearance since his Gamergate/Trump support scandal last year, will manage to ditch the flip flops when he testifies is yet to be seen.