Is the glass half full or half empty? When it comes to the state of our future as a civilization, all too many people see no middle ground
The glass is either bone dry or overflowing. Hollywood’s apocalyptic future visions haunt all too many of us. On the other hand, many a techno-optimist see tomorrow’s world as a Garden of Eden full of health, peace and plenty.
But of course, the reality is a middle ground. The glass is indeed simultaneously half empty and half full.
Or, maybe, not quite. If you take the literal view of Jerome Glenn and the Millennium project, that glass just might be a little more than half full. In the most recent State of The Future report—the 19th released in the last 22 years—we find that mankind is improving in at least as many areas as it not. And in some cases, the improvement is dramatic.
Overall, as measured by the project’s State of The Future Index, we are still improving the overall station of our species. But the rate of improvement has slowed and there are perplexing challenges.
I recently spoke to Jerome about the Millennium Project, which he heads and co-founded in 1996, and the 19 editions of The State of The Future.
Mark Sackler: What is the mission of The Millennium Project?
Jerome Glenn: To improve thinking about the future. Quite simply, there’s a lot of silliness or non-thinking about the future. We’re trying to improve it.
Mark Sackler: Yogi Berra once said, “the future ain’t what it used to be.” We may laugh at his oxymoronic pronouncements, but there is more than a grain of truth in this one. You’ve seen fit to produce 19 editions of The State of The Future in the last 20+ years. So clearly, in your viewpoint, the future isn’t what it used to be. What’s changed—in the last year and the last 20 years?
Jerome Glenn: One of the things that’s striking over the past 20 years is the we’re doing a lot better most people think. We update data in this point. Like, what is the birth rate…what is the mortality rate…women in parliament. A lot of the date in human capabilities, in education, welfare, general human stuff—we have done better than most people have expected worldwide. We’re living longer—whether you’re in Nigeria or Paris. We’re living longer, we’re batter educated. We’re more prosperous. Extreme poverty is under now. When we started this stuff close to half the world was in extreme poverty. So we’re doing quite well in a lot of areas that people have no right to be pessimistic about.
Now, we are also losing in some areas that are very dangerous, such as the environment, social stability and organized crime. One of the more recent threats is that as humans become more powerful in their ability to do things at a distance, this can be for good or bad. We worry about the idea, in ten or more years, that an individual may be able to make and deploy a weapon of mass destruction. It could be biological, cyber, or whatever; we’re interested in trying to figure out how to prevent that.
In terms of the last year, or more recently, we see more political uncertainty and instability. In the first 15 years or so of the study we saw that democratization was increasing and stabilization was increasing. Refugees were going down, transborder wars were disappearing, but now that’s beginning to reverse again.
But most of what you see in the world is perfectly fine. Most people are treating each other in a nice way. But, understandably, we look at those things that are problems and tend to think that’s the big picture. But it’s not. The big picture is we are winning as a species.
Mark Sackler: Each of your challenges has a list or recommended actions to create a preferred outcome. But to do so, there is a need for public awareness. There is a need for more and better foresight throughout all of human society. That’s what I try to achieve with my blog and podcast. What, if anything, are you guys doing to accomplish that?
Jerome Glenn: We are probably not doing as much as we should. A public involved in the future is far more important today than it ever was before. The individual has a means of production with the internet that they did not have before in the industrial age. They worked in a factory, but they did not own the factory. Now every individual is at the center of market that has half the world connected to the internet. So, for better or worse, public opinion is far more important than it used to be.
Mark Sackler: The current report also contains a third section that presents three scenarios on the future of automation, artificial intelligence and jobs. These can broadly be categorized as good, bad and mixed bag. Rather than go into detail on all three, I’m curious to know where you personally stand on the issue. Will AI create jobs or kill them?
Jerome Glenn: I think it’s important to make a distinction between three different kinds of A.I. The conversation on A.I. has been terribly muddled. The A.I. we have today is narrow, and that can increase some employment and decrease other. But you can’t use that to diagnose cancer or drive your car. We may or may not get to general artificial intelligence, and that could have a big impact on employment.
The State of the Future 19th Edition has received a 2018 Most Significant Futures Work Award from The Association of Professional Futurists.
You can access the recording of the full interview at https://seekingdelphi.com/2018/08/13/podcast-24-the-state-of-the-future-with-jerome-glenn/