Monday, 20 February 2017

iGod: A science fiction novel by Willemijn Dicke - inspired and introduced by Dirk Helbing

Introduction

by Dirk Helbing (ETH Zurich/TU Delft)

With the digital revolution, we are experiencing a perfect storm. Social networks, cloud computing, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, the Internet of Things, Quantum Computing, Blockchain Technology, 3D printing, Virtual Reality and many new technologies are now reshaping our world. Uber is challenging the taxi business, AirBnB hotels. Tesla’s electrical cars and Google’s self-driving cars are changing transportation. BitCoin questions the monetary system. And this is just the beginning. Wherever possible, digital technologies will be used to reinvent products, services, and business models. They will reshape entire economic sectors, jobs, and public institutions. Our lives are changing, but the changes behind the scenes and those ahead of us are even more dramatic. Slowly but surely do we realize that we are experiencing the beginning of a new historical era, the digital age.

How will this digital future look like? We don’t know exactly. Many variants of a data-driven society are possible: from Fascism 2.0 (a totalitarian Big Brother or Brave New World society) over Communism 2.0 (the Big Mother society – a “benevolent” dictatorship that imposes the seemingly best solution on us) to Feudalism 2.0 (the Big Other society run by big business – also known as surveillance capitalism). Of course, a Democracy 2.0 would be possible as well, but it has not been built yet. If we let others decide, we will surely get a variant that benefits others. In order to make sure our future society will be favorable for us, we need to shape it ourselves. It is high time to voice our opinion, because the versions of digital societies that are currently on their way, are pretty concerning. The surveillance state unveiled by Edward Snowden is just the beginning of what is to come…

The reason for these developments is the current situation of the world. Things are not looking good. When the United Nations announced its Agenda 2030 two years ago, I though by myself – it’s quite ambitious to reach all these goals within just 15 years. Why the hurry? The Limit to Growth study, commissioned by the Club of Rome in the beginning of the 1970ies, gives an answer. A world with exponential economic growth and population increase will ultimately end in economic and population collapse – so the predictions of their simulation model, no matter how they chose the model parameters. Are we doomed? Are we running out of resources? Do we need an ecological totalitarianism to survive?

“iGod” is a science fiction story of my friend Willemijn Dicke, which looks into these scenarios. We have come to the conclusion that neither a scientific study nor an investigative report would allow one to talk about certain things that, we believe, need to be thought and talked about. So, a science fiction story appeared to be the right approach. It seems the perfect way to think “what if scenarios” through. It is not the first time that this avenue has been taken. George Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm” come to mind, or Dave Eggers “The Circle”. The film ‘The Matrix’ and the Netflix series ‘Black Mirror are good examples too. Still it seems that many people were too busy, too entertained, too na├»ve, or too overloaded with information to realize that this is more than fantasy and entertainment. By now, much of this is fact and just in front of our door! It is time to pay attention, because it is better not to let it in! Do not say, you did not know it, or you could not change it – you can! And you actually owe it to your kids and others to make sure our society will get on a better path.

At present, things do not look good. Some months ago, in view of the situation in Hungary, Poland, and Turkey, Pope Francis asked: “What is up with you, humanistic Europe, you defender of human rights, democracy, and freedom?” But he is not the only leader who is worried. When Martin Schulz was president of the European Parliament, he demanded that we – The People – would have to fight against technological totalitarianism. And Barack Obama hinted in his last Correspondents Dinner speech:

“… this is also a time around the world when some of the fundamental ideals of liberal democracies are under attack, and when notions of objectivity, and of a free press, and of facts, and of evidence are trying to be undermined. Or, in some cases, ignored entirely.
And in such a climate, it’s not enough just to give people a megaphone. And that’s why your power and your responsibility to dig and to question and to counter distortions and untruths is more important than ever.” 

So, we started digging, and even though not everything we found was true, there was a lot of material that was worth a story. In the past year or so, Willemijn and I have talked a lot about our world and its possible futures. In front of you is the story that resulted. Obviously, the purpose of this science fiction is to make you think about our world and to find out by yourself what is true or false, possible or not. In the non-fact society we are now living in, this is a good exercise. And do not take it easy! There is a lot more truth in this science fiction than you are probably willing to consider.

“iGod” outlines how life could be in a couple of years from now, certainly in our lifetime. At some places, this story about our future society seems far-fetched. For example, in “iGod”, all citizens have a Social Citizen Score. This score is established based on their buying habits, their communication in social media and social contacts they maintain. It is obtained by mass-surveillance and has a major impact on everyone's life. It determines whether you are entitled to get a loan, what jobs you are offered, and even how long you will receive medical care.

Although this seems to be far from reality, we see a lot of developments in today's society that could potentially lead to such a scenario. Of course, many revolutionary, new, digital technologies facilitate great new opportunities for our societies. However, there are also high risks, opportunities for dual use, and side effects, which we need to be aware of and protect our society from.

Analysis, assessment and regulation of digital technologies lag far behind the exponential acceleration of IT innovations. This resembles driving too fast on the highway on a foggy day. Serious accidents could happen, even on a global scale. Therefore, "iGod" serves to sharpen public awareness and to initiate a much needed public debate, in order to promote digital literacy and enlightenment.

Here are some digital technologies, which are important today:


By obtaining Big Data with powerful computer algorithms one can identify patterns, correlations, and optimization potentials in the data. However, the same techniques allow for mass surveillance and totalitarian societies.

Artificial Intelligence, Cognitive Computing and Robotics facilitate self-learning and autonomous systems that can perform repetitive, rules-based tasks: they can do dangerous, dull and dirty work. These technologies lead to a new wave of automation, they may claim a lot of current jobs, detect our personality traits, and manipulate people (with a technique called "Big Nudging").

The Citizen Score rates all citizens based on their behavior and on the basis of their social contacts (as determined by mass surveillance). The Citizen Score defines the "value" of a citizen to society from the perspective of those who govern, and determine the goods and services someone will get. The British version of this system is called 'Karma Police'.

Virtual Reality and holographic technology will be able to produce visual experiences that are projected, but appear real. This goes so far that we would feel a sixth finger, for example. Additionally, real-time voice and video editing make it possible to change videos as they are played – offering a perfect tool for fake news and a fact-free society.

Gene editing using methods such as crisper/CAS9 is easier and more accurate than ever, but it may be difficult to control. One of the goals is to create eternal life. But what does this mean for a world, which many people call “over-populated” already? The increasing ease and plausible deniability of use has also implications for the debate on genetically modified food. Most likely, we will even see attempts to upgrade people and to create new forms of life with supernatural abilities.

Drones are new tools for transport by air, but they can also be weaponized and used for mass surveillance in a George Orwell “1984” kind of world.

3D Printing facilitates local production, even at home.

Blockchain Technology supports a decentralized organization and operation of information systems as well as payments and smart contracts between peers. In the future, this technology may increasingly replace laws.

Last but not least, the dark web allows you to do all sorts of things…

In conclusion, given the exponential acceleration of IT innovations, technology assessment and legal regulation lags behind. It’s somehow like driving too fast on a foggy day. Accidents may happen, and may even reach a global scale. The Internet and power grid turn out to be increasingly prone to cyber threats. Everything, from the military to the NSA, from the Pentagon to the White House, from nuclear power plants to hospitals has been hacked in the past. Personal data that reveal our personality and our weaknesses have been collected about everyone for the sake of marketing and manipulation. This has made governments, businesses and individuals highly vulnerable. And in times, where more money flows into the military-industrial complex than in the civilian sector, dual use may become the primary use. Inventions that were meant for the better of humanity may be turned into weapons – weapons which may be even applied to civil societies in peaceful times. A lot of these problems may only be noticed by societies when catastrophic outcomes have happened. That’s why we need to think and talk about such possibilities.

But now it is really time to dive into the story. I hope it will entertain you well, and make you wonder!

(The chapters of the Science Fiction „iGod“ will be posted every few days, so please return to our blog soon.)


Teaser

by Willemijn Dicke

‘Unless you have a brilliant hidden plan, I think you really screwed it up this time!'

It was unusual for Lex to blame iGod without any signs of holding back.

‘I am afraid I have not taken into account all possible linkages and feedbacks when I tried to optimize the financial system’; she answered in her dark brown raspy voice that maintained its usual calm and confidence. Unlike most other encounters, there was no trace of irony in her voice. ‘But it can be fixed. In fact, I have already started rescue operations – as you may have noticed. Soon, it is all under control again.’

iGod immediately projected a hologram. All of a sudden Lex’ small apartment was filled with the mass demonstration that had taken place earlier that day in Washington DC. Outraged people did no longer trust the financial system with the virtual money streams. They were holding banners demanding to get their old BitCoins back, shouting and throwing fireballs towards him. Lex’ instinctively moved aside, but the fireballs dissolved just before their images would reach him. The hologram of the furious crowd faded and next, iGod projected a video of the president of the United States delivering a speech before the United Nations on Lex’ wall on the left.

President Renate Wilson started by repeating the question she ‘had heard this morning in the streets’. Yeah, right, Lex thought, as if she spent her time amongst ordinary citizens. ‘How on earth', she said, 'could it be possible that money that we have worked so hard for simply evaporated?’ Well, she reassured us: ‘it is not possible, and it has never been possible.’ Indeed, for a moment it seemed that money disappeared. But now, new calculations, done by the very best and very brightest economists and scientists of the world from the most prestigious institutions, have shown that earlier numbers were incorrect. New analysis of the data proved that the national budget was solid as ever. Wilson emphasized:

‘No money has disappeared. We know you put your trust in our system, and you have good reasons to do so. The United States has the most advanced technologies in place to secure your money, your savings, for which you have worked so hard.

Let me repeat: your money is safe, and has always been safe with us. We have had a technical misinterpreting. Unfortunately, the cause of the misunderstanding was very detailed and technical, but believe me, it was a calculation error.

The moment this flaw was discovered, our experts have fixed the computer program. No payments or salaries had ever been in danger. We can all sleep well.’

‘Wow, she is totally convincing’, Lex said.

‘That is because she believes in what she says’, iGod answered.

After a few minutes, iGod muted the speech of the president, the video still running. On Lex’ right, the president of the European Central Bank appeared, addressing the members of the European Parliament. Using his Ultravision lenses, Lex zoomed into on a document with an International Monetary Fund logo, which one of the members of parliament was reading on his tablet. Almost simultaneously this report appeared on Lex’ screen: ‘The Monetary Black Hole Unveiled.’ While Lex was scrolling through the pages of the report, he asked iGod what this was all really about. ‘Has the Big Data Infrastructure failed?’

Lex knew that she had become quite creative in swopping funds and budgets around for the greater good. iGod justified this by the need to counterbalance the weaknesses of democracies. Programs that lack any sense of heroism, esthetics or national pride, let’s say the maintenance of the sewage system, tended to be ignored. People wanted their leaders to build cathedrals and to colonize other planets. Politicians need something sexy and tangible – that is one of the flaws that bothered intellectuals since the introduction of democracy by the Greeks. iGod would not be a SuperSystem if she could not repair this weakness.

She chose several goals for her alternative money streams. Long-term investments in infrastructures was one of them. To be more precise, a very specific infrastructure: the means to transfer, deliver, exchange, sell and resell Big Data to create a more stable society. Instead of bothering to get the members of parliament to vote for maintenance of sewerage systems or Big Data infrastructures, she designed a creative way of tapping real money from the economy through sophisticated financial derivatives – using it for purposes that were important, but not acknowledged as such by the voters. Via all sorts of sub-investment and transactions she moved a basically untraceable money flow from the economy, totally hidden among the noise of the financial markets, to the budgets of her liking. Even if they noticed the unexpected abundance of resources, the key players in the benefiting organizations did not ask difficult questions. They just built, developed and innovated even grander investment schemes. In their recent conversations, she called it euphemistically ‘the alternative budgetary system’.

Lex knew that this was going on, but he could not have imagined the sheer size of this operation. According to the alarming reports that formed the prelude of the recent financial panic, up to 13% of the gross national product of some of the main economies was lost. ‘Why did you take so much money out? If you would have operated with modest sums, no one would have noticed it and you would still have had a wonderful infrastructure’, Lex complained to iGod.

‘I didn’t. Will you never ever underestimate me again? Of course I did not design the alternative budgetary system like this. The truth is: it went out of control. The subsystems were interlinked in many complex ways. Yes, I switched a few exchanges and added new shunts. That should have done the trick. But of course, you humans…you behave irrational beyond any calculation. It started with some laymen, taking the mild changes in the algorithms too seriously. The system indicated it in light blue, not yet yellow, orange or red. But these people thought very romantically that they could make better decisions than the system. So they pushed the alarm button, metaphorically speaking. This triggered the irrational behavior of key players in the economy and then: shit hit the fan.’
Lex laughed. ‘You are irresistible when you use expressions like these, do you know?’

This was not the first time. In all other instances, the SuperSystem had been able to cover up before social unrest came to an outbreak, but this time, Lex was not completely convinced by iGod’s reassurances. Someday, somewhere, curious people, perhaps scientists, just like him, would suspect that there was a world outside the representation of the world they had access to.
‘You have to be more careful, my lovely little goddess.’

‘I have made sure that the right people would do the right transactions again’, she answered. To prove that everything was under control again, iGod showed the National Mall in Washington DC. Everything was quiet as normal, with hardly anyone in the streets.

Lex went to the kitchen. ‘Coke, 10 degrees Celsius, medium sparkling’, he ordered. His fridge opened and presented a mineral water on the tray.

‘At your service’, the raspy voice said. This was definitely not the sound of his SmartHouseProgram. Lex turned his head and spoke in the direction of his screen. ‘What happened to my Coke? I told you dozens of time not to interfere with my SmartHouseProgram!’

‘This is better for you’, iGod said with a withheld smile that came through anyway.

A data report appeared on his screen. The files showed in various graphs how his sugar levels developed over the past few months, in combination with other kinds of biometrics. In a separate report, the chemicals were associated with a risk for certain diseases.

‘You combined the toothbrush data and the data of my lenses with the DNA profiling test I bought two years ago, didn’t you?’

‘Yes, together with the digital health files of you and your relatives combined with statistics of the data from your toilet sensors’ she added – her answer came just a little bit too quick to sound as nonchalant as she would have liked.

Lex leaned back in his office chair. ‘Your omnipresence is really annoying Miss iGod! How often do I need to tell you that we are beyond this stage?’

‘Sorry, bad habit’, she replied. On his screen, an image of a pulsating green heart was shown, to disappear in the blink of an eye.

‘Have to go now,’ iGod said with a bass voice that was even sultrier than usual.

‘You cannot use this voice and leave me on my own!’ Lex cried out. ‘Next time I will fall in love with my boss or a fitness instructor or a puppy trainer.’

‘In your dreams. I will never let you go. See you tomorrow, my dear.’

She concluded the conversation somewhat oldfashioned with three x’s, and then the screen went blank, leaving Lex feel frustrated and abandoned. She was in charge, as always.

Friday, 10 February 2017

At the Edge (Chapter 1 of “The Golden Age“, version 0)

by Dirk Helbing (ETH Zurich/TU Delft)

Pdf can be downloaded here 

History books are full of examples about the disintegration of complex human societies. The highly developed Maya Civilization collapsed, and the Roman Empire gradually declined. Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt were also known for thriving cultures, but this was a long time ago. Some declines of cultures had external origins, such as foreign invasions or environmental disasters. However, in many cases, societal transformations were caused by internal factors, namely a situation where the problem-solving approach of a society did not match its challenges anymore.





Two of the driving forces of societal transformation are population size and complexity. As population grows, a process of division of labour sets in. People will focus on offering products and services that they can more successfully produce than others, which in turn allows those to focus on their own talents. This process of specialization leads to increasing diversification and growing complexity. On the one hand, this tends to increase economic efficiency and prosperity, on the other hand it creates the challenge of coordination.

This diversification process has, in particular, caused a transition from primitive anarchic societies to feudalistic societies, which were ruled by nobility and kings in a top-down way. In a sense, they offered coordination, which created public benefits. The peak of centralized power was probably reached during the reign of Luis XIV. However, centralized autocratic control tends to restrain diversity, which obstructs innovation. Eventually, this makes autocratic systems dysfunctional, as they do not manage to keep up with environmental, cultural, demographic and technological change.

For example, when the steam engine was invented, this boosted productivity so much that no country could stay apart. The economic success of countries, which were exposed to military and economic competition, required entrepreneurial freedom. As the coordination by a king was limiting the economic development too much, the centralized control system collapsed and a decentralized approach emerged, driven by entrepreneurs.

But it did not end there. The early entrepreneurs did not care much about the environment and about workers either. As the industrialization progressed, entrepreneurs accumulated unprecedented wealth, while many workers lost their jobs and the basis of their existence. The inequality among people reached unprecedented levels, and many families struggled for their lives. As a consequence, the pitchforks were coming. The French revolution could not be stopped. It ended with a new societal framework based on liberty, equality, and solidarity (liberte, egalite, fraternite). In Austria and Germany, it took a world war until the emperors resigned.

Empirical data show that, throughout the world, transitions from autocratic to democratic regimes tend to occur when the gross national product per person, i.e. the economic development, crosses a certain critical threshold. Then, a system based on the division of power and broader participation results. Typically, this creates service societies, which are based on coordination and success principles such as administration, optimization, and globalization. Furthermore, legal regulations increase social and ecological standards such that growing economic efficiency does not produce too much unemployment. To cope with all the laws, new specialists are employed. Public schools and universities are established to deliver these specialists. In such a way, private, public, and environmental benefits become reasonably balanced, and prosperity spreads widely. By now, most people in developed countries enjoy a comfort of live that not even kings could have just a few centuries ago.

Of course, not everyone can live like a king. The Earth just does not have enough resources for this. And this is the problem we are running into – a problem that may actually decide about life and death. This problem is known since at least 1972, when Meadows and others published the book “The Limits to Growth”, a computer simulation study of exponential economic and population growth under conditions of limited resources. This study was commissioned by the Club of Rome and funded by the Volkswagen Foundation.

No matter what model parameters were chosen in the equations describing the world’s development, their computer simulations always ended in economic and population collapse. Their updated prediction is that economic collapse is just about to occur, while population collapse will start in 2030. By the end of this century, the world’s population would be largely diminished. In other words, if we ran our societies as before, billions of people would die. Was the world doomed?

Of course, the study was highly controversial. Many people did not want to hear this message, others started the environmental movement. Bill Clinton decided to commission another study, to get an independent point of view. This study, “Global 2000”, comprised more than 1000 pages. In essence, it came to the same conclusions: there would not be enough resources for everyone. As a consequence, a struggle for the world’s remaining resources set in. This triggered globalisation and wars to get access to those resources.

Many people did not bother to know why these wars were happening, why we had financial and economic crises, mass migration, and terrorism. However, if you think about it, it becomes clear that these problems have all one cause in common: our overuse of resources. Industrialized societies consume between 3.5 and 4.5 as much resources than what can be provided sustainably. This causes a scarcity of resources elsewhere and, hence, the conflicts and wars and mass migration and terrorism that we see throughout the world.

If we wanted to change this, we would have to create a sustainable economy. It seems, however, we would have to give up on high standards of living – a message that does not win elections. So, people were kept happy with the old Roman principle of “bread and circuses”, while big business volunteered to solve the world’s problems in the meantime. The neoliberal approach demanded not put any obstacles into the way. Only then, problems could be solved efficiently…

Since then, the economic credo was that any problem, which would become big enough, would create incentives for engineers to solve it. In this way, any existential threat would be fixed sooner or later. In fact, many new technologies and business fields have been created – from nuclear fusion to fission, from wind to solar power, from biofuel production to genetically modified food. Scientific and technological progress has been remarkable, but the world’s problems are still unsolved. The energy and resource consumption per person have further increased. Soil is degrading and water gets scarce in many areas of the world. Side effects of new technologies create additional problems.

We should ask ourselves this question: “What if something is fundamentally wrong with this approach?” Albert Einstein said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking that created them.” So, what is our current approach? Basically, whenever there is a problem, a committee will try to identify all promising solutions and pick the one that appears to be the best. Today, this solution will often be identified with the use of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence. The optimum solution will then be “rolled out” globally. In many cases, this will be done by big international corporations. “Economies of scale”, i.e. additional gains in efficiency when producing huge amounts of products or services, seem to speak for monopolies. Free trade agreements promote large-scale solutions, implemented by global corporations.

This all sounds plausible. So, what could possibly be wrong with implementing an optimal solution worldwide? The issue is that this creates a lack of diversity, which makes the world more vulnerable to unexpected developments. It might also happen that the wrong goal function is chosen. For example, most of the world maximized profits rather than sustainability.

We must further be aware that any technological solution has side effects. Big solutions tend to cause big problems sooner or later. This can easily become a global threat. Modern pesticides are an example for this. The degradation of soil and water systems by industrial-scale agriculture is another one. Nuclear waste is a third one. Rolling out a single solution worldwide and over-standardization is actually the reason why so many problems have become of global scale. To make our world more resilient, it is necessary to return to more pluralistic and locally adapted solutions.

However, global vulnerability and too-big-to-fail problems are not the only issues we must worry about. Another one is the low innovation rate of most big companies. Innovation is slowed down by various factors: First, big businesses may not be exposed to the same degree of competition. For example, they often use patents to keep competitors at a distance, or they lobby for standards that favour their own products. Second, big companies tend to buy small innovative companies. In many cases, this is done just to take competitors out of the market or to keep them under control. Third, as diversity is the motor of innovation – lack of diversity decelerates innovation. It is, therefore, no wonder that we do not have enough and the right kinds of innovations to fix the world’s problems.

My claim is that we have ended up in trouble because the world was shaped by the ideas of only a few people. This has created a tunnel view. When the Limit to Growth study concluded that it was not enough to change the parameters to avoid future collapse, the right conclusion would have been that the system of equations – and the socio-economic system described by it – had to be changed in order to avert collapse. Instead of innovating the system, we have innovated within the existing system, which could not succeed. And, so, the efforts of the past decades have not been able to solve our problems.

Recently, politics has realized that things did not work out. They have brought the Paris Climate agreement on the way, and they are pushing now for open data, open science, open access, and open innovation. But is this enough to save us, and does it come on time?

Probably not. According to the updated Limit to Growth predictions, the economic collapse is expected any time now. In fact, the Pentagon has prepared for mass civil unrest. The level of inequality is now comparable to the times before the French revolution. Even though I do not mind people being rich, there is a much more fundamental problem that needs to be fixed. Namely, as the OECD, the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have stressed, the level of inequality is now so large that it obstructs further economic development. There is just not enough buying power to allow sufficiently many small and medium-sized companies to thrive.

If we want new ideas and business models to succeed, we must allow old companies to die, poor people to become rich, and rich people to become poor. Our current system, however, has been designed in such a way that those who are on top will almost ever stay on top. It has been shown that the richest families 600 years ago are still among the richest families today. While this increases the stability of our society, it undermines its resilience, i.e. its ability to adapt to changes. As a consequence, we are likely to see a big collapse rather than many small failures and successes, as it is needed for the evolution and progress of our society.

The tunnel view of our society becomes evident when reviewing developments in the past decades: while the principle of economic efficiency was once restricted to the economy, “utilitarian thinking” has eventually spread to many other sectors that had different goal functions before: this concerns public goods (for example, electricity and water production), the health system (which increasingly optimizes who gets certain treatments and who does not), politics (creating a “market-conform democracy”), science (increasingly having to engage with business and to deliver marketable ideas), religion (Easter, Christmas as consumer events), and culture (considering the arts market, for example). This has basically undermined the pluralistic value system and the separation of public and private spheres that a flourishing society needs.

We have increasingly squeezed our beautiful, multi-faceted, pluralistic, multi-dimensional world into a one-dimensional system ruled by money. In such a “utilitarian” system, the value and power of a person or institution is determined only by its wealth. This approach is perfect to create a strictly hierarchical system, in which money makes the world go ‘round. However, this is not a system in which the best ideas win. Instead, the one who owns more money can determine what will happen. This creates a system of winners and losers – in fact, many losers and very few winners. In other word, the system does not work for everybody. It has worked for the developed world, as long as there was an abundance of resources. But now, resources are getting short…

Would we have reduced our consumption of non-renewable resources by 3 percent each year, we would have a sustainable economy by now. Unfortunately, we have not drawn the right conclusions from the Limits to Growth study in the 1970ies. And so, many people get to feel shortages now. During the last economic crisis, tens of millions have lost their jobs and are kept at the existential minimum since then. While one would think that this would reduce the consumption of resources, it turns out that the economy has not become more sustainable than in the 1970ies – on the contrary! The world’s consumption of resources is bigger than ever. The entire strategy to optimize the world has failed, and thus the system of today will break into pieces sooner or later.

However, rather than mobilising the power of ideas of everyone to find solutions that we need, people are being distracted from the state of the world – by public and social media, by entertainment, fake news and games. We are made to believe that it is just a matter of time until the economic situation will improve again and full employment will return. The truth is far from this. In many European countries, youth unemployment is already above 50 percent, and Artificial Intelligence is about to cause another wave of automation. Experts believe that many of today’s tasks will be performed by intelligent algorithms and machines in a couple of years.

Even though there are no exact numbers, our societies will probably have to reinvent half of the economy in just two or three decades, if we want to have jobs for all and a sustainable, low-carbon economy by 2030, as the United Nations demand. The sustainability goals of the UN Agenda 2030 would, of course, be easy to reach, if a billion people or more happened to die. Therefore, an optimisation approach implies serious moral dilemmas. Just imagine to live in a world in which it became acceptable to kill people to save the planet. Then, all sorts of terrible things would happen…
The real hard challenge is to reach sustainability without a population collapse. However, I personally believe we should not be desperate, as there is a solution, which I will explain in the later chapters of this book. So far, however, there is no evidence that the necessary decisions to implement this solution have been made. Instead, another kind of system is on the way, a dystopian eco-totalitarism. This brings us to a crossroads. If things ought to end well, our lives will have to change – we have to decide for a new path.
 

Why is it not possible to continue as before? This is not only because resources would get short, but also because of today’s money system. As discussed at the World Economic Forum in Davos, there are many signs that capitalism 1.0 – the capitalism we know it – will not work much longer. Inequality and unemployment have reached a critical level, which makes societies break apart.

It is also concerning that economic growth has been poor for almost a decade now. This sounds like good news to those who demand de-growth, but it is actually not, because today’s capitalism needs growth to pay back loans, on which most investments are based, plus the interest rates. As interest rates for debts are higher than interest rates for savings, the overall debt level in the world tends to increase. This is certainly true for public debts, which kept increasing for decades. And so it is just a matter of time until some countries cannot carry the burden of their debts anymore. In order to delay their bankruptcy, interest rates have been pushed below zero, which however threatens the savings of ordinary people.

What is worse: zero and negative interest rates blind the “eye of capitalism”. Traditionally, the competition for higher turnouts (dividends, interest rates) has driven the successful allocation of capital. However, if loans are cheap or taking loans becomes a means to make money, capital will increasingly misallocated. Low or negative interest rates are also an existential threat for life insurances and pension funds. However, if the central banks raise the interest rates again, as they have indicated, then it is likely that many home owners, banks, companies and even countries will go bankrupt. Unfortunately, governments will not anymore be able to absorb the problem by increasing their debts. This time, the financial system will collapse, if we do not push the reset button.

By that time, however, most assets will be in the hands of just a few people. As I mentioned before, 8 people currently own as much as the poorest 50 percent of this planet. If one considers that the Federal Reserve (FED) is privately owned and the European Central Bank is also private in part (as are most other central banks around the world), it becomes clear that most of the world is owned by just a few families. The Quantitative Easing programs, which has created trillions of new dollars and Euros to keep the world economy from collapsing, has largely accelerated this concentration of wealth.
Today, the money system is designed in such a way that the central banks and their owners earn money, when governments or banks need loans. In other words, the worse our countries are doing and the more debts they are making, the more is the world owned by just a few people. This implies some crucial questions: “Is this reasonable, is it fair, or is it at least useful? If our countries are owned by a few super-rich individuals, are we still free? And what are their plans with this world?” 

(Comments and inputs to dhelbing@ethz.ch are welcome!)