Futurist Janszky: "2017 will be a good year! But I'm afraid of the cluelessness of our politicians!"
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Despite populism, intelligent smart phones and a complicated gloabal situation, the Chairman of leading European future-studies institute the 2b AHEAD ThinkTank looks optimistically to the new year. In this extended interview, he predicts the trends, opportunities, and risks for 2017.
Sven Gábor Jánszky, one of the best-known future experts in Germany, has an optimistic prognosis for the new year. In this interview on the biggest trends of 2017, the futurist explains the opportunities and challenges that face us in the coming 12 months.
QUESTION: Many of us experienced 2016 as a year of chaos: terrorism, Brexit, Trump'selection ... Will things be any different in 2017?
Sven Gabor Janszky: Honestly speaking, I didn't perceive 2016 as a bad year. In Germany, for example, unemployment has dropped, the DAX exchange is breaking one record after another, company revenues are very strong, people are earning and consuming more, and we have a grip on the refugee crisis. We are definitely doing better than we were a year ago.
Our perception, however, is dominated by a series of world events that come as a shock to many. It's clear that these things have surprised a lot of us, but the only person who can look at this as chaos is someone who is afraid of change. Personally I love change because it always offers a chance for better things. I really wasn't surprised by anything in 2016. And so it will be in 2017 as well: Those of us who are open for change will experience 2017 as a very good year. And those who love standing still will encounter a surprise or two.
QUESTION: What will be the most important trend for Germany in 2017?
Sven Gabor Janszky: The most important trend will be the digital divide in our society. As 2017 will see a parliamentary election that will dominate the year, we will experience this digital divide with extreme clarity.
The reason for this is simple: We are living in a time where different social groups have radically different pictures of the future. Young people in urban centers view their future as the positive result of rapid technological change.They use intelligent digital assistants,are living healthier and longer, have top educations, are earning extremely well as sought-after job candidates, and live their lives as a patchwork of constantly new opportunities and challenges.
This view of the future stems from the exponential speed of digital development. At the same time you have people – primarily older people living outside of major cities – who do not know this rapid pace of development or who do not want to. They predict a future scenario of their own based on the standstill of the past. Their motto is basically the same as Donald Trump's: "Make us great again!"
That means that, even today, we have in our society two pictures of the future which are diametrically opposed. And we also have the situation where the people behind these conflicting concepts are no longer talking to each other. Because, driven by social media, they only voice their opinions in their own circles, in their "filter bubbles." Unfortunately, politicians and the media purposefully refrain from building bridges between these two worlds anymore.
During votes or elections, these two pictures of the future suddenly collide head-on. This is when the people notice that the "other guys" also exist (of whom they previously were essentially clueless). Precisely this phenomenon was behind Brexit, the Trump election, Renzi's resignation in Italy, and Austria's bitter presidential campaign.
In election year 2017 we will see exactly the same phenomenon in Germany. How we can unite these two future pictures, these two groups, how we can build a bridge so that we end up speaking about one future for our country, this will be the biggest topic of 2017. It will come to shape our country in the coming year.
QUESTION: That sounds a lot like social strife. Why do you still think that 2017 will be a good year?
Sven Gabor Janszky: Because I believe that Germany will succeed in building this bridge to a certain extent. I am almost certain that in 2017 Germany can show the world how to solve this global problem. I am so optimistic because we have already put the solution in place in our multiparty democratic system.
Allow me to explain: The reason why these two pictures of the future have collided so massively with Brexit, Trump, Renzi, and Hofer lies with a rigidly bipolar political system. Any time you force people into a Yes/No vote, a right/left decision, or a Republican-or-Democrat vote, then you create an artificial confrontation that doesn't actually exist on its own. And suddenly Donald Trump can win an election despite having the support of only 19%of the voters.
Things will be different with Germany's parliamentary elections. Here as well as with recent state elections, of course, the extreme right-wing AfD will reach the minimum 10-15% required for entry into parliament. You can't deny this away, because there will be those who see a reason for themselves to choose AfD. Our pluralistic system, however, will shrink their influence down to its true dimension: one minority view among many others. The Western world would do well to recognize this fact.
QUESTION: This sounds like you don't view the emergence of populism across the world as a bad thing. But the Brexit or Trump votes really do change our world. It's not like you can ignore that!?!
Sven Gabor Janszky: Ignore, no. Put in perspective, yes. In their everyday life, the average German will feel "absolutely nothing" to "barely anything" of the effects of Brexit or Trump. We need to be honest here as well: The actual freedom a US president has to shape world events is actually very limited. The picture of an unpredictable "master of the world" often used to describe Trump is more a product of our abundance-fueled fears. What's more: In comparison to the truly big developments in our tech industries, the power of the world's supposedly mightiest man shrinks down to miniature scale.
QUESTION: How do you mean that? Could you give some concrete examples here?
Sven Gabor Janszky: By 2020, genetics will have reduced the price for the full analysis of the individual human DNA to below $100. Everyone reading this interview can afford that. This will be the basis that will enable us to treat the world's worst illnesses, the ones that our parents' generation was still dying of.
By 2025, the auto industry will have brought self-driving cars without steering wheels or gas pedals on the market. This will make mobility virtually free. People will be able to use their driving time for things a lot more useful than spinning their steering wheels. Technology will thus provide people with some of the most important things in life: health, time, and the solution of major world challenges like energy, hunger, and water.
All of these developments are possible due to the pending emergence of superintelligent computers. In 30-40 years' time, these will reach and then exceed human general intelligence. The real question is: In the second half of this century, how will we and our children live as the world's "second most intelligent species?" If you really want to be afraid of something, be afraid of the risks here. With all due respect: Compared to these upcoming technological developments, the influence of the coming US President practically vanishes from the radar.
QUESTION: So should we fear technology then? Are you afraid of the more distant future?
Sven Gabor Janszky: Yes and no. Here we are not talking about the year 2017, but more roughly between 2050-2060. Until that time, we have 30-40 years to solve some truly major challenges. And we will need this time, too, because these are questions of never-before-seen complexity. Never in human history have we seen a challenge as massive as the appearance of a superhumanly intelligent species.
I remain optimistic, however, because human beings are masters at adapting to changing environments. I am sure that humanity will manage to shape a positive and worthwhile future for itself. In the international discussions with future experts and top tech leaders, we may not see the answer yet, but we do already know the decisive questions. And this may well prove to be half the battle.
But I also want to be very honest about the fact that there are things I'm afraid of. Not because of technological development, but of the present ignorance and inactivity in our politics and society. Many years ago, we future experts sent Germany's politicians a list of what we viewed to be the future problems most in need of urgent solutions. We have yet to hear a single reply.
If we don't start debating these pressing questions and working on the necessary regulations, then one day it really will be too late. In the early development of superintelligent computers, humans will be able to influence the future of these systems. After a certain point, however, it will become too late to do so. I am afraid that politicians, out of pure cluelessness and ignorance, fail to see this greatest of responsibilities. I've had this fear for some time now. It grows with every year that these critical critical questions are not debated by the parties in the election. I didn't hear them mentioned by Hillary or Trump, and I haven't heard them from any party here in Germany, for example, for the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2017.
QUESTION: Alongside technology, the topic that most shaped sentiments in Germany this year was the refugee crisis. Now the unchecked waves of immigration have stopped for the moment. Does that mean we'll be speaking less about refugees in 2017?
Sven Gabor Janszky: In all likelihood the refugee question will continue to haunt the election platforms of all parties in 2017. In time it will stop playing a major role in the life of the ordinary voter, though. For me as a futurist, however, this is bad news rather than good news. Because our country has still not grappled with the question of what will happen with our job market without immigration.
Futurists predict an era of full employment for Germany and other countries within the next 20 years. The reason for this is a unique demographic trend: the mass retirement of the baby boomer generation. Millions of workers will enter retirement between now and 2025. They will find only minimal replacement in the workforce from succeeding low-birth generations.
Even those who simply contrast the numbers for retirement- and workforce entry will quickly realize that we will have roughly 6.5 million fewer working people in the German labor market than we do today. When you change that figure to reflect today's unemployment levels and the range of state and corporate support programs, then you are still left with 3-4 million unstaffable positions.
If we fail to take measures against this trend, then we will see drastic consequences between 2020 and 2025: Without sufficient workers, our companies will not be able to produce as much. The economy will go into decline, thus also increasing taxes and social spending. Obviously we will have to take precautionary steps. Two of these are obvious: Either Germans themselves will work longer, and retire at 75, or we will allow massive numbers of immigrants into our country. Despite recent tragic headlines, most of us will decide for the second option in the long run.
This will lead to a second wave of immigration – hopefully one that is better managed, but certainly one that will be equally controversial.
BUT: This won't be in 2017. In all likelihood the discussion will not begin until after the parliamentary elections.
QUESTION: Let's come back to the year 2017: What trend will especially shape people's everyday lives this year?
Sven Gabor Janszky: Most of us will start conversing with our smartphones. This is because smartphone apps will slowly be replaced by intelligent assistants. If you look at developments in China and Silicon Valley today, they're hardly programming apps anymore, but have moved to intelligent assistants. This means: Our smartphones will soon see electronic assistants capable of having intelligent conversations with us. This will affect all of our lives.
QUESTION: In early 2016 you predicted the breakthrough of artificial intelligence in business for that year. And this has largely happened as well. So what's next for 2017?
Sven Gabor Janszky: Digitalization will obviously continue. The trend for 2017 is called "predictive enterprises"or "predictive life," i.e., computer programs with forecasting capability. These are algorithms that can reliably predict certain developments in the near future and can coordinate and manage business processes on the basis of these predictions.
In 2017 we will experience companies orienting their production and sales more and more in line with these systems.This trend will enter our private lives as well, by the way. Because the same technology can, for example, recognize and analyze human emotions. And then it gives the user a sign: Is my conversation partner telling the truth right now or not? Are they happy or upset? What would you do if your smartphone told you that your wife was sad about something right now?And what would you do if the same phone told you to give her a specific compliment because it would be very likely to make her happy? Would you find that useful? And what would your wife think if she knew that your phone gave the tip, but that you still didn't give the compliment?
QUESTION: Do you have any advice about how we normal people can prepare for these changes? About how we can see 2017 as an opportunity rather than a danger?
Sven Gabor Janszky: You have to avoid seeing yourself as a victim. If you view yourself as a victim of digitalization, if you look at how jobs are disappearing, then you will have a real problem. If you look at the whole picture, however, while it's true that some jobs are being lost to machines, on the other hand other jobs are being created - and probably more than are being lost. Those who look at the whole picture will be able to recognize the opportunity.