THE WORLD WILL BE A BETTER PLACE IN 5, 50, 500 YEARS
DEBATE LONG READ
6 min read
The votes were in and the count told an apparently downbeat story. Only 38% of the more than 150 business leaders, CEOs, policy makers, investors and other influential figures who had gathered together in a London auditorium believed the world would be in better shape in 500 years than it is now. A group that had an unusual amount of influence over the future thought it looked pretty bleak.
An hour later, though, that number had risen to 58%.
Simply, a conversation. A powerful and inspiring one, judging by the clear shift in sentiment. That conversation was the centrepiece of the first event – held on Tuesday 3 May at the Design Museum in Kensington, London – in the Futureverse series, produced by Y TREE and Intelligence Squared, the world's leading forum for debate and intelligent discussion.
The Futureverse series has a clear goal: it aims to explore the world’s upcoming challenges and respond with innovative solutions. To assist in this vital task, the first event brought together three extraordinary speakers: artist and sculptor Sir Antony Gormley, climate activist Clover Hogan and futurist and tech entrepreneur Mo Gawdat. Broadcaster Jon Sopel guided the three speakers in an exploration of a simple (if weighty) question: will the world be a better place in 5, 50 and 500 years?
Antony opened, providing a reflection on the purpose of art that looked back as well as forwards. He discussed how the impulse to create sculpture has been part of human life for millennia and is something as natural as breathing or the beating of our hearts. Antony’s work is made explicitly for public consumption and, referencing his iconic sculpture, The Angel of the North, he advocated for a future of art that recognises how essential it is to the human spirit.
“My aspiration is that art becoming institutionalised and only seen through museums, and art being commercialised and only being seen as items of high capital exchange, can be replaced with the older model as art to be lived with,” he said. “And that we will see a flowering of serious works of art that take their place in the collective spaces of our world.”
But what kind of world will be left in 5, 50 and 500 years? Clover did not sugarcoat the environmental challenges we face. She acknowledged how the top one per cent would continue to thrive, to the detriment of the rest of the world, and how in 50 years’ time there are projected to be over one billion climate refugees. Despite this, her prediction for 500 years laid out a vision for the future that placed power in the hands of younger generations. She mapped out a world whose human inhabitants recognise how interrelated they are to nature and as a result prioritise the natural world’s health by dramatically rethinking our food and energy systems. The mood in the room was palpably shifting; the audience gave Clover, who is 22, a spontaneous round of applause.
But then another threat quickly loomed. As former chief business officer of Google X, Google’s innovation hub, Mo has a unique insight into how artificial intelligence will likely develop. He acknowledged there is a lot we can’t know about whether AI will be beneficent or not but he insisted that its future nature is in our hands.
“If you ask any computer scientist about what happens when AI surpasses human intelligence, they'll tell you it's a singularity,” he said. “We have no idea. We don't know if it's going to be good. We don't know if it's going to be bad. So I'm undecided, openly. But it will depend on how we behave. If we actually instil the right morals in those machines, the singularity will turn into a utopia.”
Echoing a theme touched on by Clover, he stressed the importance of values when it comes to the future of our world. He said it’s helpful to see humans as parents and AI as our children and he implored the audience to have faith in human good; the technology is already out there, he said, so it is up to us to make sure it is ‘raised’ in the right way, by teaching it values of honesty, altruism and intelligence.
The common thread tying together all three speakers was their faith in human agency and creativity. They were critical of our current form of capitalism – the ways it has negatively impacted the climate, the world of art, and technology – but they still believed it could be changed for the better, and indeed the audience they were speaking to was full of the very people who could enact that change. And they wanted to know what they could do to help.
“My question to you, Clover,” asked business leader Sally Tennant, when Jon Sopel turned to the audience for questions, “is what can we do really, really practically as individuals immediately to make sure that the world is a better place in the next 5, 50 and 500 years, because these institutions, they work slowly, but we are all responsible. I want to enjoy the beauty of Antony's art and think about AI. What can I do today? What can we all do to make sure the world will be a better place when it comes to climate change?”
“Hope is an active word,” Clover responded. “And I have hope because I do the work every day. When we tip into hopelessness that is exactly what the powers that be want us to do. And the greatest solution is having the courage to sit both with the despair and the hope; they're not mutually exclusive. I like to call it this kind of smoothie of emotions, and that's what makes us human, that’s what differentiates us from the robots.”
Antony shared his thoughts on next steps. “There are really practical things we can do,” he said. “You can disinvest from anything to do with fossil fuels and you can make sure that the energy that's coming into your home, into your business, comes from renewables. I mean, really simple, very basic, strategic thinking that will help the transition. We have got to make a massive transition and each and every one of us can make personal decisions that make that become true.”
The speakers were directly, if politely, posing a challenge to the influential gathering and the audience accepted the challenge. After the panel discussion the whole group gathered in the atrium of the museum and continued the conversation over drinks. The speakers mingled with the guests, elaborating on their thoughts and responding to fresh questions and ideas. There was a clear acknowledgement among the guests of their own responsibility and power to shape the future. The conversations continued long after everyone had left for the night.
And that is what the Futureverse is all about: as we continue to produce events, podcasts and videos, we will curate and inspire further conversations focused on tackling the key issues of our time – and, crucially, arming people with the tools and connections needed to make positive change a reality.
What Antony, Mo and Clover are doing next
Antony is showing at exhibitions across the world. He has new work at the exhibition Body Space Time in San Gimignano and the National Gallery in Singapore, while his iconic work Asian Field is on display at the gallery M+ in Hong Kong.
Mo’s latest book Scary Smart is a fascinating insight into the future of artificial intelligence and shows what we can all do now to teach ourselves and our machines how to live better. It offers a blueprint for how to ensure this exceedingly powerful technology is used for good.
Clover is executive director of Force of Nature, a not-for-profit pioneering youth-led research on climate and mental health. Her latest project is a video series in partnership with YouTube called Seat At The Table: Let’s Talk About Climate Anxiety.