Economists predict that geo-engineering, performance drugs and artificial intelligence will shape our future

February 14, 2014 8:24 pm

Forecast: The world in 2114

Economists predict that geo-engineering, performance drugs and artificial intelligence will shape our future

Martin Weitzman

If there is one natural bridge spanning the chasm between today and a century from now, it is climate change. We can envision only the foundation of this bridge. Even so, we can make out enough features to sense that something big and possibly ominous may be on the distant horizon.

By burning fossil fuels on a huge scale, humans are emitting carbon dioxide at an unprecedented rate. The accompanying centuries-spanning climate changes are incredibly slow and therefore the consequences seem extremely remote to us.

To a large extent, we have already inadvertently geo-engineered the planet by burning fossil fuels and through agriculture, housing and transport. These vast changes will only expand as China, India and other developing countries seek higher standards of living and as the population of the world rises.

There are several possible forms of purposeful geo-engineering but, as of now, only one that would offer a quick fix to the problem of increasing temperatures. This is to create a “space sunshade” by shooting reflective particles into the stratosphere that block out a small but significant fraction of incoming solar radiation.

The planet naturally geo-engineers a temporary sunshade every time there is an explosive volcanic eruption powerful enough to shoot sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere. The resulting aerosol particles that coalesce around the sulphur dioxide reflect back incoming sunlight, lowering Earth’s surface temperatures.

Scientists have known of this natural sunshade effect for a long time. In 2006, Paul Crutzen, the chemist, proposed that humanity discuss the role of an artificially geo-engineered version. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for his research on the inadvertently geo-engineered loss of the ozone layer from man-made chlorofluorocarbons, so he brought scientific and moral credibility.

It is an extraordinarily contentious idea. Almost no serious observer advocates it as a first line of defence against climate change. But it is the only measure that can lower worldwide surface temperatures immediately. It is also unbelievably cheap.

A geo-engineered sunshade has many limitations. It will not alleviate problems associated with an abnormally high concentration of CO2, such as ocean acidification. The wholesale destruction of ocean ecosystems, including wiping out coral reefs, would be unaltered.

The full climatological effects of a sunshade are highly uncertain. Almost certainly, precipitation patterns would be altered, perhaps greatly altered for the worse. There are possible threats to the ozone layer. If some crucial structural elements were missing from the models, this could turn out to be yet another instance where human hubris ushered in a catastrophic black swan event.

Even if it worked perfectly, this is only a temporary solution. Sulphur dioxide aerosols would last only about a year, so the process would have to be renewed continually.

Another argument frequently made against is that it represents a form of moral hazard. If people comprehend just how cheap and easy this approach might be, they might easily mistake it for an inexpensive solution to the problem of anthropogenic climate change. It is not because there is no good substitute for cutting carbon emissions.

It is so cheap to geo-engineer a sunshade unilaterally that it may prove irresistible for countries especially hard-hit by adverse climate change.

There is desperate need for some kind of an overarching international framework to deal with issues of a geo-engineered sunshade. The eventual aim is to develop rules and a governance structure for determining when and how the international community might use a geo-engineered sunshade.

We also need to find out as much as possible about the science of a geo-engineered sunshade, including some proof-of-concept field trials on a small scale.

A geo-engineered sunshade is the only option currently imaginable that is capable of lowering global average temperatures quickly. On balance, is it not better to prepare by finding out as much as possible about this option before the temptation arises to employ it as a measure of last resort?

Martin L Weitzman is Professor of Economics at Harvard University

• Alvin Roth

The biggest trend of future history is that the world economy will keep growing and becoming more connected. Material prosperity will increase and healthy longevity will rise. While greater prosperity will not eliminate competition, it will give people more choices about whether and how hard to compete. Many will opt for a slower track, spending more time accumulating youthful experiences. Retirement will be a longer part of life and new forms of retirement will emerge.

For those who wish to compete, there will be technological developments to help them. Some of these, such as performance-enhancing drugs, are becoming available today but are widely regarded as repugnant. That repugnance seems likely to fade.

While we may continue to cancel sporting victories won with the help of drugs, we are unlikely to resist cancer cures or software or theorems produced with the assistance of drugs that aid concentration, memory or intelligence. Safe performance-en­hancing drugs may come to be seen as akin to good nutrition. Drugs may not be optional in future competitive careers. When assistant professors of economics in 2114 fall behind their expected production of an article per week, their department chair may suggest they increase their dosage of creativity-enhancing or attention-focusing drugs to increase their chance of tenure. And some drugs – memory enhancers, say – may be seen not as performance enhancers but as cures for things we did not previously think of as diseases.

Similar to the way drugs will allow us to improve our own performance, increased understanding of foetal development will allow parents to select or manipulate some of the genetic endowment of their children. Some of these options will remain repugnant even as they become more widely available, while others may come to be seen as part of careful child rearing. To the extent that these technologies are subject to legal limitations in some places but not others, they will help fuel an international market in reproductive technology. We already see the beginnings of such a market, as access to fertility treatments, and markets for eggs, sperm and surrogate wombs are more available in the US and India than in many places, drawing “fertility tourists”.

This trend will continue, and various reproductive options will become largely commoditised and separated from sexual intercourse – not to mention traditional heterosexual marriage. This will, incidentally, help facilitate non-traditional forms of marriage and child rearing, as well as delayed marriage and single parenthood. Many of these alternative arrangements – such as same-sex marriage and polygamy – will no longer be regarded with the repugnance and legal barriers that still greet them today in many places.

But I expect that families will remain one of the main units of production – certainly of children – and of consumption of all sorts of household goods and comforts. Long-term (even if not lifetime) relationships will remain important. But in the other direction, generations will be longer and child rearing will take up a smaller proportion of longer healthy lifetimes. This may make divorce more common and perhaps lead to new forms of polygamous relationships to supplement the serial monogamy that sometimes accompanies high divorce rates today.

Some of the big changes in medicine will be technological. For example, I have worked on developing kidney exchange networks that increase the number of patients who can receive transplant organs from living donors. By 2114 the idea of cutting a kidney out of one person and sewing it into another will seem like an ancient barbarity. But it is hard to guess whether transplantation will have been replaced by xenotransplantation to give you a working kidney grown in a farm animal, or stem cell therapies to grow healthy new kidneys of your own, or artificial kidneys, or simply better treatment of diseases that cause kidney failure.

Many of these alternatives may be both longer lasting and cheaper than transplantation. This is what makes me think that, while medicine could continue to be an ever growing part of the economy, it also could (sweet thought) become like farming – so efficient that a smaller part of the economy provides all that we need.

Alvin E Roth is the Craig and Susan McCaw Professor of Economics at Stanford University. He shared the 2012 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics

• Robert Shiller

The next century carries with it any number of risks as an unprecedented number of people attempt to live well on a planet with limited resources, with more dangerous strategic weapons of mass destruction, and with the flourishing of new information technologies that stir up labour markets and create career risks.

Much of the management of these risks will be in the domain of science and engineering but there is also the purely financial and insurance domain. There is an expectation that with the help of new technology, far better risk management will be deployed against all these risks.

Most of us are not accustomed to thinking about the kinds of risks that can unfold over a century. It is easy to be complacent. To make these seem real, it is useful to put these risks in a long-term historical perspective.

At the same time, the theory of financial risk management has made big advances: the mathematical theory is getting better, and the development of behavioural economics is creating possibilities of making financial solutions congenial to real people. There has also been a trend towards the democratisation of risk management – towards making risk management principles available to a higher fraction of the world population. Centuries ago, only the wealthiest and most sophisticated had any insurance or banking services. Now, at least in advanced countries, these are fairly widely disseminated.

But there is much more to do to keep these trends going. Fortunately, IT, which is growing at a breathtaking pace, can support this trend and even accelerate it in the next century.

Computer scientists seem to be in near agreement that true artificial intelligence is out of our reach, at least for the next century. There are others, however, who think real artificial intelligence is coming soon.

Whenever it comes, an important consequence of artificial intelligence will be a long trend towards unification of global culture. In 1893 the sociologist Émile Durkheimdescribed society as having a “collective consciousness” and the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs later extended this concept to that of “collective memory”. That is, if we all remember the same facts, we have the same evidence to promote our world views and tend to arrive at similar world views.

They could not have imagined how much stronger these factors would become with modern IT. This could make the world economy more efficient but it will also create greater correlations across countries and regions, and hence greater vulnerability to international economic collapse.

In this world with near artificial intelligence, new kinds of subcultures will arise that are no longer defined by geography. In particular, there is likely to develop a cosmopolitan culture of the people most connected with artificial intelligence, a sort of world elite who, by their constant communications, will tend to develop some loyalties to each other rather than to their neighbours, while billions of others will form a worldwide string of ghettos.

Even among the elite, the globalisation of culture will not be complete, and there will still be ancient national and traditional ethnic and religious rivalries and the potential for war.

There will be no central authority to be in control of all of these processes that create risks for individuals and for larger society. We must approach these risks with all of the new kinds of risk management functions that we can invent.

Robert J Shiller is Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale University. He shared the 2013 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics

• The full essays appear in ‘In 100 Years: Leading Economists Predict the Future’, edited by Ignacio Palacios-Huerta and published by MIT Press


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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