The most reliable way to predict the future is to create it. ~ Abraham Lincoln
Prediction is hazardous: especially about the future, goes an old Danish proverb. There is an old joke that economists have successfully predicted nine of the last five recessions. As each new year dawns we are left with the undeniable fact that all that we can do in this uncertain world is, as Otto von Bismark said: “ … to hear God’s footsteps marching through history, and to try and catch on to his coattails as he marches past.” For this we have to depend on the incontrovertibility of history and learn from it.
History, which tends to be cyclical, is replete with recurrences that we can learn from. From Ancient Rome to present-day global powers, parallels can be drawn in the expansion, dominance, and eventual decline of empires. Economic, military, and political factors consistently contribute to the rise and fall of empires throughout history. Closer home chronologically, we can draw comparisons between the Great Depression of 1929 and the 2008 Financial Crisis. Both periods witnessed initial prosperity followed by severe downturns, marked by financial speculation, banking failures, and global economic recessions.
With regard to conflict and warfare, World Wars I and II exemplify the role of nationalism, territorial disputes, and intricate alliances in global conflicts. While the dynamics of these conflicts differed, the recurrence of similar elements highlights history’s tendency to echo itself in varying contexts.
Another historical analogy is The Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s which resonate in context with contemporary social justice movements. Throughout history, the pursuit of equal rights and justice has been a recurring theme, with movements in different eras sharing common ground.
Both the Spanish Flu of 1918 and the COVID-19 pandemic reveal commonalities in their global impact, causing widespread illness and societal disruption. The responses and public health measures during these periods share similarities, underscoring the challenges faced in managing such crises.
As New York columnist Thomas Friedman says we are in a Promethean moment ( a time which transforms us) as much as we were in the eras of the invention of the printing machine and the industrial and scientific revolutions which had profound impacts on the economies of the world and individual communities.
From the French Revolution to the Arab Spring, historical events marked by popular uprisings against oppressive regimes resonate with calls for political change and social justice. The dynamics of grassroots movements and the complexities of post-revolution governance exhibit recurring patterns.
2023 was not anything to be proud of in terms of geopolitical wisdom and prudence. Perhaps the one saving grace lay in a few cautiously optimistic but trepidatious steps taken at the 28th session of the Conference of Parties (COP/28) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held in Dubai where agreement was reached towards transitioning away from fossil fuels and a pledge to triple the amount of renewable energy deployed by 2030 and to curb the release of methane. Although some called this forum “another talking shop” it is at least a step in the right direction, considering 2023 was the hottest year in known human history.
January 1st will only indicate a nuance in chronological nomenclature and will see the world wake up to carry on with what happened over the past 365 days. However, at least technically we would have another 365 days to pluck from the nettle of things said and unsaid: done and undone. Hopefully, we could correct our ways in a year when there will be general elections in six countries which are home to 4.5 billion people. At least then we’ll have some indication of the global path democracy will be headed. These countries are Mexico, Pakistan, South Africa, India, Britain, and the United States.
Writers of Financial Times have made informed predictions for 2024 some of which are: 2024 will be even hotter than 2023; the Israel-Hamas war will not trigger a full-blown regional conflict; Donald Trump will not win the presidential election in 2024 but it could be a closely run match and the nastiest presidential election in the history of the United States, that is assuming the recent legal hurdles thrown up against Trump standing in Colorado and Maine are overcome; China’s economic growth will not descend to 3% or less; Kier Starmer will become Prime minister of Britain; a change of President in Taiwan will not trigger an attack on the island by China; the United States and Europe will continue to fund Ukraine; renewables will not overtake coal in global electricity generation.
Like Financial Times, The Economist in The World Ahead in 2024 does not think the Israel-Hamas war will spread to other parts of the region. It also opines that the US presidential election will come down to a difference of a few thousand votes mainly spurred on by the swing States where Donald Trump has a one-in-three chances of winning. There will continue to be multipolar disorder and localised conflicts. A second cold war – between the US and China – may have already started and may continue into 2024 with the slow growing Chinese economy and the looming rifts on Taiwan.
There will also be bipolarity as seen in the Israel-Hamas war. Robert D. Kaplan, introducing what he calls A New World Disorder in The New Statesman of 7 December 2023 says: “Forget multipolarity. A worldwide, bipolar military conflict has begun. It will unfold in stages, feature hot war in certain places for extended periods of time, and cold war in other places and times. It will be the organising principle of geopolitics for years to come. It is not a “clash of civilisations” as the late Harvard professor Samuel P Huntington put it in the early 1990s, but it is a clash: a clash of broad value systems that, while emerging out of national cultures and age-old traditions, are essentially modern and postmodern in their origins”.
The March of AI
Much easier than predicting geopolitical possibilities is mapping out the onward march of artificial intelligence. Peering into the future, the inexorable progression of AI is set to persist on its course as a transformative and revolutionary force, with progressions in domains such as quantum computing, interpretable AI, and the integration of AI with other burgeoning technologies. As AI systems advance in complexity, inquiries regarding awareness, self-governance, and the ethical obligations of those developing AI are likely to gain greater prominence. Achieving a harmonious equilibrium between groundbreaking developments and ethical contemplations will be pivotal in guaranteeing that AI plays a constructive role in advancing human society.
The impact of AI will continue to make a lasting impression across diverse sectors. Within healthcare, AI finds application in diagnosing ailments, discovering new drugs, and tailoring medical treatments. In the financial realm, AI is employed in predictive analytics and algorithmic trading systems, utilizing its capabilities to analyze extensive datasets and facilitate swift decision-making. The manufacturing sector experiences advantages from AI-driven automation, streamlining production processes and enhancing the quality of goods. Likewise, the transportation industry is in the midst of a transformation with the emergence of autonomous vehicles, guided by AI algorithms capable of navigating and adjusting to ever-changing surroundings.
Such sophisticated technological advancement cannot be left to proceed untrammelled. As someone once said, we should not be apprehensive of AI but beware of the actions of those who use AI. Incontrovertibly, AI requires global governance. As Ludwig Siegele says, writing to The Economist: “ Discussion of AI often blurs three types of risk. AI powered software that say, interprets medical images may not be perfectly accurate. Large Language Models (LLMs) , which power generative AI services such as ChatGPT may display prejudice or bias. And some fear that the most powerful frontier models could be used to create pathogens or cyber weapons and might lead to superhuman artificial intelligence that could even threaten humanity’s survival”.
Siegele suggests a global Organization such as the Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that could research, monitor and perhaps even regulate AI. Mustafa Suleyman, in his book The Coming Wave, while espousing AI as doing more good than evil, is of the view that AI would make us more productive as a species. However, he agrees that there should be governance of AI: “ Containing technology needs to be a much more fundamental programme, a balance of power not between competing actors but between humans and our tools. It’s a necessary prerequisite for the survival of our species over the next century. Containment encompasses regulation, better technical safety, new governance and ownership models, new modes of accountability and transparency, all as necessary (but not sufficient) precursors to safer technology. It’s an overarching lock uniting cutting-edge engineering, ethical values, and government regulation.”
Going ahead in 2024 both geopolitics and scientific advancement should be viewed introspectively on an a posteriori basis where knowledge which is dependent on experience, observation, or empirical evidence is applied with rationality and compromise. For one, much careful thought should go to the upcoming discussions in the United Nations on the composition, function and powers of the Security Council.
As Stewart Patrick, Sithembile Mbete, Matias Spektor, Zhang Guihong, Alexandra Novosseloff, Christoph Heusgen, Rohan Mukherjee, Phillip Y. Lipscy, Miguel Ruiz Cabañas Izquierdo, Adekeye Adebajo, Andrey Kolosovskiy, Joel Ng, Priyal Singh, Barçin Yinanç, Richard Gowan, Anjali Dayal write in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, only five Permanent members in the Security Council have the power P5 of veto and one veto can have an entire resolution defeated. Each of the nations possesses a veto that enables it to single-handedly obstruct Security Council resolutions conflicting with its national interests, as exemplified by Russia’s actions regarding Ukraine. This leads to frequent gridlock within the council, which is worsened by the escalating geopolitical competition between Western democracies and authoritarian powers such as China and Russia. A growing segment of the global community, comprising governments and citizens, perceives the council as ineffective and unfair. They argue that the council is currently dominated by irresponsible and unrepresentative powers more likely to misuse their authority than to preserve global peace. Critics assert that revitalizing the council’s efficacy and credibility necessitates modernizing its outdated composition and biased decision-making rules to better mirror the evolving global power dynamics and emerging moral authorities.
This situation must be seriously discussed and reviewed.
The other need is the establishment of global governance of AI. A good analogy already exists in the EU AI Act which says inter alia “ Unacceptable risk AI systems are systems considered a threat to people and will be banned. They include: Cognitive behavioural manipulation of people or specific vulnerable groups: for example voice-activated toys that encourage dangerous behaviour in children; Social scoring: classifying people based on behaviour, socio-economic status or personal characteristics; Biometric identification and categorisation of people; Real-time and remote biometric identification systems, such as facial recognition.
Substance produced by large language models such as ChatGPT may come into difficulties from authors who hold copyright on their work which is used by LLMs. This could be another trend that could take off in 2024.
Therefore, the world in 2024 should at least set the ball rolling on these issues.