Required Reading

What forces are going to shape the world throughout the 21st century? A recent NYT bestseller, The Next 100 Years, by George Friedman, proposes a number of very interesting theories. Friedman is considered to be something of an intellectual maverick, contradicting the conventional wisdom at many points, and very insightful, since in many cases his contradictions turn out to be right.

You can read the introduction online, which will give you an idea of the kind of contradictions of the conventional wisdom I’m talking about.

Friedman has what may seem to some to be a science-fictional point of view, talking about things like orbital battle stations in 21st-century wars. But this is a very straight-forward extrapolation of current technology. What may be more interesting and instructive is hold up some of the transformative technological changes we think are coming, such as AI and nanotech, and see where they change the story.

An example: one forecast trend in the book is a decline in birthrates to below replacement levels, leading to stabilizing and then declining populations. This is not merely Friedman talking — he quotes UN figures — but this is a welcome change from the more usually heard Malthusian stories.

Friedman makes the fairly straightforward projection that this trend reversal will change the way countries view immigration, and may pose challenges for countries whose culture is particularly opposed to immigration (e.g. Japan).

What might happen instead (or in addition) is that the price of human labor might begin to rise, accelerating the development and deployment of robots. With more robots earlier than otherwise, a number of later things might change: one scenario Friedman doesn’t seem to consider is wars between robot armies.

On the other hand, the widespread availability of robot nannies and the productivity of a robot economy might reduce the economic barrier to children that currently operates above certain levels of prosperity. Advances in biotech could make people live longer, directly affecting the demographic equations, but more to the point, make them feel younger longer, and want to have babies longer. And/or enable artificial wombs, making the number of babies produced independent of many of its current constraints. Some combination of these could easily kick population back into a serious growth mode.

And population trends are probably among the least powerful of the geopolitical forces Friedman sees forming the shape of the 21st century. I claim that upcoming technologies could affect all of them as strongly. More examples to come in future posts…

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