Blog » Politics and philosophy

5 Jan 2015

My predictions for the next 10, 20, 30 years

Filed under: Digital revolution,Politics and philosophy — paulcook @ 11:09 pm

The latest in my once-every-two-years blog posts — oops. Over the New Year, I thought I’d make some predictions for the longer term. I’m looking forward to laughing at them in 2025, 2035 and 2045!

EDIT: some typos fixed

2025 (10 years time)

  • Physical signatures on paper will start becoming less common, replaced with electronic signatures and third-party document management systems. Over the next few years, security breaches or failures of some of these companies will lead to greater regulation of the industry. The result will eventually look similar to the credit rating agency or stock exchange industries of 2014 – several private companies running businesses in an industry heavily shapen by and working alongside regulatory agencies.
  • Hipster becomes accepted mainstream, as the desire for possession of mass-produced physical items is increasingly replaced with the quest for experience and “story” via artisanal and niche products. An increasing share of these products are virtual. Provision of these products and services will avoid massive unemployment, despite continuing decline in jobs in many of the careers that provided employment in 2014.
  • The global call-centre industry will finally peak (at a massive size), as new generations prefer to interact with computers and search for answers online. Content writing for helpdesks and forums will be the new outsourced growth industry, though it will not create as many jobs as the call centre industry.

2035 (20 years time)

  • As had happened to chess by 2014, computers will be unmistakably better than humans at “hard” AI problems from early 2000s, e.g., face recognition, speech recognition, “discovery” (reading and finding relevant content in huge troves of documents), medical diagnosis. However, AI will not be much closer to human-level consciousness, as we increasingly discover consciousness is not a single brain system, but rather an emergent property of many finely-balanced subsystems in our brains, built by our evolutionary past, that are very hard to abstract away from our brain structure. That is, computers won’t be “conscious” because we discover our “consciousness” is an increasingly slippery and less-generalisable concept than we had imagined.
  • More than 75% percent of seafood will be farmed rather than wild-caught. The exceptions will be either very high-end (and the target of growing environmentalist critiscism) or low-end. Farmed fish breeds will look and behave increasingly different to their wild ancestors.
  • The car industry will be in trouble as individual car ownership becomes less common. In advanced economies, shared self-driving cars summoned by smartphone are the default for many people. The only healthy parts of the industry are high-end luxury cars, low-end cars for emerging markets (though massive congestion is pushing public opinion away from car ownership here too), and self-driving electric cars designed for sharing.
  • Road congestion in advanced economy cities will be much reduced compared to 2014 (as happened to air pollution in these cities in a previous era, e.g., London after 1800s and LA after 1960s). This will be due to reduced private car use, but more so to self-driving cars and much better traffic management (traffic lights, automatic car re-routing).

2045 (30 years time)

  • CO2 emissions will be steadily falling, with global temperatures on track for a 3.5 degree rise. Agriculture will be steady, thanks to most of the world’s famers using genetically modified crops. Widespread but localised wars and revolutions will have happened, all with political proximate causes but with incidence strongly correlated with areas of greatest climate disruption. Large movements of people will also have occurred, leading to dramatic pro- and anti-immigrant upheavals, but these migrants will be largely described as economic- rather than climate-driven.
  • The dominant socio-economic issue will no longer be poverty and financial inequality as measued by Gini coefficient and similar, as this will be superseded by inequality in duration and quality of life. Improved medical technology will leave the top 1% with an expected lifetime almost double that of the bottom 50%, and much better quality of life in the meantime. The advantages of expensive biotech will threaten the assumption that all are born equal, as the offspring of the wealthiest gain developmental advantages, and society faces the danger of a biologically entrenched upper class.
  • The tertiary or “services” sector will employ nearly all workers, with industry following agriculture to become virtually irrelevant in formal employment. Production of physical goods will have followed energy use, to be largely uncorrelated with GDP, as non-physical goods become the bulk of GDP by value. Economists will split services into subsectors, such as traded services (finance, media and content) and non-traded services (hospitality, experiences, personal services).
  • First steps will be taken to in some countries to ban human drivers on certain roads (e.g., long distance highways), for safety reasons. These will be very controversial, pitting clear evidence of massive reductions in death toll due to self-driving cars, versus people’s right to drive themselves, and the rights of those who don’t yet own self-driving cars.

Black swans (that could make the above invalid)

  • Global pandemic of an easy to catch, slow to incubate but deadly virus. Might be caused by rogue biotech labs
  • War between super-powers

What do you think?

11 Sep 2012

“Africa at work” report finally published

Filed under: Africa,Economics,Personal — paulcook @ 4:19 pm

The report I’ve spent quite a few months working on has been published — Africa at work: Job creation and inclusive growth. We look at the state of employment in Africa, and what needs to be done to create more wage-paying jobs. It’s awesome to see it getting lots of media attention, but also just good to get it out — it was a lot of work!

In other news, Claire and I are back in Johannesburg after a great year in London and a month of travel in Europe. I’m on a leave of absence for another month or so, still enjoying a more relaxed life!

4 Dec 2008


Filed under: Noteworthy news,Personal — paulcook @ 10:00 am

I’m very excited about a project running at the moment, as summarised below. Full disclosure: It’s funded by my company, Thornhill, so I may be biased!

The idea is a modern alternative to initiation – a way in which school leavers could be introduced to the attitudes, ethic and life skills required to be an effective employee and citizen. The programme, for thirty school leavers, began this Friday with a weekend away in the Magaliesberg, and then runs for two weeks at GIBS (a business school).

The first few days have gone very well, with the participants committed, excited and learning lots. I particularly enjoyed hearing about some excellent spontaneous poetry in response to the weekend away.

A huge congratulations to Sarah Tinsley, Lanier Covington and Jonathan Cook for the concept and for making it all happen. This is also unlikely to be the last time the project runs, so I’m excited about it having a very useful impact on the lives of many high school leavers. Obviously, there’ll be a need for more volunteers to scale it all up, so anyone interested please drop Sarah a line — see contact details below.

Some further information:

17 Oct 2008

Size of the derivatives market

Filed under: Economics — paulcook @ 8:07 am

Fascinating analysis of the numbers involved in the murky, model-driven world of the derivatives markets:
The Size of Derivatives Bubble = $190K Per Person on Planet .

Thanks to @RubyGold for the link.

25 Sep 2008

A new president and cabinet!

Filed under: Africa,Noteworthy news — paulcook @ 2:36 pm

South Africa has a new (interim) president and cabinet! I’m quite excited, because it looks by-and-large like a good team. But mostly, I’m really excited because the new Minister of Health is my aunt!

I’ve had some people ask me about the situation recently, so here’s a very brief summary (what follows is of course entirely my opinion). The ruling party (the ANC) has been badly divided recently, between supporters of the outgoing national president Thabo Mbeki, and current ANC president and former national vice-president, Jacob Zuma. The issue is a drawn-out corruption trial against Zuma, arising from an arms deal quite a few years ago. Supporters of Zuma have been alleging interference from Mbeki in the various decisions to continue the prosecution, by the National Prosecution Authority. Supporters of Mbeki, and others, have been keen for the case to be heard — especially as at least some evidence seems fairly strong. Regardless, it’s been interesting to see marches and speeches on BOTH sides, all in defence of the independent judiciary and the constitution.

The most recent turn was a reference to possible interference from Mbeki and government, in a recent ruling in one of the High Courts. This, along with rapid collapse of support in the ANC for Mbeki, was enough to persuade the ANC’s National Executive Committee to recall Mbeki from his deployment as national president (as per the appropriate lingo). He duly resigned on Sunday, active today (the transition process has been managed very carefully and smoothly). Since South Africa is a parliamentary system, the new president is elected by parliament from amongst its members, and is Kgalema Motlanthe.

My thoughts are similar to those I’ve read elsewhere (eg. the Sunday Times): Mbeki was not doing a good job, and so it’s good that he has resigned; though the motives of the Zuma supporters are suspect. In my opinion, Mbeki has been a great statesman in many respects, especially in foreign policy. On the other hand, he’s had a few key weaknesses, notably HIV/AIDS and Zimbabwe. More fundamentally, he has been very controlling, even paranoid, and has sometimes appointed key officials more for loyalty then competence or suitability — notably the outgoing health minister. This has led to far too much corruption and mismanagement, and the subversion of many of the ideals of the struggle. It’s good to see the pendulum finally swing against this leadership style, but the lasting damage is there — even those working most vocally against Mbeki have been using some of the same underhanded and paranoid approaches that he has. This is a huge shame, and it’s not at all clear that Zuma will re-introduce the missing moral high-ground.

As interim president (until the elections due in April or May), however, Kgalema Motlanthe sounds great. From all accounts, he more than almost any senior figure caught up in the divisions has kept a sense of the correct way of handling issues. He has a lot of respect from people across the board, and has been willing to call out some of the more … outspoken Zuma supporters when they have been out of line. So I was quite happy with his election.

And then at 5pm today, the new cabinet was announced, and my aunt is the Minister of Health! Health is of course a huge post in any government, but especially in South Africa, due to HIV/AIDS and related tuberculosis outbreaks, and the poor state of nursing in many of the state hospitals (there are parallel public and private health systems, with healthcare available to all through the public system, but often with poor nursing). The outgoing minister of health was really not at all great at the position, and was an endless source of crazy quotations on mostly AIDS issues. Taking the lead from Mbeki, she has not rolled out the AIDS treatment programme nearly as fast as it could have been — which of course has cost many, many lives and additional infections.

My aunt has more of a financial background, but in recent years has been very interested in the HIV/AIDS crisis, and has worked closely with the Treatment Action Campaign (the group that fought so successfully for the introduction of AIDS drugs). Personally, I think she’s awesome, has a great sense for what needs to be done, and works very hard and with great dedication to ensure that it is achieved. So I really hope she’ll have enough time in office to make profound changes to the healthcare system, and really solve the AIDS problem.

I’m also excited about what her appointment suggests about the new government. In Motlanthe’s first speech, he emphasised the continuity of government policy, but with a focus on successful implementation, and a healing of the divisions in the ANC. The fact that my aunt has been appointed suggests he really means it, since she has stayed out of the fight, and certainly is not one to pander to those in power. So yes, it’s not an entrenching of a power base or payback for a political favour, which is very welcome indeed!

So yeah, I certainly think we have a great team in government now! I haven’t heard from my aunt yet, but since she can’t have been approached about this any more than three days ago, I imagine she’s very, VERY busy right now. And probably a little scared too! The only bad news is that she’s been helping my parents oversee some renovations in Cape Town recently. I imagine she won’t be doing that as much now.

20 Sep 2008

Living through interesting times

Filed under: Africa,Economics,Noteworthy news — paulcook @ 5:12 am

What a week! It really has been full of momentous events, in two very different areas.

First, of course, came the complete reworking of the financial industry in the US (and elsewhere, to a lesser extent). Assuming, of course, that the worst is over — here’s hoping. No doubt there will be endless books and such written about this week in years to come. But right now three things come to mind: firstly, I find it interesting how rapidly “conventional wisdom” changes. I remember just months ago that learned figures were saying that the days of multi-functional financial firms were numbered, as their different divisions couldn’t realise benefits from working together — since a broker, for example, cannot preferentially sell his/her own company’s products to a client. Now, just a short time later, everyone is talking about the end of the narrowly-defined investment bank or other focused entity, as a concept, as it’s too hard to guarantee funding in a downturn. Secondly, there’s been the wholesale nationalisation of a large chunk of the financial sector in the US — which, if performed in another country, would probably have been labelled as completely against market principles. It has probably been wise, but still easy to label as hypocritical. Thirdly, it’s still sad to see how excesses amongst a few people drag so many more down with them. Poor regulation and dangerous practices in certain sectors of the US economy have now ruined markets elsewhere in the US, and around the world, despite that fact that many of those countries have very solid credit markets.

The other big news just broke: the National Executive Committee of the ANC (the ruling party in South Africa) has just decided after a marathon meeting to recall the deployment of Thabo Mbeki as president of South Africa. Now starts the constitutional process, but it seems that soon SA will have a new (acting) president. This is but the latest in a long sequence of events. But the hope now is that we can remove the poison of the accusations of political interference in the decision to continue the corruption prosecution of Jacob Zuma. By this stage, regardless of the truth, it seems hard to see how any legal events can be accepted without controversy, especially after the most recent judgment referred explicitly to possible political interference in the National Prosecuting Authority (not, I should stress, in the judicial system). Whether the legal process will continue (that is, whether there will be further appeals in the Jacob Zuma case) remains to be seen. But it at least seems that the ANC is trying to deal with its internal divisions, and are recalling Mbeki in a way that will not lead to unnecessary uncertainty and instability.

Of course, for all of the above, only time will tell. But it’s really interesting, in a morbid way, to be living through events that you know will be seen as momentous in retrospect.

28 Feb 2008

A prison state

Filed under: Noteworthy news,Politics and philosophy — paulcook @ 7:35 pm

Nice to get some hard facts to back up what I’ve heard: the USA really does have a huge proportion of its population in prison. It’s the world leader in prison population measured by BOTH total number OR percentage. Yes, that’s a larger total than even China or India (despite their much larger total population), and a higher percentage than (insert nasty country’s name here). The figure is that now 1 in 100 adults are in prison, and for example 1 in 9 African Americans aged between 20 and 34.

1 in 9?!? No wonder one sees persistent income differences between groups in America — not to mention differences in proportions of single-parent households. Of course, it’s hard to tell how much is intrinsic legal system bias versus other factors, and for other factors whether they are cause or effect. It does also illustrate an anecdote my friend Jeff (a US citizen) was telling from his recent jury callup, where he noted that the African American potential jurors had a universally very negative opinion of the police and legal system. Which in turn, of course, makes fighting crime in African American areas all that much harder — something South Africa has to deal with too, due to the association of the police with the old Apartheid regime.

But taking a step back: apparently some of the reason for the overall high rates are very strict sentencing guidelines for judges — such as “three strikes” rules requiring prison time after three offences. In any event, the US is not particularly safer than comparable countries with much lower prison rates — partially, one would imagine, because sending a petty thief to prison is great for producing a not-as-petty thief, via gang membership and the negative effect that a prison record has on gaining any other source of income. Not to mention that an overcrowded system isn’t likely to do a great job at rehabilitation.

5 Oct 2007

The energy challenge

Filed under: Economics,Technology and science — paulcook @ 6:17 pm

I just went to the first of a new lecture series at Caltech, NRG 0.1, during which various experts are going to be discussing various aspects of the energy problem (for which read “challenge”) that the world is facing.

This week was Steve Koonin, former Caltech provost and physics professor, and currently chief scientist for BP. I thought it was an excellent talk, covering a lot of the different aspects to the energy question, and some important principles that need to be kept in mind when looking for solutions in the near and medium term. I particularly enjoyed (and, yes, this probably says something about me too) how the talk assembled a large collection of numbers into a few key “back-of-the-envelope” facts, and then analysed the various options in terms of these constraints. While I’m not going to summarise the whole talk (which will hopefully be available here soon), here are some of the things which stood out:

2050 / twice pre-industrial
By BP’s Business as Usual (BAU) analysis, sometime before 2050 CO2 will hit twice pre-industrial atmospheric levels. This is a tipping point in many models, and so serves as a useful “safe” upper limit. Anything we do has to have a big effect well before 2050.

Running out of oil vs. global warming
A few years ago I was more concerned about the former; now I think I’m more concerned about the latter. The global economy is handling the high oil prices very well, so non-conventional oil, like oil sands in Canada, really start to look accessible. Oil prices may stay high, and national concerns about oil supply security may discourage oil use, but I think it’s here for a few more decades. My take home message: global warming will be solved, or not, before oil runs out.

CO2 has to drop hugely
CO2 has a lifetime of many centuries once it’s in the atmosphere. Thus to reach CO2 stability at twice pre-industrial levels by 2050, we actually need to cut emissions by about half from today’s level. (A useful figure: due to CO2 longevity, a drop of 10% in CO2 emissions growth delays by about 7 years the crossing of any given atmospheric CO2 concentration). But by business as usual estimates, economic growth, even including historically extrapolated improvements in efficiency, will have raised emissions by a factor of 4. So we have to improve somehow by a factor of 8. As Koonin points out, efficiency gains are generally overwhelmed by increased consumption.

CO2 drops have to start now
As CO2 stays in the atmosphere, delaying change by a few years’ delay makes the required drops much larger in future. Furthermore, the main drivers of emissions (power plants, houses, cars, etc.) all have lifetimes of decades — so the power plants being built now will still be emitting by 2050. Basically, if nothing dramatic changes in the next 5 to 10 years, stability by 2050 becomes nearly impossible.

Many “solutions” just don’t scale
There’s huge enthusiasm for corn-based biofuels in the US at the moment. Koonin’s figures were that about 20% of the corn crop is now going to fuels, contributing about 2% of the US’s transport fuel needs. This doesn’t scale to solve the problem. Another example: solar. It’s a lot more expensive, and so will never be accepted commercially. But even if it was, we need to cover (if I recall the figure) a million rooftops with solar panels every year, starting right now, to reach stability by 2050. I’m not sure if that was globally or just the US.

$30/ton CO2
Currently, emitting CO2 is free in most places (Europe is a partial exception). That makes coal the cheapest power source. Most emissions reduction schemes assign a cost, one way or another, to CO2. Koonin had an interesting comparison graph: below about $20/ton CO2, coal remains cheapest. Above about $40/ton, there are no further major changes to the ordering of energy sources. So the magic number of balancing economic cost and yet still changing behaviour is around $30/ton. This would add only about 15% to the cost of petrol in the US or SA, and a little less in Europe, say. So the biggest changes will be in fixed electrical generation plants (which anyway are the biggest emitters).

The plan
Koonin’s take on matters, and I think I agree, is that given the size and cost of the changes needed, as well as their urgency, market forces have to be used to make changes. That is, we can’t pick an “ideal solution” and decree that that is what will be done — the political will isn’t there over the time scale required. Rather, the correct policy incentives need to be put in place right now — like a fixed, predictable cost for CO2 (which, interestingly, argues against a cap-and-trade approach), for the next 50 years. Without such definiteness, it becomes really hard for power companies to spend, say, an extra billion dollars now on a power plant that does CO2 sequestration.

Koonin’s roadmap would seem to be: policy incentives right now, leading to CO2 sequestering power plants still running predominantly off fossil fuels; a growing but still far from dominant contribution from sustainable power sources; and revolutionary improvements in next generation biofuels (using plant material that we do not, in fact, want to eat). He justifies hope in a biofuel revolution by pointing out that biotechnology is a very young and rapidly developing field — unlike, say, fusion. He also thinks there’s a chance for a solar revolution, but not with current technology.

As I overheard a participant say on the way out, though, “He could have given a much more pessimistic talk with the exact same slides”. We do have to make immediate, dramatic changes to an area of human endeavour that has vast pre-existing infrastructure, very long time-lines and huge costs. This for a problem that is hard to easily demonstrate now, and exists over a time scale far longer than political cycles. I think there’s a fair chance that, come 2050, we’ll have to be involved in some sort of huge active geoengineering (ie. a modification designed to “cancel out” our CO2 emissions), in order to stabilise the climate.

25 Jul 2007

Ethical democracy: An exercise for the reader

Filed under: Africa,Noteworthy news,Politics and philosophy — paulcook @ 3:05 pm

With a title like the above, there are so many things this post could be about — the last few days and weeks have been excellent for providing examples of less-than-ethical democracy. But this post is in fact about none of them — it’s about a tricky personal conundrum I faced today, in exercising ethical democracy.

The thing is, I’m not a US voter, or citizen. But I am a US taxpayer and legal resident at the moment. Tomorrow the US Congress will be voting on a bill (of which more later) on an issue very dear to my heart — because it represents probably the largest ongoing damage that the US does, every day, to the poorest of the poor in the developing world and especially Africa (of which I am a citizen). So the question for the reader is: should I phone my representative in Congress and ask them to vote the way I’d like on the bill?

The bill in question is the huge farm bill, and more especially the Fairness Amendment component thereof. US (and to be fair, European) farm subsidies are a mess: they cost the taxpayer huge sums, benefit predominantly the largest agribusiness concerns instead of small farmers, offer only marginal assistance to hungry people within the US and EU, and make it impossible for developing world (especially African) farmers to compete on the global market. For instance, farming cotton in Texas costs about three times the raw price it does in Mali, on the southern edge of the Sahara. But after subsidies Malian farmers can’t compete — and so huge areas of Africa aren’t even being farmed. Cotton is Mali’s main commercial export, despite this huge disadvantage — so one can only imagine the huge difference even a small tweak to the subsidies would make to the 10 million inhabitants of this desperately poor country. And as in cotton, so too elsewhere — US and EU farm subsidies are together larger than the total GDP of sub-Saharan Africa. But enough rant — contact me if you’d like more!

Anyway, the Fairness Amendment is a step in the right direction. The vote is tomorrow. In the end I went ahead and phoned my Congressional rep — using this really convenient and easy service.

Now the more suspicious amongst you might think that what this post is really about is getting those of you who can phone US representatives without suffering any complicated ethical choices, to indeed go ahead and phone. In fact, you might even be right. But I am also interested in what people think about whether it’s ethical for me to make such a phone call.

And yes, it’s been a while since my last blog post. I have a few stacked up awaiting typing, but this one came first thanks to the obvious deadline. Thanks for your patience!

7 Nov 2006

Oh, to be a fly on the wall…

Filed under: Noteworthy news,Stuff — paulcook @ 6:58 pm

A line from an article about US election irregularities:

In Kentucky, a poll worker was arrested for trying to throttle a voter.

What?!? Throttling a voter?? Sounds like there might very well be a very, very interesting story behind this one. Any suggestions on the last thing this particular voter might have said, just before being throttled?

Here’s one to start things off: “So I just pushed this thing here, and now I’ve got this blue screen saying something about an illegal operation…”