Edition 2020
Navigating Through Uncertainty

Canadian writer Alice Munro once said that the complexity of things —— the things within things —- seems simply inexhaustible. With the advance of the digital world, individuals and government, businesses and social organizations have become immersed in a network that seems to have infinite connections and variables to consider. The causes that drive processes are becoming increasingly linked and seem impossible to fully understand. In this growing complexity, the pace of adoption of new technologies accelerates every decade: technological waves such as artificial intelligence or digital consumption habits hit us before we manage to fully assimilate the previous one. 

In this new decade, we are going through partly incomprehensible and constantly changing contexts. Barack Obama, former president of the United States, said ‘We are in strange and uncertain times. Each day's news cycle bringing more head spinning and disturbing headlines.’ How do we plan when bewilderment is an intrinsic feature of our daily dealings? 

Today's world puts unparalleled pressure on our behavior.  Traditional accounts of work, freedom and governance are weakened by globalization and technological disruptions, putting human beings in check. What skills will be needed to guide us through uncertainty?


The following texts delve into the main ideas of each of the subtopics of this edition.

Coding Behavior

Human behaviour has been studied over time to understand the personal and social development of individuals. Albert Einstein once said: ‘if you want to understand a person, don't listen to his words, observe his behavior.’ In psychology, human behaviour is defined as the acts exhibited by a person and determined by culture, attitudes, emotions, personal and cultural values, ethics, the exercise of authority, relationship, persuasion, coercion, genetics and mental health. In other words, human behaviour is any response from an individual in relation to the environment in which they live.

What about technology? We live surrounded by technology that facilitates access to information, communication and social interaction. It is estimated that 5 billion people around the world have a cell phone and that 1 in 2 people have access to the Internet. It is clear then, that technology is part of our surroundings and influences the way we behave. But in what ways does technology condition our behaviour?

What to eat, what film to watch, what song to listen to, what book to read. These are some of the decisions that are no longer made by us, but are left to the algorithms of technological companies. Facebook, Spotify, Netflix and many other companies are already part of our lives and our interactions feed information to their algorithms, that offer us more and more recommendations, conditioning our behavior. And not just for entertainment: algorithms are present everywhere. Speed of response, accuracy and satisfactory results are reasons why the use of algorithms in decision making is attractive in fields such as medicine, finance and human resources, among others. Which employee to take, who to grant a loan, when to buy or sell a share, what medical treatment to follow... 

The algorithm environment is under development. As algorithms get us to know more and better, the temptation to rely on them for decision making will increase. Now, are we willing to give them the power of decision? Yuval Noah Harari says in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, ‘accessing human decision-making will not only make macro-data algorithms more reliable, but human feelings less reliable.’ Like a muscle, our ability to solve problems could be atrophied. Who among us did not know where to go when he or she lost the GPS navigator connection on their cell phone? On the other hand, it is true that if algorithms satisfactorily solve difficult questions such as what to study or who to marry, we would not have to worry about making those decisions. 

It is clear that algorithms are capable of making recommendations and providing answers to various problems. However, are there decisions that cannot be made by algorithms? In what area is our behaviour free of computers? Important decisions within the sphere of ethics seem to be exempt from the power of algorithms. However, this is not so true. Some ethical decisions are already in their hands, with the advent of autonomous vehicles and their response to life-threatening situations.

With all of this, it is important to reflect on what lies behind algorithms. Kartik Hosanager, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says ‘psychologists describe human behavior in terms of nature and nurture... When I looked at the algorithms, I realized that algorithms also have nature and nurture.’ Programming ethics, medicine, finance and all the other areas where codes are found, requires a person to set the steps to be taken to solve a problem. In addition, algorithms need data from which to learn. Both the origin and the source depend on human beings. So, how do we prevent the biases we have from being transferred to the algorithms?

In a present flooded with technology, our behaviour is increasingly induced by decision-making algorithms. It is appropriate, then, to ask ourselves: are we aware of the influences under which we behave? Will we no longer conceive life as a decision-making problem? Are we becoming puppets articulated by the world of algorithms... or is it a simple exaggeration?

Traversing Times of Collaboration and Individualism

In times of fragile foundations, it is important to debate the premises on which progress will be laid upon, and it seems only logical to question ourselves whether such basis will be national or agreed on. Is it necessary that hundreds of nations abandon their sovereign positions, diverting their eyes from their internal agendas, to adopt collaborative policies and solve conflicts greater than them? Do we look at the whole world or within the limits of our borders?

It is difficult to think of massive cooperation among societies in earlier times. The incompatibility of past civilizations meant that the problems they shared were only their own war conflicts. What truly global problems did the contemporaries of Cleopatra, Napoleon or Lincoln actually face?

With the arrival of the second industrial revolution, that brought instant communication between continents, said paradigm began to change. World wars occurred; the whole of humanity was forced to deal with the ethical dilemmas posed by nuclear weapons; massive economic orders erased commercial frontiers between territories, digital technologies then did the same with cultural ones. Much of the progress became global, but so did many of the problems. Consequences of an energy matrix powered by fossil fuels, and of massive agricultural and cattling methods, brought from the far horizon to our doorsteps one of them: climate change, while others such as hunger and poverty still affect a great portion of the population.

This state of interconnection between nations seems to come with a contradiction. There is an increasing number of technologies that allow for remote collaboration, and yet we find groups that voluntarily choose to isolate themselves. Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations: ‘The natural effort of every individual to better his own condition . . . is so powerful, that it is alone, and without any assistance, capable of carrying on the society to wealth and prosperity.’ Does the Smithean logic of the individual apply to the relations between societies? Are they more capable of solving its own problems by caring only about themselves than by planning jointly? Even those that transcend them?

Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, CEO of Plan International NGO, states they are not. She has written for the World Economic Forum that ‘The scale, scope and complexity of the economic and social transformation to come will be such that no one sector . . . will be able to manage the transformation alone. We’re going to need some surprising alliances . . . if we are to overcome its challenges.’ She sustains that these alliances not only involve governments, but also businesses and social and academic organizations.

Ian Bremmer, American political scientist, presents another analysis. In his book Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism, he argues that globalist conceptions have paradoxically generated a win-lose scenario that at the end of the day presents no benefits to the average citizen of many nations.

Reality shows that there are representative cases supporting both positions. Referring to the field of science can serve as an example: the discovery of the Higgs boson, a milestone for modern physics, was only achieved after the joint effort and investment of 23 European countries in a massive particle collider. The United States, on the other hand, launched similar plans, but the scale of its projects proved insufficient. Particle physics would be almost a decade behind today if it were not for collaborative policies between nations.

On the other side of the spectrum, it is pertinent to recall the space race: the competition between the US and the USSR gave the final push to send men out of the atmosphere and to the moon. It is hard to believe that such progress could have been achieved in such a vertiginous manner by pacting between nations: joint efforts require consensus which, if achieved, demands many years of negotiations.

Deciding on a course of action becomes even more complex when assessing the risks. A paradigm of large global consensus dilutes the small among the majorities, leaves valid interests of large sectors of the population unrepresented and provides slow governance to processes that occur at increasing speed. On the other hand, a world model without agreements puts global problems at the bottom of government agendas and hardly has the capacity to solve them when all the actors pull in different directions. 

Can isolation propel progress in times of globalization? Can collaboration avoid the appearance of winners and losers?

Humanity, in its voracious hunger for progress, faces obstacles in the 21st century that penetrate the entire planisphere. The real dilemma in the relationship between societies thus emerges more strongly than ever: whether by caring about the whole world we will improve the quality of life of each of its parts or whether the best way for all of us to move forward is to care about ourselves. Navigating through global tides, collaboration or individualism?

On the Edge of Irrelevance

In changing times, what refuses to reinvent and adapt itself weakens. When this happens, everything, from individual roles to entire systems, become obsolete, and our immediate reaction is to fear for the job stability of millions worldwide. Then, with further reflection, questions such as what we will do and what contribution we will make to society arise. Understanding relevance as the importance of a part in a system, in which way will we be relevant in the future? 

We observe in history moments in which changes in the field of work have brought notable consequences to our lifestyle. At the beginning of the 20th century, Henry Ford installed an assembly line with which he managed to increase tenfold the automotive production. The simplification of the process enabled less qualified workers to be hired. The monotony and repetitiveness of the tasks that the operators carried out resulted in a new distribution of working hours, with shorter days, enabling more time for leisure. The price of the Ford T decreased from $850 to $360 and the car became accessible to majorities. It was no longer necessary to move around on foot, horseback or by bicycle. The car became an everyday item, facilitating tasks and shortening distances.

Just as the automobile changed the transportation landscape, the smartphone made another giant leap in connectivity. Tasks that previously could only be done in one place became instantly accessible from our pockets. Being notified instantly of breaking news, arranging a meeting, conducting bank transactions, or monitoring one's health status became actions independent of where one is located. 

There are many cases where technological advances facilitate tasks. We are traveling through paths of automation and digitalization. Retail stores without cashiers, travel agencies without agents, language classes without teachers... Activities that formerly had a person as an intermediary, are simplified by technology so that users can perform them on their own. 

According to Erik Brynjolfsson, professor at MIT[1], the great advances that have been made in computer technology are the cause of the slow growth of employment in the industry in recent years. He is even pessimistic about what will happen to other occupations such as legal advisory, financial services, education and medicine as new technologies are adopted.

On the other hand, Bryon Reese, an experienced technology entrepreneur, believes that artificial intelligence will create far more jobs than it will destroy. ‘Some fear that as AI[2] improves, it will supplant workers in the job force, creating an ever-growing pool of unemployable humans. This concern, while understandable, is unfounded.’ He asserts that the real question is whether most people can do a job that is a little more complicated than the one they currently have. 

At the same time, there are others who speak of collaboration: technology will not displace humans but work alongside them. According to Harvard University research, AI algorithms can read diagnostic scans with 92% accuracy. Humans can do so with 96% accuracy. Working together, 99%.

If our usefulness as productive beings is threatened, will we be striked by irrelevance? Is human relevance its productive capacity?

Perhaps the complexity of the answer lies in the fact that computers are acquiring a growing capacity for learning: their skills reach areas that we would have previously only thought of as cognitive, such as painting a picture, composing a piece of music or communicating with others. Is human relevance its cognitive capacity?

It is inevitable to think of what lies ahead. Will the day come when computers will actually be able to think, create and feel, or will they remain being sophisticated statistical models? Gray Scott, futurist and techno-philosopher argues that ‘There is no reason and no way that a human mind can keep up with an artificial intelligence machine by 2035.’ In that case, how will the world work? How will we spend our time? What will grant our fulfillment?

We humans have discovered that our limitations leave us out of competition with the inventions we have engendered. In a scenario that is threateningly dystopian for many, but utopian for so many others, what defines us is at stake. Thus, the question arises: what will we do to remain relevant?

[1] Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
[2] Artificial Intelligence

Note: The opinions and ideas presented in these texts were written as triggers to facilitate writing the essay needed to apply to the SABF. They must not be taken as an undeniable truth. In case of disagreeing with some of the ideas, applicants are encouraged to express it in their texts.