Ways of seeing - The Forecast 14 - Magazine | Monocle

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Scott Young on ...
How geopolitics will shape the manner in which AI will change the job market. Amid the uncertainty, there are things that we know and even some reasons to be cautiously optimistic.

Technological prognostications often fall prey to what’s called “Amara’s Law”, a phenomenon suggesting that we tend to overestimate a technology’s near-term impact while grossly underestimating its effect over the long run. Artificial intelligence (AI) is having just such a moment, with generative AI rocketing from obscurity to ubiquity in less than a year. But for all of the headlines, our understanding of AI suffers from farsightedness: the future seems clearer the further away it is, while we struggle to see what’s right under our noses. 

Authors Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans and Avi Goldfarb describe this moment as the “between times”, in which we have only begun to understand the technology’s future potential but have not yet seen its widespread adoption. Make no mistake, Chatgpt is only the Ford Model T of AI. It’s the popular, early precursor foreshadowing the discrete and world-changing movement revolution to come. 

One underestimated fact is how global politics – the decisions being made by governments today – will influence AI’s trajectory; decisions that in turn will determine the future of work and jobs across the world. While some countries are scrambling to secure advantage, others are seeking simply to stymie opponents. At the end of 2023 this is most apparent in the worsening US-China relationship, where critical and emerging technologies are a key battleground. The US-China economic decoupling is in turn upending longstanding assumptions about globalisation and co-operation and giving way to new rules.

There are four elements to watch for geopolitical competition when it comes to AI. They are data, computing power, energy and talent – and here’s why they matter. 

1. Data is the rocket fuel powering AI training – the process by which a model is taught to perceive and analyse information. The more quality data that a model is given, the greater the effectiveness and accuracy of machine learning. However, efforts by governments to keep data “local” will saddle companies with burdensome compliance rules and slow progress.

2. Computing power is the ability to process information at scale. AI training depends on the use of the most hi-tech silicon chips. Developments in computing power have been the main driver of AI’s rapid progress over the past decade. The US has temporarily curbed Chinese access to advanced chips and chipmaking equipment, while China has sought workarounds and poured money into domestic r&d.

3. Energy is an often-overlooked geopolitical factor, but AI’s future energy requirements will only grow. Computing power is projected to reach 21 per cent of global electricity consumption by 2030 (up from less than 2 per cent in 2018). Training OpenAI’s gpt-3 required a staggering 1,285 mw/h in electricity and emitted more than 550 tonnes of carbon dioxide, which only hints at further questions about AI’s environmental cost. 

4. Finally, the global AI talent pipeline will establish which countries and companies get ahead. Talent takes investment and time to grow. While the US has the greatest concentration of skilled top AI researchers, China has intensified its talent attraction, retention and training efforts. Today more than 440 Chinese universities offer AI degrees.

These four bottlenecks will influence how rapidly AI can scale in future. What’s clear – regardless of which countries get an edge over others or the speed at which it happens – is that a growing percentage of workers will be displaced by AI. Who and how are only just starting to become visible.

The Hollywood writers and actors strikes offer an early clue for how AI will soon affect jobs.

A decade ago, the narrative about the future of work was that automation would replace routine prevailing and administrative roles, leaving humans to focus their energies on more creative and complex tasks. In a 2013 study, Oxford economists Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne estimated that 47 per cent of jobs in the US were at risk from automation, noting that highly skilled jobs were likely to be the least susceptible to disruption.

But generative AI’s deftness in tackling the creative industries through high-quality text, image and even video generation has spun that assumption on its head. Generative AI can outperform humans in computer coding and can even predict sophisticated protein structures, the latter of which could only be done previously through experimental deductive techniques. In fact, Frey and Osborne recently acknowledged that lower-skilled workers might stand to disproportionately benefit from generative AI by levelling the playing field. In contrast, highly-skilled incumbents may soon find their advantages – and wages – whittled down, overwhelmed by a tsunami of AI-enabled competition.

It isn’t all good news for low-income workers, though. There is already an AI underclass in places such as Kenya, India and the Philippines. In these countries, armies of so-called “data annotators” – workers tasked with supplying algorithms with brutal and graphic content to moderate – are subjected to poor conditions and frequent assaults on their mental health, in exchange for low wages and little support. A recent Pew study also found that one in five US workers have “high exposure” to the effect of AI, whether negative or positive – with female, Asian, college-educated and higher-wage workers all particularly vulnerable.

Nevertheless, humans are notoriously resilient and resourceful. We can spy hope in places such as a recent study from mit economist David Autor, which draws attention to the common-sense observation that 60 per cent of workers today are employed in jobs that didn’t exist 80 years ago. So perhaps it’s a matter of perspective. Rather than focus on the loss of jobs today, we should perhaps focus on new avenues for jobs – ones we have yet to invent or imagine. And if Amara’s Law is anything to go by, we still have a little time to think it through.

About the writer: Young is a senior geo-technology analyst with political risk consultancy firm Eurasia Group and a juror for the Balsillie Prize for Public Policy.


Ahmed Al Omran on ...
Why, even though Saudi Arabia is longing to tempt foreign investment and has cut red tape for start-ups, its powerful public sector is crowding out private business.


US tech giants such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft dominate the world’s attention and the global economy. But what do they have in common? Among other things, they all began in garages: a founding myth that’s given them a special place in the imagination of would-be entrepreneurs.

Saudi Arabia took that precedent literally and decided to build one of its own to help tune up the national economy. The Garage is a co-working space in a revamped car park in Riyadh’s King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology. There are shared office spaces, conference rooms, an events area and even sleeping pods for naps. Launched in 2022, the project was expanded in September 2023 and is an illustration of the country’s desire to wean itself off its dependence on oil revenues by tempting technology start-ups to the country.

Seven years ago, Saudi Arabia unveiled its plan to supercharge the economy by limiting the role of the wealthy public sector, letting the private sector lead economic growth. It restructured government departments to attract foreign investment, updated its laws and regulations and sent delegations around the world to entice investors with incentives. Red tape was cut: waits for business visitor visas were shortened to 72 hours. There are reasons to be positive too: neighbours with larger populations, such as Iran and Egypt, are drowning in political and economic turmoil, while the populations of Gulf neighbours including the uae and Qatar are too small to support growth. Despite its social conservatism, Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s biggest 20 economies and has a young and affluent population. In truth, the slow speed of growth is partly self-inflicted. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has overseen some easing of strict social laws but his anti-corruption clampdown in 2017 and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi the following year have scared some investors away. Foreign direct investment fell 59 per cent in 2022 to €7.5bn, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

While foreign investment has faltered and oil prices bounced, Saudi Arabia chose to lean into its own resources: the Public Investment Fund (pif). The state’s sovereign wealth fund started more than 70 companies with hundreds of billions of euros in investments, ranging from a science-fiction grade futuristic city called Neom (to be built from scratch in the country’s northwest) to a dairy firm specialising in camel milk, among others.

The rise of the sovereign wealth fund, with its expanding list of investments, has raised eyebrows among some investors who say that the fund – and its sizable war chest as a result of transfers from the state treasury – is crowding out the private sector that the country says it is keen to bring in. Officials say that the pif focuses on risky and strategic sectors that private investors have little appetite for. That argument holds water for defence or infrastructure, it’s less convincing when it comes to camel milk.

Authorities claim that the overhaul of laws and regulations is working. The Saudi Ministry of Investment says that it issued 4,358 investment licenses in 2022, a 54-per-cent jump on 2021. How many of those licences will turn into sustainable businesses, however, remains unclear.

As much as the kingdom yearns for the private sector to take the initiative and lead the economy, the public sector continues to dominate – and while it does, entrepreneurs are at a relative disadvantage. The Garage’s relaunch event in 2023 was a case in point. Images from the opening bash feature far more government officials than venture capitalists or start-up founders. If the kingdom is to become a genuinely competitive place to do business, it needs to strike a better balance in 2024.

About the writer: Al Omran is a Saudi journalist. He is a former Knight-Bagehot Fellow at Columbia Journalism School.


Joanna Chiu on ...
The US-China trade war and why American aggression in guarding chip technology is heightening tensions around Taiwan. Is 2024 the moment to tone down the chip chat?


Donald Trump referred to the US’s $346bn (€327bn) trade deficit with China in 2016 as “the greatest theft in the history of the world”. Always one to simplify a problem, he went on to blame the Clintons’ support of free trade for enabling China’s meteoric economic rise. This ongoing conflict between the world’s two largest economies, dubbed a “trade war”, began unceremoniously in 2018 with Trump slapping tariffs on $200bn (€189bn) worth of Chinese goods.

I was in Beijing at the time and the mood among the business owners and entrepreneurs was one of nonchalance. China had long served as the world’s factory but leaders were already pushing to transform that economy away from mass manufacturing towards domestic consumption, service and producing higher-end goods. People observed the US backlash against Trump’s actions coolly as prices spiked. 

Contrary to Trump’s take, many economists think that a country importing more than it exports carries advantages. Cheap manufacturing also means lower prices for global consumers. The trade war meant that American businesses buying from Chinese factories have paid the price and borne the brunt of tariffs. Even today those firms are passing costs on to consumers. Five years later, ordinary people in both countries have lower aggregate incomes as a direct result of the conflict.

Joe Biden’s administration continued the hyperbole and characterised the competition as part of a global “battle between democracies and autocracies”. Biden has not only maintained many tariffs on Chinese goods but his administration also has another target in its crosshairs: China’s capacity to produce cutting-edge technology.

Semiconductors, the so-called “brains” of modern devices, power everything from cars to smartphones. In August 2022 the US Chips Act came into law to prohibit recipients of federal funding from expanding semiconductor manufacturing in China. Department of Commerce rules also bar US companies from exporting technology and equipment used in producing advanced technology, including microchips, to China. These not only prevent US companies from working with Chinese partners, they also prohibit international companies from using US-made equipment to serve Chinese customers. International firms are now scrambling to put these tough rules into practice. 

But will any of this halt China’s economic march? Huawei recently debuted a smartphone that uses an advanced seven-nanometer processor. It was the clearest indication so far that China is on its way to building a complete domestic chipmaking ecosystem, even though US analysts had hoped that measures might set back China’s progress by years.

Trade wars rely on the image of a battlefield, but they don’t need to be deadly. Sadly, the US position on chips is likely to increase the risk of actual armed conflict in 2024 and beyond. The reason? Taiwan. Beijing claims the island as its own territory and hasn’t ruled out using military force to take it. An increase in missile tests spurred anxieties, especially as Washington is obliged by federal law to see that the island has the means to defend itself. Taiwan has dominated global chip manufacturing for so long that the industry was dubbed the island’s “silicon shield”: a deterrent to conflict, as Taiwanese firms accounted for more than 60 per cent of global chipmaking revenue. Washington’s moves to choke off China’s access to technology has thrown a spanner in the routine flows of people and technology between Taiwan and China. The US might tell a story about its trade war evening up the economic odds but its actions are writing a script that could have an unhappy ending – for peace in East Asia and beyond.

About the writer: Chiu is a Vancouver-based journalist and author. Her most recent book, China Unbound: A New World Disorder, is out now.


Eliane Glaser on ...
Self-help culture. It is governed by two contradictory philosophies: that of living our ‘best life’ on the one hand and tempering our expectations with Yogic calm on the other. So which is it?

In 2005, The Oprah Magazine issued a book entitled Live Your Best Life. The phrase has since proliferated in popular culture and on social media – from Cardi B’s rap track “Best Life” to self-improvement videos on Tiktok (“How I upgraded my life”; “I am the author of my own life”). The Tiktok hashtag #manifestation has had 46 billion views. Websites flogging “life hacks” and entrepreneurial motivation exhort readers to “Realise your full potential” and “Give your very best in everything you do”. Whole sections of bookshops are dedicated to titles trotting out the same drab sentiment: The Power of Positive Thinking; Life Mastery and Authentic Happiness. The message sells, too: the “wellness” market is worth $5trn (€4.7trn) worldwide. 

But another prominent philosophy being sold is one that spins us around 180 degrees. Instead of telling us we can be whoever we want, this doctrine advocates giving up great expectations and learning to sit still. Happiness equals reality minus your expectations, suggests Mo Gawdat, the Egyptian technology entrepreneur who wrote Solve for Happy: Engineer your Path to Joy after the death of his son. In the best-selling Love for Imperfect Things, the Buddhist monk Haemin Sunim argues that we should renounce our idealised image of how our life could be and make peace with how it is right now. So how can we make sense of these two competing philosophies?

Both movements promise happiness and fulfilment but by rather different paths. Life optimisation comes in part from the 1990s positive psychology movement, led by the American educator Martin Seligman, which in turn grew out of 1950s “humanistic” psychology that emphasised the importance of realising one’s innate potential. In contrast, the origins of the self-acceptance movement are far older. Sixth-century Buddhist monk Sengchan wrote, “True freedom is being without anxiety about imperfection”; the 17th- century samurai and philosopher Miyamoto Musashi advised his followers to “accept everything just the way it is”.

The fact that popular life advice pulls us in opposite directions is rarely noted. But crucially it also produces a paralysing dilemma. It’s impossible to visualise or manifest your “best life” unless you have desires and expectations. Yet Buddhist teachings instruct us to stoically silence our wants. We feel we ought to wring constructive value out of every moment but also sit, breathe deeply and meditate. And, of course, there’s the further irony here behind those best-selling books about acceptance: the hard-working scriveners waking up at dawn to write books telling us to do less.

Perhaps the biggest battleground for these conflicting approaches is in our long-term romantic relationships. First, we are living longer, so relationships are longer. Yet the temptation to upgrade is multiplied in the messaging as well as the means to do so in a consumer marketplace of dating apps. Is it possible to stick with the same person for decades and still be the best version of yourself? You hunch. You snap. You compromise. What if you find yourself curtailing your “authentic self” for the sake of harmony?

On the other hand, relationship websites and magazine features tend to offer another solution:

We live in a culture that simultaneously demands perfection and orders us to be happy with our idiosyncrasies

radical acceptance. The trick is to give up wondering how it would be if your partner was different: less familiar, less annoying. But our culture is more ambivalent. We congratulate couples who hold it together over the long term, for better or worse. Yet it’s also widely held that if a relationship is making you into a person you don’t want to be, then you should leave. So which is it?

The push and pull of this cognitive confusion can take its toll. We live in a culture that simultaneously demands perfection and orders us to be happy with our idiosyncrasies (read: imperfections). Not only is there no reward but it appears that forbearance is no longer the moral path, as it can conflict with the new moral injunction to be “true to yourself” (if you’re the kind of person who is lucky enough to both be able to and always know exactly what you want). If you practise radical acceptance you shouldn’t require forbearance in the first place: you should have learnt to love your partner’s little habits by now, no matter how irritating. Sadly, things in the real world are never so neat.

Popular culture and psychology have responded to this ambivalence by presenting fantasy scenarios in which it appears possible to have your cake and eat it too. Coaches and feature writers proclaim that you too can have an amazing sex life after 30 years of marriage. The celebrated sex guide Enduring Desire by couples’ therapists Michael Metz and Barry McCarthy points to research suggesting that the best sex happens in partnerships of 15 years or longer. “Plenty of people in long-term relationships have super-hot, wonderfully satisfying sex lives years and years into their relationships,” writes the relationship coach Kelly Gonsalves on her website Mindbodygreen. “In fact, the longer you know each other, the more comfortable you’ll become with exploring new sexual experiences together,” she adds, though she acknowledges that this is not always the case. A recent study of married couples over 40 found that the largest proportion have sex rarely, or not at all.

Hollywood has found another way to square the circle. In the three-act structure that governs pretty much every film that you will ever see, the protagonist embarks on a quest or journey before finally returning to their old life – but crucially armed with new insights. In a typical mid-life crisis film, the (male) protagonist fantasises about having an affair with a (young) woman but resists; and at the end his marriage is revitalised. Such narrative sophistry evades rather than resolves the paradox. In a culture torn between the pleasures of hedonism and asceticism, recognising these mixed messages might be the best that we can hope for.

About the writer: Glaser is an author and radio producer who has written for the Monocle Companion series. Her books include Elitism: A Progressive Defence.

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