Global Megacrisis: Interview with TechCast.org's William E. Halal, PhD

In this interview, William E. Halal PhD, Prof Emeritus, George Washington University, author, and president of TechCast.org, shares data and viewpoints on the "Global Megacrisis."
Written by Chris Jablonski, Inactive

Is a techno-utopian civilization our future or will inadequacy, info-glut, and indecision prevail? A survey is underway on TechCast.org, a virtual think tank of over 100 experts providing technology forecasts to companies, asking what people think about the financial and ecological crises threatening the world and to evaluate four alternative scenarios ranging from most pessimistic to optimistic as potential outcomes.

William E. Halal, Prof Emeritus, George Washington University, author, and president of TechCast, and Michael Marien a former editor at World Future Society came up with four scenarios for the future: “Decline to Disaster”, “Muddling Down”, “Muddling Up”, and, “Rise to Maturity.” They have dueling viewpoints on the issue (Halal's take is upbeat, whereas Marien's is not) which is why they're asking experts what they think. The Global Megacrisis is the confluence of climate change, peak oil & energy shortages, environmental pollution, armed conflict, terrorism, and other threats.

I spoke recently with Halal about the Global Megacrisis and the future of technology.

The survey is not meant to be scientific and the sample size is currently small, but how would you interpret the results so far?

It’s very sobering, 60% of the experts surveyed so far view the level of severity of the potential threat posed by the Global Megacrisis as “severe”, meaning they expect major declines in central aspects of life. Another 23% view it as catastrophic, in that it could spell the end of civilization for many, if not all. They don’t see how the present world can handle these threats.

Why do you think Michael Marien and other skeptics think that disruptive leaps such as "The Age of Consciousness" are unrealistic, or is it that your time frame is too aggressive?

People are preoccupied with negativity and we are in a state of gridlock. The country can’t do much if it is polarized politically.   But information technology is exploding and it’s changing the world dramatically. In ten years artificial intelligence is going to be good enough to automate routine human thought, and it’s going to raise awareness to the next stage of social evolution—consciousness. Right now we focus on knowledge, but next we'll move beyond knowledge to focus on values, beliefs, and ideologies—all of the things that are major obstacles, or blockages to progress today. That’s the way evolution always moves. A new capability evolves to address the challenges that limit further progress.

Ten years is a long time away, do you have any good examples of AI in use today?

A good example is GPS navigation used in cars. That problem has been solved by hard artificial intelligence, the same thing will happen in speech recognition and language translation. A virtual assistant is a very good possibility. It could be a small software package that resides in your cell phone and learns everything you do and all the people you contact, just like a real assistant. It learns how you make decisions and then takes over for you and does things on your behalf. It’s a powerful idea that will help us deal with this avalanche of information.

What are the latest signs pointing to an optimistic outcome for the future of business and society?

The data indicate that 2015 and 2020 are going to be pivotal years. We’re going to see a clustering of breakthroughs in green technologies and in information technology and ecommerce. If the experts are right, and I think they are right, the green revolution is going to start producing sustainability. It’s going to solve that problem. It will bring with it a huge wave of innovation from both business and government investment over the next 3-4 years that could amount to $20 trillion that stimulates the global economy. The global economy is about $50 trillion so proportionally it is going to be really huge. There will be an even bigger stimulus in IT and ecommerce. We have about 20 breakthroughs coming in the next 10 years, and they amount to another huge chunk of money, about $20-$30 trillion.

Those two developments are going to lead the world out of this recession by 2015. And that period coincides with the 35-year cycles that seem to govern economic markets. If you look at the Dow Jones Industrial average over the last 100 years on a logarithmic scale, you’ll see 35-year cycles. This period today is the end of the cycle that started with the election of Reagan in the U.S. and Thatcher in England, and they led the liberalization of economies, deregulation, focus on free enterprise, and entrepreneurship. That period has come to an end. Now we see the limits of free markets, and that’s what the financial collapse was about. So when you add 35 years to 1980 you get 2015, and that’s when the next period will start, and that coincides with the clustering that we see with our forecasts.

But 2020 is a big critical point. All the high technologies that we forecast should arrive then. In addition to green tech and IT, we should see advanced medicines and medical treatments including genetic therapy, personal medicine and cancer cures. We'll see the arrival of second generation information technologies, such as bio-computing, quantum computing, optical computing, virtual reality, and especially artificial intelligence. And that’s the critical point at which the world has to grow up. It’s going to have all of these capabilities and knowledge, but the challenges will only get worse. Global GDP will roughly double by 2020, so by roughly that time frame it’s going to be the moment of truth, so to speak.

What are the implications of the next gen of IT for business and IT organizations?

I think it means infinite computing power and storage capacity. It’s the continuation of Moore’s Law after silicon runs its course. We’re going to see about a million-fold improvement in processing power, storage capacity, and bandwidth-it’s hard to grasp really. High performance applications, virtual reality, and video conferencing will become a daily event and all the routine tasks that currently preoccupy people all done by machines. So with everything like your computer and smart phone becoming intelligent, it will allow for routine stuff to fade into the background while critical issues come to the forefront. These include how businesses will solve their environmental problems, how they'll keep their employees working collaboratively effectively around the globe, and how to motivate them with the mission of the enterprise. Time will be spent on deciding on values, vision, and strategy—the really tough and messy stuff that business don’t think about too well.

Sounds great, but with the Megacrisis in the way of this great leap forward, how do we get there?

Correct, this isn’t a utopian scenario that we described; it is one of enormous challenge to get through the Megacrisis. The Megacrisis tells us that the systems that the world has created no longer work. And things are getting really serious with 9 billion people all getting industrialized. So we need a new system, a new global order, and that’s what government and corporations are going to have to create.

What will businesses need to do as they harness new information technologies?

Businesses will have to reclaim some moral legitimacy; they’ve lost authority and credibility. And I think they have to reinvent themselves into a quasi-democratic system, which would be great for business people because they can become the heroes of modern society. They can solve some of the social problems that inundate us and they can also make more money! What I’m describing is not just social responsibility or philanthropy; it would make them more productive and better harness their capabilities.

Further Reading: The Christian Science Monitor: Business collaboration could transform the economy ZDNet: 5 ways to critically evaluate a trend or forecast ZDNet: 2010 tech predictions: a futurist roundup

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