We’ve come from an age in which we thought we took inspiration from others, from God, from other forces, to a time in history where we are transforming our relationship to each other, and certainly to the world around us. A period where we’re moving to machine intelligence, working with machines. But will they replace us? Will we find that this is a disruption which is unlike any that’s gone before? That we indeed could be replaced by artificial intelligence and other machines.
And I think about this period in reference to another great period in history, that of the Renaissance. This is much bigger than simply a Fourth Industrial Revolution. It’s not mainly about industry. And it’s not mainly about production processes. It’s about ideas. And it’s this ideas generation that makes this the most exciting time in history to be alive. It makes it the best time. We are the most fortunate generation. Not only because of the ideas that are leading us to live longer, healthier lives. But because things will happen in our lifetimes that are unimaginable and that could not have happened before. So it’s the most exciting time.
It’s a time we will see creativity, as in the Renaissance. New ideas flourishing in the arts, humanities, music, and of course in science. And that was what characterized that extraordinary period that we think of in such iconic terms. The artists, the Michelangelos, da Vincis, Botticellis, and others. They changed the way we see each other. They will change the way in which we see nature. And they certainly, together with those that came after them, change science. We discovered that we went around the sun—Copernicus—not the other way around. We discovered, and da Vinci invented, ideas like helicopters and others. And of course, following on, Galileo, the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, and everything that’s come to be what we know today.
So this is a period of momentous change. Much more than simply another industrial revolution. It’s a period of transformation. It’s a period where we will reinterpret our relationship to the world, just like the Renaissance led to reinterpretation. The maps of Ptolemy, of the Middle Ages, mappae mundi, being replaced by Mercator discovering the world was round. Discovering there were other continents and Europe was not the center of it. Discovering, in an age of discovery, our relationship to others around the world, and driven by generators of ideas. Before the Gutenberg press only monks could read or write, in Latin, in handwritten scripts. There was nothing to read. There was no incentive to read. And this press revolutionized it. Ideas traveled. Luther and others generated ideas they wanted to be read. And the world, and certainly Europe first, transformed, as Neil[sp?] has so eloquently written.
In our time, we see this on multiple dimensions. The walls coming down twenty‐five years ago in Europe, leading to transformations around the world, and not least in my life. I thought I would never go back to South Africa in my lifetime. And suddenly, Mandela was freed, and I was invited back to be his economic advisor. This is because ideas traveled. This is because sixty‐five countries became democratic. This is because of the technologies that allowed these ideas to travel. The Hubble going up in the same year as the wall came down, and of course, the Web being invented. Suddenly, we were in one world again. We were in a world where ideas were revolutionizing what was happening around the world. Politics, economics, and technology.
And this is what defines our time. Our new nervous system of information. Our new ability to know what’s happening on the other side of the world. So within the slums of Mumbai or Soweto, or the halls of Davos, we can generate these ideas. They can be absorbed and transmitted. So, we should expect in our lives, new Einsteins, Michelangelos, Mozarts, and others, which will be as transformative. But the difference is now we’re not in a little pocket of the world like Florence, we’re in a world of five billion connected people. And if you believe in the random distribution of talent, there’s a lot more out there.
And it’s not just individual genius that creates the change. It’s the collective sparking off each other. We know that diversity leads to much more rapid change. We know this from management theory. We know this from our own lives. And when we come together as teams, when we bounce off other people’s ideas, we advance faster. Evolution accelerates. And so we’re in this period of the most rapid evolution in humanity, and the question is, where are we going? Where is it leading us?
It’s certainly the period where there will be the most rapid escape from poverty in the history of humanity. And so it’s not only for us that this is the best time to be alive, this is the best time to be alive for everyone in the world. Because one’s chances of leading longer, healthier lives are greater than ever in human history. And it’s that excitement, that potential of eradicating diseases in our lifetime, of overcoming poverty in our lifetime, of living in harmony with the planet, that of course is the motivation to make sure that this works. To make sure that the ideas which lead to this leap in civilizations are sustained and go forward around the world. And that the knowledge generated becomes the knowledge that we want, rather than the knowledge that destroys us.
And that’s one of the reasons I believe the Renaissance provides such an important lesson for us. Because in that period, there was pushback. Savonarola…Bonfire of the Vanities. Not rejecting all of modernity. Using the new technologies, the books, to spread very different ideas. To contest the Church. To have a different vision of the future. And this extremism which grew then was the other side of this wonderful iconic period that we think of in such positive terms. In fact, in many ways, it was a very unhappy period. It was a period that of course ushered in the fragmentation of the Catholic Church, the development of new religions, and mass changes. The Spanish Inquisition. The contesting of ideas at an intensity which had not happened before.
And not only those that were intended to be part of this challenge became part of it. The voyages of discovery, of course, discovering the America but then accidentally wiping out most Native Americans in the process through the spread of diseases. What do I worry about, about our sustainability? I worry that while the walls have come down between societies, within societies they’re going up everywhere. Inequality is growing in every country in the world, and this is because of integration. Because of connectivity. Because the pace of change is so great, the advantages of being at the frontier are so high that if you’re not there, you are left further and further behind. And so we see the phenomena, which has been highlighted this week, of 1% earning the same as 99%. Sixty‐six people earning the same as 3.5 billion people, and so fort.
This is happening globally. Why does it matter? It matters not only for ethical reasons, it matters because people don’t believe we’re in this boat together. They do not believe we have the same vested interest in this direction of travel. And that means that our politics is increasingly fragmented, and our ability to get things done increasingly stymied. We see in the financial crisis the first systemic crisis of the 21st century will not be the last.
Our connectivity not only spreads good ideas, it spreads bad ones too. Our connectivity not only allows us to make finance travel around the world and help people, it means that a cascading risk that originates in the South of the US can be everywhere within a matter of hours. And this hyperconnectivity, this butterfly defect of globalization, requires new management.
Our individual actions also no longer sum to collective good. If we all decide to consume something through our freedoms of choice, through our market incentives, we find that collective this is a disaster. This is not only true of rhinoceros horn. This is true of the oceans. This is true of our atmosphere. This is true of our antibiotics. This is true of many things.
And so the tension between individual choice, wealth, and incomes, and collective outcomes rises exponentially, as we’re all in it together. We can’t, I’m afraid, all have the same of a good thing. And that tension requires new ways of thinking about cooperation and about how we stay connected. And so whether we’re able to manage this new Renaissance, whether we’re able to manage this Fourth Industrial Revolution, requires us to challenge ourselves as to whether we’re able to think in new ways. Are we able to leapfrog our understanding of our potential, and cooperate? Are we able to live in a hyperconnected world, where our actions more than ever affect our neighbors and people on the other side of the world? Or are we simply in our own self‐interest entangled with each other? Bumping into each. Doing what we can to thrive in our own individual worlds, but collectively unable to recognize how this increasingly affects our environment and each other.
A pandemic starting in Mexico City was around the world in six weeks, and this is what my emerging infections group has modeled in the Oxford Martin School. But we know now that anything can be anywhere instantaneously on the cybersphere, and within forty‐eight hours in terms of biopathogens. The superspreaders of the good are the superspreaders of the bad as well. And so we need to think more carefully when ideas travel. The Arab Spring was a good manifestation of social media, but as ISIS has showed us, there are downsides too. It has become the biggest recruiter of foreign fighters since the Spanish Civil War, using the very same social media.
The idea that technology will liberate us is only half the story. Techno‐optimism requires technorealism, as well. We need institutions and politics in these equations. We need to intermediate everything through our understanding, through our ethical basis, through our moral basis. It will not happen automatically.
And so as we think about how this Fourth Industrial Revolution is going to take us forward, as we think about the potential for it helping us to get older and wiser, we need to make sure that it does not become the fear. That we do not rejected, as Germany has rejected nuclear power and GMOs. That we are able to ensure that all of society believes that these technical changes are for them. And that together we can ensure that we live in a new Renaissance. Thank you very much.