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.


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