The WHO Warns We’re Officially on The Path to a Global Pandemic


We need to prepare.

 

We have a problem. A serious one. At any moment, a life-threatening global pandemic could spring up and wipe out a significant amount of human life on this planet.

The death toll would be catastrophic; one disease could see as many as 100 million dead.

It sounds like a horrifying dream. It sounds like something that can’t possibly be true. But it is. The information comes from Tedros Adhanom, Director General of the World Health Organization.

He spoke today at the World Government Summit in Dubai, and according to his assessment, things are not looking good.

“This is not some future nightmare scenario,” said Tedros (as he prefers to be called by Ethiopian tradition).

“This is what happened exactly 100 years ago during the Spanish flu epidemic.” A hush fell across the audience as he noted that we could see such devastation again, perhaps as soon as today.

Tedros was equal parts emphatic and grave as he spoke: “A devastating epidemic could start in any country at any time and kill millions of people because we are still not prepared. The world remains vulnerable.”

What is the cause of this great vulnerability? Is it our inability to stave off Ebola? Rising incidents of rabies in animal populations? An increased number of HIV and AIDS cases?

No. According to Tedros, the threat of a global pandemic comes from our apathy, from our staunch refusal to act to save ourselves – a refusal that finds its heart in our indifference and our greed.

“The absence of universal health coverage is the greatest threat to global health,” Tedros proclaimed.

As the audience shifted in their seats uncomfortably, he noted that, despite the fact that universal health coverage is “within reach” for almost every nation in the world, 3.5 billion people still lack access to essential health services.

Almost 100 million are pushed into extreme poverty because of the cost of paying for care out of their own pockets.

The result? People don’t go to the doctor. They don’t seek treatment. They get sicker. They die. And thus, as Tedros explained, “the earliest signals of an outbreak are missed.”

Surveillance is one of the most vital forms of protection the world’s public health agencies can offer, but these agencies rely on the money of the governments they serve.

And in the United States, which is presently enduring a flu season of record-breaking severity, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently announced they would be cutting their epidemic prevention programs back by 80 percent.

Programs for preventing infectious diseases, such as Ebola, are being scaled back in 39 of the 49 countries they’ve been employed in, according to The Washington Post.

The reason? Quite simply, governments are pulling money from these programs, and it’s not clear whether any more will ever be allocated – at least, not in the US during the current administration.

It might seem a bit obtuse. But, as Tedros pointed out, too often we “see health as a cost to be contained and not an investment to be nurtured.”

Aside from the obvious – avoiding a global pandemic that ravages humanity – healthy societies are advantageous for reasons that are more economic than epidemiological.

“The benefits of universal health coverage go far beyond health,” Tedros said. “Strong health systems are essential to strong economies.”

We know that the quality of pre- and post-natal care a person receives when a child is born has a direct impact on how soon they’re able to return to work (if they choose to).

If we want our children to grow up healthy enough to become functioning, contributing members of society, then the quality of care they receive from birth throughout childhood can’t be underestimated.

“We do not know where and when the next global pandemic will occur,” Tedros admitted, “but we know it will take a terrible toll both on human life and on the economy.”

While Tedros acknowledged there’s no guarantee we’ll one day create a completely pandemic-free world, what is within our reach – if we have the investment and support – is a world where humans, not pathogens, remain in control.

We can do better. And if most of us are to survive in the long term, we must.

Yesterday, World Leaders Gathered at a Secretive Meeting to Decide the Fate of AI


Today, top individuals from around the world convened at the World Government Summit to discuss the agenda that should govern the next generation of governments. Yesterday, a select few of these leaders gathered in a secretive meeting to discuss the guidelines that nations should use as they help their people come to terms with no longer being the only sentient species on the planet.

Of course, this was just one of the many topics discussed. Officials also deliberated on the most immediate ways they can implement AI technologies to make our lives better, who should govern AI, and how to best navigate the perilous roads ahead.

The event was organized by the AI Initiative from the Future Society at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and H.E. Omar bin Sultan Al Olama, the UAE’s Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence. The goal of the day was a noble one. The closed-door roundtable was intended to lay out guidelines for the global governance of AI — a roadmap for all nations to adopt.

The Evolution of Brain-Computer Interfaces [INFOGRAPHIC]

It was a gathering that attracted some of the most powerful and influential minds in the world. Representatives from IEEE, OECD, and the U.N. Managers from IBM Watson, Microsoft, Facebook, OpenAI, Nest, Drive.ai, and Amazon AI. Governing officials from Italy, France, Estonia, Canada, Russia, Singapore, Australia, the UAE. The list goes on and on.

Futurism was fortunate enough to have exclusive access to the event.

At times, the room was full of inspiration. At others, I found myself wading through the despair that surrounded me. Yet, even when the conversation turned to topics fraught with the most frustration — whether or not it’s possible to ban certain kinds of AI research; if humans could ever take power from truly sentient AI — there was hope.

The day is young. The dawn of AI is just beginning. We yet have time.

When H.E. Omar bin Sultan Al Olama opened the day, it was with great optimism. He addressed the crowd, which included luminaries such as Stuart Russell, Sui Yang Phang, Jaan Tallinn, IBM’s Francesca Rossi, and Amazon’s Anima Anandkuma, saying, “This day is going to change history. Whenever a group of individuals of such diverse backgrounds comes together, great things happen.”

He continued more soberly, noting that the last time the world faced a threat of this consequence, it resulted in the creation of the Manhattan project. But this time, he added, the stakes are higher.

“I’m not trying to be negative, but it has to happen now.”

Throughout the day, the participants reiterated this sentiment: if we do not act now, we lose, and we will lose everything. “I’m not trying to be negative, but it has to happen now,” John C. Havens, Executive Director of the IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems, noted during one break.

Yet, solutions were elusive. The attendees agreed that history has long ago shown us it’s impossible to stymie technological and scientific progress. What becomes banned or over-regulated simply relocates to back alleys and hidden rooms. To avoid this, the attendees agreed, the best option seems to be a dual approach: First, nations must incentivize research in areas that provide the most benefit and least risk to humanity. Second, they must invest heavily in AI research and development. It is thought that, by keeping pace with corporations and innovators, governments will be better positioned to anticipate and prevent any problems along the way.

Once leaders take the time to consider, make sense of, and compile all of the findings from yesterday into a report, the hope is that more concrete and actionable steps will emerge.

Though the day itself ended with few clear answers, the attendees were generally positive. “The number of both technical papers and start-up companies has exploded in recent years,” one attendee offered. “It’s amazing. But we’re still pretty small. We see the same faces at all these conferences. We still have a chance to make solutions.”

Cyrus Hodes, Vice President and Director of the AI Initiative, shared this optimism. “Such a gathering has been much needed and will help the international community embrace the enormously positive impact of AI while at the same time getting prepared to mitigate potential downsides.”

There is, of course, much work ahead. To date, there have been many initiatives, and plenty of talks, but no answers. Our future depends on how soon we find them. The quest has begun.

Michio Kaku Described What Life Will Look Like in Twenty Years


Earlier today, Michio Kaku spoke at the World Government Summit in Dubai. I was fortunate enough to be in the crowd and, like those around me, I was both astonished and alarmed by what he had to say.

The topic at hand? Change.

It seems that each day brings with it a revolution in artificial intelligence, space travel, and DNA, which is the building block of life itself. Though these developments are inspiring, the rapid pace at which science and technology are advancing is sometimes a little disquieting. And according to Kaku, in the next twenty years, things are going to get really weird.

From toilets that read our proteins to walls that talk to us, Kaku painted a staggeringly beautiful (and somewhat comical) picture of the world of tomorrow.

Earth 2.0

Kaku began by noting that, as the years pass, our vernacular will evolve, keeping pace with advances in technology. What does this mean, practically speaking? That we’ll lose “computers.”

No, we won’t literally lose them, but we will lose that term. “The word ‘computer’ will disappear from the English language,” he said, adding that we will no longer say “computer” because the devices will be truly ubiquitous. From our bodies to our streets, everything will be a computer. There will be nothing that is not a computer.

Kaku continued by discussing how 3D printing will change the fabric of our lives, “We are talking about a new world. A world where, if you can imagine it, you can create it.” He described a world where we’re able to custom print shoes or jewelry or any other bit of attire. And he discussed how, if you want a toy for your child, in the world of tomorrow, all you’ll have to do is download it, and it will be ready for printing in your very own living room.

To this end, your house will be more than a place to call home — it will be a tool in and of itself. Oh, and you will also talk to your wallpaper. Wait, what?

Things to Come: A Timeline of Future Technology [INFOGRAPHIC]

“In the future, we will have smartpaper,” Kaku elaborated. This paper will be able to show us any information that we request, just like computer screens do today. And it’s not just that we will talk to our walls, they’ll talk back. To this end, the architecture of our living spaces will be transformed — our walls will become our smartphones, laptops, and TV screens.

Imagine sitting in a chair in your living room, speaking aloud, and rushing yourself off to the farthest corners of the digital world. That sounds remarkable. It also sounds isolating and, perhaps, more than a little lonely.

Of course, technology also has the potential to help us connect with people wide and far. Kaku noted this point, outlining how tech will allow us to exchange thoughts and ideas as never before. “You will be able to talk to people in any language because your contact lenses will translate speech,” Kaku predicted.

Want to take a trip? Regardless of whether you’re going near or far, you won’t own your car; you also won’t drive one. Cars will drive you. You’ll also be able to travel much lighter than you do today because, as was mentioned above, you’ll be able to create most of what you want or need on demand.

For the things we do what to buy, Kaku believes we’re headed toward a future that will be socioeconomically unlike anything we’ve experienced.

“We are building up to something that I call ‘perfect capitalism,’” he said, describing the concept as “eliminating the middlemen, eliminating all the frictions of capitalism.” In this society, Kaku said, “the winner” will be all of society. The losers? The middlemen. The Stockbrokers.

The final, lingering question, then, is — what about us?

“Artificial intelligence may give us something that the kings and queens of old could never conquer: the aging process,” Kaku explained. Things get old and die because they accumulate errors. Once we’re able to use AI to compare millions of genomes from old people to millions of genomes from young people, we will identify precisely where aging takes place. Then, we’ll eradicate it.

It is a pretty picture, to be sure. But is it a picture that is accurate? At the present moment, I’m not entirely positive. Check back in twenty years.

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Science Denial, Political Biases, and Personal Beliefs


It’s no secret that Neil deGrasse Tyson has strong feelings when it comes to the intersection of science and belief. Science, he says, is objective. It’s not something that you believe or do not believe; it’s something that you accept or don’t accept. It remains true regardless of your personal beliefs.

At the opening day of the World Government Summit, which took place this weekend in Dubai, Tyson spoke with Futurism about the current state of our world, why some nations refuse to accept science, and the dire consequences we’ll face if those nations continue to reject the truths science reveals.

When asked about how governments around the world are doing in terms of science, whether they are doing right by their citizens and supporting a sound science education, Tyson said the state of affairs is, sadly, “highly unequal.” He continued by noting that, globally, how much investment there is in science and technology varies according to how much available funds a nation has.

“I think it may be considered a luxury to fund scientific research if it’s not completely obvious how that research will help you,” he told Futurism. Though, as he went on to point out, it’s exactly that kind of inquiry — knowledge for the sake of knowledge — that makes scientific advancement possible. Oftentimes, advances come because of random happenstance.

He’s right: from lasers to electricity to X-rays, scientific developments aren’t always the result of someone knowing exactly what it is they are doing. That often comes far, far later. To that end, Tyson noted that it is important for nations to invest heavily in science whenever and wherever they can, as it always pays in the longrun.

“You cannot care about an economy and not simultaneously take investments in STEM fields very seriously.”

“Innovations in science and technology, we’ve known forever, are the engines of tomorrow’s economy,” Tyson said. “You cannot care about an economy and not simultaneously take investments in STEM fields very seriously.”

The conversation then turned to the situation in the U.S., where the current (and often controversial) sociopolitical climate is having a demonstrable influence on the ability of scientists to make progress in their research.

“One of the problems — I know the United Stated the best — is that most of our government, most of our elective government, stands for reelection every two years,” Tyson said. “So, if there are people coming in that don’t know science or appreciate it or understand it, then we are susceptible to having them cancel a project that might need a ten-year horizon or a twenty-year horizon to bear fruit.”

This, he noted, is obviously a less than ideal situation. To that end, he suggested that, perhaps, nations should have a dedicated budget set aside for research and development — a dedicated budget that is not subject to the whims of each new politician.

When discussing how nations can overcome the hurdle that exists where personal or cultural beliefs meet science — as happens when talking about gene editing, evolution, and a host of other topics — Tyson took a strong stance.

“It’s only a hurdle if your belief system is in denial of objective reality,” he said. “If you have a belief system that wants to say that something that an emergent scientific truth has established is somehow not true, then you should just give up at that point….if you cannot simultaneously allow both to co-exist, and one has to fight the other, you will have problems.”

Fortunately, there are alternatives to giving up. What has happened in the past is belief systems have adapted.

It is easy to see this throughout our history books. Religion used to say Earth was the center of the universe. Religion used to say that evolution was a myth. Some religious individuals may still cling to these beliefs, but many do not. The solution, it seems, is to simply wait for people to accept the objective reality that is presented to them — to let it speak for itself.

True, at times, it seems like deeply ingrained belief systems that contradict or deny scientific fact are unmovable pillars of life in the United States; stumbling blocks to progress that we simply have to put up with. Still, significant progress is being made around the world by countries willing to make a change. Though some may scream “communism,” India and Scotland are experimenting with a basic income. Sweden has taken powerful steps toward becoming carbon neutral, despite the fact that some think climate change is “fake news.” And advances are being made in embryonic stem cells, though they remain controversial.

As Tyson so eloquently explained, humanity is fully capable of shifting its paradigm. The evidence exists throughout history, and in modern times, we just need to remind ourselves that our beliefs can be molded to facts — not just the other way around. Sometimes, it just requires waiting.

“I see some successes and some reverses on successes. I think there are enough countries that recognize that science matters that are up-and-coming that they might be the shining example for other countries that are still trying to debate it — and that’s always a good sign.”

When asked if he was hopeful about the future and government’s ability (or willingness) to change its tune, Tyson laughed. “I’m neutral,” he said, but quickly added, “I see some successes and some reverses on successes. I think there are enough countries that recognize that science matters that are up-and-coming that they might be the shining example for other countries that are still trying to debate it — and that’s always a good sign.”