Future Challenges |


Dr. Roey Tzezana, futurist and adviser to the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, spoke to Cutting Edge about the greatest challenges the world faces today

Brian Blum
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How can the world solve its most vexing challenges? By acting more like Israelis. Thats one of the surprising take-aways from a wide-ranging conversation held with Dr. Roey Tzezana, a futurist and Futures Studies researcher who serves as an adviser to the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation.

Dr. Roey Tzezana

A graduate of the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology with a Ph.D in nanotechnology, Tzezana is a researcher in the Blavatnik Center for Interdisciplinary Cyber Research at Tel Aviv University; a senior analyst at Wikistrat, which calls itself a crowdsourced consultancy; and a co-founder of TeleBuddy, which provides robotic telepresence services for conferences, meetings and events worldwide. He currently lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where his wife is working on her own doctorate.

Coping with overpopulation

We need to create a culture and a society where people arent afraid to disagree, Tzezana asserts. Where they arent afraid to fight over intellectual dominance, to really shout at each other – and later to get up, shake hands and give each other a hug. The time for shouting and hugging has never been more critical, Tzezana stresses: our planet has some substantial challenges to overcome. But Tzezana is an optimist.

When the first World Population Conference was held in Rome in 1954, he notes, they concluded that there was not enough room in the world for more than two billion people. Go past that point and there will be widespread hunger and famine. But none of that happened. Today, we have no idea how many people the Earth can support. Is it 10 billion? 50 billion? 100 billion? The only thing we know for certain is that, as technology keeps on evolving, well be able to take care of more people.

That said, overpopulation is high on Tzezanas list of challenges. We need to provide roofs, food, transportation and medicine for everyone, he explains. This becomes even more important in an age in which, if people are not satisfied with the current state of things, they can blow themselves up or - pretty soon - engineer a virus and suddenly 30% of the worlds population will be infected with something we dont know how to deal with. So we need to make sure that as many people as possible are being taken care of by the system, so that they enjoy a quality of life that will minimize radical beliefs and peoples willingness to act on them.

Tzezana points to Saudi Arabia as an unexpected example of what can be done if a government dedicates the right resources. The king is now paying people to get a college degree in Western universities, he says. Saudi Arabia is well aware that its economy is overly reliant on fossil fuels. They want to develop their own knowledge industry. It might take 20 years, but it will work out well for them.

Blindness to the future

A technology-savvy population can achieve remarkable results. Take climate change, for example. It may seem unstoppable, but things that used to be science fiction ten years ago are now our bread and butter technology today, Tzezana says. People are talking about ways to reabsorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Theyre bio-engineering pigs to reduce the amount of sulfur in their feces.

The prevailing pessimism around climate change particularly irks Tzezana. People say humans are destroying the earth, that theres no sustainability. But 100 years ago, the air was more polluted than it is today. Weve already taken steps to fix many issues.

The pessimism Tzezana rails against is a kind of blindness to the future, he says. Were so bombarded by bad news in the present that we have no awareness of how much worse things used to be – or how much better they can be. Were working on all kinds of new technologies – solar, wind, geothermal. The number of people in the U.S. working in clean energy is now larger than the coal and petroleum sectors.

Tzezana pulls up the latest data that gives him hope. Approximately 90% of people under the age of 15 are literate, he reads. Life expectancy has reached 70 years of age and is expected to keep growing. The proportion of undernourished people in developing regions has dropped by almost 50% in the last 25 years. In 10 years, everyone will be connected to the Internet and will be part of the global ecosystem.

Thats more important than it might sound at first. Most of the technological innovation the world has seen in the last 200 years has come from the west. Imagine if we bring another five billion people into the innovation economy, he muses. This will make for a very exciting future.

Preserving humanity

As more people around the world strive for higher quality lifestyles, good government systems will be required, and its here that Tzezana is especially concerned – and involved.

His latest book, Rulers of the Future, was published in Israel earlier this year (only in Hebrew so far). In the book, Tzezana points out that minimizing terror is actually a challenge of governance. What is an acceptable trade-off between complete openness and freedom – where a teenager in his mothers kitchen can create a bomb using documentation he got from Al Qaeda off the Internet – and the kind of surveillance many countries have put in place?

China, for example, has over 100 million cameras deployed in public spaces, Tzezana points out. They are developing artificial intelligence to go over this information in real time, to identify the criminals. So in five years, if you go to a store in China to buy a hammer, and the next day you buy some rope, and the next day you buy a burlap sack, the system might flag you as having a 50% chance of committing a crime. The police get called to make an arrest.

If that sounds like a scene from the Tom Cruise movie Minority Report, thats the science fiction analogy in action. My tendency is to make people anxious, Tzezana admits. If theyre not anxious, then theyre not thinking about the future. Theyre still thinking about the past.

Looking forward, Tzezana isnt sure democracy will last – and he isnt certain thats necessarily a bad thing. If totalitarian regimes can provide better security and, as a result, greater individual happiness, they may preserve humanity better than democracy.

Not that hes advocating for the fall of democracy. Where theres no possibility of revolt, governments can silence the opposition, he says. We have to remember, though, that our final goal must be the preservation of of sentient life on Earth, and preferably at a certain high state of wellbeing and individual happiness. Nation states have been the tool for doing that so far, bringing together resources and uniting people for achieving important goals. But we must continuously look for more efficient tools to enable that.

Online direct democracy

Does Israel have a special place to play in addressing the worlds greatest challenges? The Jewish State has become well-known for its expertise in water desalination. And weve cracked the formula on how to become an innovation-based society, Tzezana adds.

One trick on the road to innovation: ban suits and ties at conferences, Tzezana says. Can you imagine such a thing? Ties are constricting our creativity. They enforce old ways of thinking, of acknowledging hierarchy. If you want to be a truly innovative society, people must be able to argue and shout at each other – without ties.

The Jewish People may be ideally positioned to make good on another innovation Tzezana is pushing – the creation of online direct democracy that takes the power away from any one person or any one groups hands, decentralizing authority. Think of emerging technologies like those that power the digital currency Bitcoin or file sharing, then apply it to creating, say, peer-to-peer insurance or micro-financing. Thats where Israel comes back into play. Jews are spread out everywhere in the world, Tzezana explains. The Jewish Diaspora is the ultimate proof-of-concept for his global vision of cloud governance.

Its a hopeful message, but one that seems far from what we see in the dysfunctional near-future of todays Peak TV. Be aware that when youre watching shows like Humans or Westworld or Black Mirror or Mr. Robot, youre watching the worst possible future, Tzezana cautions. If we work to mitigate these challenges, the future will be much better than what we see on TV. We demonstrate a lot of those ideas in the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. Its all about [the Jewish concept of] tikun olam – fixing the way things are.

Yossi Vardi looks to the future

Yossi Vardi

Yossi Vardi has been a leading player in the Israeli high-tech scene since 1969, when he started TEKEM Advanced Technology, one of Israels first and largest software houses. But it was his investment nearly 30 years later in a small company called Mirabilis that made him an indelible part of Israels start-up scene. Mirabilis made ICQ, the first instant messaging system for the Internet.

Since then, Vardi is frequently asked for his predictions on where start-ups will be in the coming years. Theres an old Jewish saying, he says, that since the destruction of the Second Temple, prophesy has been given to the fools.

But we asked anyway. Vardi identified several fields that he says will remain (or move toward) center stage in the next decade. Silicon chips are at the top of his list. And why not – chip-maker Intel is Israels largest high-tech company, employing more than 10,000 people. Vardi doesnt see that about to change anytime soon.

Along with chips goes image processing. It started with the military, Vardi notes, but lately has become quite important in the transportation industry. Vardi is thinking about companies like Mobileye (which was recently acquired by Intel) that are fast becoming leaders in the self-driving car space. The bill of materials in a modern car is now 50% electronics, Vardi explains. Its no longer just four wheels, a steering column and an engine. And this needs very strong processing power thats not trivial to build. The car-as-computer will only become more prevalent in the next ten years, Vardi predicts. Which is a good thing for Israel which has always been good at building software as opposed to hardware.

Other areas Vardi expects to remain or get big: video software, medical devices, agricultural technology and drones. Drones belong to the same family as autonomous driving, he points out. With both, you need very fast algorithms to process all the images. Drones are an outgrowth of the army, but Vardi says Israeli high-tech is no longer focused on transforming military products like laser-guided missile systems for consumer uses. It was important in starting the whole thing, and Im sure it was good training for the technologists, but were now much beyond this.

Another area Vardi feels Israel has moved past: fear of a brain drain for economic reasons. People in the creative class are paid the same, whether theyre in Silicon Valley, Europe or Israel. Now they select where to work based on their satisfaction with the overall lifestyle, not just the job.

We asked Vardi if his most famous investment will still be around in another ten years, given that giants like Facebook and Google have all but taken over. ICQ may not be the biggest company in the messaging and communications space, but its a thriving industry. ICQ will continue, he said. And what about Vardi himself? Im 74 now, he says. In ten years Ill be in Kiryat Shaul [a cemetery in the Tel Aviv area]. And I dont have any problem with that. Im realistic. Lets hope thats the one prediction Vardi makes that doesnt come to pass.