About Richard Worzel

I am a futurist, and a professional member of the World Future Society. I make my living by helping corporations and industry associations plan intelligently for the future. I focus on North America, but deal with global issues. My client list includes organizations like Ford, IBM, Bell Canada, Coca-Cola, the U.S. Navy, the National Research Council, and many others.

The services I offer are tailored to the needs of the client, but fall into the following major areas: Keynote Speeches, Workshops and Seminars, and Innovation Sessions. Companies can also ask me to work with their planning groups on an on-going basis, or for a specific part of their planning cycle. I have also been asked to assess companies in which a client is considering making an investment, especially in technology companies where I may have some familiarity with the field.

Please use the menu above to access various information on this Blog or for more information please take a moment to visit my main website at: www.futuresearch.com.

Groups or companies wishing to know more about any of my services should contact me by e-mail at futurist@futuresearch.com, or call 1-416-489-4511.

I look forward to any feedback or questions you may have.

Below you will find the most recent additions to my blog….

“How Can I Help My Kid Get a Job?”

by senior futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

Virtually everyone knows people who are unemployed or underemployed. This is especially true of young adults, although there are also lots of older people, even in their 50s and 60s, who are in similar situations.

This wasn’t true in earlier eras, specifically the periods from about 1950 until the 1980s. If someone finished high school, or even dropped out, and wanted to work, their older brother, a neighbor, or friend would say, “Come on down to the factory with me. I’ll speak to the foreman, and we’ll get you a job.” People coming out of college or university in the 1960s and 1970s would typically have several companies lined up, waiting to hire them. And anyone who truly wanted a job could find one.

This isn’t the case today, and it’s going to get worse. And contrary to the current political fashion to blame unfair foreign competition and international trade agreements, most of the problems today come from the rise of automation, and how machines are taking jobs that used to be done by people. Moreover, this is happening at a steadily accelerating pace. (See our earlier blog, The Beginning Death Cycle of the Consumer, for more details.)

As a result, for many years one of the most consistent questions I had from individuals who have heard me speak at a conference is the one I quoted as the title of this blog, some variation of “How can I help my kid get a job?”

I’ve also heard this directly from young people. I was recently the featured speaker at a celebration of Fanshawe College’s 50th anniversary, at which they asked me to speak about what was coming to post-secondary education over the next 50 years. Afterwards, a young lady, who was currently enrolled at Fanshawe, came up to me and said she had a number of friends who had graduated, and were unable to find useful employment. She wanted to know what I could tell her that might help her find a job.

I got an analogous question the following week at a conference where I was speaking about the future of electric power utilities (See Deadly Shock: The Coming Devastation of Power Utilities), only this time from the father of a young man who, although highly qualified and holding a useful degree, couldn’t find steady, full-time employment.

So let me first trace the reasons why this is happening, and then look at what individuals of any age, but especially people in their 20s and 30s, can do about it.

What’s the Problem? Where Are the Jobs?

It was true that jobs were lost during the rapid rise of the Chinese, Indian, and other rapidly developing economies, but that was largely in the latter decades of the 20th Century. Today, while some shifts in employment happen because of emerging new players, more recently in Latin America and Africa, there isn’t the wholesale loss of jobs to foreign competitors that there was earlier.

Now most of the job loss is implicitly because of the march of Moore’s Law, i.e., the rapid acceleration of cost-effective computing. Add to this the emergence of more sophisticated computing techniques, things like neural networks and Deep Learning, evolutionary algorithms and Genetic Programming (a software technique), and more, and it’s easy to see that computers are getting much smarter as well as much faster. All of this has been rather sloppily labeled “Artificial Intelligence”, or AI.

The result is that automation, both as smart computers, and as robots in the physical world, is rapidly eating its way up the workplace food chain, displacing more and more people from routine work. And not all of this work is blue collar, either. Indeed, dealing with the real world, which is typically what happens in blue-collar work, is actually pretty messy and unpredictable, which makes it harder to automate. Today it is white-collar work, such as accounting and legal research, that’s more likely to be automated.

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the financial panic of 2008 and the Great Recession of 2009-10, companies have been exceptionally cautious, and thus have been slow to hire workers back, and slow to invest in new plant and equipment. In response, consumer demand has been slow to recover – the workers who have not been hired back are less likely to splurge on new purchases. This has led to a vicious cycle: companies didn’t hire because consumer demand was weak, and consumers didn’t buy because employment was hard to find.

It’s only now, in the 10th year after the panic of 2008 that something like full employment has been achieved in America, and even today much of this is due to the number of people who have given up looking for work, which technically takes them out of the labor force. (Someone who has given up looking for work is not counted as being unemployed.)

So today companies are, in aggregate, sitting on large amounts of cash at a time when robots and smart computers are offering the opportunity to make a one-time purchase to get a job done rather than paying an employee every week or month. And as computers and robots become steadily more flexible and more capable, the range of jobs available to humans will continue to shrink.

And having even a modest percentage of people who are desperate for work gives employers a big advantage, allowing them to offer less in pay, security, and benefits to almost everyone by playing workers off against each other. This increases profits, and also creates even more people who are eager to accept less than they want in order to be employed, leading to a ever-more precarious employment.

All of which brings us to back the opening question: What can a person do to find a job?

How Can I Find a Job?

Over the years, due to being asked this and similar questions repeatedly, and after having given it a lot of thought, I tend to offer a range of suggestions:

1) Stop looking for a paycheck – The world is changing, and many people who might have been employed in earlier decades may find that they have to create their own paycheck by running their own business. Indeed, regardless of whether you sign your own paycheck, or someone else does, you are going to be responsible for managing your career. And this means making sure you have skills that the world wants, and can find a way of making sure you get paid for it. This is not easy, but may be the best solution for you.

But beyond this, thinking that you have to find a job, that you have to have someone else pay you, is limiting. It pushes your thinking towards the perspective that you need to have a job, or else you have nothing. This kind of thinking may lead you to a dead-end, retail greeter-type of job, if you can even find one.

Instead, the question you should be asking yourself is: How can I create an income stream?

2) Why should you pay someone to sign your paycheck? – If someone employs you, it’s because you can produce enough to justify your employment. That means you need to be able to compensate your employer not only for your paycheck, but also for all of the overhead, office space, accounting, legal form filing, and the rest of the stuff that goes into having employees. As well, an employer is essentially guaranteeing to pay you on a regular basis, so they need to be compensated for that assurance as well. And if you’re working with a for-profit company, you have to produce a profit for your employer, or else there’s no reason for them to have you on staff.

All of this is perfectly normal and ethical, but it does beg the question: If you are worth more than your paycheck, is there a way you could capture that “more” for yourself instead of paying it to an employer?

The answer may be no. If you are a natural born salesperson of oil tankers, for instance, it may be hard for you to set up shop for yourself. If you are a gifted accountant, able to manage the books and the forward financial planning for a multinational corporation, you need a multinational corporation to do that for. You may need someone else to complement your talents and abilities, or to provide a large organizational context that allows you to do what you are best at doing. But before you come to that as a final conclusion, ask yourself if there isn’t a way you could do that by working at arms-length for an organization that needs your talents rather than becoming an employee.

Another perfectly legitimate reason for being an employee is that you are unwilling to take the risk of running your own business, of going it alone. As someone who has run their own consultancy for almost 40 years, and gone through some pretty lean times, I can tell you that it can be very scary when there’s no money coming in the door, no clients at the other end of the phone. But, on the other hand, it’s pretty scary being unemployed for a long period of time, too.

It may be that being employed is what you really want and need, but at least consider other possibilities.

3) Don’t just look at the world, look at what’s inside of you – A question that I get related to the primary question is: What kind of jobs have the best prospects? That’s a useful question, but you need to complement it by asking: Am I likely to be good at that, and would I want to invest at least part of my life doing that?

Looking outside yourself is useful, in part because it gives you a sense of what the world is willing to pay to have done. But don’t stop there. You should also look inside and ask yourself: What talents and abilities do I have that are worthwhile, and that the world might be willing to pay for. And also: What do I want to build my life around doing? You want to create a life, as well as afford to live.

So, by all means, research what’s hot, what occupations are growing, and where is there a crying need for people, but don’t stop there. You’re looking for something that fits both you and the world’s needs. Which brings me to my next principle.

4) What are you passionate about? – In a global economy, you’re going to be competing with the best people in the world in any field, so in many ways your best bet is to do what you are best at. Most of the time, that’s also what you are most passionate about, so ask yourself: What do I really, really want to do for a living? This can be a surprisingly difficult question to answer. We are so used to settling for what seems possible after a lifetime of being told that we can’t have what we really want that we lose the ability to even recognize what we really, really want.

Yet, being passionate about something, and being really good at it, isn’t enough. You also have to invent an answer to the question: How can I create a reason why the world should pay me to do what I love doing?

I have a friend from my university days who is an artist. Whenever we’re together, he has a tendency to rail against society, and how it doesn’t do enough to support the arts, by which he means that the world doesn’t do enough to support him. Whether he’s right that society should do more to support the arts (and him) or not doesn’t matter. It only matters whether society will do more – and it’s pretty clear that the answer is no.

You have to invent a reason, a method, a structure, an excuse, or a mechanism to entice the world to pay you for doing what you are good at doing. No one is going to do that for you.

This can be difficult, but it’s a step that you must take.

5) Become multi-talented – Even if you focus on your passion and greatest strength, whatever it is, there will be plenty of competition from others with similar strengths. An important way to improve your competitive position is to have more than one strength, to offer a range of complementary skills.

Hence, a passionate and talented graphic artist will find herself up against bunches of other talented and passionate graphic artists, but one who can write good marketing copy as well will have an advantage. And the more complementary skills you have, and the more versatile you are, the better the potential is to improve your competitive position.

6) What else do you need? – Whether you decide to sign your own paycheck, or have someone else do it for you, you will, as I said above, still need to accept responsibility for your own career – or else you may be caught off-guard when your job is eliminated, or you are “outsourced”, or whatever the current euphemism is for being fired, let go, or laid off.

And if you accept responsibility for managing your own career, you should ask yourself: What else do I need?

Beyond this, if you have identified your passion, and know your greatest strengths, you are half way to also identifying what you’re not especially good at. And if you accept, as I said above, that you need to invent a reason why the world should pay you to do what you are passionate about, then you probably have a pretty good idea, in rough terms, what would be necessary for that to happen.

I’m not particularly good at marketing myself, for instance, which is often true with people who sell their own services. I find it hard to tell people why I’m the greatest thing since sliced pineapple, and why they should shell out big bucks just to have me around. The ways that I’ve learned to deal with this are two-fold.

First, I’ve worked hard at developing groups of people who are willing to market my services. They work on commission, but they are good at marketing, and they spend their days thinking about who might find my (and, I admit, other peoples’) services useful. And they have no qualms telling people just how wonderful I am, and why people should pay me a lot of money – and them a justifiable commission out of that.

And second, I’ve worked at learning how I can make it easier for such people to market my services. I’ve also worked hard at getting better at what I do, and finding out how I can add more value to those organizations that engage me to work with them. And as part of that, I’ve also studied both marketing and sales techniques, and have learned ways of helping myself help potential clients see what value I can bring to the table.

Likewise, you need to figure out what you aren’t good at, but need, then find ways of filling those needs. It may be that you need people to market your services. It may be that you need to learn things, like accounting and tax management, that you wouldn’t necessarily choose to learn, but which are going to be important if you are going to succeed. If you’re an introvert, you may need to learn how to be outgoing when warranted. If you’re an extrovert, you may need to learn how to be quiet and listen when your clients speak.

Very, very few people form a complete package, so figure out what else you need, then find a way to get it.

7) Be in front of the right door at the right time with the right stuff –  The Pixar movie Monsters, Inc. describes a community of monsters who generate power by scaring children. They leap from their community to a specific child’s bedroom by means of movable doors (dimensional portals, I guess – we’re never really told). But to get to scare a specific child at a particular time, a monster has to be in front of the right door, at the right time, and with the right stuff.

Finding work, whether you are job hunting or beating the bushes for work for your own business, involves the same thing. One of the most common problems is you can be in front of the right door with the right stuff, but it’s not the right time. Finding the right time is difficult, and about the only way I’ve ever found for solving this one is to check in with that door (i.e., client or employer) not once, but several times.

Of course, you don’t want to become a pest, someone people avoid, so make sure you have a reasonable excuse for calling back, and permission to do so. If I check with a client who says they like what I do, but aren’t in the market right now, I’ll say something like, “Fair enough. Would it be OK if I checked back with you in 2-3 months?” Mostly they’ll say yes, which gives me permission to do so. If they say no, then I’ll say something like, “When would be a good time for me to check back with you?”

Another way of doing this is to send them something you believe they might find of interest from time-to-time, or that might be valuable to them, and then follow up with more information. And while you’re chatting with them, you can ask if anything has changed.

Make sure you are sensitive to how they respond to speaking with you more than once. You want to be regarded as a resource, not a pest.

8) Find people who can help you – This is a natural outgrowth of point 6, and it particularly applies to your network, as well as the network of people that people in your network know.

Working your network can help you find the right door to be in front of, and when that happens, make sure you’re there at the right time, with the right stuff, even if you have to disrupt the rest of your life to be there. And if they say they haven’t got anything for you, keep working the network by asking them if they happen to know anyone who is looking for someone like you.

If they say no, there’s no harm done. If they say yes, then call that person right away and say, “Hi, I was just talking to Joe Smith, and he thought you might be interested in …” and then go into your elevator speech. (The elevator speech is your finest honed and practiced presentation of what you offer that can be delivered in a single breath, and can be finished before you can be interrupted, or they get out at their floor of the elevator.)

But the right people can be mentors, too.

Early in my career, I developed a relationship with a head-hunter (personnel recruiter). He made his living by finding a range of capable people with different abilities to fit specific careers for his clients. I worked with him in a couple of ways. First, I made sure I stayed in touch with him, and kept him apprised of what I was doing, and any new skills or accomplishments I had. As a result, I found he would often include me in a group of potential candidates for a wider range of jobs than I might otherwise have seen. Sometimes I was just padding to provide a range of options for the client. That never bothered me because it gave me a broader range of exposure than I would have had on my own. And you never knew when you might be a surprise fit for a position.

And second, whenever we got together and talked, I tried to learn from him as his perspective on what organizations would pay to have people do was different from my own, and his experience much deeper in many areas than mine. He was older than I was, and was happy to do this, partly out of a sense of mentorship, but also as a potential investment in someone who might one day might earn him a commission on a position he had been hired to fill.

And that became a valuable insight for me: I tried to make sure that any relationship benefitted both parties, that I gave things of value to people with whom I worked and people I met, so that they would come to value their relationship with me.

But sometimes what the other person receives may not be something they can put in the bank. I’ve had a number of mentors through my career, and have mentored some others as I got older. What my mentors received (I hope), is a sense of satisfaction that someone they felt was worthwhile has benefited from something they knew or help they were able to give. Likewise, I’ve been on the receiving end of this kind of feeling by being a mentor. Benefits don’t have to be financial to be valuable.

9) Be persistent – About three years before I started working as a professional speaker, I was approached by a very successful, national speakers’ agency. They had heard of me, and wanted to meet with me to see if I had potential as a speaker. I met one of their agents over coffee, and outlined to her what I thought I could bring to an event as a speaker. She thanked me warmly when we finished, and left.

I heard back later that they didn’t think I had much potential as a speaker – or, as they rather more diplomatically put it, I wasn’t a “good fit” for their agency.

What they didn’t realize was that they had made me aware of something that I wanted to do, and thought I would be good at doing. Something I could be passionate about. So when something else I did opened the door to professional speaking again, I charged through it. It was hard going for the first couple of years, but I had learned by that stage in my life that persistence is a cardinal virtue in careers as well as business, so I kept at it.

This has been expressed in many, many business clichés, such as the popular saying “Keep on keepin’ on”, or “Persistence is will power and desire combined. Persistence is steel determination.[1]”, attributed to Warren Buffet, or, perhaps most famously, Ray Kroc’s comment:

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan press on has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.[2]

You may have to detour for a while, or do something else to pay the bills for a while, but if you persist, your odds of succeeding at what you want go way up, whether it’s securing a specific kind of job, or creating your own business.

And, by the way, over the years I have done tens of thousands of dollars worth of business with the speakers’ agency that told me I had no potential as a speaker. We all laugh when I remind them of that.

10) Play Against the Machines’ Weaknesses, Not Their Strengths – If automation is eating its way up the food chain, and you don’t want to be part of its lunch, then you need to figure out what you’re good at that the machines are not.

As I said earlier, machines aren’t good at messy things. For example, there’s a burger-making robot, which is now being marketed by Momentum Machines. It’s very fast, producing 360 hamburgers an hour. It’s consistent. And it takes less floor space than a human hamburger flipper. But it needs to have a human load the ingredients, and fix any problems that crop up. It also wouldn’t be very good at dealing with an irate customer. So, yes, robots are good at repetition – but not very good at the messy bits around the edges, especially if they require judgment, or involve novel situations not contemplated in the machines’ programming.

Fundamentally, machines, whether robots or smart computers, are good at learning and doing routine things, and then repeating them. So the jobs that are going to be at greatest risk are going to be those where you are doing the same things over and over again. And it doesn’t matter whether this repetition happens every day, every week, or every year. If your job involves repeating a process over and over, you are in danger of seeing your work automated.

All routine work is under siege, and may eventually be automated. So what does that leave? Well, obviously, non-routine work, and there are two primary kinds of that.

The first kind is messy, like the real world is messy, as I described with the Burger ’Bot. The real world is messier and more complicated than robots are capable of dealing with outside of their neatly defined areas of competence. As a result, humans may be able to keep automation at bay in messy, real world situations, especially those that require coming up with new answers to old questions, or dealing with situations that haven’t arisen before.

Which brings me to my second kind of non-routine work: creative, innovative work, work that is different every day, and in which you are constantly learning and doing new things.

So, in your consideration of what you want to do, look for ways of introducing constant change to your work by continually learning how to do new things, and how to do old things better.

Which means that the old business cliché, “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” is now broken. Fix it by constantly reinventing yourself and what you do.

11) Co-opt the competition – The working world is going to be a more difficult, and less forgiving place. At the same time, because things are changing so quickly, it also offers more opportunities for those able to see and grasp them. And if automation is part of the competition, then one way of dealing with that is to co-opt it.

Look at what computers and robots can do, and think about what you could do with computers and robots, how you could employ them, that would make you more valuable.

This may be easier if you are working for yourself – or it may be that you can become the office tech guru by introducing new technologies that can give your organization a more productive edge.

If you can’t beat ’em, co-opt them.

12) Ignore your parents (or your past) – Perhaps the thorniest lesson may be that the lessons of the past may actually be harmful to your future. And for parents, this may be particularly difficult: the things that worked for you probably won’t work for your kids. So my final principle is: Don’t listen to your parents. It was different in their day, and what worked for them probably won’t work for you.

Or, if you’ve been in the workplace for quite some time, be willing to forget the past. What brought you success then may not bring you success now. Continuing to do what you always did may lead to dead ends. Instead, learn about the marketplace as it is now rather than remembering how it was when you first broke into the workplace. A sense of amnesia may be very valuable.

And good luck.

[1] http://www.evancarmichael.com/library/harriette-blye/What-Is-The-Value-Of-Persistence.html

[2] http://www.searchquotes.com/search/Ray_Kroc_Nothing_Takes_The_Place_Of_Persistence/

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Preparing for Trumpian Uncertainty

by senior futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

The victory of Donald Trump as president of the United States is without precedent, and creates enormous uncertainty. Will his qualifications as a businessman transfer to management of the world’s largest economy? Will his policies work as advertised? Will his advisors be up to the task?

We don’t know, and uncertainty is something that businesspeople despise, and investors flee from. So, how should you cope with the uncharted economic waters in which we find ourselves?

As it happens, this is precisely the kind of situation where scenario planning offers the greatest benefits. The future will inevitably catch us all by surprise. Those who will do best out of it are those who recover fastest when the unexpected happens, and who respond most constructively with the shortest delay.

With that in mind, let’s consider three of the major scenarios that we should consider, as well as the contingency plans we might make for each.

Scenario 1: Trump’s Triumph

Trump’s supporters believe that his understanding of business will lead to lower regulation, productive and much-needed investments in public infrastructure, and a devotion to leveling the playing field in terms of trade. Businesses will respond by loosening their purse strings and investing in new plant, equipment, and staff. As a result, Trump’s supporters believe that the economy will boom, corporate profits will grow, and Americans will be better off.

In that scenario, companies should be planning how best to profit from the boom times ahead. They should be making investments in productivity enhancements and key personnel, and they should be preparing their finances to expand. Investors should identify sectors, industries, and companies that will benefit, and shift their portfolio balances to reflect these projections.

Scenario 2: Trump’s Tragedy

Trump’s detractors believe he will produce a disaster. His lack of understanding of macroeconomics and the nuances of fiscal and monetary policy will lead to a short-term boom with rapidly rising inflation & interest rates, bloated government deficits, and rising government indebtedness. His beggar-thy-neighbor trade policies will precipitate a trade war, leading to a global recession. His amateurish foreign policy will lead to a series of global crises, scaring investors and citizens alike. And poorly regulated industries, especially in finance, will lead to another 2008-style financial panic.

In that scenario, companies should prepare for the worst, husband their cash, take a flinty-eyed look at their cost structures, and eliminate products lines, operations, and staff that are not productive. Investors should retreat to defensive positions, emphasizing cash with some investments in gold and precious metals as an insurance policy against serious disaster.

Scenario 3: Trump’s Irrelevance

The Trump Administration’s actions turn out to have more PR value than economic impact, with the result that the economy continues to muddle along as it has been doing for some time. Growth continues, but at a modest pace. Corporate profits grow, but slowly. The recovery continues in what seems like a modest Goldilocks pattern of slow, but steady, growth.

If that happens, then companies should continue as they are now, being cautious but open to making new investments in plant, equipment, and personnel as demand requires. Investors should be sensitive to the already full valuations of stocks, and the potential downside risks of bonds, and be selective in their choices.

The Critical Issues

There are other, more extreme scenarios on both the upside and the downside that I haven’t delineated, and that are of lower probabilities. The point is not to try to cover all possibilities, but to assess probable futures. Right now, nobody knows what to expect so it is more than worthwhile to game out the major possibilities. Indeed, the first, and most critical, decision is to consider more than a single possible future. None of the scenarios you sketch out will be 100% accurate, but the exercise of considering possibilities will stretch your mind, broaden your field of vision, and cause you to consider both what might happen, how it might happen, and what you could or should do about the range of events that could occur.

And whatever scenarios you consider, don’t expect to be completely correct. The future may be different in minor details, or you might not have correctly assessed the right probabilities and the future may be wildly different. But just thinking about ranges of probabilities is a worthwhile exercise.

The second critical decision is what indicators, or Distant Early Warning signs you should be watching. How could you tell if one scenario was emerging rather than the others? What should you watch so you can be warned as early as possible? Just keeping an eye on developments with the intention of trying to identify which scenario will be closest to being right is valuable because it helps you identify things that don’t fit with one scenario or another – and may not fit with any of them. Watching the future with intent can be extremely valuable in assessing the future.

Or, to put it another way, if you don’t watch what’s going on, you will inevitably be caught by surprise, more so than if you are assessing and gauging what’s going on, and trying to decide where it’s taking us.

So take advantage of the tools provided by scenario planning. We are entering a period without precedent, and those who are prepared for the things that catch everyone else by surprise will benefit most from the changes to come.

There’s a rule in the field of future studies: Someone always benefits from change. Let it be you.

© Copyright, IF Research, January 2017.

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The Beginning Death Cycle of the Consumer

by senior futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

“There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done…
Nothing you can make that can’t be made”

– “All You Need Is Love”, Lennon & McCartney

Our own brilliance and ingenuity is putting us out of work.

In some ways, one of the most insidious problems we are facing is the disappearance of meaningful work. Not having meaningful work is soul-destroying for a number of reasons, but two in particular. Not being able to provide for yourself and your family erodes your sense of self-worth and self-confidence. And not having anything meaningful to occupy your time and attention can lead to a loss of purpose and meaning. It’s why newly retired people often die shortly they quit work.

The gradual dwindling of meaningful work has been happening for decades, but is now accelerating. Mostly, it’s happened for two reasons: foreign competition, and domestic automation.

Foreign competition – the migration of jobs to developing countries like China, India, and others, where the workers do effectively the same work for a fraction of the cost – has been much discussed, and continues to receive a lot of attention (although much of this is disguised as discussions about trade rather than work). I’ve discussed this before, and will again. Now, though, I’d like to focus on domestic automation.

The Rise of the Robots

It’s clear to me that eventually robots and computer intelligences will be able to do almost anything that humans can do, and do it better, faster, and cheaper. The science fiction writers of the first half of the 20th Century saw this as leading to a utopia, where everyone lived as they wished, free of the drudgery and toil of back-breaking labor. Indeed, I still get asked about this future quite regularly. I call it the “George Jetson future.”

George Jetson, of the animated TV show “The Jetsons”, was employed by Spacely Sprockets to fly into his office sometime around 11 a.m., and sit with his feet up on his desk until noon. Then, when the noon lunch whistle went, he would push a button in the middle of his desk, and go home for the day. That’s the old science fiction utopia.

No one thought to ask: If all George Jetson does is push a button when the noon whistle sounds, why do we need to employ George Jetson? Once you ask that question, the answer becomes obvious: you don’t. And that answer leads to the world we are living in today, rather than the George Jetson future.

Machine learning, coupled with the continuing acceleration of computing power and the increasing sophistication and subtlety of computer techniques, is rapidly creating machines that can learn new tasks, and perfect them, slowly at first, but at a rapidly accelerating pace. Moreover, this is happening in many fields, with each one perhaps using a different set of techniques. Anyone who cares to do even casual research can verify that this is happening, and in a growing number of areas of what used to be human work.

That doesn’t mean that we are creating a race of humanoid robots that look, talk, think, and act like humans, only better. Robots will come in many shapes, and with differing abilities and specialties. And computer intelligences will be focused on specific tasks, rather than being able to do a little of everything, as humans do. But collectively, the result is a range of robots and computers that are smarter, faster, and can do a growing number of things more cheaply than humans.

The Neo-Luddites vs. the Technologists

This leads us to a very old debate, dating back at least to 1811[1], when textile workers rebelled against the mechanical automation of weaving and spinning machines in often violent protests. These people were called Luddites because they were believed to be followers of one Ned Ludd, who was reputed to have smashed such equipment in protest. The term Luddite is still widely used, and generally applied to people who are stuck in the past, and rail against beneficial automation. Their argument, then and now, is that machines are eliminating human jobs, and hence the advance of such machinery should be stopped.

On the opposite side of the debate are people who have no such catchy label, but which, for convenience, I will call the Technologists. Their argument, which has been right for the last two hundred years, is that as automation eliminates bad, old jobs that rely on repetitive actions and backbreaking labor. As a result, automation increases productivity, which decreases the cost of goods and services produced. In turn, this increases the standard of living by leaving people more money to buy more goods and services, and, along the way, creates new jobs by increasing demand. And as a result of this rising demand, new jobs are created that are better paying, offer better working conditions, and greater hope for advancement.

In essence, new, better jobs are built on the rubble of bad, old jobs. And for the past two hundred years this has been proven to be correct.

But it may not be as true today, and it certainly won’t be true in the future. Automation still increases productivity, which still lowers the prices of goods and services. That still increases the standard of living – but only for those who are gainfully employed, and have the money to buy things, and that’s where the Technologists’ argument is finally breaking down.

Automation Escapes the Factory Floor

As computers have become more powerful, and more sophisticated, they are displacing workers in jobs that not only involve muscle power, but now, increasingly, white collar workers and professionals that are involved in repetitive tasks involving thinking and judgment.

IBM’s Watson computer system is perhaps the best known, and possibly the most advanced, of such systems. Watson became famous in 2011 for defeating the two human champions of Jeopardy!, the television game show that makes use of the eccentricities of human language, in a three-day match. IBM’s purpose in creating Watson was to produce a machine-learning system that could understand human language, absorb enormous amounts of information, and come up with answers, based on weighted probabilities, to certain kinds of questions. The first area, for instance where Watson was applied was in medical diagnostics, starting with certain kinds of cancers that are difficult to diagnose.

Doctors are not being replaced by Watson, but their work is being supported, and, if you want to be cynical about it, double checked by Watson’s diagnostic abilities, especially in particularly complex diagnoses.

BakerHostetler, one of America’s largest legal firms with over 900 lawyers, recently engaged the services of ROSS[2], a computer application which was developed by a company called ROSS Intelligence. ROSS makes use of Watson to perform legal research for law firms like BakerHostetler. ROSS provides extensively researched legal briefs that have been described as impressive, and gets progressively better as the lawyers that use its output accept or criticize with the material it presents them. As a result, BakerHostetler won’t need to hire anywhere near as many new lawyers or articling students. And ROSS will continue to get better and better as time goes on.

Accountants and tax preparers are finding that the routine aspects of their work is increasingly being done by computer systems, which means we need fewer accountants and tax preparers.

Customer service representatives (“CSRs”) that answer phone systems are increasingly being replaced by computer systems of growing sophistication that can answer most routine questions or problems, and refer the rest to human CSRs, thus reducing the number of humans required.

Nor are office workers and professionals the only ones being affected. Restaurants are looking at computers and robots to replace minimum wage workers, both for taking orders (as is starting to happen at McDonalds[3]), as well as for cooking food (as with the robot burger-maker made by Momentum Machines[4]).

But What About the New, Better Jobs?

But what about the new, better jobs that Technologists say are created, that offer higher pay and more opportunity? Well, some of that is happening, but it’s no longer as certain as it was in the past.

New jobs are being created, but they tend to come in two varieties. High-level jobs are being created that pay well, but they tend to require exceptional levels of specialization, plus high levels of education, usually including a college degree, and often requiring post-graduate qualifications as well. That immediately excludes the large majority of the population without qualifications beyond high school, as well as those with the wrong kinds of college degrees, or without the particular specialization required.

Worse, the shelf-life of such jobs is growing shorter as the pace of change accelerates. Hence, today’s high-level, well-paying job may disappear within less than five years, and possibly less than two.

As a result, while new jobs are being created, they offer less job security than in the past. And once one of these jobs disappears, the person thrown out of work often does not have skills that match up with the even newer jobs created. This can make them as unemployable as a displaced auto worker. And if you look at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics chart below, you can see the net effect: fewer and fewer people of working age are employed, reversing a trend established after World War II. (Note that the recent upward blip is a cyclical response to the improving U.S. economy, and doesn’t represent a reversal of this long-term secular trend.)

U.S. Participation Rate
(Percentage of Working Age Population in the Labor Force)Part rateSource: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

The second kind of new jobs that are being created are low-paying service jobs, typically called McJobs. Even people with high-level skills can wind up taking these kinds of jobs simply because they no longer have skills that match up with today’s jobs. And, as mentioned earlier, these McJobs are also being whittled away.

What Happens Next?

What happens next is a question that has a number of different answers.

First and most directly, automation is going to continue to eat its way up the employment food chain, replacing more and more workers, and in increasingly complex and sophisticated kinds of work. Indeed, I would suggest that any kind of routine work will be automated sooner or later. Hence, if your job involves doing the same thing, or similar things, over and over again, you are at risk of being replaced by a computer intelligence or robot, regardless of whether you are on the factory floor, do white collar work in an office, flip burgers, write music or novels, or are a professional doing work that requires extensive post-graduate training. If your work is repetitive, you risk being replaced.

But if almost all routine work is replaced, what does that leave?

What’s left is mostly non-routine work, or creative, innovative work. This is harder to replace because each day is unique, and tomorrow’s work often doesn’t exist until you define it. This is difficult because you are constantly inventing the future, and figuring out new reasons why your clients (or your boss) will want to keep paying you. Most, but not all, of my work falls into this category, for instance.

And I would argue that all work done by humans in the future will either be creative in some way, or you will be working with, most likely serving, people who want to be served by humans, not machines. Hence, high-end restaurants are likely to retain human servers and human chefs because the patrons don’t want to pay fancy prices for a romantic dining experience, for example, only to be served by a robot.

Likewise, computers are likely to do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to medical diagnostics, which involves sifting through large amounts of often contradictory data, but those aspects of medical care that require a human touch – a bedside manner, or even compassion, if you will – will continue to be done by humans.

Hence, it may be that nurses are more likely to have job security than many doctors. But doctors will still be critical to health care because of their awareness of the human elements of patient care, and people want to know that a competent human is in charge, much as airplane passengers want to know that there’s a human pilot in the cockpit. The maitre d’, or concierge of an upscale restaurant, hotel, or nightclub might also fall into this category.

Artists and crafts people who make unique objects (paintings, sculpture, furniture, woodwork, and so on) involving great skill will largely be immune, especially in the case of objects that have a certain snob appeal. For instance, you are unlikely to be willing to pay as much for a copy of a great painting, made by a very skillful robot, as you are for the original, painted by a great painter.

Would you be willing to buy a novel that’s a great read for an airplane if it was written by a computer? I suspect the answer is yes, but I also doubt if computers will be able to write great literature, or come up with truly original ideas.

So, job security will come in three primary forms: those that involve doing new things most of the time (which has its own insecurities); those involving products that are themselves the result of great creativity, especially where there is a cachet in owning something that is made by a specific human, typically an artist or craftsperson; and those where a human touch or human service is particularly prized or important. In other words, our salvation in the face of automation will be the things that make us uniquely human.

But stop a moment: do our current education and employment systems recognize the need for such humanity and creativity? Are we helping the workers of today and tomorrow improve their chances of employment? Not from what I can see. It seems to me that we are still running schools based on 20th Century, mass-production models of education and employment, and pushing people to seek jobs that may have limited shelf lives.

So everyone’s job is at risk if it’s based on repetition. Which brings us to the other major aspect of what happens next.

The Backlash

In some ways, I’m surprised there hasn’t already been more of a backlash against the machine. Yet, there are explanations why it hasn’t happened so far.

First, this is a gradual change that has been happening slowly up until now. But now the pace of change is accelerating as technology accelerates.

Next, the job losses to automation are buried in other effects, such as the high unemployment that occurred during the Great Recession of 2009-10, and the gradual recovery as the economy has improved since then. These effects, which are well-known going into, and coming out of, recessions tend to get talked about because they are familiar. By comparison, displacement of humans by machines at the speeds I’m beginning to see is a new thing, and people have to notice it before it gets much attention. That, too, is changing as the effects become more evident, especially as robots in particular are sexy, and make good media copy.

Then again, the job losses to foreign competition have garnered major headlines for so long that there’s a natural tendency to ascribe similar changes to the same cause. It’s just easier to do that than to dig up a new reason and verify it.

As well, employers don’t make a big deal about replacing humans with automation. They know it makes them look bad in the media, even though it may make their financial results look good. Plus the political effect of automation is to improve the position of the so-called 1%, who own the machines, at the expense of the 99%. The rich and powerful tend to have great economic, marketing, and political clout.

And one final reason why this hasn’t garnered more attention yet: people who are out of work tend to have other things to worry about than commenting on socio-economic changes. They’re worried about being able to pay the bills, and about finding another job. And they and their views tend to be discounted as they are relatively powerless, and may even be deemed unimportant in our society.

But eventually, people will take notice of the encroachment of the machines, and how it is affecting them, their families, or their friends and neighbors in a significant way. It’s at that point that a backlash will start.

Indeed, we may already be seeing a bit of a backlash. In supermarkets, shoppers often line up to be checked out by a human cashier than go to the (admittedly balky and difficult) self-check-out machines. Some telecom companies are going back to humans to field service calls over the phone, and making marketing hay out of it.

Whether this is just because the technology isn’t good enough yet or not is unclear. But there are times when people don’t want to deal with a machine. And I believe that we will start to see slogans along the lines of “We don’t buy from machines!” I expect that there will be a movement against machines comparable to the movement against GMO foods.

The effects of replacing humans with machines are great, and growing. Robots and smart computers can often replace a human for a one-time cost that is equal to, or less than, one year’s wages for a human. As that cost continues to come down, and as the capabilities of robots and computer intelligences continues to grow at accelerating rates, the case for robots will become increasingly compelling.

The Cost of Being Cheap

In the short run, and for an individual employer, the case for the machine may be compelling because it makes so much economic sense, and does so much for the bottom line. Yet, what’s true on the micro-scale isn’t true on the macro-scale, because collectively employees are consumers, and the more employees our economy eliminates, the fewer consumers will be able to buy the goods and services produced. So what works for an individual company does not work for the economy as a whole.

Left unchanged, this could lead to revolution, humans against the machines and their owners. Certainly concentrating wealth in the hands of a few, and economically disenfranchising the many, has historically lead to social unrest, and leaves us ripe for loud-mouthed leaders who rail against the establishment, and offer simple-sounding solutions to very complex problems, yet have no real insight about what to do. That way lies despotism and bloodshed.

Is there another alternative? Perhaps.

Productivity comes either from using fewer employees to produce the same number of goods and services, or from producing more goods and services from the same number of employees. So far, most producers have chosen the first alternative. But what would happen if we chose the second?

Well, more people would be employed, but the price of goods would fall even more rapidly as supply expanded, increasing the standard of living while maintaining higher levels of employment. A larger number of people would be better off, as would the economy as a whole. It could (and probably would) be argued that business owners might not make as much profit as they would with fewer employees as other costs (real estate, cost of materials, and so on) wouldn’t decline, but they would be more likely to have a greater number of affluent customers. Remember that Henry Ford gave his workers an unprecedented raise in wages so they could buy his cars, even though on paper, it raised his costs, and didn’t seem to make sense.

Is this a feasible solution? Again, it might be, but only if companies and their employees look for ways of re-deploying people who are made redundant, rather than just letting them go. Hence, instead of getting a pink slip, you might get a blue slip which says, “We’re replacing your job. For the next three months, we’d like you to research ways that you can continue to be productive with the company. Come up with a way to invent a new job for yourself, and then we’ll see if we can make it work.”

This isn’t easy, and it wouldn’t work all the time, or for all workers. But it is, to my mind, a more sustainable solution to a problem most people aren’t yet aware we have.

So: pink pill, or blue pill. Which future should we choose?

© Copyright, IF Research, May 2016.

N.B. For another viewpoint and more in-depth review of this subject, read Martin Ford’s new book, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luddite

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/innovations/wp/2016/05/16/meet-ross-the-newly-hired-legal-robot/

[3] http://www.buzzfeed.com/venessawong/robots-are-coming-for-some-fast-food-worker-jobs#.myJedaoQo

[4] http://singularityhub.com/2014/08/10/burger-robot-poised-to-disrupt-fast-food-industry/

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The Machinery of the Mind: What’s Ahead in Brain Research?

by futurist Kit Worzel

One of humanity’s final frontiers of research is the human brain. Dimitry Itskov, a Russian billionaire, is keeping abreast of research as part of his Immortality 2045 project, which has the end goal of uploading his human consciousness to a computerized brain, and living forever in an artificial body. I wish him luck, for he’ll need every bit of time available to attain his goal.

The human brain is tremendously complex, the most complex object in the known universe, and we are only beginning to understand some of its underlying mechanisms. Without a complete understanding of the brain, we will never be able to replicate it, or make it possible to upload its contents. Let me explore some of the areas of research currently underway.

Let’s start by discussing Alzheimer’s disease. Recent research is finding triggers for Alzheimer’s, as well as autism, and even senility, and beginning to develop treatments for them. But there is still a tremendous number of things we don’t know, and the fact that the brain does not rely on one system makes it harder still. I’ll give three examples of Alzheimer’s research, each promising, each examining a different pathway.

  • H. C. Baron of the University of Oxford neurology department studies the electrical activity of the brain. He and his team have found an electrical basis for forgetting, involving cortical excitation and inhibition. A memory can be suppressed by the expression of electrical activity that is the opposite of the forming of the original memory. The memory is suppressed, not erased, and they have shown that removing the inhibition can recover the memory, which can explain why sometimes long forgotten memories float up out of no-where. It is believed that memory suppression has a role in ordering thought processes, otherwise our minds could be firing wildly, unable to cope with unordered memories. It is hoped that further research into electrical memory suppression can help prevent and even reverse the damage done by Alzheimer’s disease.
  • North of Oxford, Dr. Oliver Hardt and his team at the University of Edinburgh have been studying chemical receptors tied to memory and memory loss. These receptors, called AMPA receptors, are shown to be in abundance between cells where there are strong memories, and greatly reduced, or even absent where memories are lost. Dr. Hardt’s team has also found that actively forgetting is important in behavioral adaptations, much like Dr. Baron’s team did. Their research suggests that drugs that target AMPA receptor removal could be useful in treating Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, but also that there could be consequences to blocking AMPA removal, including possibly the inability to form new memories.
  • Across the Pond, at Boston Children’s Hospital, Dr. Beth Stevens and her team study synapse loss, and the relationship to Alzheimer’s disease. Synapses are brain connections, normally associated with the formation of memories. In a normal, healthy brain, synaptic pruning is an ongoing process, removing weak or damaged synapses. This process occurs most vigorously during puberty, and is associated with learning. However, in some neurodegenerative diseases, this pruning runs out of control, removing healthy connections as well as degenerate ones. Dr. Stevens’ team discovered that in a rodent model of Alzheimer’s, there was a high level of synaptic loss in the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for learning and memory. This occurred before the formation of amyloid plaques, a key feature of Alzheimer’s disease. By exploring the pathways related to neural pruning, they hope to find methods of repressing pruning, and hopefully, means of treating neurodegenerative diseases.

These represent three different approaches to Alzheimer’s treatment – electrical, chemical and physical, and all are promising. But they also show that the brain is incredibly complex; after all if there are three different methods of treatment, and they all involve attacking memory loss, then memory formation has to account for all three factors as well. As well, all of the pathways discovered by these research teams are ones that relate to the regulation of memory, and therefore involved in making sure the brain is working properly. As a result, we can’t just remove one of these regulators without causing things to go haywire.

Will we be able to upload our minds?

Now let’s take another look directly at the Immortality 2045 project, the ultimate goal of which is to upload a brain into a computer. This would involve highly sophisticated computers, which, according to Moore’s law, we should have by then. It will also likely involve nanotechnology, and probably technologies we have yet to conceive. But most importantly, it will involve learning enough about the science of the brain to completely understand how the brain functions, and build systems that can replicate each functional pathway, electrical, chemical and physical, either with software or hardware.

Do I think that we’ll be able to walk around in thirty years with electronic brains? It seems unlikely to me, but then, it didn’t seem likely in 1985 that we’d be walking around with supercomputers in our pockets. Or that we’d use them to look at cat pictures.

With this in mind, I’m going to suggest a timeline of what the future milestones of brain research might be.

2016 (present day) – We continue to gather information on how brains work and various brain diseases, using models and clinical trials. There are some drugs and treatments that show promise, but they all require more study before being used in human trials.

2020 – The first truly effective treatments for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease are approved. These won’t allow us to reverse damage already done, but will put a permanent hold on the progression of these diseases. With early screening, and using treatments prophylactically on those with beginning stages or at high risk, the nasty consequences and progression of these diseases may be halted.

2025 – Researchers have developed a computerized model of the brain, with every known pathway and regulatory system included. It fails to behave like a human within a week, prompting a return to the drawing board, and an acknowledgement that the brain is still more complex than we imagined. In other news, a treatment to cure and reverse the damage from neurodegenerative diseases is approved, though the cost will keep it from widespread use for several years. Luckily, due to earlier treatments arresting progression, people inflicted with such diseases will have those years to wait.

2030 – The development and successful implementation of a cybernetic occipital lobe, which is primarily responsible for vision, takes the world by storm. There are issues for the first few years, but vision is restored in those who were born sighted but lost their vision, even if the treatment necessitates a port in the skull for updates and modifications. An updated computerized model of the brain is released, and runs successfully for three months before exhibiting psychotic behavior, achieving a major milestone, but still falling short of the brain’s complexity.

2035 – A patient suffering from head trauma and a partial encephalectomy receives the first cybernetic parietal lobe, which integrates sensory inputs for the brain. This is less of a resounding success, but still restores a degree of recognition and voluntary movement to the recipients. Unfortunately, it is not enough to allow the recipient to live unassisted, but further updates are expected to fix the major issues inside of two years. The computerized model of the brain has successfully been running for a year now, with no signs of abnormal or aberrant psychology, raising hopes that humanity has reached at least a good, working understanding of the brain.

Beyond 2035 is very hard to see. Progress by then will depend upon as-yet undreamt of technologies closing the gap between mind, and the brain’s machinery. Can we identify, codify, and store a thought? Can we say definitively that the brain and the mind are the same, or that they are different? Could nanotechnology create a bridge from our minds to computers, allowing a full interface even while using our original, organic brains? Or perhaps we’ll be able to copy our mental engrams and personalities, much as we do MP3 files now, in order to transfer them to a non-organic home. These are questions for which we don’t even have hazy notions today. Whether we will be able to find answers within a mere 20 years is an incredibly ambitious goal.

It’s possible that Dimitry Itskov is right, and we’ll be able to upload our brains into computers and live forever, but it seems more likely to me that our brains are far more complex than even the best neuroscientists imagine, and our minds will have to stay where they are, inside our organic brains, at least for the next 20 years and for some time beyond. But until then, we can at least look forward to having healthier brains for longer.

© Copyright, IF Research, April 2016.





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“Where did I leave my keys?”

by senior futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

The emergence of computer genies, such as Siri on the Apple iPhone, Cortana from Microsoft, or IBM’s Watson, will lead to many changes in the way we live our lives and interact with our surroundings, both in the real world and in cyberspace. But one seemingly minor advantage of having and using computer genies will be that they will be able to answer questions like the one in the blog title: Where did I leave my keys?

Let me back up and explain what I mean by a computer genie. The concept is one of having a seemingly intelligent computer, such as Siri, Cortana, or Watson, act as what other commentators have called your personal avatar, butler, servant, or companion, mostly acting in cyberspace. I use the term genie because its goal is to try to grant our wishes.

These smart companions will act as our agents, again, largely in cyberspace, reminding us of up-coming events and things we need to do, monitoring the safety of our computer systems from hackers, viruses, and other attacks, and acting on our behalf in commercial transactions, as well as interacting with other people’s genies to set up appointments, make arrangements, transfer information, and so on.

Much has been written about these things, including extensive passages of my 1997 book The Next 20 Years of Your Life, which is about to reach its best-by date. However, I’d like to focus on one hitherto unacknowledged application for genies: keeping track of us and our belongings.

“Where did I leave my keys?”

Suppose you have a penchant for just dropping your keys wherever you happen to be once you get home, and thus have a problem finding them when you’re getting ready to leave again. Today, you probably spend a great deal of time and frustration looking for them, and getting progressively more and more irritated with yourself and everyone else. In the not-too-distant future, though, all you will have to do is ask your genie (let’s call him “Robin”, just to be cute) where your keys are. If you’ve prepared him to do this kind of thing, he’ll say something like, “You dropped them on the chair by the front door when you came in last night. If they’re not there, they have probably slipped onto the floor nearby.”

You can then stop looking in the bathroom, the living room, and everywhere else you’ve left your keys in the past, and make a bee-line for the chair in the front hallway to find your keys with minimal frustration.

“Where’s that book I was reading?”

A similar transaction might be if you asked Robin, “Where’s that book on complex systems I was reading about a month ago?” This time, though, it requires Robin to have archived what you did with specific belongings over an extended period of time, and to be able to figure out precisely which book you’re referring to. However, if you’ve asked a similar question in the past, then Robin will have learned that you want him to track this kind of thing. If he is thus programmed to do this, he might respond, “Do you mean ‘The Theory of Complexity’ by Merti Williams?”

“Yeah, that’s the book.”

“It’s in your office, on the floor by the left-hand side of the desk, under a set of blue file folders.”

Problem solved – unless someone has recently moved the book, or the files on top of it without you being aware of it.

“Where was that shop?”

Or suppose you’re strolling through a shopping mall, on the way to meet a friend for lunch. After lunch, you remember that you want to find a new windbreaker to replace the aging, ratty old one that your wife keeps nagging you about. And you recall that you noticed that a store that had a sale on outdoor gear, but you can’t remember which one, or where it was as you weren’t paying attention at the time. Ask Robin, and he might reply, “Grant’s Outdoor Stores has a 25% off sale on outdoor equipment sale. You probably saw it as you walked by. Would you like me to show you how to get there?”

If agree, your augmented reality goggles (or better yet, contact lenses) will display arrows in your field of vision, with appropriate text, such as “Walk 50 feet, then turn left at the corner ahead. It will take you about 3 minutes to get to the store.”

Of course, Robin could also tap into the mall’s website to find which other merchants are offering sales, or even make your interest known (anonymously or not) to the mall’s website in order to elicit immediate discount offers from the mall’s merchants, or even a much wider range of merchants, including some online. In fact, you will have a choice of ways you can gather information of interest to you, at the moment you want it, all managed by Robin in order to make your life as simple as possible.

“What’s that woman’s name?”

Suppose you’re at a cocktail party, and you’re introduced to someone new. If you’re like most people, you smile and nod, and her name just slips past you. (In fact, the major reason most people are “bad at names” is that they never really listen to them in the first place.) Suppose later that evening, she’s looking towards you while speaking to a friend of yours, and the two of them start walking towards you. Instead of panicking, you ask Robin (sub-vocally, if necessary, so that no one but Robin can understand you), “What’s the name of the woman walking towards me with Ron Merrick?” Robin reaches into his recorded memory, shows you the woman’s image from your earlier introduction, replaying her name as she pronounced it, then repeats that pronunciation for you a second time to make sure you’ve got it.

And, again, Robin might also do some quick, online research, using facial recognition software to match the woman’s face to her LinkedIn profile, or find a news article about her to give you more information about her. The point is that Robin will be able to help you remember, or discover, the names of people you meet and encounter, and provide some background on who they are if you wish.

All of this raises the issue of personal privacy in public spaces, which has been discussed at length elsewhere, and is worrisome. However, that’s a different topic for a different blog.

“Where am I meeting my wife?”

As the clock winds down, and you’re approaching the end of your working day, Robin reminds you that you and your wife said you wanted to go to dinner and a movie this evening. You discussed a number of films, and narrowed it down to three recently Oscar-nominated offerings you wanted to see.

At your request, Robin starts multi-tasking. First he contacts Cary, your wife’s computer genie, who confirms that your wife, who is at her workplace across town, hasn’t made any conflicting plans, and does, indeed, want to do dinner and a film. Next, Cary reviews the start times of the three films discussed at nearby theatres, while Robin digs up the relevant film reviews for each one. The films and reviews are presented to you both. The start time for one film isn’t convenient, and the reviews from your favorite reviewers for a second are so-so, so Cary and Robin both suggest the third film, to which you both agree.

Now both genies ask their hosts what they feel like eating. Your wife wants sushi, whereas you want Italian. Robin sides with your wife because Robin is also monitoring your calorie and nutritional intake as you’re trying to lose some weight following the holidays. You reluctantly agree, while muttering about disloyal pieces of junk, which Robin ignores. Cary then suggests a sushi restaurant you both like near the theatre you’ll be attending, and makes a reservation for two. Cary and Robin also download your nutritional needs, allergies, and sensitivities to the restaurant chef’s computer, as well as the kinds of menu items each of you have enjoyed in the past. The restaurant’s computer suggests a number of customized menu items, based on your nutritional profiles, previous choices, what the kitchen has in stock, along with the prices for each item. Note that every patron’s menu might be unique, although there is frequently a great deal of overlap in menu choices for most people.

Robin and Cary both make tentative selections, presenting them to their hosts for approval, and then place the orders.

Each genie now calculates how long it will take you to reach the restaurant, based on your current locations and how crowded transit is projected to be when you leave. Each then tells its host when they will need to leave their office to get to the restaurant on time.

When both you and your wife arrive within seconds of each other, you are greeted at the restaurant’s entrance by your (correctly pronounced) names, your coats are taken and handed to your server, who hangs them up, and you are escorted to your table by the owner. Your genies could have directed you to the coat rack and your table, but the restaurant prides itself on human service, so your are offered this unnecessary courtesy, particularly as you are valued customers who have eaten there before.

Your pre-dinner drinks arrive almost as soon as you settle yourself into your table. Relaxing, you talk about your day’s events, comparing notes about what you’ve done before moving onto future plans. When you start to get restless, and your genies interpret from your body language that you’re ready to eat, they ask if this is the case. When you confirm that you do, Robin signals to your server’s genie that you are ready, and he quickly arrives with the first course.

Supper proceeds from there in a smooth, satisfying flow that runs at a tempo you both find comfortable. When you’re ready to leave, Robin contacts the restaurant’s computer, confirms the amount of the bill, checks that it matches what you ordered, presents the total, along with your customary tip, to you for confirmation. You barely glance at it in your contact lenses, then nod to confirm payment while continuing to talk to your wife. Robin confirms the payment to the restaurant, and authorizes the payment from your credit card to the restaurant.

When you’re ready to leave, your server appears with your coats and thanks you, and the owner appears at the door just before you leave, bowing to thank you for visiting again.

At no time did either of you reach for your wallets or put your hands in your pockets. You could have viewed a customized, physical menu if you wished, but as you’ve been to this restaurant many times before, your genies, working with the restaurant’s suggestions, offered up the entrées your were most likely to want. Your dining experience was smooth, soothing, and simple, both for you and for the restaurant staff.

“Has Mandy come home yet?”

After the movie finishes, you walk out into the street while Robin hails a self-driving Uber car to convey you home. Once you’re both settled into the car, you ask Robin if your daughter, Mandy, has arrived home from her date yet. Robin consults Mandy’s genie (to Mandy’s annoyance), and confirms that Mandy arrived home before 10:30, as agreed. You decide not to ask who Mandy was dating as Mandy has just turned 16, thinks both of her parents are being obnoxious and Big Brother-ish, and often flounces upstairs in protest over some restriction or other.

But it’s a comfort to know that you could, if you insisted, get Mandy’s genie, Johnny-5, named after a childhood hero, to tell you where she is, and who she’s with at any time. You could even tap into her recording camera to see what she’s seeing, as well as scan the area around her, if you really wanted to be obnoxious.

Still, you’re trying to let go, and give her more space. But until she’s 18, you can overrule her wishes, and get whatever information you want from her genie. Knowing that, and that Johnny-5 would contact Robin if Mandy was threatened in any way, gives you enough comfort that you can back off and still feel as if you are fulfilling your paternal duties.

“How am I doing on my diet?”

You’re doing the weekly shopping, and are most of the way through your list when you decide you want to get some cold cereal. You head to the cereal aisle, and tell Robin, “How about that new cereal for which I saw the ad yesterday?”

Robin, of course, knows what you watched, and also noticed what interested you because he monitors your vital signs: heartbeat, breathing rate, galvanic skin response, as well as, in this case, the dilation of your pupils. From this data, he identifies the brand of cereal you’re referring to, and asks, for confirmation, “You mean Happy Clappy Granola Crunch?”

You nod, which he notices and understands.

“Happy Clappy Granola Crunch has too much sugar in four different forms, too much salt, and not enough of the nutrients you need. It’s effectively a dessert, not a breakfast cereal.”

“Yeah,” you reply, “but it probably doesn’t taste like mattress-stuffing, or cardboard, like that other crap you want me to eat. My days are hard enough – I don’t want to deliberately start out with a bad taste in my mouth! Find me something that I will enjoy eating!” you command.

You could swear Robin pauses, which is improbable, and that he’s pursing his lips in disapproval, which is impossible, but you get the message anyway. “You could have low fat, coffee flavored Greek yogurt with flax seeds and slivered almonds,” he proposes.

You’re about to snap your refusal when you stop. That actually sounds interesting. “OK,” you say, “I’ll try it. And how am I doing on my diet, anyway?”

“You’re about a day and a half behind your target profile – mostly because you’ve been cheating at lunch times.”

“Hey! I have not! I’m out with clients, and I have to be sociable! It’s part of my job.”

“You could order sparkling water or club soda instead of wine, you know,” Robin counters.

The conversation goes on, and you grumble – again! – about disloyal junk heaps.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes…

What’s going on behind the scenes at the store is actually far more sophisticated than it appears. Robin estimates the volume of every mouthful of food you take, then calculates all of the nutrients that mouthful contains. This isn’t just calories, sodium, and sugar, but fiber, vitamins, minerals, trace elements, and hundreds of micro-nutrients as well, based on the latest research, cross-referenced for your specific genetic make-up.

When you’re out at a restaurant, he gets all of this information from the restaurant’s computer, including data about where each forkful of food comes from, and what it’s nutritional profile is closely estimated to be. When you’re eating at home, its based on data downloaded either from the food processor’s website, as with Happy Valley Granola Crunch, or, in the case of fresh produce, meat, or fish, from data supplied by the farmer that grew the produce or grew the food animal, or the fisherman that caught the fish. This amazing mass of data far outstrips anything available to consumers, nutritionists, dieticians, or even food scientists today, and is all done by computers handing off data, one to the next. Every step of the way, assessments of nutritional composition are made, checked against comparable records of similar foods from similar (or even the same) producers.

The result is that your genie can finely assess your nutritional needs in a way that has never been possible before – and that can help support optimal health. Food would truly have been transformed into an unbroken string of nutritious compenents – if people didn’t cheat on their diets.

Indeed, the hard part about optimal nutrition is getting people to eat enough of the right things, and to avoid enough of the wrong things. And recently, Robin has been subscribing to an evolutionary algorithm that assesses your human nature, and helps him find ways of getting you to compromise and eat healthier foods. After all, knowing what the best foods to eat are is useless unless you actually eat them, so for Robin to learn how to nudge you onto a better path is better than watching as you continually cheat on the perfect diet.

Humans! What can you do with them? Robin thinks. (Actually, Robin doesn’t think at all – but what he does looks an awful lot like it from the outside.)

The delights and dangers of genie

John Williamson wrote a book called The Humanoids in 1948 in which androids were given the task of “saving man from harm”. Unfortunately, the androids took their instructions literally, with the result that humans were never allowed to do anything that was fun or even remotely dangerous, like walking by the seaside. They became captives of their protectors. And at one extreme, I could imagine that genies could evolve this way.

But there are other risks as well. When we allowed students to use calculators for math, they lost the ability to do math unaided, especially mental math. Some modern fighter planes cannot be flown by human pilots without computer assistance as they are fundamentally unstable, and need constant rebalancing.

The point is that as well as having genies enrich our lives, we will also become dependent on them. If we’re not careful, this will lead to the dumbing-down of humanity, with the result that creativity, initiative, and the spark of innovation could be lost.

Every new technology provides benefits at a cost. Genies will be no exception. And I can hardly wait to have one…

© Copyright, IF Research, March 2016.

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Why Traditional Farming Is Here to Stay

by Kit Worzel, futurist

Last year, I wrote a blog about the future of food, and how we would need to use a number of alternative methods to farming in order to feed everyone. I didn’t manage to fit the rest of the information in that blog, about how we would still need to farm and grow food to feed a population of more than 9 billion. You’ll note I didn’t say “use traditional farming methods” there, because we will actually be using modern and futuristic methods instead.

Farmers in glass houses

Industrial greenhouse usage is fifty years old now, and only set to expand. As prices rise on produce due to water shortages and climate change, more people are turning to greenhouses to grow their plants. They’re not exposed to the wind, and can be climate controlled, to a degree. Water is kept in as part of a closed system, rather than allowed to run off or evaporate away, and they also have the advantage of being able to grow plants in otherwise harsh environments, such as deserts, assuming you can secure a water supply. As a matter of fact, if you combine solar farms and greenhouses en mass, you have quite the set-up, turning otherwise unusable land into profitable enterprises. So long as a water supply can be arranged, even hard, rocky soil can be home to delicate plants – in the raised beds of greenhouses.

Pretty in pink

The level beyond greenhouses are pinkhouses, retrofitted warehouses and buildings that don’t even need windows, and light the plants with red and blue LEDs, the wavelengths that plants absorb best. While there is a sharp cost up front to buy the property and lights, the increase in efficiency is enormous. Plants grow almost twice as well under these coloured lights rather than the broad spectrum light from the sun, and with complete climate control, it is possible to set up pinkhouses anywhere there is power, from Siberia to the Sahara. Rather than be at the mercy of the growing season, and produce at most two crops a year, pinkhouses can manage six harvests, since with complete climate controls; you don’t need to stop for the winter. As an added bonus, these setups will most likely exist in cities, greatly reducing the travel distance for the food, and the pollution associated with shipping.

From waste to waist

As my colleague Richard noted in a previous blog, water is going to be scarce in the future. Unfortunately, plants need three things – light, nutrients, and water. Light has been discussed, and nutrients come from the air and soil, but water is an issue. I see an opportunity here to kill two birds with one stone. Cleaned wastewater is being spoken of as the future of potable water, but it’s a hard sell to get it to consumers, no matter how much it’s been cleaned. It doesn’t matter that it is chemically cleaner than tap water; there is a psychological barrier that is hard to overcome.

But plants don’t care about the taste, so why not use it for them? Reclaim water from municipal waste and send it to pinkhouses and greenhouses for plant use. It doesn’t matter to me if my tomatoes were fed Perrier or poop-water, so it’s an easy work-around for two issues at once.

Vegetables of the sea

While it’s certainly not a new idea, algae farming, or algaculture, is taking off, and increasing in popularity due to a number of factors. For starters, algae is versatile. Various uses for algae include bioplastics, fuel, pharmaceuticals, pollution control, and yes, food. A number of traditional dishes from around the world include algae, including nori and laverbread, and algae with high levels of protein can be used as a nutritional supplement. But it’s the ability of algae to replace ethanol biofuel that I find the most exciting. Of the more than ninety million acres of corn planted in the US every year, 40% of that is for ethanol and biofuel. That’s almost forty million acres just for biofuels. If we converted that to algae for biofuel, we could grow that in two million acres, and we could do it in non-arable land, leaving an area larger than Greece free for cultivation of crops for human consumption.

Getting smart about the great outdoors

As much as pinkhouses and non-traditional methods of cultivating plants appeal, we will still need dirt farms. Grain staples, such as corn, rice and wheat, are grown on a small profit margin, and can only be profitable (and therefore have people willing to grow them) by growing in mass quantities. It’s just not feasible to do that inside, which leaves outdoor farming as the only real option for such things.

These are not the farms that some of you may have grown up with, or seen in TV. Just like telephones, farms have gotten smart. This includes tractors and plows with GPS and straight-drive programs, integrated computers to keep track of harvest and watering schedules, soil and temperature monitors that send SMS alerts, and a whole host of gadgets to make farming easier, faster and cheaper. Watering becomes automated, based on results from soil probes, even the distance between plants is carefully calculated to obtain maximum yield.

This is particularly needful in the less developed areas of the world. Large parts of the world are still using farming techniques hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. They are ignorant of the massive improvements in cultivation techniques, even non-technological techniques that could turn a mediocre crop into a moneymaking one. The changes to irrigation alone in the last hundred years could increase worldwide food production by a significant amount. Educating and assisting the less technological farms will have benefits for everyone, in the long run.

Orchards need more than roots

Orchards and vineyards suffer from the same issues as staple plants – need for space means interior growing is insufficient for most purposes. But they aren’t looking at a technological revolution – they’re looking at a mathematical one.

For at least fifty years, orchards and vineyards have been collecting data on what works best, and sharing it. Teams of scientists have developed models, which were then tested, and finally implemented, and the results are clear. By using these techniques, along with controlled breeding of the plants to emphasize desired characteristics, orchards have increased average tree density (in the US) from 40 trees/acre fifty years ago to over 3,000 trees/acre, in extreme cases.

This concept is interesting to me, because it doesn’t involve high-tech implementation. Once the solution has been found, it can be used anywhere. Yes, the same smart systems that I described above can be used for orchard and vineyard management, but trees are largely stable, once grown, and need less care than more delicate plants do.

Yes, we will have GMOs

Of all the topics I write about, GMOs are probably the most contentious. They are either heralded as a savior, as in the case of golden rice and Hawaiian papayas, or demonized as unethical and dangerous, as with certain companies, and the switch back to organic papayas in Hawaii. Many people hate GMOs, consider them unnatural, and don’t want them anywhere near their plates. But with climate change wreaking havoc on farmlands, and blights and viruses hammering crops, GMOs may be necessary to keep everyone fed.

Do not take this as a whole-hearted endorsement for all GMOs. I believe that while some are good, and even necessary, each one should be judged by its own merits, and care should be taken. Invasive species are a cautionary tale that all should heed, but letting people starve, or go blind because of dislike for a method is going too far in the other direction.

I believe we should promote safe and properly regulated GMO use, but use them all the same.

The United Nations estimates we will have a world population of 9.6 billion by 2050. That is nearly a third again of our current population. We currently have more than 10% of the world population suffering from malnutrition. This means that we need to feed over 3 billion more people in the next 35 years. That will be the single largest increase in food production in human history. But we can do it, we have the technology.

© Copyright, IF Research, February 2016.


Indoor farming


Precision agriculture


Modernizing world staple farming practices


Algae vs other plants



vs Corn



Mathematics of Orchards





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What’s Wrong with Apple?

by senior futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

To read their Wikipedia entry, you would have to say Apple, Inc. is an amazing success:

“Apple is the world’s largest information technology company by revenue, the world’s largest technology company by total assets, and the world’s second-largest mobile phone manufacturer. On November 25, 2014, in addition to being the largest publicly traded corporation in the world by market capitalization, Apple became the first U.S. company to be valued at over US$700 billion…it operates the online Apple Store and iTunes Store, the latter of which is the world’s largest music retailer.”[1]

What’s more, Apple is incredibly profitable, and is sitting on something like $150 billion in cash. They’re doing all right for themselves.

Yet, in my opinion Apple is dying, it just hasn’t realized that yet. And what’s wrong with Apple can be stated in four words: Steve Jobs is dead.

What Made Jobs Unique

What set Apple apart from everyone else was the genius of Steve Jobs, specifically his ability to see the future in a unique way, one that escaped just about everyone else. As a futurist whose job it is to do just that, I appreciated his ability, and was envious of it.

Jobs was a one-man disruptive force, a bulldozer in the use and creation of disruptive technologies. Although Jobs was famous for stealing and adapting great ideas rather than inventing them, he did have a knack for knowing what the consumer would want before consumers themselves had any idea.

Because of this ability, he helped define what a personal computer was in the first place with the Apple II, then set about creating one that was “insanely great” with the Macintosh. He redefined it again when he returned from NeXT to retake the reigns at Apple Computer.

In Jobs’ view, a computer was an extension of our creative selves, not a mundane tool for work and drudgery. He made it fun, trendy, fashionable, and indispensible. Indeed, the way we look at and use all personal computers, especially smartphones, has been shaped by Jobs’ view of what a computer should be.

Jobs wrecked the music industry with the iPod and iTunes. The industry will never be the same after his ministrations – and neither will the way we experience music.

He upended the cellphone industry and dethroned the BlackBerry by defining what a smartphone was, and could and should be. In the process, he created the essential status symbol of our age, the one that continues to reshape our social interactions, the way we live, even the way we (dangerously) drive.

No Longer Insanely Great

My point is this: What has Apple done for us lately, except change the colors and packaging of Jobs’ creations? What have they done that is disruptive since 2011?

Steve Jobs was the creative genius behind Apple. The people he left behind are brilliant designers, engineers, and creative people. But they are not geniuses. They do not seem to be able to, as he put it, “put a dent in reality” the way that he could.

And my experience with Apple mirrors this loss in ways that I hate. Since 2011, Apple’s products, while continuing to be slick, beautifully designed, and pretty, have lost their intuitiveness. The software is harder to use. The interfaces are more complicated, and require more knowledge of technical stuff that I could care less about. The different platforms don’t work seamlessly together.

I bought my first Macintosh in 1985, and have never used any other computer (except to try to help friends wrestle with their horrible Windows-based machines). But the thrill is gone with Apple, and what was great is now merely pretty good – and getting worse. My children, who grew up in an Apple ecosystem, are now turning to other machines. Apple isn’t special anymore, because the spark that made it unique is gone.

Several years ago, when Jobs returned to Apple and brought it back from the dead, Fortune magazine did an article about the company. As best I remember it, they said that Apple was (and is) the only computer company that made everything, from the hardware to the software to the interface to the packaging, and so could make it all work together as an organic whole, as one ecosystem. But most importantly, Apple had Jobs sitting at the top, demanding nothing less than “insane” greatness, and would drop kick engineers, systems analysts, designers, accountants, or anyone else that brought him anything less. That no longer seems to be true. It seems to me that Apple is settling for mediocrity with increasing frequency.

What Has Apple Done to Us Lately?

And lest you think I’m being unduly sentimental, or am some kind of Jobs cult-follower, ask yourself a simple question: When was the last time Apple disrupted a new industry? When did they produce something that forced consumers and competitors to change the way they thought about the world, their place in it, and what they could do if they chose? Netflix has done more to revolutionize TV than Apple TV. Amazon and PayPal have done more to revolutionize retailing than Apple Pay. And Google Glass, failure though it was, did more to define wearable computers than the Apple Watch.

Somehow, being able to buy a “rose gold” iPhone 6S with an improved Siri doesn’t even move the needle on that scale. And what industry did the Apple Watch change? In fact, what does it actually do?

Apple can coast for a long time on the brilliance of its former star, helped by the exceptionally competent crew of people he left behind. But, in my view, Apple is like a projectile that has been launched and is now running out of momentum: it will soar for a while, then the arc will turn down, and it will fall back to Earth.

I will mourn its passing, but Apple actually died in 2011.

© Copyright, IF Research, January 2016.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apple_Inc.

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Events & Surprises of 2016

by futurists Richard Worzel and Kit Worzel

There are many things that we already know about 2016:

The leading edge of the Boomers will turn 70 – and complain about it.

The Millennials are taking over in government, business, and society. Leading edge Millennials are turning 35 this year, and are (finally) moving into the household formation stage of their lives, which will produce ripples through many industries, from baby clothes to mortgages, furniture to insurance, and much more.

One significant omission from the Millennials’ buy lists is likely to be cars, as they will increasingly rely on organizations like Uber and ZipCar for transportation. Cars are no longer status symbols – except possibly the Tesla.

There will be a presidential election in the US that will be incredibly tedious, irritating – and frightening.

The Rio Olympics will take place, with the expected crises and scandals, both by the athletes, and by the organizers.

Weather will be predictably unpredictable – and global temperatures will continue to rise. 2016, like 2015 and the decade before, will probably be the hottest year on record.

Terrorists will continue to try to disrupt the Western world.

So far, it’s all predictable.

But what are some of the less predictable things, and the things that might even surprise us in 2016?


Computer genies, such as Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana, will actually become useful, reducing the demand for smartphone apps by doing things directly. For instance, Apple TV’s interface is going to devolve to “ask Siri” as the means of doing things, and this is a sign of things to come.

We also suspect that IBM may make their smart computer system, Watson, which is resident in the Cloud, available to the general public to answer questions, for problem solving, and general information, effectively competing with search engines like Google. Watson is already available for a variety of online purposes, both for free and for pay, but this range is clearly going to expand. However it happens, the point & tap computer interface may get competition by allowing people to ask their computer genie to do things for them.

Meanwhile, Watson is moving into more general medical diagnostics, after being used primarily by specialists in areas like oncology. This will open the door to having health care professionals other than doctors act as gatekeepers to the health care system.

Three tech trends very much in evidence in 2015 will converge in 2016. Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and the growing demand for, and supply of, bandwidth, particularly wireless bandwidth, will bring about the emergence of telepresence, which substitutes a virtual experience for actually being someplace, or with someone. Hence, you may be able to virtually attend a concert in San Francisco or London and feel like you’re there, or visit with your great-aunt Millie at her bedside, all without leaving home. This will take years to unfold, but it will begin in earnest in 2016.

Wireless Internet traffic will exceed wired Internet traffic in 2016. We are in an increasingly wireless world.

With 750,000 drones expected to be bought this holiday season in the US alone, drones are among the most anticipated gifts of 2015. However, new FAA regulations, combined with lawsuits and police reports, may ground the gifts before they are even opened. Drones bought before December 21st have until February 19th to register them with the FAA (at a cost of $5). So, while 2015 may have been the year of the drone, 2016 is shaping to be the year of drone regulation, with fights between governments over who has jurisdiction and arguments about how drones affect privacy.

Meanwhile, 3D printing is about to cross the chasm from the early-adopter phase into the mainstream[1]. As printers come down in price, and more and more people get experience with them, they will think up more and more things they can do with them – which will further accelerate 3D adoption, at home and at work. The ripple effects will be significant: 3D printing won’t replace mass production, but it will reshape it, along with related businesses, including stores, plus delivery and distribution companies.

3D printing is also set to start printing out human organs, beginning with skin. While the printing of more complex organs is still a few years off, bio-printing skin will happen in 2016, as will FDA testing on its safe use. The testing will take time as a single error in printing could produce cancerous cells, but if it is possible to increase fidelity enough, then this will be a boon to burn victims, some cancer survivors, and of course, the beauty industry, which will start doing skin transplants to get rid of wrinkles. While some may consider this last frivolous, beauty companies such as L’Oréal and Procter and Gamble are the ones leading the research and development on bio-printing, and they will undoubtedly offer it as a cosmetic treatment once it is proven safe. Meanwhile, what they learn will be beneficial for 3D printing of other organs – at a price.

And finally, 2016 is the year that Tesla’s battery factory comes onstream. The first year’s production is already sold out, and the Paris conference on climate change will only boost the demand for both electric cars (where Tesla holds the image lead), and Tesla’s PowerWall, for storing alternative energy, notably from solar power panels. Everything renewable is going to explode in 2016 – and much of it will be at best expensive, and at times, counterproductive, actually increasing GHG emissions. Mistakes are almost inevitable in a rapidly developing industry.

The Global Economy

The US economy will lead global growth. It won’t have the highest growth rate in the world, but the expansion of its economy will be the most important factor in 2016’s global economy. And the US dollar will continue to be the strongest major currency. Over time, of course, this means that foreign countries will export more goods to the US at lower prices (in US dollars), which will eventually hurt US producers, but for now the US leads the way.

The price of oil will continue to fall, possibly as far as $20, and, absent some geopolitical catastrophe, will stay below $50 for at least the next two years. We first wrote about the coming fall of the price of oil in January of 2013 in a research report produced for the Conference Board, and it’s pretty much played out as we thought it would.

And, of course, as the price of oil falls, so will the Canadian dollar, perhaps as low as 60¢. This will help Canadian exports and manufacturing over time, and provide some relief to the Canadian oil sector (since its products are sold in US$), but will sorely test the tourism industries in Florida & Arizona.

Meanwhile, global economic surprises could emerge from several possible sources.

First, a number of hedge funds are in trouble, and this could trigger a financial panic. We learned from the Lehman Brothers fiasco that a run on the financial system doesn’t necessarily have to start with a commercial bank.

This time, the trigger might be the reversal of the almost decade-long stretch of historically low interest rates. Many of hedge funds have loaded up on junk bonds, which offered higher-than-market yields. The problem is that with interest rates finally rising, the already illiquid market for many such bonds has vanished, making them impossible to sell. From a market point of view, this means they are effectively worthless, which may destroy the hedge funds that bought them.

That would produce ripple effects around Wall Street – and, as we’ve seen, that can spread quickly to Main Street as well, triggering a financial market crash, and possibly knocking back economic growth. Do we think this is the most probable outcome? No; but we do believe it’s much more likely than people realize, and should be watched.

And, as we said earlier, the US economy is leading the global economy. If everyone else is in bad shape, it could eventually drag the US down with it. That hasn’t happened before, but then the Chinese economy hasn’t been as important before, either, and there are signs that it might be in recession right now.

Meanwhile, real estate prices in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom are overheated, and will, someday, fall. The question is not whether they fall, but when. There’s no way to know whether this year ahead could be the time, but house prices in Newfoundland and Alberta, Canada, both related to the oil industry, are already backing off.

And finally, as we’ve said before, the EU crisis (involving Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and more) has not gone away, it’s just been papered over. The fundamental problems are not financial or economic (although there are financial and economic problems) but demographic. Europe has too many old people, and has made them too many promises to them that it can’t afford to keep. This will eventually end in tears – but for now, they will continue to paper over the cracks and hope that the tooth fairy will solve their problems some day.

Climate Change & Related Issues

As The Economist newsmagazine succinctly put it, “That climate change is happening, that it is very largely man-made and that it is exceedingly dangerous are all now hard to deny (although America’s leading Republican presidential candidates routinely try).”

Because of climate change, we can look forward to a succession of ever-warmer years (although not every year will set a new record – real world changes don’t happen in straight lines). We can also look forward to more extreme weather events around the world, including, but not limited to, blizzards, hurricanes, floods, violent thunderstorms, and droughts.

The Paris climate agreement was a surprise in that 195 countries came together to agree on a resolution on climate change. We won’t see much action in 2016, as the terms of the agreement don’t come into effect until 2020.

Meanwhile, there will be the expected negative reactions, especially in the traditional energy sectors. To cut greenhouse gas emissions significantly means severely curtailing the burning of oil, gas, and coal, which has been estimated to strand as much as $2 trillion of investment capital. Does anyone believe the fossil fuel industries will just walk away from that much money without a fight? Expect stronger lobbying and arguments for “clean” coal and “green” oil, as well as attempts to find carbon offsets and a push to fund carbon capture research.

But where might we be surprised in all this?

As the politicians and their civil servants return from the Paris conference and start to get down to the difficult work of turning promises into reality, there are going to be some hard truths that may catch people off-guard in 2016 if real action is actually taken:
(a) Fossil fuels are more heavily subsidized than renewables, with the result that we’re discussing limiting carbon emissions at the same time as we are subsidizing them.
(b) Much, but not all, of the money invested in renewable energy has been wasted, and some investments, including many wind farms, have indirectly increased GHG emissions. (Germany’s experience is a prime example.)
(c) Until very recently (2014) carbon emissions were not only continuing to grow, but the rate of emission was actually accelerating. The 2014 slowdown may be due to the slowing of the Chinese economy, coupled with their efforts to cut back on coal use in order to reduce air pollution. What is clear is that hitting the Paris target of keeping global temperature increases to near 1.5o C is going to be incredibly difficult and expensive, even without the inevitable photo-op boondoggles.
(d) Solar panels are dropping rapidly in price, to the point where they are going to cause real financial problems for electric power utilities.
(e) And finally, we will eventually need net carbon emissions to drop, first to zero, and then to actually decline. That last step – reducing the carbon in the atmosphere – will be the most difficult, and is why carbon capture research is actually a good, long-run idea.

The reasons why investments in renewables haven’t been more fruitful are pretty clear: governments (1) are lousy at picking winners, especially when technology is involved, and (2) political processes involving the handing out of money are quickly perverted to fill the pockets of those who are politically nimble.

A much better approach would be to let the markets sort things out, and the most direct way of doing that is through a steadily rising carbon tax, preferably designed to be either revenue-neutral (i.e., the revenues from a carbon tax are matched, dollar-for-dollar, by decreases in other taxes), or, failing that, be invested exclusively in research on new renewable energy technology.

The real climate surprise of 2016, then, will be if we see governments and consumers take sincere, effective action on climate change. We would welcome this, but don’t expect it.

Scarcity of drinking water will make headlines in 2016[2], and may bring some breakthroughs as well. Using local materials, Egyptian scientists have developed a desalination technique based on pervaporation, or evaporating water through a series of membranes and using the membranes to remove the salt. Egypt’s technique is much less energy intensive than other desalinization techniques, and if they can successfully scale it up, it could revolutionize access to potable water in hot, sunny climates.

Meanwhile, Bill Gates, through the Gates Foundation, is a big name in the water game these days. His foundation has been developing a method to purify sewage and wastewater to make it potable. It’s actually easier and cheaper to purify sewage than sea water, not to mention safer, but the hard part is overcoming the “yuck!” factor. Expect a PR campaign in the coming year on this topic, if not in the US, then in Africa and the Middle East.


China’s obvious intention to dominate the South China Sea and the sea lanes that run through it could precipitate a military & political crisis. China considers itself a superpower, and is intent on expanding its economic, political, and military reach. The problem is that it is ignoring the legitimate claims of its neighbors, and, at times, trying to steamroll them. There have been some conflicts that could have escalated militarily, but didn’t, but that could change at any time. All it takes is a political miscalculation on one side or the other, or a hot-headed pilot or ship’s captain to make a mistake and precipitate a full-blown crisis. Where it could get particularly scary is if the mistake or standoff involves the United States, directly or indirectly, which has lately been flexing its military muscles in response to China’s illegal construction of military bases on disputed reefs.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin is the head of a country in decline, but one that (a) has delusions of recreating the Soviet empire, which is beyond Russia’s present capabilities, and (b) nuclear weapons. This is not a good combination, and could explode during 2016.

In 2015, Putin continued the slow motion invasion of the Ukraine, and provided weapons to Russian insurgents there, one of which was used to shoot down a civilian aircraft, killing everybody onboard. The sanctions that were applied in retaliation by the West caused further damage to a Russian economy already reeling from crashing oil prices and a declining population base. Perhaps as a result, Putin seems to be making common cause with the West over DAIISH (called ISIS in the media), while simultaneously trying to prop up his ally, Bashir al-Assad, the Syrian dictator. All told, it’s hard to figure what Putin will do next – except it’s certain to be for the glorification of Vladimir Putin. A surprise, then, would be if Putin actually cooperated with the West in the Middle East.

Social Trends

We’ve been talking about the emergence of women for well over a decade (with more recent, higher profile examples here or here), but 2016 is probably the year when everyone else wakes up and starts talking – some positively, others negatively – about the Power of Women. Women have been growing more powerful in virtually every aspect of Western life for quite some time, but things are about ready for recognition that women are now very much in the ascendant. If Hillary Clinton wins the US presidency, that will be the icing on the cake, for it will also throw the entire issue in high relief.

And finally, beer cocktails will emerge as a trend in 2016. We first encountered a beer sommelier in 2015 – someone who had undergone extensive training in order to help a customer select just the right beer – and micro-breweries are well established as trendy and significant. Now take that a step further, and look at how beer could become an ingredient in something more intriguing, and you get beer cocktails. Cheers!

© Copyright, IF Research, December 2015.

[1] http://www.zdnet.com/article/3d-printing-is-going-to-be-huge-in-the-most-boring-and-fascinating-ways-imaginable-ever-expect/

[2] See also the three FutureSearch blog posts from June, 2015, starting with: http://www.futuresearch.com/futureblog/2015/06/30/water-is-not-the-new-oil-the-future-of-water-part-i/

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Baby, Who Will Drive My Car?

by senior futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

➢ Within the next 5 years, self-driving cars will expand rapidly into those commercial sectors where the economic case is overwhelming, but will only replace privately-owned cars more gradually, say over 20 years. Some economic consequences will be profound.

➢ The benefits to cities are so remarkable that urban planners should immediately start preparing for smart cars and smart highways.

It’s always tempting, as a futurist, to make bold, sweeping prognostications, especially about an emerging technology. Some commentators have done just this, saying that self-driving cars will offer such compelling economic benefits that they will quickly reshape our cities, radically change our way of life, and eliminate many millions of jobs.[1]

Most other critics say the opposite, that self-driving cars will evolve gradually, and won’t make an appreciable dent in our driving habits or our economy for many years, possibly decades.

So, who’s right? As is often the way when you’re trying to puzzle out where the future is leading us, the answer is: some of each. Let’s look at the case for self-driving cars first.

Feature Creep Moves Us Towards AV Capability

The technologies behind self-driving cars (also called autonomous vehicles or “AVs”) are emerging very quickly, and may accelerate to the point where your next car may capable of driving itself if you so desire. Elon Musk, the head of Tesla Motors, as well as SpaceX, says that today’s Tesla cars could handle 90% of the driving conditions you face today[2], but not without supervision. He also says that he expects cars that can drive you to your destination while you sleep (i.e., operate fully autonomously) will appear within the next five years.[3]

These advances will be (pardon me) driven by a number of developments. Computers will continue to get more cost-effective at exponential speeds, allowing AVs to get smarter at least that quickly. Next, as companies like Google, Apple, and the major car companies race to claim the biggest possible piece of this new car market, the software will become steadily – and quickly – more sophisticated and effective.

Next, those cars whose operations are managed by software, as Tesla’s electric cars are, can be upgraded with a software patch, and don’t need to wait for the next model year. However, while software is easily upgradable, true AVs also need an array of expensive sensors, which will limit the number of fully AV-capable cars on the road.

Finally, AVs will probably be networked, which means that what happens with one AV can be quickly incorporated into software and mapping systems, and distributed to all AVs (or at least, all AVs of that manufacturer). This means that an unusual, potentially hazardous road, once it has been encountered by one AV, will become familiar to all AVs. As a result, the mapping of highways on the fine scale necessary for completely autonomous cars will happen at exponential speeds once the process begins in earnest.

Likewise, as computer smarts help AVs learn how to cope with more difficult kinds of driving conditions, such as snow-covered highways or freezing rain, these lessons will quickly spread throughout an AV fleet.

All of this would be like a teenage boy being able to learn from the experience of all other teenage boys, all over the world, in all kinds of climates, and on all kinds of roads through a kind of telepathic link-up. You can get smart awfully quickly that way.

Meanwhile, all cars will incorporate more and smarter features to assist drivers to drive more safely, always starting with luxury cars. This has been happening for decades, first with cruise control, then automatic braking systems, traction control, and, more recently, with things like lane-keeping, cross traffic warning, and blind spot warning systems. Such systems will continue to grow in sophistication and power, creeping towards AV capability.

Niche Markets Will Lead in Adopting AVs

One market ripe for AVs is Uber, which is currently challenging the survival of the taxi industry. Uber makes no bones about its desire to replace independently owned cars and drivers with Uber-owned self-driving cars. This would increase Uber’s effectiveness through computer optimization to serve demand. It would also decrease its costs, eliminate many of the current problems, such as worrying about drivers assaulting passengers, and allow Uber to keep virtually all of the money it collects rather than sharing it with freelancers.

So whether it’s Uber, or someone else interested in replacing the functions of cab drivers, it’s clear that in most urban markets, the idea of self-driving cars is compelling, and likely to be a niche where a number of players will become early adopters. Indeed, a Columbia University study indicated that you could replace today’s 13,000 NYC cabs with just 9,000 self-driving cars[4]. According to Columbia, such cars would offer faster response times (they estimate an average of 36 seconds) at significantly lower costs (50¢/mile), in large part because of the lower capital costs involved.

At a cost of approximately $25,000 per cab, reducing the number of vehicles required to supply NYC with cab service by 4,000 units produces a capital saving of $100 million. That’s a pretty enticing number for just one city.

This will also bring real benefits to cities that municipal planning groups should consider right now. Thirty percent fewer cabs means less gridlock, and a decrease of at least 30% in emissions from cabs, with lower health care costs. In fact, results would be better than that because a more efficient, responsive, and inexpensive cab system would also reduce the rate of personal car ownership, getting even more cars off the road. And if such cab-substitutes were also zero-emission cars[5], then emissions reductions would be even greater. All told, this could be a real win for cities, and at virtually no cost to them as it would be financed by companies like Uber.

The other related niche is for city dwellers who use car sharing schemes, such as Zipcar or AutoShare, rather than owning a car. Here again, the case for AVs is compelling: the car drives itself to your door, rather than forcing you to go get it. Then, when you’re done, it drops you at your door, and drives itself away. Indeed, it might be that cab and car-sharing companies would become one and the same.

Another niche where AVs will be welcomed is in long-distance trucking, where the skilled workforce is rapidly aging, and finding replacement drivers is increasingly difficult.

Moreover, as the pre-war and boomer generations age, more and more of them will reach the stage where they have difficulty driving, and some of them will lose their licenses. The ability of AV-capable cars to either compensate for aging reflexes, or take over the driving creates a large, and rapidly growing potential market for AVs and intelligent driver-assist cars, all of which will help finance the move towards AVs.

Smarter Cars Will Lead to Smarter Highways

As cars become autonomous, they will also become networked. As one example, a “car train”, being a set of individual cars, traveling in a bumper-to-bumper, coordinated pack, will be able to go much faster than they could under individual control, take less road space, and increase traffic flow and capacity.

And as this kind of smart coordination between cars increases, smart highways will begin to emerge to manage traffic flow, often using Fog computing techniques, which will, again, decrease congestion, emissions, and collisions.

It’s true that smart highways will require significant capital investments, but it’s money that would have to be spent on highway replacement and repair anyway, but it will just be done with sensors and better design in mind. Moreover, smart highways will actually save taxpayers money. Smart highways will cost more per mile, but they will cost significantly less per passenger-mile, reducing gridlock, highway repair and replacement costs, emissions, and the need for emergency services.

Best of all, smart highways can begin without having to replace existing roads at all by having a central computer interact with communication-enabled smart cars by radio – perhaps even by having cities buy digital messaging capacity on a wholesale basis from existing cellphone providers.

Then, as highway systems become more sophisticated, it will become easier to justify investments in ever-more sophisticated sensing and management systems that will make smart highways work even better with AVs, creating a virtuous circle, all pushing us towards smarter highways with smarter vehicles.

All of which means that city planners should be looking into the future, and planning for smarter, better, more cost-efficient infrastructure rather than just repairing the dumb infrastructure they inherited.

So, all told, the case for AVs seems like a slam-dunk. Or does it?

The Problems with AVs

The biggest barrier to AVs might be called Big Iron. That’s the stock of non-AV capable cars and trucks on the highways. Since most people aren’t going to junk their existing vehicles just to get somewhat more capable ones, it will take a gradual turnover as current cars wear out and are replaced by smarter ones. With the average age of cars and trucks in the U.S. being 11.4 years, it will take more than a decade, probably closer to 15-20 years, for truly smart, AV-capable cars to dominate the highways, especially as these features will appear first in luxury cars before trickling down to the rest of us.

Next, driving isn’t always easy, and there are still situations where developers acknowledge that AVs don’t do very well, such as in low visibility conditions. Heavy rain, snow, or fog, particularly when they obscure highway markings, can be particularly difficult for AVs. But then, such conditions are difficult for humans, too.

Likewise, driving on congested city streets, with bicycles, pedestrians, and other vehicles doing weird and often unpredictable things, present real challenges for AVs – just as they do for human drivers. Indeed, you could argue that the much faster computation and reaction speeds of AVs may do a better job of avoiding people and other vehicles in such situations.

However, while we accept that it’s OK for humans to take such risks, the creators of AVs can’t afford to do so just yet. Hence, even if AVs were better at driving in such conditions than humans, they might not be allowed to do so. More experience, improved results, and definitive statistics showing AV superiority will eventually allow AVs to function in such circumstances, but it will take time for humans to accept this.

The Non-Driving Problems of AVs

Which leads to the non-driving barriers to AVs, particularly laws, insurance, and liability.

Every state has a different attitude about self-driving cars, whether they are acceptable or safe, and whether to allow them to function on their own. This is creating a patchwork of laws that will take years or even decades to smooth out. After all, different jurisdictions have had almost a century of cars with human drivers to work out most legal differences.

Next are the interlocking questions of liability and insurance.

Google, the most prominent AV developer, says that its cars have been involved in a total of 17 collisions in more than 2.2 million miles of driving, and claims that none of these have been the car’s fault.[6] Typically what has happened is that an AV has been hit, either from the rear or the side, by human drivers who either don’t stop, expect the AV to keep moving, or to bend the rules of the road as a human would, rather than adhering to them strictly. The software will quickly overcome this problem, but collisions will still occur.

When they happen, they will create questions about liability, largely because people who sue in car collisions usually go after the party with the deepest pockets. I mean, who do you think would make a richer target: Google, or a little old lady in tennis sneakers?

And if an AV is in a collision, and is, for some reason, found to be at fault, who’s responsible? The human driver, whether he had his hands on the controls or not? The car company? The software provider? Or is there a chain of liability, where the driver is sued, then his insurance company in turn sues the software company? We don’t have answers to these questions yet, but you can be sure they will arise.

And whom does the insurer insure? The driver? The AV company? Or the software provider? Stay tuned to find out, because we don’t know at this point.

What Are the Broader Implications?

It’s clear that as AVs take the wheel from less-precise human drivers, there will be far fewer collisions, which means fewer deaths and lower insurance premiums, plus less need for police, fire, and emergency medical personnel.[7]

There will be fewer vehicles on the road, which means less gridlock, lower emissions, as noted earlier, plus a significant drop in demand for petroleum.

Fewer people will shell out the big bucks to own a car, but will instead buy car services on a piecemeal basis. This means more discretionary income will be freed up for other things, creating a de facto increase in standards of living – but at a cost.

Fewer cars also mean lower profits and the probable bankruptcy of many car companies, a decimation of jobs for auto workers, plus a lowering of demand for everything related to the world’s largest manufacturing industry.

And what kinds of jobs will cab drivers be able to find? Driving a cab is one of the grittiest, most dangerous jobs out there. When that’s not available, what do all those people do instead? With 171,000 cabs in the United States, that probably projects to between 300,000 to 400,000 people who will be out of work in the U.S. alone.

But the implications go far beyond this. Given the importance of automobile manufacturing, will the loss of jobs, and the decrease in economic output associated with making cars create a backlash against automation by consumers, voters, and governments? Surely such a backlash against automation is coming (which will be the subject of a future blog), but could this be the trigger that releases it?

Next, social patterns will change in ways large and small. The elderly will regain independence, whether or not they have drivers’ licenses. Children will be able to travel places unescorted – which means there will have to be a whole different kind of safeguards on AV travel. Sixteen-year-olds may not bother to get a driver’s license, and the parents of teenage boys may not see their insurance rates go through the roof when their kids start borrowing the car. Party hosts may once again start offering their guests “one for the road.”

Social status, and the car as a status symbol will change, although how is unclear. Will it be a real status symbol to own a car, or not to own a car? Will owning a pre-AV vehicle requiring manual control be a source of swank? Will we increasingly socialize in the flesh as mobility becomes easier, or will the trend towards virtual socializing continue?

We don’t know. The future of technology doesn’t depend on the capabilities of technology alone, but on what humanity chooses to do with new developments. After all, the Internet was originally created to be a robust communication system that could survive a thermonuclear war, not to allow people to shop for books, slinky underwear, and vacations at home.

The Bottom Line

Self-driving cars are going to emerge far faster than most people, especially most pundits, think, but they will not sweep all before them. Some sectors will race to be early adopters, like cabs, car-sharing systems, and long-distance trucking firms. Yet, most people will accept AVs more gradually, and AVs probably won’t constitute a majority of vehicles on the road until 2035 or beyond. But city planners would be well advised to drop everything and start work on smart highways right now, because the benefits are truly compelling.

So: baby, who will drive my car?

© Copyright, IF Research, November 2015.


[1] See, for instance, http://zackkanter.com/2015/01/23/how-ubers-autonomous-cars-will-destroy-10-million-jobs-by-2025/

[2] http://www.theverge.com/2014/10/2/6894875/elon-musk-says-next-years-tesla-cars-will-be-able-to-self-drive-90-percent-of-the-time

[3] http://www.cnet.com/news/elon-musk-sees-autonomous-cars-ready-sooner-than-previously-thought/

[4] http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2015/07/07/self_driving_cars_a_new_department_of_energy_sponsored_report_finds_self.html

[5] Ignoring, for the moment, that there is no such things as a zero emission car.

[6] http://www.nbcnews.com/tech/innovation/google-self-driving-cars-face-slow-going-california-dmv-n464331

[7] http://gizmodo.com/study-humans-driving-cars-are-more-likely-to-hurt-othe-1739440432

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The 7 Megatrends that Will Affect the Future of Infrastructure, Part II

by senior futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

This is the second half of a complete report on the future of infrastructure in Ontario, commissioned by the Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario. The first half can be found here, and provided the conclusions, along with dealing with demographics and technology. This half will deal with climate change & environmental degradation, the global economy, human longevity & health management, the widening tears in the fabric of society, and the rapidly eroding job market. While this report is about Ontario’s infrastructure needs, the comments more broadly apply to virtually all jurisdictions in the developed world.

Climate Change & Environmental Degradation

The most important thing to remember about the coming effects of climate change is that Mother Nature always gets paid. Damage from extreme weather cannot be avoided, ignored, postponed, or overridden by political opinions. Repairing the damage left by such events can be ignored or left to someone else, if the political will to do so is strong enough, but there would still be economic costs that would affect everyone.

Climatologists have been quite clear that no individual weather event can be traced specifically to climate change. However, the rising incidence of extreme weather events is directly traceable to climate change. This means that as the Earth’s climate changes, regardless of why it is changing, we will experience a growing number of weather disasters, from flooding (as happened in Calgary and, to a lesser extent, Toronto), to drought (as is happening in Western Canada right now), stronger hurricanes, thunderstorms, blizzards, ice storms, and so on.

In other words, we cannot predict a once-a-century storm, but we can predict that once-a-century storms will now happen more frequently. Hence, we may have to plan on enduring such events once-a-decade, or even more often, instead of once-a-century. This will require a much stronger – and more costly – response to weather and climate than in the past, and a more robust infrastructure to be prepared for such events.

In some ways, the worst part of this is that we don’t know how changing climate will play out in terms of weather, so we don’t know how to prepare. Will Ontario experience flooding or drought? Will our winters be warmer and snowier, or colder and drier? We don’t know, and that uncertainty carries its own costs in planning terms.

For instance, suppose that in Ontario, Tornado Alley, currently focused in southwestern Ontario, were to shift eastward somewhat, and the GTHA were to start experiencing regular tornados. Would we be prepared? Current building codes do not contemplate frequent storms of such power. Imagine downtown Toronto, say at King & Bay, experiencing an F3 tornado, for instance.

What we do know is that extreme weather events are becoming more frequent. It is therefore clear that we must consider this in any future infrastructure plans.

Water Supply

A more predictable future issue relates to water supply, partly because Ontario, like most other jurisdictions, has avoided necessary investments in maintaining and upgrading water management systems, and because the availability of fresh, potable water is becoming a critical issue almost everywhere.[1]

Moreover, Canadians generally, and Ontarians in particular tend to feel we have all the water we need, and hence don’t tend to think about water supplies. Walkerton proved that this isn’t necessarily the case, but there’s more to the issue of water than just bad management, as this quote from Statistics Canada indicates:

“In Ontario, the threat to water availability is high (more than 40%) in the urbanized south-west part of the province. This is caused by large industrial and municipal water use and a low inland surface water supply.  According to the OECD classification scheme then, this region was under water stress during these years [2005 & 2007]. In other parts of the province, the results of the indicator calculations show a low threat to water availability.”

And, as mentioned earlier, almost all of Ontario’s population growth is in the south-western parts of the province. Accordingly, Ontario cannot afford to be complacent about water.[2] Moreover, while this Statistics Canada study studied water usage during 2005 & 2007, the study uses a 30-year average of the water supply. Hence, this wasn’t just a case of two years that happened to be unusually dry, this is a much broader problem related to the concentration of industry, and population growth in southern Ontario.

One of the simplest ways that municipalities can deal with potential water shortages is quite simple, relatively cost-effective, and uses well-established, off-the-shelf technologies. It is to process sewage back into potable water, which would significantly reduce the need for additional fresh water. The problem is the so-called “yuck” factor.[3] Some communities in California have overcome this by pumping purified water back into aquifers, which also increases aquifer . Or, to make this approach more palatable, municipalities can return the sewage, processed to drinking water quality, to streams, rivers, or lakes for other, downstream centres to use. This happens in lots of places in North America, including Saskatoon and Edmonton, which make use of South and North Saskatchewan Rivers, respectively.

A more exotic future solution may be the use of nanotechnology water filters, such as those created using graphene – a highly organized form of carbon that is finding many applications. The potential to create a filtration system using graphene that is relatively cheap and effective on an industrial scale has not yet been proven, but is worth watching.[4] However, even if it proves to be successful, it leaves unanswered the other fundamental question (after cost) that bedevils desalinization efforts: What do you do with the toxic impurities that have been separated from salt or polluted water?

But however it’s done, population growth, especially in southern Ontario, will require that water infrastructure be given a high priority.

Solid Waste

Next garbage, or solid waste, will be a persistent problem until we face it squarely, and stop trying to sweep it under the carpet. Efforts to divert solid waste from landfill to recycling are commendable, but won’t be enough as we are running out of landfill sites.

The major problem with recycling is that it depends heavily on the market prices for the materials recycled. This will be particularly problematic in future as China, which has been the engine of demand for commodities of all kinds, will experience lower rates of economic growth in the future, which will lower the demand for, and hence the prices of, most commodities. In turn, this will make recycling less appealing economically.

Some parts of Europe have taken a different approach to recycling by legislating that the cost of a product should include the cost of recycling (or disposing of) the materials involved. Whether Ontario adopts that approach or not, we should be studying what other jurisdictions have done with garbage, and adopt those techniques that are most cost-effective, and that take fullest account of the environmental consequences of use. The days of ignoring environmental consequences are ending, no matter how big the tantrums of those who want to continue to just dump.

Sweden has a very successful, if somewhat controversial, approach that is economically very successful: they first recycle as much material as they can, typically about 60% of solid waste, and then incinerate the balance, generating power by doing so. They have been so successful in these efforts that they have run out of garbage, and are now letting their neighbours pay them to take garbage for incineration.[5]

Many environmentalists in North America deplore this practice (and in the process seem to feel that they are holier than the Swedes, but on what seems to me to be thin evidence). They typically object on two principal grounds: first, that incineration produces dangerous pollution, and second, that it’s a sin to destroy materials we may be able to reuse.

The first point can be refuted: “SEMASS, a waste-to-energy facility in Massachusetts, in the US, uses 1 million tonnes of municipal solid waste to generate 600 million kilowatt-hours of electricity every year and recycles 40,000 tonnes of metals. The annual toxic emission is less than half a gram”[6]

As for the second, I’d say let the burden on proof be on those who believe there’s an economic way to deal with the roughly 40% of solid waste that isn’t currently being recycled. If they can demonstrate ways of doing so, then such techniques should absolutely be adopted. If not, then waste-to-energy incineration should be given serious consideration.

Fortunately, Ontario has a test case in its own backyard. The Durham Region York Energy Centre is just completing a waste-to-energy facility. This $286 million facility is projected to process as much as 140,000 tonnes of waste each year and generate approximately 17.5 MW of energy. As operations start up, the rest of the province will be able to witness, first hand, the feasibility of waste-to-energy as a means of dealing with the residue of solid waste after all possible recycling avenues have been exhausted.

The Global Economy

I want to touch on two aspects of the global economy that will affect infrastructure.

The first is that they global economy is likely to grow much more slowly over the next 20 years than the last 20 years. This is happening for a number of reasons.

First, China’s population is aging very rapidly, and it’s workforce is actually in decline. This means that virtually all of its future growth will come from productivity growth. Admittedly, this still leaves them with a lot of growth potential, but it also means that their future growth is more likely to be in the range of 5-7% than 8-12%, and will gradually slow even The current crash in Chinese stock market, and the subsequent economic fallout, could cause an even more rapid deceleration in economic growth.

Next, the other major sources of growth are experiencing significant teething problems. India has yet to show the will to cut through their thickets of red tape, and until they do, their growth will remain modest rather than robust. Brazil is sliding back to its socialist ways, and reverting to the habits of bad . As a result, their growth is stalling. Rounding out the BRICs, Russia was never really a growth story, but rather a country that rode high while oil prices were high, but didn’t diversify their economy. Add to this that Russian population is in rapid decline and demographics argue strongly against solid economic growth.

There are other, emerging countries that will boost global growth, many of them in Africa, but they are not yet of a size or importance to matter as much as China and India on their own.

Education Must Change

Next, I want to turn to the importance of education and its infrastructure to Ontario’s future.

The hollowing out of Ontario manufacturing due to globalization, which took place over the past 20-30 years, is largely done, but the fundamental lesson from globalization needs to be remembered: There is now one, world-wide marketplace, and we are competing not only with each other and our American neighbours, but with everyone else in the world as well. The stakes are high, the competition is unforgiving, and there is no going back.

The ultimate implication of that is that we need to have a globally superior education system, and education can no longer end when people cease to be young adults, but must carry on through our working lives. As well, our education system has to take account of the faster pace and the unforgiving demands of a global economy.

Ubiquitous access to the Internet has rendered the memorization of facts to be of minor importance, while the ability to perform wide-ranging research, absorb information quickly, ask critical questions, and be creative enough to produce innovative solutions to real-world problems are key. Yet, our primary and secondary schools continue to be hobbled by a “back to basics” mentality more suitable to the 19th Century than the 21st. Meanwhile, roughly 75% of budgets for public education are spent on salaries.

In an era when globally competitive organizations are lean and forced to be innovative, this antiquated model needs to be phased out. In particular, education should be customized to each individual student to enable them to approach their greatest potential.

With computers becoming far more capable – I’m hesitant to say intelligent – Ontario could be investing in technologies that allow human teachers to be more effective, working one-on-one with students when students have a problem, and allowing them to work in a self-directed fashion under computer supervision most of the rest of the time.

But no matter whether this is done in traditional ways, with teachers, desks, and classrooms, or through technology, Ontario must move its schools to focus on creativity, critical thinking, and customized education rather than lecturing and memorization.

Meanwhile, post-secondary education is experiencing a revolution, with or without the permission of Ontario colleges and universities. Distant learning and online education, are becoming commonplace, and the traditional role of the lecturer is under scrutiny. Why should a college employ local teaching assistants, for instance, to perform lectures when some of the best lecturers in the world can be available online, and when the students can view such lecturers on their own schedule rather than the ?

Tutoring would still be necessary, but even that can take place remotely. And the emergence of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) and online degree and diploma programs indicates that the future of the traditional, ivy-covered campus is very much in question.

I would suggest that Ontario should be focusing on finding the best technological solutions being used anywhere in the world, asking each post-secondary institution to focus on what they are best at doing, and aiming to provide post-secondary education to a much broader audience than at present. Let me take these one at a time.

That technology is often, but not always, replacing traditional post-secondary models is clear and irrefutable. But we should learn from the eHealth fiasco: rather than re-inventing the wheel, we should find who’s doing the best work in this already-well-traveled field, and buy the technologies off the shelf.

Next, we should be prepared to offer not only traditional degree and diploma-granting programs, but also just-in-time learning for a wide-range of fields. In this way, Ontarians can upgrade their skills piecemeal, and often without having to take time off work. Such learning may or may not lead to major credentials, like Masters or Doctorate degrees, but would encourage incremental learning, and credentialing that is focused on specific tasks for workers in the public, private, and non-profit worlds.

And we shouldn’t restrict such learning only to Ontarians. I believe we could make a sound financial case for selling Ontario education – from primary school through graduate studies – around the world. Indeed, I believe we might be able to make Ontario’s education system self-financing. Even more important is that by so doing, our post-secondary institutions should be allowed to increase the resources they have available to pursue excellence.

What we should not be doing is building mausoleums to pander to the egos of rich donors in support of 19th Century education.

Human Longevity & Health Management

According to Statistics Canada, life expectancy in Canada for men rose from 59 to 77 years in the 80 the years from 1920 to 2000, while women did even better, going from 61 to 82 years. That means Canadians saw an increase in life expectancy of almost 3 months per calendar year, on average, through most of the 20th Century.[7]

Much of this was due to advances in health care, particularly in childbirth. However, other, related advances were also helpful, such as the refrigeration of food, and the identification of antibiotics.

The future holds even greater promise. Researchers now have a rapidly expanding understanding of human genetics, how diseases affect the body, and how environment and heredity interact to help, and harm, health. As a result, we can seek cures and treatments deliberately rather than by accident, or by trail-and-error.

Meanwhile, technology is making it possible to do things earlier eras would not have believed possible. We are already growing replacement parts for the human bodies, from kidneys to heart valves, and the expectation is that we will eventually be able to replace virtually every human organ from an individual’s own stem cells (with the possible exception of the brain itself). Hence, if your heart is wearing out, or has incurred significant damage due to a heart attack, we can grow you a new heart from your own tissue, and replace the old one with a new, healthy one.

We are learning how killers like cancer or diabetes work, and finding ways of stopping them. We are starting to be able to design vaccines, antivirals, or pharmaceuticals for a specific purpose, such as stopping or curing previously incurable diseases, such as SARS or Ebola. We may even be able to come up with a vaccine to prevent the common cold.

Meanwhile, wearable computers, with computer genies or avatars, will be able to monitor our health, heartbeat-by-heartbeat. This will let us intervene much earlier than we can today. We’ll be able to significantly improve outcomes when a crisis develops, such as a heart attack or stroke, or when a disease, such as influenza, is developing. Indeed, precursors are already emerging in the marketplace that can perform some of these functions, from the Nike+ app that monitors your heart and running pace, to IntraXon’s MUSE system, that monitors brain activity and provides feedback to help the user reach a calmer state of mind. Systems like these, and many others, will continue to be expand in scope until they become wide-ranging health and well-being monitors.

As well, the exchange of data will supercharge medical research. Individual health information (stripped of personal identifiers) will be shared between each person’s wearable computers, and regional, provincial, national and global health databases. This will provide a massive amount of searchable data that will enable computer intelligences and medical researchers to identify risk factors, genetic strengths, and help locate cures for existing and emerging diseases. (For more detail on this, see the FutureSearch blog post, “Health Care to the Year 2035”.[8])

While all of this is wonderful news, it does have two implications for our health care infrastructure. First, people will be living longer, perhaps decades longer, than they have in the past. And second, this could add to the overburdening of the health care system. Accordingly, in planning the future of health management infrastructure in Ontario, it will be critical to identify the most cost-effective means of health management.

Cost-Effective Health Management

Cost-effective health management will be very different from traditional health care. The practice of medicine should make steadily increasing use of technologies, such as IBM’s Watson computer intelligence, to assist health care providers in making faster, more accurate diagnoses, to map out an evidence-based health management regime for every Ontarian that needs it, and to do so using the least-expensive means possible.

This approach may lead to non-traditional approaches that raise the hackles of many groups involved in today’s health care system. Demographics implies that we will have fewer doctors, and their services may be too precious for them to continue to act as the health system’s gatekeepers. And it may be that hospitals should be avoided unless there is no other alternative that will serve. This is so because hospitals are enormously expensive, and because they serve as an inadvertent breeding ground for infection, especially antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.

In place of these traditional entry points to the health care system, it may be that money should be invested in clinics that specialize in initial visits (i.e. gatekeepers), staffed by nurses or physician associates and supported by computer diagnostic systems; others that specialize, and create assembly lines, for in-demand procedures, like endoscopies, knee, hip, or retina replacements, or the treatment of hernias. Such clinics would cut waiting times, improve outcomes by having procedures done by doctors who specialize in them, and relieve the pressure on the rest of the health system by dealing with the most demanded procedures.

In turn, this might mean that Ontario should no longer build or expand hospitals for treatment (as opposed to research) except in locations that are significantly underserved. What is clear is that we will not be able to afford the traditional answers that have grown up, organically, over the decades at a time when cost-effectiveness will be critical to the survival of taxpayer-funded health care system.

The Widening Tears in the Fabric of Society

The rise of homelessness, and the growth in the penal system have important implications both for the social good, and for infrastructure planning.

What I will not address are the moral implications of these issues. There are people who believe that being homeless or being in jail is a sure sign that someone is a bad, unworthy person. Others believe it means such people are victims who must be helped. I don’t wish to enter into that discussion.

Instead, my concern is whether we are properly allocating the infrastructure investments related to these issues, because both will become more expensive in the future.

In the case of homelessness, there is a very real risk that an increasingly difficult and unrewarding job market will throw a steadily rising number of people onto the streets, to become homeless.

In the case of the penal system, there are two issues. The first is that in a difficult employment environment, having a prison term on your résumé will almost certainly kill your job prospects. In effect, when someone is imprisoned, they become almost automatically unemployable for the rest of their lives. The second problem with the penal system is that aging prisoners require a steadily increasing amount of health care, making their upkeep more and more expensive.

Neither homelessness nor the penal system are of interest to the general public, but the costs to society of sweeping the problems under the rug are probably high enough to justify a radical revamping of both. Yet, part of the problem is that our reactions to these two issues are so close to being knee-jerk that we don’t even collect much data on the costs.


On the subject of homelessness, two American jurisdictions did collect data, and also tried an apparently radical solution: giving homes to the homeless with few, if any, strings attached. One was liberal New York City; the other conservative Utah. The result?

“Between shelters, jail stays, ambulances, and hospital visits, caring for one homeless person typically costs the government $20,000 a year. Providing one homeless person with permanent housing, however — as well as a social worker to help them transition into mainstream society — costs the state $8,000”[9]

Yet, there’s a real barrier to this kind of reform, which is public opinion. Most people are opposed to giving homeless people something for nothing, especially if it encourages others to take advantage of the system. We fail to realize that we are implicitly paying what might be called a “homeless tax” by not giving shelter to the homeless.

Therefore, a better solution might be to find a way to have the recipient of such housing contribute something in return. They could, for instance, be offered the opportunity to buy their home through an installment system. Or they might be asked to earn their housing by helping build additional housing.

Ironically, this may actually be harder and more expensive to police, but the politics of something-for-nothing may require it.

The Penal System

There is much more documentation relating to the costs of the penal system, more so in the U.S. than in Canada. In fact, even neo-conservative Republicans, such as the arch-conservative Koch brothers, in the United States have flipped positions, and are now advocating a revamping of the entire legal system, particularly jail sentencing, because the result are so costly, and the system is so ineffective.[10] No thinking person still advocates that “getting tough on crime” is an effective answer.

To pick a particularly stark example of the direct costs of the penal system, New York City’s Independent Budget Office found that “in 2012 it cost the city $167,731 to hold each of its daily average of 12,287 inmates, or about $460 per inmate per day. Undergraduate tuition at Harvard University is $38,891 annually, or $155,564 for a four-year degree.”

In other words, it would be cheaper to send a NYC inmate to Harvard for four years than to lock them up for one year.[11] This is, admittedly, an extreme example. In 2010, for example, the average annual cost of imprisoning an inmate in a U.S. federal prison was US$28,284. In California in 2009, the cost of keeping someone in a state prison was US$47,102.[12]

In Canada, the costs are comparable. A 2012 report from Corrections Canada indicates that it costs an average of C$113,974 to keep an inmate in a Canadian federal prison.[13]

Are there alternatives? Yes there are, and technology will increase the range and subtlty of these alternatives as smart computers and wearable computers will be able to monitor the locations and behavior of people convicted of non-violent crimes with increasing sophisticated and precision. But we don’t have to wait for technology to bail us out.

The Don Drummond report, commissioned by the Province of Ontario, indicated that it costs $183 a day (which projects to $66,795 a year) to keep someone accused of a crime in jail, compared to $5 s day ($1,825 a year) to keep them on supervised release.

It’s clear that Ontario should learn from America’s mistakes, and stop looking at incarceration as the only solution for people accused, or convicted, of committing a crime. In fact, a recent Globe & Mail editorial noted that more than half – 55% – of people held in provincial and territorial jails have not been convicted, but are awaiting trial. The editorial concluded that “The system is broken.”[14]

Paying attention to the megatrends relating to these two aspects of society clearly requires fresh, open-minded thinking – and a clear fix on finding better uses of infrastructure spending than on traditional facilities to cope with homelessness and .

The Rapidly Eroding Job Market

It is much harder for someone to get a job today than it was 50, or even 20 years ago. This is largely due to two factors that have drastically reshaped the job market, one well known and documented, the other widely acknowledged, but largely overlooked: the first is foreign competition, and the second is domestic automation.

Foreign competition has hollowed out employment in Ontario’s economy, notably in the manufacturing sector, as Rapidly Developing Countries (RDCs) grew with the emergence of the global economy. In particular, China and India drew tens of millions of jobs away from more expensive, developed countries, including Canada. The result is that it is no longer possible for someone who has no desire to go to college or university to have a friend or family member speak to the foreman at the local factory, and get a job on the line. That just doesn’t happen any more, although it was commonplace in the 1960s and before.

Foreign competition is not going away any time soon. China may no longer be as big a draw for manufacturers as it was, but manufacturing jobs will chase low wages to new places around the world. They are unlikely to return to Ontario because it costs too much to live in an expensive, developed country like Canada.

Meanwhile, even this trend is being disrupted by the other factor at work: Automation. As computers continue to get cheaper, faster, and more sophisticated at greater-than-exponential speeds, the work that they can do faster, more effectively, and more cheaply than humans expands at ever-accelerating rates as well. This has been discussed, but its importance has been largely overlooked. And it’s no longer just blue collar jobs that are being replaced by machines. For instance, law and accounting jobs are rapidly being replaced by sophisticated computer systems. Indeed, any job, at any level, that involves routine, doing the same kinds of things repeatedly, is very much at risk to being replaced by computers, robots, and automation.

Although this doesn’t directly relate to any specific infrastructure system, it does affect all of them. If these trends continue – and I see nothing that can stop either of them, short of massive global disasters of some kind – then our governments and our society will need to take a completely different approach to the employment markets.

Moving Our Education System Out of the 19th Century

If we do not change how we educate and equip people for employment, then our governments will see their tax base erode, the divide between the haves and have-nots will expand, economic growth will be stunted by lack of consumer demand, and, based on what has happened elsewhere, we will see a rise in social unrest. And, as an important side effect, this will undercut the investment funds required for infrastructure investments.

What can we do about this? First we need to move our education system from the 19th Century to the 21st, as described above, including encouraging grown-ups to return for additional educational “top-ups” on a just-in-time, as-needed basis. As well, students in secondary school and higher should be tutored in practical job-seeking skills.

Then we need to be more proactive about helping people find – or create – jobs. At the moment, most job seekers are pretty much on their own, with occasional, inconsistent government help. This needs to become more systematic, and more robust to cope with the labor markets of tomorrow. And such systems should provide access to additional training to allow workers to upgrade the skills they need to find work.

And helping job seekers create their own jobs as entrepreneurs will also be necessary as people will increasingly be responsible for their own careers, whether they sign their own paycheques, or someone else does. This includes providing course materials in the Ontario education system on how to create and run a business, plus systems in the economy to help people start and sustain businesses. Hence, low-cost services that help with accounting, payroll, taxes, plus providing mentors for entrepreneurs, much as CIDA does abroad, would all be valuable. The government doesn’t necessarily need to run such programs, merely make sure that they are available.

Governments should seek to work with private sector employers to accomplish these things, rather than try to do it all on their own. And they should remind employers that if consumers aren’t earning any money, they are unlikely to buy many products. This was something that Henry Ford knew quite well, but which corporate chieftains seem to have forgotten.

© Copyright, IF Research, October 2015.

[1] Worzel, Richard, FutureSearch blog post, “Water Is Not the New Oil: The Future of Water, Part I”, http://www.futuresearch.com/futureblog/2015/06/30/water-is-not-the-new-oil-the-future-of-water-part-i/

[2] “Water Availability”, Environment Canada website, https://ec.gc.ca/eau-water/default.asp?lang=En&n=2DC058F1-1

[3] Poon, Linda, “Bill Gates Raises A Glass To (And Of) Water Made From Poop”, NPR website, http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2015/01/10/376182321/bill-gates-raises-a-glass-to-and-of-water-made-from-poop

[4] Harper, Tim, Agenda website, “Can graphene make the world’s water clean?”, https://agenda.weforum.org/2015/07/can-graphene-make-the-worlds-water-clean/

[5] Pierce, Alan, “Models of Sustainability: Sweden Runs Out of Garbage”, Pachamama Alliance website, 25 Nov. 2012, http://www.pachamama.org/blog/models-of-sustainability-sweden-runs-out-of-garbage

[6] Kushal, Neeraj, “Growth vs garbage”, The Times of India website, 28 Apr. 2012, http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2012-04-26/news/31410327_1_recyclable-waste-garbage-waste-management

[7] Statistics Canada website, http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/health26-eng.htm

[8] Found on the FutureSearch website at: http://www.futuresearch.com/futureblog/2010/03/05/health-care-to-the-year-2035/

[9] Bertrand, Natasha, “Utah found a brilliantly effective solution for homelessness”, Business Insider website, 19 Feb. 2015, http://www.businessinsider.com/this-state-may-be-the-first-to-end-homelessness-for-good-2015-2.
See also Surowiecki, James, “Home Free?”, The New Yorker magazine, 22 Sept. 2014, from their website, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/09/22/home-free

[10] Goodwin, Liz, Yahoo! News website, 12 Nov. 2014, http://news.yahoo.com/how-the-koch-brothers-became-criminal-justice-reformers-235243801.html

[11] Aljazeera America website, “Report: Annual NYC inmate cost exceeds four years at Harvard”, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/9/30/report-finds-nycinmatecostalmostasmuchasivyleaguetuition.html

[12] Hirby, J., “What Is the Average Cost to House Inmates in Prison”, The Law Dictionary website, http://thelawdictionary.org/article/what-is-the-average-cost-to-house-inmates-in-prison/

[13] Thibault, Eric, “It costs $113,000 a year to lodge a federal prisoner: Report”, Toronto Sun, 28 February 2012, http://www.torontosun.com/2012/02/28/it-costs-113000-a-year-to-lodge-a-federal-prisoner-report

[14] “Most of Canada’s prisoners have never been convicted of anything. Why are they in jail?”, Globe & Mail editorial, 17 July 2015, from the website, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/editorials/most-of-canadas-prisoners-have-never-been-convicted-of-anything-why-are-they-in-jail/article25559599/?click=sf_globefb

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