Global Futures in Focus with Dominic Barton

Societal Futures - Global Futures in Focus with Dominic Barton

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Episode description

The fundamental structure of society is being influenced by five factors: rising inequality, polarization of media and politics, increasing displacement of technology, increasing displacement from trade, and geopolitical instability. In this episode, Dominic Barton discusses what’s at stake if we don’t respond thoughtfully and inclusively.

We hear from tech, environmental and political science experts including Dr. Jimmy Lin, co-director of the Waterloo Artificial Intelligence Institute and Dr. Bessma Momani, senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

Featured in order of appearance:

Dr. Vivek Goel
Dr. Ashley Mehlenbacher
Dr. Mary Wells
Dr. Bessma Momani
Dr. Charlie Clarke
Dr. Jimmy Lin
Dr. David Drewery
Elder Myeengun Henry
Savannah Sloat

Episode transcript

Jimmy Lin: The societal impacts are going to be huge, both in the positive and the negative.

Dominic Barton: We are in the midst of the most disruptive era in 200 years. The fundamental structure of society is being influenced by a number of factors. One, the economic power shift to Asia and now the Middle East and eventually Africa. Two, climate change and the energy transition, catalyzing the largest capital, reallocation in human history. Three, rapid and dramatic technological changes. And four increasing income inequality and polarization everywhere. This is all underpinned by a media and misinformation environment that has become more polarized superficial and actually challenges the truth. The clock speed or metabolic rate of the world has increased dramatically. While many are benefiting from the unheralded growth being seen across sectors, if we aren't careful, and don't focus on ensuring no one is left behind. We risk a revolution. 

Multiple Voices: The health system and community organizations should get ready for a major shift ... Economists are warning that artificial intelligence will increase inequality ... Analysts say new conflicts could erupt this year ... A new report from Statistics Canada says hundreds of thousands of Canadians are working gigs to. 

Dominic Barton: How we respond to these disruptive factors will have a profound impact on our world. Because if we zoom out our collective response answers the fundamental question, what is the future for humanity? What do we want the world that our grandchildren and great grandchildren are going to be living in to look like? This is global futures in focus from the University of Waterloo. I'm Dominic Barton.

The task of keeping pace in a rapidly changing world rests on the shoulders of leaders like Waterloo President Vivek Goel, during my time as Chancellor Vivek and I had many discussions about what these challenges mean for the institution. And its people. These challenges or more accurately, the solutions to these challenges are at the heart of the research and scholarship he is most passionate about; helping to pave the way to a future we imagine for humanity and the planet. 

Dr. Vivek Goel: At times. You know, I think we all feel this way that technologies have been shaping us. If we think about social media, which is the result of information communication technologies, transforming themselves in the last 20 years, are being transformed and particularly the introduction of smartphones have enabled social media that's now shaping society that's contributing to populism that's contributing to misinformation, disinformation spreading. And so that's an example where technologies have started to drive society. And I'm thinking we need to turn the conversation around.

Dominic Barton: As a society, we have a responsibility to focus on asking bigger questions that strike at the core of humanity's existence of what makes us work, how we got here, and where we are going. Curiosity driven research can lead to places we didn't expect to go. That research can only happen in an environment that embraces asking basic questions. Researching them for the sake of research itself. This sets the stage for unimagined findings, new technologies and entirely new sectors in the coming decades. On the periphery of this work lies a growing cynicism in society, and an underlying sense of distrust in institutions and perhaps science as a whole. It is in that context. That Trust in Research undertaken in Science and Technology Scholarly Network or TRuST was established. The network is co-led by Professor Donna Strickland, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018. And Professor Ashley Mehlenbacher, Canada Research Chair in Science, Health and Technology Communication. Dr. Mehlenbacher says the importance of interdisciplinary research and scholarship itself is essential. And leading institutions like the University of Waterloo have a responsibility to be more inclusive, more thoughtful and more collaborative.

Dr. Ashley Mehlenbacher: So, the TRuST network is really a network of researchers dedicated to better understanding why people do or don't trust, scientific and technical information. We know there are high levels of trust as a recent CANtrust index survey showed in many fields that would be relevant to this. So are areas domains sectors. So, we know, for example, there's high trust in the Canadian health care system and medical doctors and scientists. But there's some declines that have been noteworthy over the last few years. And that includes those groups and also public health officials and the WHO. So, this trend is one that suggests we should be looking and thinking about this concept of trust in these domains. I think there's, what the studies show is that among the different sectors that we might measure trust in, there is a reasonably high level of trust. Now, again, that has been declining. So, it's something that we certainly want to pay attention to. And I think the one way we can really think about that is, you know, how do we continually try to earn trust, right? So, what is the kind of work we can be doing to support the various people who need to be able to trust in these various sectors or institutions or groups. So, it's a, it's a big issue we know. So, we think it's really important to study this in a number of ways. So, we're really bringing a kind of transdisciplinary approach, or a sort of, beyond discipline, so really kind of pulling from all kinds of different fields to understand the concepts, the ways to study it and some of the challenges we might face. 

Dominic Barton: Dr. Mary Wells is dean of the Faculty of Engineering and serves on the executive of TRuST. She has long advocated for building a greater understanding of science and technology with the public in order for researchers and scholars to more readily communicate, mobilize and share knowledge with the outside world. She recently spoke at a TRuST lecture held on Waterloo’s main campus. As Dr. Wells points owed. Far too often, the work being done at universities is too insular, hidden from view, despite its potential to improve our day-to-day lives. 

Dr. Mary Wells: I'm really interested in how we can teach our engineers who are the designers and developers of this technology, what are the things you can do to embed trust in the technologies that you are designing and building and to teach our engineers to think beyond just the technical. Can we make this technology, but also, should we make this technology? Both thinking about the intended consequences of what they want the technology to be able to do, but the unintended consequences that may occur and by giving them that breadth of thought, let's say, I hope that we can touch on both them being able to think about those intended but also the possible unintended consequences they would never normally think of that go really beyond the technical functioning of the device, or whatever it may be, to how humans are interacting with it, and how they're then interacting with each other and the possible consequences may have on their lives. 

Dominic Barton: The consequences of a lack of trust in science and public institutions have a profound influence on our daily lives. Whether we realize it or not. Cynicism in our institutions and technological advancements have led to mounting disinformation and misinformation. We are seeing far more false or inaccurate information known as misinformation. In a landscape that also includes disinformation, defined as false information that is deliberately misleading. How can we be expected to make decisions or respond to challenges if we don't have the facts? As economist and philosopher Adam Smith wrote, it's the duty of the entrepreneur to take care of the society in which one operates. Leaders need to consider the impact of not leveraging their successes for the greater good. Political science professor Dr. Bessma Momani research explores disinformation and its impact on ethno-cultural communities and the geopolitical security risk of disinformation.

Bessma Momani: So broadly, what's at stake, I think, is the lack of faith or the chipping away at our faith as a society and our institutions. And that has a very disastrous impact on Canadians and social cohesion, pluralism, and trust, which we know is very much in decline. But ultimately, I think what we see here is institutions are having a harder time convincing the public that this is in their best interest. Liberal democracies really depend on the public having faith in their institutions. And Canadian society, while, we are not perfect, and certainly we've got lots of flaws and a lot of work internal work to do to improve our society. Liberal democracy really depends on having people's faith in these institutions as working for the broader public good. And some of this disinformation is very much not just upholding the, let's say other states, so other governments and other regions and places as being superior, but more likely is to really emit disinformation that our system, the Western liberal democratic system is not working, that it's actually corrupted from within. 

Dominic Barton: I've spent a lot of time in and around universities. So, I've seen their evolution over decades, especially in the past few years while at Waterloo, I've seen the increasing need for universities to be stalwarts for society. They need to build trust and lead the way in firming up democracy. It's a lofty aspiration. But with so many institutions across society being challenged, where else can we turn to for this leadership? Dr. Momani has thought a lot about the shifting role of the post-secondary sector. 

Dr. Bessma Momani: One of the great things about Waterloo, and while I think we to the external world in many of us may think of us as you know, a STEM based university that has very strong, very, very strong competencies in engineering and computer Science and artificial intelligence, and I think that's all true. But we're also a fantastic comprehensive university that has a very strong research base of social scientists and humanities researchers and health researchers and, you know, fantastic Faculty of Environment. I think this all contributes to that well-rounded education that our students should come out with. I think it's really important that you know, all of these challenges that I think are a kind of mix of you know, societal economic technological challenges are being addressed by our researchers in very interesting ways.

Dominic Barton: As Dr. Momani points out, disinformation and misinformation are leading to a polarized society. It's leading us towards a slippery slope that includes voter apathy, and a lack of trust in public institutions. While we'll focus on technology in a different episode, technological advancements are playing a transformative role in both addressing and widening divides. When it comes to society, driven by computer power, and an increasing amount of data. The importance of this information is changing the way many sectors operate across society. Dr. Charlie Clarke from the Cheriton School of Computer Science studies, data science and data mining, and the role tech is having on the spread of misinformation.

Charlie Clarke: On the risks side. There, there's the potential for making people believe things that aren't true, then misinformation is really important that's something that I work on, actually, personally, is health misinformation. So, what kinds of presentations of information in social media or search, help people understand what is the accurate, accurate and correct information? And if a tool search, social media, chat GPT, something like that produces inaccurate information? How can people be misled? If somebody poses a health information question? How do we ensure that the information they're getting is accurate? And if it isn't, what impact does it have on people?

Dominic Barton: The pace of this change is staggering. But it's important to step back and contemplate what these changes will mean to our future as a society. Dr. Jimmy Lin is a professor of computer science and co-director of the Waterloo Center for Artificial Intelligence. He investigates the future of AI, and what it will mean, to the way we live and work. This includes the impact of things like ChatGPT, on how information is disseminated.

Jimmy Lin: Disinformation, misinformation has always been with us. However, it's not until the advent of Chat GPT that the cost of generating disinformation has gone to zero, not only in generating texts, but also generating fake images and other things that are tools of persuasion. So, I am very, very much worried about that. It's very important to not only be worried about the potential negatives, but also in an optimistic sense, you know, look at the tremendous opportunities, in medicine, in education, in combatting climate change and all of these huge issues that are that are ever present in our society. So, I am optimistic in the sense that I believe that AI will expand the pie. And once AI is embedded into the fabric of our economy, it will make us more productive. It will increase opportunity for the population as a whole.

Dominic Barton: The ubiquity of technology is changing the way we connect, live and work. Just in my 40-year career, I've seen at least three technological transformations that have fundamentally changed the nature of the work I did, how I communicated with individuals, and where I was able to work. According to the World Economic Forum Generation Zed, those born between 1997 and 2012, will be the most educated generation of all time. And by 2030, they will be the biggest component of the global workforce. In those same timelines, millions of people currently employed will not have the same job as a result of automation and technological innovation. And the average age of those requiring reskilling will be 45. Lifelong learning will not be an aspiration, but a necessity. Dr. David Drewery is the associate director of Waterloo’s Work-Learn Institute. Since its founding, the institute has sought to prepare the workforce of the future.

David Drewery: My colleagues and I looked at the value profile of Gen Zed, and how it might relate to their thoughts about the future of work. And there's a few things that we noticed that are probably important to those seeking to hire talented young people. One of the things we found was that above all else, Gen Zed really values benevolence, this is like their key value, meaning above all else, they have this deep interest in the welfare of others. And that's something that organizations ought to reflect on, because they need to think about ways in which they are promoting that sort of welfare. There's also related themes around security and stability. The trend in the workforce right now is toward gig work, things that are contingent part time with no promise of future reward. And despite that, that's the norm. That's not necessarily what Gen Zed is indicating they want. A third thing is there's this strong value profile towards hedonism and self-direction. Basically, Gen Zed is saying, we see work as something far greater than an opportunity for financial gain. We all, we want to have a good time, we want to have fun while we're gainfully employed. So, organizations need to think about ways to provide experiences that are not only financially rewarding, but also personally meaningful, psychologically rewarding, you know, fun.

Dominic Barton: Authenticity may be a key attribute that Gen Zed will bring within our societal futures. And turbulent, challenging times, we should all do more reflection and introspection, not to wallow, but instead to ground ourselves. As part of Waterloo’s work towards meeting and exceeding the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action. I've been honored to learn from many Indigenous elders and students about their culture and ways of life. Many of these lessons are focused on connecting with our surroundings and environment, there is much we can incorporate into our everyday lives, from the traditional knowledge of Indigenous Peoples. I'm so thankful to Indigenous Knowledge Keepers, such as elder by Myeengun Henry, from the Faculty of Health, who leads our formal graduation ceremonies for sharing their words of wisdom, experience and insights. We can benefit so much from this knowledge that extends back generations and generations. 

Elder Myeengun Henry: We were considered the vanishing race for many years. So, we come in to know ourselves a little bit more now. Our population is actually increasing. So, I think for a strategic goal to bring in Indigeneity, you know, and making it a mission. It drew me to this, you know, I could have stayed where I was working before, I was comfortable, but knowing that people want to learn, and they put it right into their strategic plan. Well, the reason I left my last place because they didn't put it into their strategic plan. It was eliminated Indigenous people were not even spoken about in in the strategic plan. And we spent 13 years there trying to develop it. So that becomes a priority. And I was very unhappy with that. But when I looked over here and seeing the strategic plan, not just in this faculty but across the University, they really want to try their best to indigenize the University.

Dominic Barton: Leadership comes in many forms, and in my experience, truly exceptional leaders are shaped by their principles and their passions. As I've witnessed during my time at Waterloo, students here are empowered to develop a sense of their place in the world, through the support of staff and faculty. This sense of place grounds them. It enables them to appreciate what's around them, the spaces and people. This understanding is vital to the character of strong leaders. 

Savannah Sloat is the manager of science Indigenous initiatives at Waterloo. As a member of six nations of the Grand River Tuscarora nation, she uses the Indigenous parts of her identity to center her work on identity, politics and personhood. It was with this motivation that she created the Indigenous Science Center as the first academic Indigenous space on campus. It is designed to support and immerse students, faculty and staff with Indigenous knowledge and culture.

Savannah Sloat: Specifically, we want students to feel as though they have a space where they're represented and seen, because historically, we don't see a lot of Indigenous science present in our curriculum and in our academic spaces. And so, we've been working really hard here at the Faculty of Science to change that by bringing in Indigenous course content, a brand-new Indigenous field course, which is really exciting, and providing more specialized support to Indigenous students studying science. And one I think highlight for this year that we've been working on is our first year of science communications course. So, all science students in first year, over the course of this year, has been taking mandatory included Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge module in all their classes. So, that's a really amazing initiative that we're hoping to build momentum from.

Dominic Barton: Our world is changing in immeasurable ways as humanity faces existential challenges. And as Dr. Momani mentioned, what's at stake are the fundamental underpinnings of our society, like democracy and trust in our public institutions. While there are many unknowns, I'm hopeful. I'm excited for young people today because they have the opportunity to lead in one of the most exciting times in human history. Waterloo is a community of students and graduates, who I believe are more prepared for an uncertain world. As Dr. Drewery said, young people have already experienced a lot in their short lives. They lived through a financial crisis, housing crisis and a pandemic during some of their most formative years. They are more uniquely prepared for change and a shifting future than many others in the world. 

The skills learned at Waterloo, the discoveries they've made, and the networks developed, will help make this country and world a better place. 

You've been listening to the societal futures episode of Global Futures in Focus. I encourage you to listen to our other global futures episodes, where we focus on the global transformations cutting across sustainability, health, technology, and the economy. You'll also hear from entrepreneurs and researchers finding solutions to our most pressing challenges. I hope they inspire you to make a difference in your own unique and perhaps unconventional way. 

I'm Dominic Barton. Thanks for listening.