Blog

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the World Economic Forum

Wednesday, February 6, 2019
Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland

Something unusual happened at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland this year: new ideas coming not from the usual collection of the rich and famous, their symbiotic journalists, or even from political activists.   This was the voice of creation rooted outside of the wealthy world and put into action by hands-on builders empowered by tools such as blockchain and AI, centered on human needs.  These “applied utopians” are creating new realities outside of traditional hierarchy and authority.  It was imagination in action, curated by me and MIT’s John Werner.

Inside the Tata Dome in Davos, more than 400 attendees talked with the creators of dozens of real-world, human-centered ventures, many already touching tens of millions of people.  Enabled by MIT Connection Science’s distributed ledger and AI technologies, these new ventures provide solutions for fairness in social systems, digital privacy and cybersecurity, for countering data monopolies, and for bringing transparency and accountability to government.

Attendees also heard from leaders of several dozen other projects that are using other sorts of distributed ledger and AI technologies that allow the poor and outcast to create their own opportunities rather than to be treated as charity cases.  In a radical break from Davos discussions, the focus was not how to bring disenfranchised people into the existing global system, but rather how it will allow them to create their own systems.

Technologies such as blockchain and AI are lowering the cost of coordination to the point where traditional centralized, hierarchical organizations are no longer required even for large-scale projects or production. These new outside-the-system organizations are possible because blockchain technology allows organizations to work together without needing a third party to guarantee that there is no cheating, and easily accessible AI technology means that these new collaborative systems can be as efficient as traditional organizations.

As a consequence people are beginning to create substantial ventures that are more distributed and flexible, and which can operate adjacent to existing capital markets, labor pools and legal frameworks.  These new distributed, dynamic organizations are particularly attractive outside of the developed world, where existing institutions are weak, and in poorly-served neighborhoods inside of wealthy nations.   The first successful examples are mostly manufacturing and trading networks built outside the reach of traditional players such as governments, banks, or clearinghouses.  The big push towards these new types of ventures will come as countries other than China pile onto the Belt and Road initiative, which promises to touch half the world’s population in areas with the world’s greatest potential to growth.  This may be the beginning of a great experiment in creating, broadly distributed funding for widely distributed infrastructure creation, independent of large nations, large banks and the wealthy western world.

Davos and its debates are mostly by and for the “WIERD"...western, industrial, educated, rich, and democratic. But this is only 12% of humanity, and the majority of humanity sees the world very differently (literally...even visual perception is different between the WIERD and everyone else).  What is beginning to happen now is that the rest of the world is creating its own reality, using distributed systems and open AI to circumvent the hierarchies, elites, and pieties of the WIERD world.  

The developing world and the poor in developed nations seem to be beginning to go their own way, and no longer looking to join in the current global systems.  Just as the rise of China put an end to the vanity of a unipolar world, the rise of the rest of the world is beginning to challenge other verities of the WIERD world, including its political doctrines and its emphasis on centralized, hierarchical management, labor, and capital.  They are beginning to explore new independent paths to solving the world’s problems.

The time is seems ripe for something to happen.  Even the WIERD world is experiencing deep dissatisfaction with the established order of things, and the world situation is destabilized in ways not seen since shortly before World War II.  We all have some very hard problems that we need to solve quickly, and we are going to need lots of new and very different ideas.  It is good to see promising new ideas and systems emerging from an optimistic, energetic rest of the world.