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TED2008: Peter Schwartz – Everything’s gonna be alright

Chris Anderson – the other one, the guy who edits Wired Magazine and wrote The Long Tail – takes the stage with a misbehaving mini-blimp. It’s the latest iteration of “the minimum UAV project”. UAV is “unmanned aerial vehicle”, and Anderson is basically trying to build a predator surveillance drone for far less than the $4 million they cost.

“Geeks like solving problems. And geeks like robots.” He and his geeky friends have built prototypes – first around model airplanes and cellphones, now around mini-blimps. The blimps have cameras, sensors and can navigate courses defined by radio beacons. They’re being developed open source by a community located at DIYdrones.

Futurist Peter Schwartz is needled gently as he takes the stage. He authored “The Long Boom”, which host Chris Anderson observes, “sold very well in 1999, and no so well in 2000”. Schwartz isn’t afraid of making very big statements about the future, and starts with a quote from Paul Valery – “The future isn’t what it used to be.”

He observes that many smart, successful people are pessimistic about the future. He asks the audience who believes the future will be worse than the present – half the hands go up. “Many people have lost confidence in the future,” he tells us. “But I have a mother who survived Auchswitz and a father who was a slave laborer – it would be churlish and ungrateful of me not to provide a better future for my kids.”

The future is very different from the past, because we reinvent the future. But we can often learn from history – he recommends looking back twice as long as you’d like to look into the future, looking back a century to predict the next fifty years, due to the pace of change. If we look back a century, we see an amazing technological boom – the radio, the telephone, airplanes. The world was integrating and it looked incredibly positive. Then we faced the worst half century in history – a great depression and two world wars. And lately, it’s been pretty decent.

Extrapolating from that, he tries to ask four big questions about the future?

– Will we have another huge global war?
– Will economic groth continue?
– Will the fruits of growth be evenly spread?
– Will we destroy our environment?

Schwartz goes on to give quite optimistic answers to each of these questions. He predicts that there will be no global war because the interests of major global powers are aligned, and because wars are caused by “honor, fear and interest”. China lends us money and builds stuff – we buy it. “They save, we spend”. He argues that “China and India are the beneficiaries of the world system: and have no desire to upset it. And it’s good news for us – “what if China hadn’t rescued Morgan Stanley?” Militarily, we want to avoid conflict with China, and we now see China and the US cooperate with joint naval exercises to protect the straits of Malaca.

He’s optimistic about economic growth, believing we can create a global knowledge economy. He pulls up the old “Nigeria versus Singapore” slide and explains that Nigeria squandered its natural resources, while Singapore invested in knowledge industries and has boomed.

He’s less optmistic about closing the gap between rich and poor. “The rich will continue to get rich faster, The question is whether we can deliver people out of poverty.” Here he’s inspired by China and India and their ability to deliver people out of poverty. And he argues that the BRIC countries will deliver at least 3 billion people from poverty by 2050. “Wikipedia is the most important anti-poverty tool” because it allows people in poor countries to experience the cutting edge of knowledge.

Technology, he believes, will allow us to continue growing without wiping out the planet. The human population will top off at 9 million, and we’ll all get more affluent. So we need to build technology that uses less and less energy to give us increased quality of life. He sees hope in the technologies talked about today at TED. “How dare we be pessimistic? Maybe the future is better than it used to be.”

Chris isn’t convinced, and asks whether people will want higher affluence as they see how the rest of the world lives. Schwartz assures us that most people just want to see their children have better lives and that we won’t descend into global class warfare.