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Disruptions on the Horizon – Canada’s Top 10 Concerns For The Near Future

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Mapping Possible Dangerous Disruptions

The Canadian Government, through the federal agency Policy Horizon Canada, has published a review of the possible disruption and danger ahead for the country, titled Disruptions on the Horizon.

While this is about Canada, most of these could apply equally to neighboring Western countries, like the United States.

These disruptions are potential events and circumstances that could affect our society and the way it functions (…) While the disruptions presented in this report are not guaranteed to occur, they are plausible. Neglecting to consider them may lead to policy failure and missed opportunities.”

A total of 35 disruptions were identified and categorized into 5 segments:

  • Society
  • Economy
  • Environment
  • Politics/geopolitics
  • Health

These possible disruptions were evaluated by more than 500 experts in and out of the Canadian government. Far from sensational media coverage, or unqualified doom-mongering, this represents a serious attempt at mapping potential risks.

Each of the potential disruptions was measured along 3 criteria:

  • Likelihood and impact: How likely it is to occur and how much impact it could have if it were to occur.
  • Time horizon: When it could occur.
  • Interconnections: If one disruption were to occur, which related disruptions would be more likely to happen?

Top 10 Disruptions

Some disruptions would have close to the maximum impact but are also not very likely. So, the most concerning ones are the disruptions with both high impact and high likelihood.

The report gives us the top 10:

  1. People cannot tell what is true or what is not.
  2. Biodiversity is lost, and ecosystems collapse.
  3. Emergency response is overwhelmed.
  4. Cyberattacks disable infrastructure.
  5. Billionaires run the world.
  6. Artificial intelligence runs wild.
  7. Vital resources are scarce.
  8. Downward social mobility is the norm.
  9. Healthcare system collapse.
  10. Democratic system breakdown.

It is worth noting that this excludes some of the highest-impact but low-probability risks, like WW3, civil war in the USA, or unmet basic needs.

People cannot tell what is true or what is not

Generative AI combined with social media echo chambers are blamed here. And it is easy to see it happening, as fake news could soon be turning into deep fake political videos. The collapsing trust in media and institutions contributes to this risk as well.

On the positive side, technology like blockchain can create an un-falsifiable and permanent ledger for virtually anything.

So we could see emerging in response to this risk a “certificate of authenticity”, guaranteeing that a specific image or video displays accurate time stamp and context, and more importantly, cannot be doctored or changed after the fact without leaving a trace.

Biodiversity is lost, and ecosystems collapse

This one might qualify as the most massive disruption possible. The causes could be the combination of pollution, destruction of natural habitats, climate change, and overharvesting of natural products by industrial civilizations.

On the positive side, quite a few technologies are maturing to precisely avoid this outcome.

Here are a selected few, and our articles explore in further detail the technology:

Emergency response is overwhelmed

Mostly envisioned as a consequence of climate change increasing the frequency and severity of natural catastrophes.

The best answer is probably avoiding such a rise in catastrophe in the first place.

Decarbonization of the energy grid is here the main target, including potentially through means less popular than renewables, like nuclear energy.

Another option is to remove already emitted carbon from the atmosphere, using carbon capture, potentially while storing energy.

Cyberattacks disable infrastructure

The most concerning part would be attacks targeting “essential services such as the Internet, electricity, transportation, water, and food supply systems”.

The key here is probably to build up resilience more than trying for a perfect level of security, likely unattainable. This can happen by:

  • Building more redundancy will allow for some capacity to go offline without severe damage.
  • More “offline” backup systems.
  • Less centralization and homogenization of digital systems, making one “big attack” less likely.
  • Technological progress, like blockchain-based cybersecurity and smart contracts, as we discussed in our article “Leading Cybersecurity Company Sayfer Integrates Tezos”.

Many companies are working in this field, both for government and private companies. We looked into some of the leaders in our article “Top 10 Cybersecurity Stocks for Digital Protection”.

Billionaires run the world

This is a risk of nation-states losing their grip on power to a handful of ultra-wealthy individuals. Some of the technologies the most at risk of causing such an outcome are the ones giving an outsized advantage to individual or corporate private owners.

Human-level AI (or above human level) could be such a technology. Nuclear fusion, being almost unlimited energy, could be another one. Asteroid mining, with quadrillion worth of resources, is a candidate for such wealth concentration, especially if this leads to a cartel-like/monopoly control over key metal resources.

Artificial intelligence runs wild

These are many risks wrapped into one, going beyond the classical “Terminator” scenario. It is mostly the fear that AI development might outpace security protocols, regulations, and policy guidelines, therefore creating new unmanaged problems.

So these AI risks include:

  • Infringement on privacy (read here why it is so hard to guarantee privacy).
  • Inequality and prejudice are being reinforced by the AIs' training data.
  • Social cohesion weakening due to the flood of AI-generated content (see above the “People cannot tell what is true or what is not” risk).
  • AI helps to perform devastating cyberattacks.
  • AI over-consuming energy and water.

Vital resources are scare

Conflict, political instability, climate change, and resource depletion can all be contributing factors to this risk.

It is also one with chances of compounding problems, for example, an initial resource scarcity causes a regional war for resources, causing further instability and scarcity of other resources, in a negative feedback loop.

Price volatility and shortage could further disrupt the supply chain, leading to more instability and shortages, etc.

The best answer to this risk is guaranteeing enough resource availability, by producing more and consuming less of it, or more efficiently.

For example, in energy, extraction of uranium from seawater can provide millions of years worth of uranium consumption, see “Seawater Uranium One Step Closer to Being A Viable Energy Source

Green energy can also double as a source for other scarce resources like water, as you can see in “Solar Power Can Do More than Provide Clean Energy – It Can Generate Clean Water in Arid Regions”.

The stable ecosystems discussed above will also help maintain water and food resources.

Downward social mobility is the norm

Probably a risk working in tandem with “Billionaires run the world”. It could be equally driven by technology bringing disruption to the job market.

Notably automation and AI allowing to replace most low-end working jobs (retail, taxi and truck drivers, etc.) would not only devastate the working class. But it would also put downward pressure on the middle class as well.

Equally, some high-paying jobs in fields like accounting, law, medical, and education, might be partially automated away with LLMs and other AI systems.

Fair access to entrepreneurship, solid social nets, and access to education for retraining will be required to handle this risk properly.

Each of these can be helped with technology, from digitalized national services reducing bureaucracy to open and free online education.

Healthcare system collapse

This could be triggered by a massive wave of antibiotic-resistant infections or a new pandemic. Or a rise in natural catastrophes, combined with social disorders, aging population, pollution, etc.

Artificial biological weapons from terrorist groups or rogue state actors could be another contributor to such risks.

This is a topic where quick reaction and very reactive technology like programmable vaccines (mRNA, nucleic acid vaccines, etc.) can help tremendously, as we discussed in “The Next Generation Of Vaccines”.

Antibiotic resistance could be solved by AI finding novel antibiotic classes, antibacterial polymers, or leveraging bacteriophages.

Democratic system breakdown

Most likely, this risk would be caused by a combination of issues discussed above, including wealth inequality, downward social mobility, loss of cultural consensus, and public anger over other polarizing and unsolved issues like climate change, ecosystem damage, or resource scarcity.

So, this risk most likely does not have one or several technologies directly responsible for causing it. Nor the potential to avoid it. But it would be a natural consequence of the other disruptions getting out of hand.

Interconnections

As explained before, all these disruptions are interconnected and can accelerate or make other disruptions worse.

The Policy Horizon Canada report gives us an example, with a diagram where “the pink disruptions ranked highest in combined likelihood and impact. The yellow disruptions ranked lower but are strongly linked to the high impact and likelihood disruptions”.

This illustrates how some lower risks could be magnified if some of the top 10 risks materialize.

A key factor in avoiding or managing these disruptions will be to tackle them holistically, all at once, instead of a piecemeal policy.

With the trigger of many issues climate change and natural resources scarcity, managing to create abundant low-carbon energy sources and efficient resource management will be crucial.

Another factor will be to handle correctly the rise of AI. AI will be a key risk factor in rising inequality, cyberattacks, and loss of trust in society.

But it will also be a key contributor in accelerating the pace of scientific progress, and form the core around which new disruptive technologies will coalesce like robotics, multiomics biology & medicine, and new energy systems.

Lastly, it should be noted that some high-impact, low-probability events like WW3 have not been discussed further. This kind of massive disruption would likely accelerate almost all the others, but are hard to account for in advance and should be mitigated anyway by the same kind of measures and technologies already discussed.

Conclusion

While at times alarming, the Policy Horizon Canada report should be seen in the proper light of proper planning and policy decision-making, and sensationalism should be avoided.

The report identifies what needs to be done early by mapping disruptions and risks and examining possible causes and their connections.

Many emergent technologies will help address these challenges, but some, like AI, will be more of a double-edged sword that will need to be handled carefully.

From an economic and investing point of view, many of these changes will be an opportunity for innovative companies to seize new markets and disrupt old industries, something we will explore in the second article exploring the “Disruptions on the Horizon” report.

Jonathan is a former biochemist researcher who worked in genetic analysis and clinical trials. He is now a stock analyst and finance writer with a focus on innovation, market cycles and geopolitics in his publication 'The Eurasian Century".