This week: Populous time bombs, disrupting death, and toddlers and aliens. Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.
The stories this week
Other stories we bring up
Join us September 21 for DISRUPT.SYDNEY™ 2018: Robots against the machine?
DISRUPT.SYDNEY™, in its 6th year, is Australia’s first and oldest disruption conference. In recent years we talked a lot about what makes innovations disruptive. This year we look at the other side of the coin: Managing for innovation, disruption and change from within. With two Q&A panels, parallel workshops after lunch, and an interactive futures session on ‘digital humans’ in the afternoon, DISRUPT.SYDNEY 2018 is shaping up to be another engaging highlight.
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Disclaimer: We'd like to advise that the following program may contain real news, occasional philosophy and ideas that may offend some listeners.
Intro: This is The Future, This Week. On Sydney Business Insights. I'm Sandra Peter and I'm Kai Riemer. Every week we get together and look at the news of the week. We discuss technology, the future of business, the weird and the wonderful and things that change the world. Okay let's start. Let's start!
Sandra: Today on The Future, This Week: populous time bombs, disrupting death, and toddlers and aliens. I'm Sandra Peter. I'm the Director of Sydney Business Insights.
Kai: I'm Kai Riemer. I'm professor at the Business School and leader of the Digital Disruption Research Group. So Sandra what happened in the future this week?
Sandra: Australia's population has officially gone over the 25 million people mark.
Kai: Tuesday at 11:01pm.
Sandra: As recorded by the Australian Bureau of Statistics' Population Clock which really looks at births, deaths as well as people coming into the country or leaving the country.
Kai: And we also learned from this website that more people are born than die and more people are coming than leaving. And by the end of the recording of this podcast we will have gained another 100 people and I think if every one of those could please listen to the podcast that would be nice.
Sandra: Yay! So our first story comes from the BBC and it's titled 'Australia's population to hit 25 million for the first time'. And the story is really just a sum up of where does the growth come from because Australia was supposed to only hit this mark in another decade or so turned out to be much earlier than people have anticipated. And the article goes into quite a bit of detail around where these people were born, how many people join Australia every year, where these people are coming from and so on and so forth.
Kai: So in the last year Australia has grown by about 388,000 people and of those 62 percent were migrants and 38 percent was natural increase which means birth minus death. And of course the two hosts of this podcasts - Sandra and I - we're both immigrants to this country. I don't know why this is relevant.
Sandra: Well because the two of us clearly had a personal contribution to making this happen the 25 million, very small contribution. But also because demographic change, evolving communities is one of the University of Sydney Business School's megatrends and it's something that we paid attention to over a number of episodes in Sydney Business Insights and because although this seems like quite a significant moment - 25 million people - it's actually quite hard to attach precise significance to this and to understand why would this matter at all and how should we even think about this?
Kai: At the same time it's a highly politicised and polarising topic because there are those voices who are saying Australia is full already - stop or slow immigration. And then there's of course those who say economic growth and our wealth in this country depends on immigration. But at the same time a debate of these topics has become very difficult because those positions are so entrenched and attached to political leanings that discussing demographic trends will invariably lend one's self in this political debate. And this is why we're not going to engage here in a debate, for or against immigration, but rather we want to look at what this phenomenon looks like and then compare it with another country.
Sandra: So to me the really interesting thing was to look at how various news outlets have covered this and really to observe that other than the fact that we seem to be one of the highest among the OECD nations in terms of growth, we're only surpassed by Luxembourg, New Zealand, Israel and Turkey. Other than that a number of other news outlets tried to make all these bizarre comparisons to other countries that have populations of a similar size. Turns out the closest one is North Korea with 25.7 million people.
Kai: And this is where the similarities end. Because if we look at the size of the country, not the same.
Sandra: Definitely not the same. Then there were those looking at GDP and trying to see where Australia fits in compared to other countries. Turns out the closest to us is Russia.
Kai: Again - not the same.
Sandra: Not the same.
Kai: Interestingly, Australia ranks 53rd for population size by 13th in terms of the economy.
Sandra: Which is pretty good news for us. And then there were a number of people trying to look at whether we were just skewing the demographics conversation to account for things like infrastructure and planning systems and approaches to urban planning or housing or sustainability. In an article in AFR actually Nicole Gurran a professor of urban planning here at the University of Sydney talks a little bit about the various policies that have contributed to the population distribution so not necessarily looking at growth but looking at how we have population concentrations around specific cities, around the two big cities in Sydney and then around the rural areas.
Kai: So on that very topic two fifths of the population in Australia live in just two cities: Sydney and Melbourne. And 67 percent live in the capital cities of each of the states and territories which means that despite its vast land mass Australia is very much an urban country.
Sandra: And last but not least trying to attach somehow significance to this moment another host of articles including articles on the ABC have tried to look at who are these people if you were looking at the growth of the population and its one person every 83 seconds what has been the distribution of people joining Australia and turns out the newest resident is most likely to be a young, female, Chinese woman.
Kai: So while in 2001 for example about 52 percent of all immigrants were born in Europe and only 24 percent in Asia, that trend has reversed with 34 percent born in Europe and about 40 percent in Asia.
Sandra: So this is where we want to focus and bring us to our next story because Australia's growing population comes in the context of China's emergence as our major trading partner as this global economic superpower but also as a country that's experiencing huge demographic shifts itself.
Kai: So why for Australia immigration means that we have largely avoided the worst of an ageing population demographic shift, China through its one child policy that was in place for about a generation is now facing quite an interesting demographic time bomb.
Sandra: And this comes from Wired UK, an article titled 'The demographic time bomb that will hit the Chinese economy'. So for the past three decades China has had the one child policy which has now resulted in a generation of single children having to support aging parents and also aging grandparents which in turn has led to a very large elderly population that is being supported by an increasingly smaller number of working people.
Kai: The article calls it the '4-2-1' challenge where one person has to support two aging parents and four grandparents.
Sandra: So what this has created for China is pretty much a demographic bottleneck. Whilst they do have the largest generation in history, a huge middle class which in a few years will be bigger than the entire population of the US, Germany, the UK, France, Italy and Spain combined, this BAT generation (the Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent) generation has an incredible spending power at this point.
Kai: And while this group of young people drives consumerism in the country with luxury goods and brands doing incredibly well at the moment the article foreshadows that as this generation grows up and has to support parents and grandparents the economy will have to change quite markedly with spending moving away from consumer goods in to aged care, healthcare and other service sectors. So a huge demographic and therefore economic shift that is on the cards in China and of course China has reacted to the development that comes on the back of the one child policy.
Sandra: So China is indeed trying to address the problem of its ageing population and first it's done this by relaxing its one child policy and allowing more families to have two children if at least one of the parents was an only child. Furthermore this week China has actually signalled the fact that it might even scrap its two child policy and relax birth restriction and this comes on the back of surprisingly a new postage stamp. China Post unveiled its year of the pig stamp this Monday and it actually features a very happy family of pigs with three little piglets which has been taken by many as a sign that China is now actively encouraging people to have more children.
Kai: So China is reacting with this to that demographic shift and the realisation that an ageing population cannot be supported if the one child policy stayed in place. But it also means that the current BAT generation that is growing up right now, enjoying economic prosperity and a luxury lifestyle will at some point feel the pinch sitting between supporting two or more children as well as parents and grandparents.
Sandra: And this suggests actually quite the challenge for the Chinese government in terms of ensuring that people actually have the means to raise two or more children in what has become extremely expensive urban centres in China. So a lot of experts are now discussing whether there might be possible subsidies for having larger families or tax breaks or other ways to encourage people to have more children.
Kai: So when we look at China and the demographic distribution which in their case looks a little bit like an hourglass with this thin generation in the middle or indeed at Europe where we see a very inverted pyramid with an ageing population, Australia's demographic actually looks quite healthy despite some of the effects that we might see in the country on the back of immigration such as the need to invest in infrastructure for example.
Sandra: So in the long run immigration might turn out to be a significant strength for Australia given its age and demographic makeup. And also its position within the global economy and with regard to some of our major trading partners.
Kai: And that's in addition to Australia just being a great place to live precisely because of the multicultural makeup of the society and the diversity.
Sandra: And the two of us did put our money where our mouths are. So with that move here and we do believe even more than ten years on that this is an absolutely amazing place to live.
Kai: So now we talk about death.
Sandra: So life and death this week on The Future, This Week. Our second story is actually about death.
Kai: Well it's more about Silicon Valley than it is about death really. The story we are featuring is in NBC News and it's called "Disrupting death - technologists explore ways to digitise life".
Sandra: So the article outlines a number of ways in which people and technology are trying to prolong or extend their life or in cheat death.
Kai: And it comes in addition to a number of stories that we have seen but not discussed in the last couple of years. And we're going to put some in the shownotes, one in Quartz last November for example "Seeking eternal life: Silicon Valley is solving for death". Overall we've counted at least four different ways in which Silicon Valley is tackling the pernicious problem of you know not living forever. The first one is the slightly outrageous claim made by thinkers such as Ray Kurzweil, the technologist at Google, who says that in about the next 20 to 30 years we're going to digitise consciousness and upload it to the cloud so we can happily live ever after as digital clones of ourselves.
Sandra: The article features an example of such a company Nectome whose founders claim that they've already successfully preserved an animal's brain's connectomes - the neural maps that play a vital role in memory storage - and they're looking at extending that to our brains.
Kai: And we do have to say that we are in very shaky scientific territory because most of this is at this stage wishful thinking and one of the founders Robert MacIntyre has warned that at this stage their method is 100 percent fatal because anyone who would want to try it would have to actually die before the brain can be preserved.
Sandra: The tech community has also looked at another way of extending life - cryogenics has been around for a long time.
Kai: There's about 200,000 people who have opted to have their bodies deep frozen in the hope that when at some point medicine and technology has made lots of progress that somehow those bodies could be re-awoken.
Sandra: Jury is still out on this one nobody has actually come back. And there have been a number of other medical avenues over the last couple of years.
Kai: Indeed. Billionaires such as Peter Thiel who made his fortune with PayPal or Oracle's Larry Ellison, as well as Google, have all put money in to start ups and ventures that chase various ideas of prolonging life be it pharmaceutical avenues or bionics or the idea that we extend our lifespan by putting implants and technologies into our bodies in the hope that at some point age will be a curable disease and death is no longer in evitable. Which of course raises all kinds of feasibility issues but it raises philosophical questions about what if this was actually achievable and an article in Quartz actually has a few interesting ideas on this. So, hypothetically what would happen if we would no longer have to die?
Sandra: Well if we just think back to our previous story on China. If that entire population of four grandparents and two parents never dies then you would definitely not need to have any more babies.
Kai: In fact you would actually have to stop procreating. But there's a different problem also which is procrastinating because as the article rightly says if we no longer have to die what is there to live for? Right so the fact that all of us are mortal gives our life a sense of purpose, a sense of urgency....
Sandra: A problem us vampires often grapple with.
Kai: Speak for yourself. And so a number of philosophers have obviously raised the question that if we were no longer mortal would society actually function the same way. And Neil deGrasse Tyson the astrophysicist puts it quite nicely when he says that if you didn't have to die why would you get out of bed in the morning because you always have tomorrow. So the idea that we are no longer mortal raises all kinds of questions: of overpopulating the planet but of course also issues around the purpose of life and the fact that nothing would really matter anymore.
Sandra: But let's look up one more way in which we could achieve immortality and that this social immortality. The article actually brings up two ways in which the current way focused on artificial intelligence and on datafying our entire existence might lead to something called social immortality. Or in other words digital zombies.
Kai: So in this case we would not actually prolong our life or do away with death but create digital replicas of ourselves which obviously does not mean that we are living on as living our own lives but preserving some of our traits for posterity.
Sandra: So for instance Hossein Rahnama at MIT Media Lab has a software that can mine gigabytes of data that we generate during our lifetime on a day to day basis to create virtual models of people so that for instance you could actually have a makeshift conversation with your loved ones after they have passed away. This idea of digital zombies is also brought up by a Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro who actually talks about the possibility of replicating for instance some of Japan's most famous authors allowing them to recite their works to schoolchildren or have a conversation with people at the university. But all these digital zombies actually raise some interesting questions about who owns our digital selves and our data after we die, who can make decisions about them. In a recent panel conversation that we've had we talked about the fact that Tupac Shakur who is very much dead has performed live at a Coachella event together with Dr. Dre even after he's been dead. Our colleague Mike Seymour actually brought up an example of having a friend who's passed away but his LinkedIn profile was still very much alive as other people were posting from his profile. So there are all these questions that raise a myriad of not only philosophical issues but also ethical issues and legal issues.
Kai: And of course creating an AI version of a person might be a way to remember that person or it might help people grieving for that person but it could also become outright creepy. Just because a AI as we know isn't really up to the task to replicate a real interaction with a human. So we might indeed end up with a whole bunch of digital zombies roaming about the digital landscape. That at the best of times might evoke some memories of the deceased person, and at the worst of times might just freak people out.
Sandra: I would very much like to have it on the record that I intend to digitally haunt both of you once I'm gone.
Kai: Well in that case I'll get one done as well and we can do this podcast forever and haunt humanity for eternity - how's that sound?
Sandra: Every week.
Kai: Every week.
Sandra: So we talked about life, we taked about birth, we talked about death, we taked about zombies.... what's there left to talk about?
Sandra: Our last story and I do have to say this is one that you picked.
Kai: And it is also one where we're catching up on things that we missed during the break. This one was just too good to let go. This one is from Slate:.
Sandra: "Why kids may be the key to communicating with alien life". So why are we talking about alien life on The Future, This Week?
Kai: Well you know arguably aliens are a topic of the future. But seriously while it has an interesting angle with aliens, kids, toddlers. The article holds some deeper insights into learning and the way in which we as humans or as organisations indeed react to change or disruption for example.
Sandra: So the article is based on an interesting premise. How would you learn a language that nobody speaks and nobody has ever heard?
Kai: So we're all familiar with the scenario because Hollywood has shown us many times the aliens finally arrive on Earth. How do we make contact, how do we talk to them? And the article mentions the movie 'Arrival' where indeed alien space ships arrive and humanity draws on their best a widely acclaimed linguist to solve the problem in deciphering the alien language to strike up a conversation. But the article says that that way of doing it might not actually stand the best chance of success. So Sheri Wells-Jensen a linguistics professor at Bowling Green State University...
Kai:...and we do want to say that Bowling Green State University is indeed a real place located in Bowling Green Ohio.
Sandra: So Sheri has us think about the way in which language is actually connected to our bodies and the way we inhabit the world and the way we manipulate and interact with physical things that are around us. So in that respect we would find it fairly easy to learn a language that another human like species speaks or indeed another species that has something resembling arms or legs or bodies for that matter.
Kai: So Sheri who teaches a course with the awesome title of xenolinguistics rightly points out that human language very much depends on the body and we know this from thinkers like George Lakoff who published a great book about this titled "Women, Fire and Dangerous Things". We'll put it in the shownotes and I reckon you should check it out. What categories reveal about the mind and he basically talks a lot about how metaphors shape our language and how these metaphors depend on the body. So any species that has a body much like ours we would probably be able to learn the language if a super intelligent blob arrived. We might not even be able to recognise such a life form as an intelligent species if it communicated in a way that is completely different from ours. So Sheri makes the assumption that let's assume a species arrives that indeed has a form of body that puts us into a position of learning that language who would be best equipped to actually strike up a conversation with those lifeforms?
Sandra: And the answer might surprise you. So Sheri makes an argument that children who are just learning how to speak might be the best placed to not only decifer but assimilate and be able to use a new language. She describes that this is an age of neuroplasticity in humans but it's an age at which the brain hasn't yet figured out what to pay attention to and what to ignore or what information to discard, hence making these kids really perfect for picking up patterns that we would choose not to focus on or that we would not classify as meaningful.
Kai: So those children who haven't really mastered any language might be able to learn from those aliens a language that is, pun intended, completely alien to us. And this insight actually holds a deeper truth about learning more generally in that we often think about learning as something that gives us new possibilities, opens up horizons, makes us open to the world when in fact learning has a lot to do with specialising, attuning us to certain aspects of the world while ignoring others, shaping our perception to become more efficient, to focus on certain things at the expense of other things. In other words narrowing down what we choose to focus on.
Sandra: So again what we want to stress here is that even though often when we talk about learning and learning new things we think that this is very much a process of discovery but it's rather a process of becoming attuned to a certain type of pattern or becoming attuned to recognising certain sequences of events or anticipating certain sequences of events which makes it extremely difficult to learn something that is completely new in a domain where we have already mastered a certain way of doing things and this is actually some strong implications for how we think about learning in organisations.
Kai: And it goes to the heart of one of the topics we've talked about here on the podcast a lot which is technological disruption and innovation. So if we think about organisations that become really good at what they are doing, they become specialised, they become very efficient, they lose the ability really to engage with things that are completely foreign or alien such as disruptions and it explains why incumbent organisations often have such a hard time making sense of or making use of innovative technologies and why start up companies, the proverbial toddlers of the organisational world, have it much easier in adjusting to or taking on board those innovations and creating new products on the back of it.
Sandra: So at this point we should also about unlearning and about the fact that this actually becomes a really big skill for innovation and for staying flexible and being able to pick up these new patterns. It's not just about learning new things but about unlearning ways in which we understand the world or understand how value is created in the organisation.
Kai: And that absolutely applies for both individuals and organisations as a whole.
Sandra: And speaking of organisations, interestingly enough we can either unlearn or rely on people who have not yet learned the way of doing things in an organisation so newcomers to an organisation.
Kai: So anyone who has joined an organisation recently knows the feeling that things are slightly alien or conversely you are the alien who is joining this existing tribe and a lot of things just feel a little different to your previous place and you notice things that you find odd that you don't quite understand. But often for organisations, those newcomers are a chance to make visible what has become so second nature that it is now invisible. They're a real chance for organisational learning and it is here that we want to go to Mats Alvesson who spoke to you Sandra a little while back.
Sandra: So Mats Alvesson, who we've featured on Sydney Business Insights and we'll include the link in the shownotes, is a Swedish professor of Business Administration that Lund University and among other things he's quite well known for talking about the stupidity paradox, about functional stupidity at work. All this practices that we engage in, ways of doing things in organisations that don't really make sense but that we've learned to do and we find really hard to break out of or to unlearn.
Kai: And so here's Mats talking about the opportunity of the newcomer in helping the organisation see what feels alien to the newcomer might actually be something that is quite dysfunctional and stupid for the organisation.
Mats Alvesson: Of course if you are a newcomer then you often find a lot of things being peculiar or stupid here but you are a bit worried of fitting in so you don't say that much and after some time you get socialised into the corporate way of being and then you adjust or you feel this is not you and then you leave but often you don't necessarily use the more fresh viewpoints and observations of people coming in from outside. The prime opportunity could be that you appoint somebody that is interviewing newcomers and then ask them to point at what you see as problematic or peculiar in this organisation and then you get their experiences and observations then you summarise this and say that here are a number of viewpoints that could be put on the agenda. I mean normally newcomers are carefully not saying too much but if this is done systematically and anonymously then of course it's easier for people to say this is really bizarre, this is really absurd how come that people have all this lofty and hollow vision statement that nobody really believe in. That's really absurd and this is perhaps something that we could take seriously and bring to the corporate again and people could perhaps discuss this a bit more obviously. And if the newcomer is saying that this is so absurd then it's clear feedback for people in the organisations that they need to think through this a bit more perhaps and try and change this.
Sandra: So indeed sometimes thinking outside of the box requires...
Kai: Newcomers, aliens, disruption, children.
Sandra: Or indeed people who are just divorced or who have not yet learned the reality as we commonly understand it. Whether that's organisational realities or cultural ones or economic ones.
Kai: And so the best the organisation can then do is give those newcomers the mandate to call bullshit on the things that don't really make sense as an opportunity to make unfamiliar what has become so familiar to make the organisation more responsive to outside influences and indeed all of this is necessary to break with established ways in which organisations approach the world as a way to embrace disruption and it is here that we want to give a plug for DISRUPT.SYDNEY where this is very much the topic this year, 21st of September. Come and join us - information on www.disruptsydney.com and we're going to put the link in the shownotes, registrations are open and a big topic that centres exactly around this. How can organisations change from within, embrace innovation and disruption when indeed organisations are so hampered by the established ways of doing things.
Sandra: Join us for a fantastic lineup of speakers but also of workshops, of events - all the details will be included in the shownotes. And that's all we have time for today.
Kai: Thanks for listening.
Sandra: Thanks for listening.
Outro: This was The Future, This Week made awesome by the Sydney Business Insights team and members of the Digital Disruption Research Group. And every week right here with us our sound editor Megan Wedge who makes us sound good and keeps us honest. Our theme music is composed and played live from a set of garden hoses by Linsey Pollak. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, SoundCloud or wherever you get your podcasts. You can follow us online on Flipboard, Twitter or sbi.sydney.edu.au. If you have any news that you want us to discuss please send them to email@example.com.