Experts mull future at Cayman Economic Outlook 2018

Futurist Erica Orange talks about technological trends impacting the global economy. - Photo: Ken Silva

A list of speakers that included some of the world’s most prominent futurists and technology consultants discussed a variety of topics last month at the 15th annual Cayman Economic Outlook conference.

While the speakers had a wide range of backgrounds, all their talks had a common theme: They focused on current international political and technological trends, and what they could mean for the future of the global economy.

According to Atlantic Council senior fellow Jamie Metzl, the world is being pulled by two opposing forces, one political and one technological.

On the political end, there is a rising trend of nationalism amongst many developed countries, which are pushing against globalization with more isolationist trade and immigration policies, said Metzl. This is best illustrated by the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, as well as U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Transpacific Trade Partnership – a trade agreement between 11 countries, most of which are in the Asia-Pacific region.

This is a dangerous tend for multiple reasons, Metzl contended. The current world political regime that has existed since the end of World War II – headed by the U.S. – has led to unprecedented prosperity, he said. Jurisdictions like Cayman are also some of the primary beneficiaries of globalism, he said.

The biggest threat posed is that if the U.S. withdraws as a leader on the political stage, it could leave a power vacuum for a country like China to fill. China is “rising with its own world view” that could be antithetical to the values that pervade the current political regime, said Metzl.

“What the future will look like is up for grabs in a way it hasn’t been since 1945,” he said. However, in direct opposition to the current anti-globalization trend is technology, which is tying the world closer together, he said.

While this has been an ongoing trend to various degrees for centuries, Metzl many changes have been “linear” trends that have built up over time – such as the airplane building on the steamship, making travelling easier. But other technologies will have non-linear impacts, entirely changing the way industries function, he said. For instance, Metzl said he recently was able to witness a Walmart store manager use a VR headset to receive training from other Walmart staffers in a different country. Technology like virtual reality will doubtlessly impact society in ways we cannot predict, he added.

Despite the unpredictability, all the technological changes will likely bind the world more closely together.

The disruption brought by financial technology will also impact labor forces throughout the world, including here in Cayman, according to Erica Orange, the chief operations officer for the futurist consulting firm Future Hunters.

Politicians on both ends of the political spectrum have been wringing their hands over the manual labor that is being displaced by automation. But that’s old news, said Orange.

“Most people focus on disintermediation of manual labor. But this is nothing new,” she said. “What will be new over the next 20 years is disintermediation of cognitive labor.”

The audience at the conference shifted uneasily as Orange predicted that thousands of legal, accounting, investment banking, trading, and other financial services positions will be automated within the next two decades.

“We’re already seeing this in the medical profession,” she said. The service industry, too, will be greatly impacted by technology. Cashiers are already being displaced by computers at fast food restaurants, and Orange said that businesses like Amazon Go – a store in Seattle that’s largely automated, with customers being able to buy products without going through a checkout station – will become increasingly prevalent.

With an increasing number of females occupying these professions, Orange said that the women will be disproportionally impacted compared to men. According to World Economic Forum, technological disruption will cause 5 million positions to be lost by 2020 globally, with women taking 3 million of those losses – and gaining only 550,000 jobs from the new tech during that time.

Even jobs based on “emotional-based” labor are being performed by machines. Orange showed a video of a robotic pet seal sitting the lap of an elderly Japanese man in a retirement home, keeping him company.

The skills that machines have not been automated are those that entail using emotional intelligence – recognizing non-verbal cues in other humans, for example – as well as critical thinking and creative thinking, said Orange. Though she did not specify what jobs will utilize those creative thinking- and emotional intelligence-based skills, Orange said thousands of financial service providers and other workers will need retraining to fill those roles. Developing a new educational approach towards young people is particularly important, she said. She said the generation following the Millennials is the first one to have a “truly symbiotic” relationship with technology. Therefore, she said this generation is being dubbed the “Cybrids.” Because the Cybrids are the first to grow up on smart phones and related technology, their brains are different than any other generation, she said. “Their neural wiring is different: They are literally growing new brains,” she said. Orange contended that this generation needs to be educated accordingly.

“When it comes to educating them, we are putting new brains in an archaic school system,” she said. “When they can’t perform in class, can’t pay attention, we think there’s something wrong with them.”

Orange suggested that virtual reality should play more of a role in education than reading something out of a book.

“Why read about biology when you can use virtual reality to – incorporating touch and smell in VR – if you can actually be a blood cell flowing through someone’s body?” she said. “Why read about planets when you can actually be an astronaut?”

But despite the advances in technology, younger people will still need to be taught the emotional intelligence and social skills in order to be able to interact with older generations and function in the real world, she said.

The country that gets the combination of tech and social education right will be able to “leapfrog everything that U.S. and Europe is trying to do,” she said.