What will we value in the future?


Society 4.0: What Will Europeans Value?

Ann Mettler

The European Union (EU) is at its essence “founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.” When European countries become members of the EU, they voluntarily commit to uphold these principles—just as the EU vows to respect their “national identities,” also reflected in their political and constitutional structures.

A Union of 28 countries with more than 500 million citizens is hardly a monolith. The European Union is instead the very expression of unity in diversity. Up to now, this has been our strength. We are united but we do not seek uniformity. We are diverse but we seek to avoid divisions. Compromise and overcoming differences is at the core of how the EU operates and is what makes us stronger on the global stage. Indeed, experience suggests that the EU is greater than the sum of its parts when it acts with a single voice, whether on trade, regulation or competition policy. As European Commission President Juncker likes to say “together, we stand taller.”

However, in a more complex and uncertain world where the pace of technological change accelerates profound changes in our governing (and governance) systems, economies and societies, can this diversity actually sharpen differences among Europeans and foster division? If so, what impact will this have on the European Union and its policies? What does this mean for our democratic systems and founding values?

A look back may provide a few pointers on some of these difficult questions, as well as what they could mean in the future. During Europe’s migration and refugee crisis of 2015/16, it became clear that, while many Europeans shared a sense of humanitarian duty to provide shelter to those fleeing conflict, just as many felt concern about what the influx might mean in terms of national identity and how it might impact the social welfare state, or even security and public order. The values of “openness” for some and “protection” for others were clearly in opposition and could not be reconciled.

Matters of cultural, religious and ethnic diversity, as well as integration, are sensitive issues in Europe and almost a taboo for mainstream European political families. Yet, this “speechlessness” for fear of being accused of racism or xenophobia allows the political fringes to simplify complex issues, dominate the airwaves and grow their share of the vote. Together with disinformation campaigns that have sought to exploit or magnify differences within society, finding the appropriate policy responses at the European level have become increasingly problematic.

A look forward shows that values may be changing further in Europe and beyond—what we valued in the past, we may not necessarily value in the future. How else can one explain 13 consecutive years democratic freedoms declining around the world? One cannot deny that the road to authoritarianism has often been paved by democratic elections and free choices that citizens have made at the ballot box. Is this an indication that value systems are changing? Is economic stability and security— or “taking back control” and restoring sovereignty by leaving multilateralism behind—more important than freedom in this new century? Is the rise of the global middle class perhaps not a boon to democracy and open economies but rather the opposite? And how could we have been so wrong in assuming what people value most?

These questions are of vital European interest as they shatter long-held expectations and call on policymakers to better understand and anticipate what citizens may value in the future. Are we prepared to have this debate? And are we ready to start talking about key sensitive issues in an open and constructive way? Or will we leave this ground to be exploited by the political fringes on the left and right?

Weird Ideas about Algorithms, Personal Identity and the End of Privacy

Andrew Critch

Starting in 2015, I’ve made a professional study of what I’d call “Open Source Game Theory”, and I’ve found a number of results that have been deeply surprising, not only to myself, but to broadly selected experts within both computer science and game theory. I’ll refrain from trying to exposit those results at this interdisciplinary gathering, and instead I’ll share some personal takeaways I’ve made from studying them. These ideas have not been subject to the same level of peer review as the technical findings themselves, and in fact are quite weird, but I gather the spirit of this meeting is to share ideas like these!

So. I predict that in the future—assuming humanity survives—we will eventually develop intelligent non-human algorithms with something like:

  • Agency—the ability to control the future somewhat through decision-making

  • Active identity—a sense of personal boundary defining what actions the algorithms is responsible for

  • Experiential identity—a sense of personal boundary defining what inputs the algorithm is subject

  • Psychological identity—a sense of personal boundary defining what computations are “internal” to the algorithm

Such algorithms could perhaps be created by copying and modifying human minds, as described in Robin Hanson’s book, Age of Em. However, before such a future would have the chance to come about, I predict intelligent algorithms built “from scratch” will begin to face strange situations that humans are not used to encountering. Specifically, I expect algorithms to need to ask themselves questions like:

  • Am I real? Are my current actions or experiences happening in a simulation in someone’s imagination, instead of “ground-level reality”?

  • Am I a copy? Am I the first copy of me, or are there many?

  • Am I sentient? Are my current actions being played out in a way that is actually yielding an experience for me, or are they just non-simulated terms (for example, algebraic expressions that are not being expanded) in an equation that someone else is thinking about?

As the designers of intelligent algorithms become more acquainted with these issues in mathematical terms, and as the disappearance of privacy reveals more details about the innards of human minds, ancient philosophical questions about the nature of dreams, individuality, sentience, and purpose will begin to seem resolved to an increasingly broad set of people, in ways that would likely surprise many present-day thinkers. In particular, I predict many humans will begin to view themselves as collections of algorithms, and begin to ask whether separate parts of their own minds are dreaming, sentient, or copied. I also expect
many present-day paradigms of human ethics to remain familiar and understandable through this new lens, while others might end up shifting toward a more cooperative dynamic.

What Will We Value and How Will That Change Us?

Pamela Chng

I see two overarching themes at play.

The first is Health over Wealth.

Our collective obsession with wealth has caused us to neglect our physical, mental and emotional health. We suffer a social poverty of the soul. So what parts of human health do we need to value? Given the emergence of technology, robotics and AI today, the uniquely human parts of us—judgment, consciousness, discernment, empathy and ethics—are exactly what we need to cultivate.

In order to harness our humanity, we will need to develop our EQ, curiosity, patience and kindness. Only then will be able to navigate motivations, manage paradox and complexity, and create space for the marginalised whose perspectives can expand our possibilities. We need to dwell in the gap between what is and what must be, so as to learn how to build a bridge from one to the other. Every cobblestone of that bridge will be made up of the diverse things we value.

The second theme is Sustainability over Growth.

Changing power structures necessitate shifts in what we value, and conversely only those who feel powerless dare to challenge existing structures and values. We see such challenges across the world. This dynamic is also present in current Sustainability discourse. We need to manage the sustainability trilemma—social, environmental and economic—so as to meet today’s needs without compromising tomorrow’s.

For the past eight years, I’ve struggled to create and run an organisation of the future that works in the context of the present. It is one that must operate on tomorrow’s values but exist within today’s rules and power structures. I struggle to meet current limiting, uni-dimensional KPIs. While I want to invest in the people in my organisation, the market often penalises me for this.

I need to ruthlessly identify the core purpose and drivers of my business, and discern what metrics and decisions are essential for survival today that won’t hamper sustainable thriving tomorrow. That is my greatest leadership challenge. There are days I feel we are not doing enough, that we are not fast-moving, smart or strong enough to face this challenge.

But then there are other days.

John is one of our graduates from our social programme— - he is now working in our academy full time. John sits somewhere along the spectrum of autism and intellectual disability—I’m not sure and it doesn’t matter. Last month when it was just him and I left in the pantry at lunchtime, he said:


“You know, BB is strange. I’m still trying to figure out why. The people here are all so different. Yet, somehow, everything works. I think I’ve tested the patience of many people, but they still help me. People here move on easily from the challenges of working with me. In BB, I realise we are broken people trying to heal broken people.”

On days like this, I have no doubt that my struggle is worthwhile, and is what we need to
embrace for our future health and humanity.

Language and Identity in Singapore

Yeo Wei Wei

In Singapore English has been promoted as a global tool of communication, essential for gaining an economic edge. The justification for teaching English as a separate subject from literature stems from this view of English. What need is there for the reading of poetry if the purpose of English is to achieve multi-national business gains? If language is viewed as a tool for transactions, we will not spend too much of our limited resources on nurturing a relationship with words beyond what is required for such transactions.

A cost is exacted. The English that is spoken and written by someone who sees it as an instrument of communication devoid of emotional content may be grammatically sound, but what value is this English to the individual and society?

The value of language is inseparable from the value of individuality and community. The particularities matter. How we speak and how we write are expressions of who we are to others. Expression and communication are the most recognised functions of language. They are the outward signs of processes of cognition and feeling within the self. We shape how we see things, what we feel about something or someone, through words.

Our sense of self is shaped by our families, and by affiliations that spread out from there like nationality, gender, class, race and religion. Language is essential in all these aspects of human identity.

Singaporeans’ proficiency in English gave the rest of the world a certain impression of who we are and what we stand for in the context of world politics in the 1960s through to the 1990s. This image of smooth appropriation belies on-the-ground experiences of rifts, rupture, erasure, hybridity. To recognise this is to acknowledge the struggles between different cultures within ourselves and the influences at work upon society.