SANTIAGO — The future isn't what it used to be, the writer Paul Valéry once famously quipped. The Internet has infused all sorts of processes with unprecedented speed, boundlessness and crushing dynamism. And the web is now increasingly combined with booming artificial intelligence — a symbiosis of biotechnology, genomics and cybernetics — that changes both the now and the later so fast that it makes all our answers obsolete. Because the questions keep changing.

Human development indicators have certainly improved in past decades, from nutrition to education and housing, health and life expectancy. Yet problems remain, from the 800 million people lacking access to drinking water to the 1,000 or more epidemics the World Health Organization has confirmed in the past five years, to monumental wealth disparity, malnutrition, obesity and drug-resistant infections. Don't forget to factor in global warming and its potentially enormous consequences.

We must also consider a demographic challenge that is not simply quantitative. In coming decades, we shall see four big changes. The demographic weight will shift from the developed to the developing world, population growth will happen in more youthful, and poorer, countries, the workforce in developed countries will age and decline, and most people will be living in cities. There will be two billion people more in 2050, though already by 2030 about 70% of all people will be "middle class," with more purchasing power and higher expectations.

Technologies might help resolve such problems, but as scientists like Stephen Hawking warn, technological advances could just as easily threaten humanity.

Stephen Hawking — Photo: Li Changxiang/Xinhua/ZUMA

The complexity and uncertainty surrounding the future has fueled the area of future studies designed to minimize uncertainties and make accurate, desired or possible projections to help shape policies.

The Millennium Project Futures Studies and Research is one think tank that has been studying the future since 1996. It is currently studying the future of work to the year 2050, an increasingly crucial, if not explosive, issue in the context of technological and artificial intelligence (AI) advances. These could provoke a vast generational gap in employment until people can adapt to the new jobs changes expect to be created, and to an entirely new working environment.

Experts believe humanity has just two decades to create a comprehensive sustainable development scenario and adapt itself to AI's effects on all aspects of social life, especially work. In the short term, the International Labor Organization expects worldwide unemployment to reach 215 million people in 2018. The sharp decline in employment in the U.S. manufacturing sector clearly illustrates the trend: the sector represented 22% of work in that country in 1980, 10.2% in 2011 and will at this rate, provide just 2.8% of U.S. jobs in 2030. While the World Bank expects one billion people to enter the job market in the next decade, the Millennium Project has studies that suggest the loss of two billion jobs by 2030.

How many taxi and van drivers will be replaced by self-driving cars? How many factory hands will become jobless with robot manufacturing, or call center attendants with the rise of AI audio assistance? The ratio of firm profits to employee numbers is falling, which signifies economic growth without jobs. Autonomous AI, which can create, write and execute software simultaneously and worldwide, will also destroy jobs even if the Internet itself creates work and business opportunities.

Fourth industrial revolution

Experts are rather evenly divided on whether technologies will create or destroy more jobs. Yet the proportions are not as important as identifying which tasks will disappear as the structure of employment changes. While this change can eliminate specific jobs, it does not necessarily mean the destruction of employment.

Certain key historical events, like the first and second industrial revolutions or mechanization, were shown to have ultimately created more work than they destroyed, and the same could occur with this "fourth" industrial revolution. Yet the adaptation period could last a generation or more without constant and aggressive policy changes in response to the current rate of changes. 3D or 4D printing, nanotechnology or online medicine may be too complex to allow millions of "traditional" workers to adapt or recycle their roles. Even the vast majority of young people are really, very simple and superficial users of computer technologies and their entire education, from primary school to university, would have to constantly adapt and change to give them the relevant skills required by new technologies. It is not something we see even in advanced states.

One must also be honest about the likelihood that many sectors will not be able to adapt to the changing format of producing goods and services. It is no coincidence that in many developed, and even certain developing countries, there are growing calls for a "universal income" formula meant in principle to avoid pockets of extreme poverty, marginalization or social explosions among all those who expect to reap nothing good from this period of transition.

Some years ago, the Chilean Innovation Council presented a study entitled Surfing the Future (Surfeando el futuro), which I believe rightly puts the emphasis on the cultural change needed to face these challenges. Without a universal culture of innovation, and without international bodies and governments thinking strategically to guide policies toward this socio-cultural change, the future may turn out to arrive more like a tidal wave than a pleasant surf.

*Héctor Casanueva is a veteran member of the Chilean foreign service, currently serving as ambassador to the World Trade Organisation.