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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The message from the Toronto Global Forum: The Future is Technology

Yesterday and Monday, Toronto's Royal York Hotel was filled with hundreds of high-powered financial and political notables who were there to mingle and listen to panels prognosticating about economic growth at the International Economic Forum of the America's Toronto Global Forum.

I was a guest of one of the Forum's sponsors, the wonderful people at The Stampede Group, and the message that came out loud and clear at the sessions on Monday that I attended was that the future lies in the fields of technology and infrastructure development.

A fascinating lunch panel moderated by the CBC's Amanda Lang provided some interesting perspectives from former New York City Deputy Mayor and current (although soon to be outgoing) President and CEO of Bloomberg L.P., Daniel Doctoroff and Michael Sabia, President and CEO of the Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec, which manages that province's public pension funds.

The staggering figure of three to four trillion dollars annual required for global infrastructure development and maintenance that Mr. Sabia mentioned was the catalyst for some difficult questions about the balance between the need for investment and the challenges of paying for it. Infrastructure development contributes to productivity by easing transport and flow of goods and people, which is something much on the minds of Torontonians, who face the worst traffic congestion of any major city in North America. Infrastructure investment also, in addition to providing jobs, contributes to technological developments and the ability to make further economic gains.

During a speech prior to the lunch panel, Ontario's Finance Minister Charles Sousa had committed, on behalf of the provincial government, the willingness to spend $120 Billion on such projects during the current government's term. He also pledged to balance the provincial budget by the fiscal year of 2017/18. For a province facing an enormous debt load by which about 10% of all taxes are used to pay interest on debt, it will be intriguing to see if and how those commitments are achieved.

The question of income inequality came of, as it almost invariably does at economic discussions these days, and Mr. Doctoroff provided some insightful perspectives on how the subject is in effect a red herring.

He believes it is "middle class fear" that is driving much of that perception, but the reality is that so-called income inequality is not a dangerous economic factor. That suggestion is borne out of data that indicates that poor people in developed countries are in fact richer than ever, with more access to services and technology, and with more potential for upward mobility than at any other time. Beyond that, on a global scale, poverty is being alleviated at a greater rate and widespread famine is on the verge of becoming a thing of the past. The "income inequality" argument is frequently based, not on any actual detrimental effect on lower economic classes, but on a manipulative effort on the part of some social and political activists to serve their own ideological interests.

At a later discussion on the future of technological Sony Computer and Science Lab's President and CEO Hiroaki Kitano, Sophie Vandebroek, Xerox's CTO and President of its Innovation Group both expressed the view that the big thing coming that will have a major effect on how we all live will be Artificial Intelligence. Integrated systems will be a major game changer, including self-driving cars, voice-controlled, and self-regulating appliances, and more.

By an extraordinary coincidence, almost at the same time, Tesla Motors and Space X founder Elon Musk, with whom I'm acquainted and who was kind enough to give me a tour of the Space X plant a few years ago,  came out with a warning while speaking at MIT that Artificial Intelligence could actually represent an existential threat to mankind. Musk referred to it as "summoning the demon" which we may not end up being able to control. Those of us who are fans of science fiction have been aware of that nightmare scenario for some time.

One thing that is certain is that those who are informed of and educated in science and technology will be the ones who decide our future. But whether the technological advances coming ease the human condition or threaten it are all confusing questions to which only time will provide the answer.

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