Considering the current highly volatile and changing world, our contemporary societies and all private and public actors need to reduce uncertainty regarding the future. The aim is to survive and to move forward in the best possible way. Thus, we must identify and assess the changes that we shall have to face and that are already at work.

These changes are interconnected and wide-ranging. They spread from climate change to Artificial Intelligence and Quantum Information Science, from the evolution of the modern nation-state to the transition of the international order with notably the rise of China and the U.S. reaction, through terrorism, to name only a few.

We must prepare for these changes. In the best cases, we may try steering them towards a future that is desirable.

Foresight in ancient and pre-modern societies

In ancient and pre-modern societies, the class of the priests were responsible for foreseeing the future (e.g. Norbert Elias, Time: An Essay,Blackwell Publishers, 1992 [1988]). Then, they were interacting in a sometimes tense way with rulers. Political authorities were using those forecasts and warnings to rule society, indeed to coordinate with changes happening in their environment, be it in terms of agriculture such as knowing when to plant crops, or in military terms such as planning for defense or attacks (ibid.). Most actors, actually, such as traders for example, also used the foresight of priests and priestesses such as the renown Delphi Pythia.

Slide 5 from Dr Helene Lavoix Presentation to
3rd ARF Seminar on Preventive Diplomacy, Mediation and Early Warning Systems, Yangon Myanmar, June 2017

We can find the use of oracles spread throughout geography and cultures, from the Chinese Yi King to the Roman augury.

Foresight and warning in modern societies

From Science to Artificial Intelligence

Today, science and thus scientists have most often taken over the foresight mission from the priests, although with variations according to countries.

Yet, over the second part of the twentieth century and up until the beginning of the 21st century, part of science, notably social sciences, has sometimes completely given up its predictive mission, if not the very idea of science. The school of thoughts called postmodernism has a huge responsibility in this sorry evolution (see Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

However, most recently, some philosophers and social scientists have now started denouncing postmodernism, as also favouring… fake news (on invitation only “G7 – Interaxions- DGSE/ MEAE-CAPS / CANADA-SCRS : Atelier “Manipulations de l’information : la démocratie sous influence, 18 mars 2019 “). As a result, social scientists are highly likely to return to their true purpose and to reconquer the foresight field. The return of social scientists is all the more important that “predictions” are part and parcel of the rapidly expanding artificial intelligence (AI). Indeed, scientists labelled “prediction” the output resulting from AI-deep learning, at the end of the phase called inference.

Together, these signals indicate the end of a quasi taboo cast on “predictions”.

However, the danger is that only AI could be allowed to make “predictions”. Large IT companies such as Microsoft or IBM have started to sell these very machine learning generated predictions. In the case of IBM Watson, for example, the first 5000 predictions are free. Then, we move to $0.50 USD /1,000 predictions, with a decreasing price according to quantity. True enough, we are still far from the products the various crafts of anticipation output. Nonetheless, a novel phenomenon is at work.

Yet, we could see the birth of an ill-adapted, one-size-fits-all, “prediction industry”. In that world, very large business actors could use and apply “blackbox” algorithms to each and every client, to each and every issue. The absence of understanding of AI, where communication and marketing emphasises only learning on different types of big data could contribute to this threat. The fact that “IBM halts sales of Watson AI For Drug Discovery and Research (Joel Hruska, ExtremeTech, 22 April 2019) could be a first symptom of such a danger at work. Furthermore, the companies possessing and developing the algorithms would finally decide the strategy and fate of their clients. Absence of consideration of a diversity of risk contexts, of strategies and crafts could lead to catastrophes.

On the contrary, a carefully developed AI aiming at predictions, involving the right knowledge, understanding and actors, could boost foresight and improve its results.

Foresight and warning capabilities and actors

Alongside science and scientists, theoretically, modern actors have endowed themselves – or not – with foresight capabilities and expertise. We have either a direct link, with in-house staff, or an outsourced one, with the use of external experts, scientific advisors and consultants. Often, actors use a mix of the three to struggle against silos and various biases. Such a combined approach also enhances the odds to pick up on weak signals, notably for emerging risks.

In the public sector, foresight and warning, if it is done at all, is mainly endeavoured by small teams within administrations, mostly for military, sometimes intelligence, needs, or with an exclusive focus on a specific area such as economics or technological innovation. In some countries, this small team is located at the level of the Prime Minister’s Office or equivalent. When this is the case, foresight is likely to have a larger weight.

When foresight is not done or when its weight is minored, which is largely the case in many countries, then entire nations and societies are deprived of the results of the foresights’ offices. As a result, nations are exposed to unforeseen risks. In turn, the capabilities to answer and adapt are weakened.

In the corporate world, foreseeing, when, again, it is done at all, tends to be restricted to a narrower approach to risks. The interest is often focused solely on what could immediately and directly impact activity and profits, such as changes in regulations or quantitative financial risks. Consequently, all other risks, which, if they want to be mitigated must be answered early, are often ignored. Hence, no plan is designed and even less carried out. The cost is immense.

Insurance and reinsurance companies, because of the very nature of their activity, are, among others, a major exception to this rule. Most of the time, they benefit from excellent teams, developing exemplary foresight and risk management approaches and products. For example, we have Axa Foresight, and emerging risks, Munich-Re Emerging Risks, Swiss-Re Emerging Risks and Political Risks, etc. We must also highlight the case of Shell with its well-known approach to foresight through scenarios.

Usually, smaller companies, to say nothing of start ups, do not use foresight at all.

Yet, this is not a fatality. Good foresight is accessible to all. This is what the Red (Team) Analysis believes in and what we offer.

A new “responsibility to foresee” for citizens and corporate actors?

Meanwhile, as societies evolved from what we loosely called “ancient and pre-modern societies” to “modern societies”, their very structure changed towards more complexity.(1)

We still live in an international word populated by modern nation-states(2). The nation is one of the main legitimating principles of that type of actors. Thus, the true rulers are the citizens regrouped in different nations, represented by governments, as well as assemblies in the case of representative democracies. The state, i.e. the entity that seconds the ruler to govern, is, most often, a formal rational-legal bureaucracy (see our bibliography on the modern nation-state).

Meanwhile, traders and the corporate and financial sector have developed in a complex web of actors of all sizes and of varying power. They interact in various, sometimes very novel ways, with political actors. They are of the nation, but also sometimes part of a possibly new international order. In all cases, they are a major actor of polities.

Because rulers nowadays also include the Nation, and because the corporate actors are such an important actor, then, citizens and private and public companies have a duty to assume their role and to be aware of the changes the future may hold. This is true if they want to choose their representatives properly and thus to benefit from a functioning representative democracy. This is even truer if they want to move towards a degree of direct democracy. This is true in any case, if they want to remain in charge of their own destiny, without falling prey to many dangerous traps.

In any case, considering the way human beings tend to handle or mishandle power, all actors, if they want to avoid seeing predatory behaviours develop against them, would benefit from using foresight and warning, alongside other usual political processes.

To conclude, citizens and nations, as well as the corporate sector, on top of the typical state’s administration offices, need to use foresight and warning. This is necessary if they do not want to fall prey to the negative impacts of unforeseen political and geopolitical uncertainties. Companies need to fully integrate foresight within their business functions and process.

Finally, we must wonder about the rising use of AI and its specific predictions. What is and will be the impact on societies? Can we allow “predictions” to become a black-box commodity? To which point? For which domains and issues? Which actors should we trust and why? How to hold them accountable? What must be the role of human beings? How can different actors handle these questions?

The future role and place of citizens and national and international, small and large companies in a world where AI exists, where transition is at work, and where a quickly rising and expanding China favours AI-managed social credit systems (e.g. Adam Minter, “Why Big Brother Doesn’t Bother Most Chinese“, Bloomberg, 24 January 2019) are vital and key questions for each and everyone of us.

The philosophy behind The Red (Team) Analysis Society is to help meet the need for foresight and warning and to contribute, alongside likeminded actors, to answer the new crucial questions we face.

Notes and references

(1)Note, though, that polities may succeed or not into evolving towards a more complex and better adapted form. For example, Thomas Ertman has documented in its masterful work the difficulties faced by the European polities to reinvent a long-lasting type of system following the fall of the Roman Empire (Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997). Meanwhile, Jared Diamonds has documented the collapse of some societies (Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin Books, 2011; for open access reviews, Wikipedia summary; Gregg Easterbrook, “‘Collapse’: How the World Ends“, The New York Times, 30, January 2005). Foresight could be one way to enhance the odds to create successful new types of polities.

(2)We use the end of the twentieth century as reference, even though it is already past, because of the difficulty human beings have to see their conceptual models evolving (Anderson, Pepper & Ross, “Perseverance of Social Theories: The Role of Explanation
in the Persistence of Discredited Information
, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1980, Vol. 39, No.6, 1037-1049). Thus, we hypothesise here that, in general, we perceive the world as it was and not as it is, and even less as it will be (the whole purpose of foresight being, actually, to help us overcoming these shortcomings).