The month was October 2019. As I sat in London being filmed for an interview for the Tej Kohli Foundation about the year ahead (see below), I could not have envisaged the oncoming global pandemic that would dominate 2020.
As I watch that video today, it’s hard not to conclude that many of the challenges I talked about then have not merely persisted, but have grown even larger and more pervasive in their potential to ignite global havoc.
We (rightly) talk about them less because the world is in survival mode amidst the biggest crisis since World War II. But when the fortunate day eventually comes that we overcome the challenges of Coronavirus, the world cannot simply sit back. A day of reckoning with the four major challenges that we will continue to face in a post-COVID world is well overdue.
Here I would like to share with you the (edited) transcript of my 2019 interview… your comments are welcome.
Tej describe what you’re seeing in the world right now, what’s working and what’s not working in your opinion?
Tej Kohli: We have geopolitical macro risks which we are all aware of, of course. Brexit is one of them and, since we are here in England, I have to mention that. But there are many even larger issues than that.
As I see it there are essentially four problems that this world now faces. Any one of them would create the type of populism, nationalism and other types of problems that we have. The first of the four problems, of course, is automation, which is displacing a lot of jobs.
In the short run, automation is causing some havoc even though in the long run it is definitely a positive. Wage stagnation and the gap between the rich and the not-so-rich is becoming wider, which is a big problem in the world. I think that automation has had a big role in this already and it’s only going to become worse before it gets any better.
The second problem we have in the world is a good thing, but again it’s affecting us adversely in the short term. And that’s globalization. Globalization for people like me who have operations all over the world is a good thing. In the long run, globalization will definitely help us to bring the whole world together as it becomes easier to communicate with all of our connected devices in a trillion-sensor Internet of Things.
But in the short term, it is having a very strong negative effect on the not so fortunate, and this poses a problem that also gives rise to nationalism and populism. I think a result of that was Mr Donald Trump being elected as well as the ‘strong men’ coming in, like Viktor Orban in Hungary.
The third problem we have, which I consider to be the biggest of these four problems, is an ageing population. It is already happening in Japan where it’s been going on for many years now already.
Despite the fact that they are one of the most innovative countries in the world, Japan has not progressed very much because they are fighting an ageing population. Their immigration policies are also not so accommodating, and therefore a lot of elderly baby boomers are there, but when it comes to younger people, there are simply not as many as there should be.
As Japan has faced this problem for the last 25–30 years we have seen what this does to an economy. And I think we are now seeing similar things in Europe and even in North America. To all those who say immigration is something that has to be curtailed, I just say look at your demographic issues before you come to that conclusion.
$250 Trillion Debt
And then to these three major problems you add the fourth problem. This world now has $250 trillion of debt that we are all living off. Historically any one of these problems would be a major issue and would create the kind of havoc that we are seeing now. Today we have all four to contend with.
But having said all of that, I actually remain generally very optimistic about the world. We have innate qualities and abilities to fight these forces and historically we have overcome big challenges. I think we will overcome these four global challenges too, but in the short term, I think we are we have some issues that we will have to overcome first.
Exchange Of Information
What’s the case for globalization when it comes to solving some of the world’s biggest public health and humanitarian challenges?
Tej Kohli: It’s an exchange of information. Whether or not you call it big data — you can call it whatever you want — if there’s an exchange of information and much faster computing, then the exchange of information is very good for curing health issues such as ailments and diseases. The information just needs to be shared in a globalized way.
I think that it’s just a matter of time now before people will start to live even longer than we do now. The 70’s or 80’s is the norm today, it used to be the 50’s or 60’s. I have often said, and I’m quoted on it all the time, that both of my teenage kids could live to be up to a hundred and twenty five years old. It’s all happening now and some very clever people are involved in this space.
The Promise Of Technology
You talk a lot about the promise of technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics to create a better world, but those technologies are also replacing jobs for poorer people. How does that reconcile with your vision?
So it is a problem because there is no way to ‘take it back. That’s the path we are headed for and if I may say so, on balance, it’s a very positive thing. But it is creating some pain in the short term as the inequality between the very rich and not-so-rich is increasing, which is not a good thing as it’s leading to all this nationalism and populism, which is then creating other problems.
All that I can say is that automation, robotics and artificial intelligence are upon us and we have to deal with them. You have to accept that it’ll make life better and poverty will end as a result of it, I am very confident of that.
But will it create some short-term pain? Yes, and it is creating some havoc right now. But if I had to choose between not having in and having it, it’s a much better thing for mankind to have it.
You’ve met a lot of the world’s business and political leaders. Which ones have inspired you the most?
Well, that’s a tough question. I’ve had the rare privilege of meeting many, but I would say, Kofi Annan. He died recently but I went to meet him a few times in Geneva where he had his head office after he had finished being UN Secretary-General. He always inspired me. He was probably one of the most effective and he was a Secretary-General for two terms. I had the good fortune of meeting him a couple of times and his outlook on the world is really something. There are some others you know Boutros Boutos-Ghali I liked a lot. Ban Ki-moon too. But I was really inspired by Kofi Annan.
You’ve said before that rather than just giving money you favour a form of ‘venture philanthropy’ — how is the Tej Kohli Foundation about more than just giving money?
Because we are trying to find technical solutions to global health problems. Artificial intelligence is one way to do it. Within my Foundation and the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute, we’re looking for scientific solutions. I think we are much more on that side of the thing now.
If you look at some famous philanthropists who we admire and look up to, then Bill and Melinda Gates are of course the best. There’s also one person we admire greatly — Jeff Bezos. He has not done much yet in terms of philanthropy, but I think he will come up with something. This is just my own feeling, I can’t be sure, I don’t know him, but seeing how he has done things in the past he would be the ultimate epitome of doing something through technical innovation to help other human beings.
I certainly hope so because he’s one of the few people who have the money, who has the ability, who has a track record and who’s basically a very good person. So this makes me wonder what he’s up to and if he’s going to come up with something. I can’t wait to see what it is. In my own work, I’m trying to bring technology into the mix to solve problems. It’s far easier said than done, but I think Jeff Bezos might teach us how to do it.
There’re nearly eight billion people on the planet now. Can the philanthropy of individuals really have a meaningful impact?
Well, let’s talk about what we have achieved so far in order to answer that question. Just Bill and Melinda Gates and the Gates Foundation has eradicated polio from this world. One of the worst diseases this mankind has ever faced. Just on their own. They’ve also almost cured malaria, cholera, typhoid and they put a big dent into HIV. This is just one couple.
They’ve done this by doing a lot of things ‘hands-on’ which is what I believe in. But surely we can do better than what we have done if just one couple has managed to do so much. Yes, granted, they’re not just any couple. Bill Gates for many years was the richest man in the world.
But I think that if more of us got involved we could end a lot of the problems, especially with the technology that we now have at our disposal. Wendy and I certainly are trying to do much smaller versions of that, and I think that if more people join us it is just a matter of time before we can end the obvious suffering of people.
Suffering will always be there, but not in the ways we as we know it.