The world has a fifty percent chance of seeing a new Cold War - not alone due to ructions in Ukraine, but importantly because of sabre-rattling over disputed maritime territories in the South and East China Seas.
That’s the assessment of Dr Dan Steinbock - one of the world’s most respected strategists and an advisor to governments and businesses worldwide.
His was another cheery assessment of geo-politics, at a investment conference I attended in Kuala Lumpur the other day. An enlightening one, though...
All the Chinese ministers and officials that Dan talks to stress they want no fighting over any of the islands whose ownership they dispute with Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam and so on.
But they countenance no compromise on sovereignty.
So - what do you do with that knowledge?
How do you deal with an assessment which comes out 50:50?
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Inevitably the question comes up : “What do you think is most likely to happen next, Dan?”
And it’s not a question from a lazy journalist, either.
Plenty of delegates to this gathering asked the same thing.
Human beings crave certainty about the future. Some of us can make a profit from betting the right way too.
He brought it all together in an hour’s easily digested talk.
But he’s not actually a supercomputer, and so drawing conclusions from the myriad bits of data is very hard.
So many butterflies, whose wings could flutter, and cause so many storms - far, far away...
Frankly, those who create predictive models have often found that the more complexity they put into a system, the less perfect the predictions.
Yet, managed, they can produce some astonishing revelations. I remember talking to a war historian and a video-games designer. They had collaborated to examine what would have happened in the 1930s, if Britain had actually refused Nazi Germany’s demand to take over the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia.
They actually used popular gaming software, which you could buy off-the-shelf, to model that period.
Conventional wisdom held that if Neville Chamberlain had done the morally correct thing, and refused the take-over, then Hitler would not have become emboldened. No war, maybe.
But the game produced a different result, the vast majority of the times it was run. Instead it suggested that Britain would have been on its own in refusing the Nazi demand, and facing a lonely choice of whether or not to really go ahead and punish Germany somehow. Poland might have been invaded even sooner
The war historian was astonished. And being British, a bit embarrassed too, at the powerlessness apparently inherent in taking a more moral position. The game designer was proud of his product.
What the best 'grown-up' computer models do is take their massive bins full of data, and deliberately tweak them a little. Adding or subtracting from a figure here and there. To see how that affects the outcome.
Operators run the model very many times, tweaking as they go, and then see which result still occurs most frequently. Even if that result is a smidgeon different, each iteration. That most popular outcome becomes the favoured prediction.
And that’s how the UK’s Meteorological Office was able to ramp up the complexity of its data input, while stabilising the output - and improve long range weather forecasting, recently.
(* The world’s fastest computer, China’s Tianhe-2 is capable of this, according to Wikipedia.
It does 33,000,000,000,000,000 calculations a second.)
And that’s because he’s dealing with that most variable variable of all - the human being. How do you encode for the wish of a minister not to lose face? Or for a citizen not to riot over an empty rice-bowl?
And would the right people listen if you did get your forecast right?
...Would they make the right decision based on it?
Dr Parag Khanna was another star at the conference in KL - reminding us how inter-connected we are economically and politically in this multi-polar world. Again, Parag is listened to respectfully by corporations and governments worldwide.
...But, if the message doesn’t fit…
Parag flew around Afghanistan alongside General Stanley McChrystal in stealthy Black Hawk helicopters during the American mission there.
(He told me he once waited on a moonless night waiting for one chopper, which he could hear clearly nearby, but could not see at all. It was fifty metres in front of him.)
To support. To safeguard aid. But not to be an army.
Generals could not take that advice on board, because politicians would not heed that advice, back at home.
Sometimes, more knowledge doesn’t necessarily produce more clarity.
And sometimes more knowledge changes the outcome, not one iota.