Federal panel lists 35 ‘plausible’ future threats to Canada and the world

In a new report, a think-tank within Employment and Social Development Canada cites 35 “plausible” global disruptions that could reshape Canada and the world in the near future.

The Policy Horizons Canada (PHC) panel drafted the list and then asked more than 500 stakeholders within and outside government to suggest which ones were more likely, when they might happen and how one might trigger others.

The authors of the report point out that the list is an exploration of theoretical — not guaranteed — threats. They say that even “seemingly distant or improbable” calamities can become reality and thinking about them helps governments create “robust and resilient policies.”

Leading the report’s top ten list — those threats that could have the greatest impacts and are most likely to happen — is the threat to truth.

PHC’s report says that in as little as three years, the world’s “information ecosystem” could be flooded with misinformation and disinformation created by both people and artificial intelligence (AI).

It warns that algorithms designed to engage audiences emotionally rather than factually could “increase distrust and social fragmentation,” isolating people in “separate realities shaped by their personal media …”

“Public decision making could be compromised as institutions struggle to effectively communicate key messaging on education, public health, research and government information,” the report says.

The second and third threats on the top ten list are environmental: ecosystem collapse due to loss of biodiversity and extreme weather events overwhelming our ability to respond.

In five to six years, the report says, a collapse in biodiversity “could have cascading impacts on all living things, putting basic human needs such as clean air, water and food in jeopardy.”

It says that impacts on key industries like farming, fishing and logging could lead to “major economic loss,” leaving people unable to “meet their basic needs.”

The report warns the increasing frequency of wildfires, floods and severe storms could destroy property and infrastructure, displacing millions of people and worsening the mental health crisis.

AI could run wild

In as little as four to five years, cyber attacks could disable critical infrastructure and billionaires could use their influence to run the world, the PHC warns.

The report says that cyber attacks on critical infrastructure could leave governments struggling to deliver services and compromise access to essential goods.

And in five years, the report says, the super-rich could use their influence to shape public policy and impose their values and beliefs on the world, “bypassing democratic governance principles.”

“As their power grows, billionaires could gain warfare capabilities and control over natural resources and strategic assets,” the report says. “Some might co-opt national foreign policy or take unilateral diplomatic or military action, destabilizing international relations.”

AI-generated misinformation and disinformation could end up fragmenting national populations, the report warns. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Jeremie Harris, head of Gladstone AI, a U.S.-based advisory firm which studies the consequences of artificial intelligence development, said the heightened risks to cybersecurity are worth highlighting, given the rapid development of AI technology.

“We’re always very careful every time we talk about AI: It’s the promise and the peril, they come hand and hand,” he said in an interview. 

Harris noted that as AI models get more advanced, they could potentially execute more complex cyberattacks, more cheaply than before. The potential risks of technology like AI can be hard to wrap one’s mind around, he added. 

He said there have been some efforts to control the pace and nature of AI technological development — such as an executive order from the U.S. president. 

Harris said that when discussing AI, it’s important to balance the potential positives with the risks.

“We have to walk and chew gum at the same time.”

The PHC report suggests that in six years, AI could run wild. “This rapid development and spread of AI could outpace regulatory efforts to prevent its misuse, leading to many unforeseen challenges,” the report says.

AI-generated content could end up manipulating and dividing national populations, driving values-based clashes, the report warns. In a worst-case scenario, it adds, AI could compromise critical infrastructure, putting pressure on vital resources and accelerating climate change.

Ranked seventh on the report’s list of top-ten threats is the prospect of widespread shortages of vital resources like water, sand and critical minerals. In as little as eight years time, the report says, this scarcity could lead to “cascading impacts on human health and social stability.”

“Prices of resources could become volatile and economies unstable, as once-abundant vital resources become scarce,” the report says.

The competition for what remains, it adds, could cause instability and “devolve into armed conflict, driving nations into war over resources.”

Coming in at eighth on the list is what the report describes as the normalization of downward social mobility.

“With housing becoming increasingly unaffordable and work arrangements more precarious, socioeconomic conditions for Canadians could decline from one generation to the next,” the report says.

The threat to democracies

In as little as five years time, the report warns, people could “lose hope in improving their lives,” creating economic and social stress “as the extremely wealthy continue to accumulate a larger share of the wealth.”

Coming in at ninth place is the possibility that Canada’s aging population, labour shortages, increasing rates of disease and funding restrictions could lead to a collapse of the health care system within six years, PHC says.

“If Canadians cannot count on reliable access to effective health care, there may be increased mortality rates, distrust in fundamental government services, damage to Canada’s global reputation, impacts to immigration and social upheaval,” the report says.

David Jones, a policy expert with the Canadian Centre for Health Economics, said it’s useful to look at potential threats to the health-care system, but he doesn’t believe that a system collapse would come in a sudden, dramatic fashion — barring another pandemic-like event.

He said that rather than a “flip” into a total collapse, a better way to think about the issue was to consider that parts of the health-care system were already in crisis, such as rural emergency rooms, and to imagine an “increasing, gradual building of pressure.”

Jones flagged a number of persistent and difficult-to-solve problems that are plaguing the system which could intensify over the coming years, including long waitlists, limited access and the broader pressures of an aging population in Canada.

Jones said a number of incremental changes across the system were resulting in improvements, from data sharing, digitization of health records, the proliferation of health-care teams and preliminary use of some artificial intelligence to reduce administrative burdens.

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Last on the list is the prospect of a breakdown in democratic systems. The report notes that authoritarian governments around the world outnumber democracies and “the struggle between the two ideologies is messy in many countries.”

“Democracy is showing signs of decline around the world. Even countries with a long history of democratic values and systems are facing challenges to their democratic institutions,” the report says. 

“As society fragments into distinct groups, each with its own perception of the world, it could become impossible to build national consensus and design policies, programs and messages that serve the population.”

The report’s conclusion says that being aware of future threats can help governments prepare and mitigate risks.

“While the disruptions in this report are not guaranteed to take place, they are plausible — and overlooking them may carry risks in various policy areas,” the report warns.

You can read the report here.

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