A short conversation about how to prepare for the unknown

Finding much to look forward to when contemplating the digital jungle

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Farid Chehab is known for his innovative mind, having developed fresh advertising concepts throughout his career as a director of international ad agency Leo Burnett. Today, as honorary chairman and advisor to the board of Leo Burnett Beirut, Chehab appears to be more curious than ever about new concepts. Executive sat down with him to discuss his third book, which is forthcoming.

E   Bridge to the 21st Century is your third book in six or seven years. Your first book entailed very specific national proposals on how to better manage Lebanon’s water wealth for the people and the economy; the second contained more personal reflections on happiness and creativity. Where does the upcoming third book take your oeuvre and what is the story behind the writing of it?

This book is very dear to my heart because I spent a lot of time on it. It all began with the Harvard Arab Weekend in 2015. I was invited to Harvard to give a speech on how to prepare our region for [greater connectivity with] the world. I had some ideas in this regard. I shared them in this presentation, which was very well received, but in doing my presentation I realized that when I was talking about [taking] the Arab world to the West, the wider issue is that our world is facing a new world, which is the digital world. So I used the four pillars from my presentation that I think are essential [when being confronted with a very powerful new reality], and wrote about these four essential pillars.

E   In the note that you sent me about Bridge to the 21st Century, the four pillars were listed as resilience, ideas, values, and tolerance. All these are concepts that we associate with important human mental achievements, but what makes them special in the context of preparing ourselves, our kids, and our grandkids for the digital age?

The digital age is an age of mental effort. It is totally new. However, we have been living in an age of consumerism, which means that people are not ready. They are no longer used to making a mental effort because things come easily to them. But because the premier métier, or first task, in preparing for the digital age is [related to the mind], the first pillar [in becoming ready for the digital age] should be resilience. Because if you don’t build resilience, you don’t develop your mental agility and mental power.   

E   Can you describe what you mean by resilience? The term has been used in many different ways, from describing someone’s ability to bend but not break under existential crises to characterizing the state of the Lebanese banking system over the past 10 years.

Resilience means a lot of things, and it starts with education. If you tell parents today, “Your children will not be equipped for the 21st century,” they will often respond that children will get used to [the digital age] and point out, “My kid is playing very well on their smartphone.” This is silly, because the more the child plays, the less they will develop mental energy. Playing is not the same as developing mental energy. For this, you have to develop the screen that you can play on, not play on a screen. In this, there is a paradigm shift in education and we have to move away from the misunderstanding of education.

E   Why are your other pillars important? What does creativity have in common with values, and what connects values and tolerance?

I compare the new age, the digital age, to an unexplored jungle, because everything is unknown. Besides being resilient, what do you do to survive in an unknown jungle that is full of dangers? You need to come up with ideas, be inventive. You will die if you are not inventive, because someone else who is more inventive will [make you] fade away. If you want to survive economically, you need to be inventive—look at all the successful digital gurus and geek entrepreneurs: they invent all the time; ideas drive them. This is also coming back to education. If you want the kids to be inventive, you need to prepare them to be inventive. Under the old education models, you have [repetitive cycles of] teach and absorb. But the brain [does not work best] in absorption mode; it should be in the mode of invention.

The next pillar, values, is all about  capitalism, the flow of the economy, and the environment. We are now in the Anthropocene and have started changing our world, but not with an attitude that would be compatible with nature. We need to start taking care of this, which means solar versus fossil [fuels] and the fusion of hydrogen. Entire industries have to change to new values. Today’s values have to be “to do good” and use less energy.

Also, there will be the problem of job destruction. How do you solve the problem that by 2030, 800 million jobs will have vanished, as [businessman and investor] Jack Ma predicts? All of that means that you need to listen, understand, and connect—so you need to have tolerance. Intolerance is the end of the world.

E   As you are talking about such problems now, do you see us as moving toward the end of the world, a day of doom?

No, I am very optimistic. I believe that the human political problem will have to be solved because of the existing pressure to solve the problems related to Mother Earth. Necessity will oblige us to solve these problems. But the biggest problem and test of tolerance is [not the environment and] not human rivalry. It is the coming new tyrant, which is the digital age. It is artificial intelligence. How will you, Mr. Human, you organic being, cope with artificial intelligence? How tolerant are you going to be toward it?

E   How would it be from your perspective if your artificial intelligence unit started worshipping you as its creator? How would you deal with that challenge?

This is beautiful. Such questions are what the last chapters of my book are all about. I say that at the end of the day we are the story of intelligence. What are you? What are we? It is the story of growing intelligence. We were not very intelligent when we were lizards, we became more intelligent when we were monkeys, and again more intelligent when we became Cro-Magnon and today Homo sapiens. What I say is that intelligence made us Homo sapiens and I say that intelligence discovered that as Homo sapiens, we will need backup and we invented artificial intelligence. So [AI] is not our enemy, it is a continuation of [our existence], and I say it very bluntly: We need to get used to it. We need to absorb [the new reality] and accept the fact that we, human beings, are not going to keep on existing as flesh and blood. We will be a mixture of organic and numeric, and I believe—this is at the end of the book—that the new man is not going to be the same as you and me. Humankind will become different, perhaps as different [from Homo sapiens] as we are from monkeys. The new man after the 21st century will be totally different.

E   Historian Yuval Harari talks at the end of his book Homo Deus about such questions, such as dataism and trans-humanism—new religions that he expects to arise from Silicon Valley and from entities that have artificial intelligence but no conscience. He speaks of a dichotomy between machine intelligence without conscience, and humans who have a conscience and are defined by it. What is your position?

I swallowed Harari’s book as well as 30 other books. I have a chapter called “Intelligence versus conscience.” I believe that the [term to use] is not artificial intelligence. It is intelligence that drives us, not artificial intelligence. I believe that conscience is a byproduct of intelligence. We are not born conscious, we are evolving toward intelligence. Conscience, being a byproduct, is definitely going to change. Conscience of our organic state, this is going to change. What intelligence will drive us to do is keep on developing. And it will be ruthless in selecting the new species.

E   But is not the propensity to make decisions based on emotions, rather than on rational decision making, the most serious drawback of humankind?

I am not sure, because what drives your intelligence is not only being rational. What drives you is dreaming, is creativity. It is art. Art is the beginning of the game. What humans started doing was creating art in everything, because it was driving them. I believe that in the mix of two intelligences, organic and artificial intelligence, and the artistic value of what we are in our complex brain will continue to drive us in pursuing our purpose. It will be our purpose to become a happy intelligence. This, becoming an intelligence with a purpose, is the [next step] of humanity and the [step after that] is going to be outer space. A large part of humanity will be exploring [in space], and that is [a project] for the end of our century. Mars will be explored and inhabited. We will also become the new discoverers.

E   So you’re saying that mankind might one day upload human minds into a sustainable and resilient spaceship and travel beyond the solar system to explore stars and systems that are light-years away from earth?

You are [anticipating] the book. Yes, that is what I say. And I say that if we are not part of the development of mankind as in [steps] two or three, we will be collateral damage and fade away, like Cro-Magnon, a species that disappeared. Homo sapiens, as is, will disappear. If you want to pinpoint one part of what is in this book, it is that it is very optimistic in the sense that intelligence, out of the hand of today’s humanity, has a big future.

E   Would you then describe Bridge to the 21st Century as a book about digital technology, about innovation, about education, about attitude, or a metaphysical speculation from the perspective of today’s Homo sapiens?

Definitively attitude. It is a book about attitude. Harari and all of them talk about all the innovation, and I don’t want to copy what they say. I say, read them. My ounce of wisdom in this regard is that nobody talks about the attitude [required] for the digital age yet. What is going to be our attitude? We will be responsible.

E   Another question regarding attitude in the 21st century: What do you regard as the starting point of the 21st century, not in relation to some date in a calendar, but in the sense of the shifts and innovations that define it?

I would say I associate the 21st century practically with the smartphone. Computers started in the 20th century for all of us, but the smartphone placed the computer at the tip of your finger, and nothing connects you with the world today as much as the smartphone.

E   So, this means the 21st century has been emerging over the last 15 years?

Yes, absolutely. The smartphone is opening a vast field, in which the iPhone is an example. With the computer you still went and sat at the screen. With the smartphone it is different. The digital age sucks you into it through the smartphone.

E   But you already said in this conversation that it is not enough for kids to be playing on the smartphone in the same way that kids from the 1950s until the 1990s were sitting exclusively in front of TV screens? How do we advance from having consumer minds to having at least prosumer minds, and ideally to be creators and innovators?

That is your golden question. That is what I said in the beginning about resilience. You first need to have a protocol where all screens, from the very beginning, must educate kids not to go into absorption mode, but into creation mode. Secondly, you need to develop with kids their sense of curiosity. I believe that if you do not have curiosity, you go nowhere. Thirdly, I say that we need to change the pattern of education from alphabets to numbers. Absorbing an alphabet is easy [by imitation of sounds], while numbers immediately are a concept. If you start to educate your kid through concepts you might start developing the child’s brain in a much stronger way, which will make the brain more resilient. A new pattern of education should emphasize a mixture of alphabets and numbers. People think mathematics and knowledge of numbers comes after [teaching a child words]. I say, no, it should come even before.

E   So will people with a strong predilection for numbers and mathematics have a special advantage in society under your concept?

No. Numbers are a prerequisite, but you can still be a great artist if you have an understanding of numbers. I say in one chapter of the book that there is a new renaissance of art in the digital age where we can create art that we never thought we could create. We say that numbers are [the realm of] computers and digital, [whereas] our brains are just organic, but this is not true. Our organic material is based on numbers. When you go inside the brain and its cells and the miasma, there is an electronic system at work.

E   Some think that evolution is not fully describing the process of human development. In the sense of attributing a leading role to human intelligence in the progress of mankind, might you be debunking the myth that all mutation occurs at the DNA level and consequently takes a lot of time? Is there mental evolution—are there changes in behavior and thinking that might lead people to consider that in order to be human, I need to be able to “create” god, and by being able to create god, become like a god?

Allow me to read for you what is written in my book. These are the last lines of Bridge to the 21st Century: “We will have opened the way for a new humanity, one that will escape its self-destruction because it understands that its human envelope is not immutable, but should blend with what intelligence prepares for it. Mankind can now start to mutate imperceptibly across the next century and understand even better the nature and destiny of limitless intelligence. He is probably also discovering more mysteries of the cosmos with an equity so developed that before long, human beings of energy and light will think themselves divine. Born from light, intelligence will have become the god of life.”

E   So we are heading toward the Omega god as opposed to the indescribable Alpha god, in the sense of the creator about whom we do not have enough data points. But when we go into literary traditions on the creation myth, don’t we need to ask if intelligence could have come about without poetry and the literary component?

What you are demonstrating here is curiosity. Let me say that the new age is a step in our evolution. Our organic human envelope is bound to shift and change. People will have a lot of resistance to this. This is one of the basic problems of the 21st century, but we are [facing] a major change in our evolution. Whenever we get used to it, we will start becoming superman. If we do not accept it, we will vanish.

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years.