I believe that for most students in Singapore, the Nobel Prize is a distant thing, simply something one hears of in the news, or reads about in books; but not something one ever really comes into contact with. However, the 30th of August saw Capitol Theaterplay host to the first-ever Nobel Perspectives Live! event organised by UBS AG, bringing together four Nobel Laureates in the economic sciences to discuss and share their views on “Global Trends that Shape the World”. Getting to listen to four of the greatest minds in their respective fields talking about pertinent economic issues was too great a chance to pass up for me— and not just because I’m studying Economics. What intrigued me the most was how they were able to take the very issues and questions we handle in class, and back their arguments with a tremendous breadth of experience and perspective to deliver incredible insights. And, with that, they brought in a new dimension that we probably would not have even considered prior.
The four speakers, in no order, were: Michael Spence of NYU Stern, awarded the Nobel Prize for his research on the dynamics of information flow and market development. Robert Merton of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University, who won the award for his work on financial theory. Roger B Myerson of the University of Chicago, who got his prize for research on the foundations of mechanism design theory, and finally Peter A. Diamond again of MIT, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for his research on labour markets. Apart from the 1000 students at the event, Nobel Perspectives Live! was attended by the guest of honour, Baey Yam Keng, Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, and the panel was chaired by Paul Donovan, Chief Global Economist at UBS Wealth Management.
Nobel Laureate, Michael Spence; Nobel Laureate Roger Myerson; Nobel Laureate Peter A Diamond; Nobel Laureate Robert Merton; Paul Donovan, Chief global economist, UBS Wealth Management
Since a thousand odd words could never properly capture all the amazing dialogue that took place, I’ll take you through three quick points that were of special interest to me as a student:
On Educational Reform and Education in General… The Nobel Laureates cited Singapore's education system for its flexibility and how it will enable Singaporeans to better adapt in the future. Mr. Spence said, "Singapore has made a concerted effort to create an environment of trust, and having that trust is enormously powerful for the sort of things that Singapore does. Trust is essential, because people will be willing to do things for you.” Beyond this, however, one piece of advice that was repeatedly thrown out was that young people should not limit their capacity to take risks, because after having reached a certain age, responsibilities and obligations come in that might affect our ability to take risks or fail in certain ventures.
Another issue brought up is how we shouldn’t be afraid of opportunities to play in the field, for the learning opportunities that will take place beyond books. This is where I saw certain parallels to SMU’s emphasis on internships. Internships yield opportunities for unstructured learning, which the panelists identified as something becoming more important in a future that is becoming increasingly volatile and uncertain. Beyond that, however, we were advised to transition from absorbing, to doing or producing things. It was quite staggering when I realised how true this was— modern society and culture seems to be a consumerist one, and not just in terms of physical goods. Just take me for example: I watch Youtube videos (even when I really should be doing homework) but I’ve never made a video myself.
On the Future of AI and Robots Taking Over Jobs… An interesting element of this Nobel Perspectives event was the interaction that took place with the audience via the Nobel Perspectives webpage. The audience was asked at one point to write one word that represented their biggest concern about the future, and “Jobs” came up as the biggest concern for most people on the word cloud. Surprisingly to me, three out of four panelists said that they weren’t afraid of the prospect of AIs overtaking humans in the near future with only Nobel Laureate, Roger Myerson, answering to the affirmative. Personally, I still can’t wrap my head around how an algorithm could replace me and do everything I can, but better. The implications of that are practically limitless.
With regards to that, however, the Nobel Laureates pointed out that humans as a race have historically overrepresented threats to jobs and underrepresented the opportunities that such technologies might bring about. What we were doing yesterday, is almost never the best way to do it tomorrow. Pondering upon that question leads us again back to education and re-education. So, in a way learning does not stop just because we graduate from SMU. We need to prepare to be lifelong learners, constantly taking in new information and updating our knowledge banks as the world changes around us. This is the most effective way to forever continue being relevant— and perhaps the reason why most of the Laureates remain confident in the abilities of humans to stay pertinent.
On Cybersecurity and Disruptive Technologies… Having learnt about disruptive technologies in Technology and World Change (TWC) and the possibilities they present, this topic was also of special interest to me. The panelists cautioned against the informational asymmetries present between private companies and the government regulating bodies. For example, regulators don’t really know what Google or Facebook is doing with all their data on users, and this inability to “know” limits regulators’ ability to protect consumers before something has already been done to them (see Facebook’s infamous social experiments on its users and subsequent backlash: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jul/02/facebook-apologises-psychological-experiments-on-users). Regardless of which direction you lean on the political spectrum, the panelists reasoned and agreed that there is a need for more good regulations and less bad ones which, in conjunction with core values and self-regulation, will determine how disruptive technologies are governed in the future. One such example given was the ability for companies to sell unsecured internet devices (smart devices that connect to the internet) and how they were exploited in the recent hack of major sites via a distributed denial-of-service attack (DDoS).
(Front row): Guest of honour, Baey Yam Keng, Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (Second row, left to right): Paul Donovan, Chief global economist, UBS Wealth Management; Nobel Laureate Peter A Diamond; Nobel Laureate Robert Merton; Tracey Woon, Vice chairman Asia Pacific, UBS Wealth Management; Nobel Laureate Roger Myerson & Nobel Laureate, Michael Spence
Rounding off the event, the four panelists were asked to leave the audience with a key, tweet-able takeaway. As someone who hasn’t really figured out what I wanted to do yet, the one that truly struck a chord with me, was “relax, your talent and education will allow you to have a lot more fun, finding the thing you want to do, even if it takes a few rounds”.
The event was a huge eye-opener for me, providing a rare glimpse into the minds of the greatest thinkers alive. At the end of it all, not only was I given an opportunity to meet these brilliant minds, I was also given food for thought that made me truly think about world issues from a different point of view. Hopefully, Nobel Perspectives Live! can be made into an annual affair to give more students such chances.