I interviewed Martin Jacques, the author of When China Rules the World, for Trust Online. He argues that in the West we are poor at understanding how the Chinese and other societies think and says that until we can, we won’t really understand major changes that are happening.

Yes, we have discussed this in Trust before – how economic growth and innovation are so dependent on education at all levels. I might have also talked to you before about the Swedish doctor, academic and statistician Hans Rosling, whom I admire tremendously. His website [] uses and animates data graphically to explore some of the world’s biggest trends. These animations show quite dramatically how countries like China and others can catch up and overtake incumbent powers in so many different ways. He uses education, health and longevity data as well as economic and GDP statistics.

I find these wider dimensions and perspectives very inspiring. The Chinese people we speak to tell us they want a top drawer education for their children. They want the top American educational institutions, like Stanford, which are arguably among the best in the world. They want to send their sons and daughters overseas to learn as well as developing their own educational systems – where they have been immensely successful too. This is happening at a time when other countries are actually making cuts in education, which could well turn out to be a disaster for them in the long term. So yes, what we need to look at is how this process of enormous dynamic change that is taking place will affect us all.

In the latest issue of Trust, we are looking at healthcare. This has possibly been quite an unexciting area for investors in some ways but I think you are now very positive about many aspects, aren’t you?

Yes. The pace of change has so obviously accelerated in healthcare and it fills me with great hope. Scottish Mortgage has a large shareholding in Illumina, the established leader in genomic sequencing technology, as well as in Intuitive Surgical, the dominant leader in robotic surgery. We are now seeing so many more successful medical treatments. The developments in gene sequencing at places like the University of California, San Diego herald perhaps the most pivotal change in medicine ever. And this raises all sorts of questions. In medicine we can see how this process of change means that machines will be smarter than us very, very soon and it begs the question of what we can do about it. Soon there may not be so many jobs for everyone in areas where computers are more reliable and more accurate.

Where do you think that will lead?

This is where it gets exciting and I really don’t think we have all the answers. In the UK, as we speak, public sector workers are demonstrating about their jobs. These changes are global and raise serious issues. It is a painful truth but a robot or an intelligent computer can be far better at many jobs than a human.

But surely we won’t have a future relying just on robots? Don’t we still need human interpretation? If I have an MRI scan, the machine shows everything up; but someone, a radiologist, has to understand it.

I know, but you might see a radiologist equipped with a chart showing all the changes in your body, your gene sequence and whatever else can be discovered. At the second stage, the treatment stage, the chances are that much of it might be done by a robot, whether it is surgery or an alternative form of treatment.

We may get machines that are more intelligent than us. I don’t think it is hopeless; in many ways it creates opportunities. Obviously there is change and we have to accept change but maybe we just need to be more imaginative in understanding the implications of change.

Meanwhile, the technological advances that machines can deliver will also be critical to industry. I think it’s great that we have the potential to create a further revolution in manufacturing over, say, the next 50 years. Of course we also have to look at how people are treated and their roles. Perhaps we need to recognise that we can have a greater quality of life because we don’t need to work in the same ways, or we don’t need to work as much. Surely we will have more leisure time, because machines are doing so much of the work for us.

How will we cope with this? Most of us want to work less, but humans still need social interaction.

You’re right; there is often a difference between the theory and reality. I suppose some of the answers may lie in how we handle data in a world where we have extraordinary amounts of it.

The more information there is to analyse, the more we get lost because there is so much of it; we’ve been in some state of constant paralysis for the past 20 or 25 years as more and more information becomes available, and is then distributed and regurgitated without any great understanding of it.

The Googles and Amazons use vast amounts of machine space to analyse data and make some sense of it; they excel at this. So maybe we have to have a disciplined process, saying “This is what humans are good at” and “This is what the machines can do better than us”. We have talked here before about how the critical element in the top management of any company is actually management.

The challenge is to find people you can trust. Indeed, the optimum results occur when you have very intelligent and capable human beings who discover the underlying meaning of the information they have been given and who can then make sense of it. I think that is the exciting aspect.
This interview took place in April 2012. With any stockmarket investment, your capital is at risk.

– James Anderson