Lascaux cave art in France illustrates how intelligence acts as an apparatus for human interaction with the world, permitting learning and adaptation to nature. Today, it is the environment that must adapt to humans. We have evolved to become the major selective mechanism on the planet, engineering even plants to be disease resistant and to increase yields. The estrangement of humans from nature is no more, as minds and machines meet and mould nature in the image of man. Our progress on earth may be partitioned into four broad epochs – hunter-gathers, agrarian, industrialist, and, more recently, a society in which the economic underpinning is primarily the creation, distribution and manipulation of information.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe envisages that the next epoch, Society 5.0, will connect cyberspace seamlessly to our physical space through the integration of augmented reality, robotics, artificial intelligence, Big Data, virtual reality and the Internet of Things into every aspect of life – creating a super-smart society. This vision is unlike Germany’s Industry 4.0 (I40), e-Estonia’s e-services ecosystem to empower entrepreneurs from around the world to set up and run a location-independent business, Singapore’s Smart Nation or GE’s Machine Intelligence and Industry.

Japan is prioritising next-generation solutions that tackle pressing societal challenges. The starting point for Japan’s Society 5.0 is thus the cluster of barriers to development and to proffer approaches to reduce or eliminate the threats. The ‘administration wall’ will tackle regulatory roadblocks, including setting up sandboxes to allow firms to test new ideas free from the manacles of existing rules. The legal system will explore the emerging requirements of a digitised world. Education and skills training will look closely at the development of capability to grow the economy. Finally, the barrier of social acceptance will be configured to ensure that the neural-lace binding man and machine gains greater esteem, and that the moral, ethical and economic dimensions of digitisation are rooted across society.

Japan’s Masayoshi Son of SoftBank and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), along with Apple and Sharp, launched a US$100bn technology investment fund – the largest in the world. PIF has pledged US$45bn since Saudi Arabia sees it as a means to further its intention to diversify its economy. Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman intends to build a new futuristic city-cum-economic-zone called NEOM (from the Greek neo, meaning new, and the Arabic mostaqbal, meaning future), opening up the Kingdom to all races and religions. It will consume US$500bn from the PIF and international backers to make NEOM the best place on earth to live and work.

At the launch were an ebullient Masayoshi Son, the Japanese head of a $100bn ‘Vision Fund’, and Stephen Schwarzman, head of Blackstone, a private-equity giant. Klaus Kleinfeld, a former boss of Arconic, Alcoa and Siemens will be the CEO of NEOM. It was Davos-in-the-Desert: some 3,500 politicians, business bosses and bankers from around the world made the pilgrimage to Riyadh.

The prospect of creating a dynamic zone without the barriers of the ‘Old Kingdom’ has evoked widespread and genuine global enthusiasm. Marc Raibert, of Boston Dynamics, paused at the launch however to consider the need for NEOM to generate bottom-up creativity to match the top-down vision and planning, and for the Kingdom to consider a clear strategy to attract international talent to achieve its ambition. In the end, it will require Tolerance, Talent and Technology. NEOM will be a talent-hub for Europe, Asia and Africa attracting world-class businesses and will sit at the heart of the Kingdom’s ‘Vision 2030’ – the economic plan to diversify the economy of Saudi Arabia away from oil.

All food for thought as CARICOM currently crafts the Regional Education and Human Resource Development 2030 Strategy which will form the basis for converged action by Member States. The time is right to think bold and if we are timid, Society 5.0 will just sail pass the Caribbean Sea.