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Davos: X Marks the Unknown


Panel on emerging risks, "X-Factors: Preparing for the Unknown." Left to right, Phillip Campbell, editor of Nature; Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Ireland; Tan Chorh-Chuan, president, National University of Singapore; Tim Palmer, co-director, Programme on Modelling and Predicting Climate, Oxford University; and Edward Boyden, associate professor, Media Lab and McGovern Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Credit: Mariette DiChristina

Earlier this month, the World Economic Forum published its annual report on global risks, “Global Risks 2013: Eighth Edition.” At the 2013 WEF meeting at Davos, a session focused on emerging threats, called “X Factors: Preparing for the Unknown.” My colleague Philip Campbell, the editor in chief of Nature, and his colleague editors, identified these new risks, which are named in a chapter in the report. (Scientific American is part of the Nature Publishing Group.)

Among the topics we discussed were: dealing with the costs of the great demographic shift, as the world ages; the possibility of runaway climate change (as well as rogue geoengineering experiments that might be conducted address it); a human race where some of us have significant cognitive enhancement; and how our species will be affected if we ever do encounter extraterrestrial life.

I was the rapporteur, or official summary writer, you can find my blog about the discussion that I wrote for the WEF here.

In the February 2013 issue of Scientific American, you can see a terrific informational graphic about the report’s findings in the monthly Graphic Science, “The Global Risks That Most Worry World Economic Forum Experts”; you can also see an interactive version here.

As a last note, we have another WEF-related essay in the February issue. “Imagine an Internet where unseen hands curate your entire experience,” writes Michael Fertik, founder and CEO of, which is a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the Future of the Internet, to open his essay on a “A Tale of Two Internets.”

Map of discussion themes about X Factors. Credit: Mariette DiChristina

Added on 4 February 2013: The World Economic Forum posted a video of the Insight discussion that I had with Phil Campbell after this interesting session. You can find it at this link.


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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