In an age of rapid technological change, we frequently create and use technologies designed to amplify our greatest ambitions as a global community – only to find that they lead to consequences we never imagined or intended.
Our daily bread, social media, is a prime example. These platforms were initially designed to connect us not only to friends, but also a wider global community whose perspectives and ideas differed from our own.
Instead, social media platforms are being manipulated to divide communities and make it difficult for alienated groups to find common ground.
Or gene editing, envisioned to improve human, animal and plant health. But unsafe applications without regulatory oversight could unexpectedly harm our health and that of the environment.
And arguably one of the most transformative technological developments of our time – artificial intelligence – could be used to help identify solutions to our most intractable economic, social and environmental challenges.
However, its application could counterintuitively increase inequality and make the world less secure.
These are not isolated examples but point to a broader challenge: we do not adequately understand how rapidly evolving technologies can change our world, for better or for worse.
This is not an issue of only understanding the designs, characteristics and functions of specific scientific and technological applications. Rather, it involves analyzing how frontier technologies are adopted, adapted and implicated in complex social, political, and environmental settings.
Our understanding will only improve if we collaborate and bring lay people together with scientists and technologists across disciplines and expert domains.
What’s at stake?
Frontier technologies do not respect national borders. Social-media content developed in one country or community affects another. A moratorium on gene-editing technologies in one country may not stop research and development in another.
And AI systems deployed by large tech companies already have global reach, posing new considerations and challenges for national regulatory bodies.
As products, services, information and knowledge are moving ever faster due to rapid technological change, the international community needs to advance its collective understanding of how to steer new and emerging technologies in ways that leave no one behind.
What we need is an international discussion, firstly to assess the effects of frontier technologies as they unfold and secondly, to build consensus on what norms and values should guide such technologies.
Primarily, we need to be able to assess not only how the technology will unfold but how it could impact economic development, inequality between and across countries, the environment, and especially the poor and those already at risk.
A global capability to monitor developments and implications for developing countries would help national decision-makers respond.
It’s an ambitious but necessary goal: to conduct both technology assessment and evaluate the immediate and long-term impacts of new technologies.
Then, as we grasp the complex interaction of frontier technologies with our socio-political and economic systems, we should also strive to build consensus on the norms and guiding values underpinning them.
In the AI industry, there has been a proliferation of voluntary guidelines to address normative and ethical standards for its development. These reveal different and sometimes conflicting emphases and priorities, pointing to the need for a more comprehensive and coherent framework.
Beyond AI, normative and ethical considerations are being discussed and deliberated across a range of frontier technologies, including synthetic biology, the internet of things (IoT), nanotechnology, drones and neuro-technologies.
This mushrooming of frameworks reflects the need to develop the proposed international consensus on principles – not a new sentiment. The situation can be traced to earlier periods of rapid technological change.
Neither is this type of conundrum new to the United Nations.
The UN was birthed at the dawn of the atomic age, serving as a platform for realizing the benefits of, and helping contain the risks posed, by new technologies.
It is therefore an excellent space to have this conversation. In fact, such discussions are already taking place.
However, to match the speed of rapid technological change, we must do more, involving not only nation states but everyone – and in a way that continues to nurture innovation.
Governments and others with vested interests should start to explore the high-level characteristics, elements and directions that would define a useful global response to this challenge.
Developing countries, especially least developed countries, that are not engaged in the development of frontier technologies but likely to be affected by their consequences, need to be a central part of this global discourse.
In this context, the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development, the home of such debates, will meet 13-17 May in Geneva to discuss the impact of frontier technologies on sustainable development.
The commission provides the platform we need for cross-societal dialogue on the current and future state of new and emerging technologies, and how rapid technological change can advance as well as hinder the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
If we can advance a global discussion on this topic, the paradoxes will highlight the possibilities, and vice versa. This situation is the cradle for innovative thinking at a time when we need innovation more than ever.