A New Turn on the Road to the Future

From a historical perspective, technological advancements are the main driver of social change. Countries that are slow to adapt to new technology lose out in global competition, writes Valdai Club expert Ruslan Yunusov, CEO of the Russian Quantum Center

In the coming decades, new technology is expected to bring about social transformations that can be divided in two major categories. The first has to do with the continuing development of communication tools used within the society, devaluing the importance of bureaucratic structures, while also making technocratic barriers more pronounced. The other category of technological innovation can be described as blurring the lines between the living and the nonliving, and possibly the changing nature of the human being as a subject.

The view ahead with the low beams on

Although the rate of increase in computer processing power is showing signs of slowing down after following the growth pattern described by Moore’s law, this does not spell the end of the IT revolution. As prices of computer hardware were getting lower and lower, software was developed hastily, and resources were used inefficiently without any stand-out algorithms or attempts to develop interfaces that would look and feel more natural. It is in the software segment that progress is currently visible with software, information and visualization services taking an increasingly important share of the market. Major global corporations use these solutions to create their own infrastructure, which governments find increasingly challenging to control.

One such example is blockchain, a technology for recording any transactions in a distributed, anonymous and irreversible manner. It came into the spotlight as the technology behind bitcoin, a virtual currency. Bitcoins do not need any issuing or controlling centers and enjoy complete protection against forgery or inflation, which made them the ideal “digital gold.” This virtual currency undermines the monopoly that was the exclusive domain of governments for centuries. i.e. to regulate the circulation of money. But this is not the only purpose of blockchain. In fact, it has the potential to provide for the registration of property rights, share deposit, vote counting, managing copyrights and many other transactions independently from any bureaucratic structures. One of its most promising applications is registering smart contracts and guaranteeing execution of complex financial transactions.

Smart contracts are closely related to artificial intelligence, another vibrant area of technological progress. In fact, robots are already in charge of a significant portion of transactions on the leading financial markets. They are becoming increasingly sophisticated as they are updated with self-learning solutions. Determining the legal status of these machines has become a crucial issue, since their nominal owners or administrators can’t be held fully accountable for the actions of a robot. In this context, it would be reasonable to ask whether a new category of subjects now exists alongside individuals and legal entities.

Maintaining full fiscal control over the increasingly complex system of relations seem irrational, since it either stands in the way of efficient technology or leads to huge administrative expenses. For example, it is becoming harder and harder to understand the country of origin of a product and what laws apply to its lifecycle.

Against this backdrop, governments should adjust the control tools they have both domestically and internationally. For instance, they could gradually phase out taxes that are hard to administer like the profit tax. To give just one example, according to the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Apple alone has avoided paying $65 billion in taxes last year, with the total shortfall for 367 of the Fortune 500 companies estimated at $716 billion in taxes. At the same time, the minerals extraction tax should remain in place. Furthermore, the focus of the taxation system should shift toward spending, since the extraction of resources and acquisition of products and services creates a burden for the environment and infrastructure. This would also allow for introducing a progressive taxation scale and luxury taxes.

Artificial intelligence is also about to reshape the car industry. Public opinion in developed countries is already beginning to accept the idea that driver as a profession will disappear in the future, although unemployment remains a matter of grave concern. Similar changes accompanied all major industrial and technological breakthroughs, but new professions emerged to restore the balance. However, this may not be the case in the future, when artificial intelligence and robots start replacing humans in manufacturing and services.

It should be recalled that IT came into general use just about a decade ago, but now many people are unable to imagine a life outside of the virtual world and are ready to sacrifice many things in order to keep their online footprint. According to IAB UK, internet users spent 2 hours and 51 minutes online a day on average in 2015, with 56 percent of them using mobile devices to do so. This means that the virtual world already has a powerful influence over the society despite the flawed and imperfect interfaces. People are increasingly willing to telecommute. The spread of online shopping forces governments to adjust their customs rules. Socialization patterns are becoming increasingly dynamic and selective, and are determined to a lesser extent by place of work or residence. These trends are expected to become even more pronounced with the development of virtual reality interfaces, including telepresence systems. Virtual communities and even virtual families are expected to replace real ones for many people.

The “informational superconductivity” of social media has kick-started self-organization processes in civil society. This has already brought about social upheaval in certain closed societies. For example, the Arab Spring revealed the instability of societies where information is subject to strict control and supervision. Leaks are inevitable, and when secret or banned information enters public domain it leads to destabilization. The contradiction between legislative restrictions regarding the spread of information and the fact that it is technically impossible to enforce these restrictions results in growing volumes of misinformation, propaganda and attempts to counter it. This makes society polarized and undermines trust. Consequently, attempts to oppose, either openly or covertly, the imperative of open information, which goes hand in hand with technological progress, leads to more tension. In today’s world, democratic systems offer a more stable and sustainable model by keeping a substantial portion of information in the public domain.

Switching on the high beams

As we look into the future, one thing we need to understand is that technological progress is close to creating an interface that would enable electronic devices to communicate with the human nervous system. The market for active prosthetics is rapidly expanding, and this is only the beginning: the growing sophistication of computer-to-brain interfaces will give people new receptors and actuators. Devices operated by thought or a third eye capable of detecting radiation – the substitution of human organs by technological devices is no longer a matter of fiction, but something that can be expected with a high degree of certainty. Technology with such capabilities is already in the pipeline. For instance, mice are already undergoing optogenetics and thermogenetics experiments. The Russian Quantum Center studies NV-centers in diamonds that could be used to build electromagnetic intracellular quantum sensors capable of recording the state of specific neurons and analyze brain activity.

The question of integrating artificial and human intelligence is more challenging, since we are still far from understanding how the brain thinks. However, nothing prevents us from connecting artificial intelligence devices to the brain as a co-processor. Humans are different from machines in that they use associations as they think, while falling far behind in terms of computing capacity and memory. If we can learn to communicate with a network co-processor, this will greatly enhance the capabilities of a human brain.

On the other hand, artificial intelligence methods such as deep learning rely on associations. Consequently, these are converging trends, and in the future it will no longer be obvious where a human ends and machine begins. This will inevitably result in deep-running changes for society, governments and international relations.

This poses a major challenge to all countries, including their technological leaders who are not immune to making mistakes. At the end of the day, countries capable of producing and attracting specialists to build high-tech enterprises in their country will have the upper hand.

Ruslan Yunusov is Director General, Russian Quantum Center

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.