Shaping the Societal Impact of Emerging Technologies

Emerging technologies (artificial intelligence, genomics, robotics, neuroscience, nanotechnologies, etc.) will not merely be tools of the New World Order, but will define and structure that order.  Self-driving vehicles provide us with an apt metaphor: technology is moving into the driver seat as a primary determinant of humanity’s destiny.  This simple point is not fully appreciated by most political leaders, who seldom understand the science or the societal impact of technological innovation.  However, the prospect of technological unemployment, a term coined by John Maynard Keynes’s to represent the downward pressure on jobs and wage growth caused by the increasing ability to automate tasks, is beginning to alert world leaders that dehumanizing impacts of technological advances will prevail, unless we find effective means to compensate those who pay the price for progress and efficiency. The loss of a job, however, is more than the loss of an income. For many, it is the loss of meaning and fulfillment in their life.

The advent of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) that will select targets and kill with little or no meaningful human control, is another symbol of technological dehumanization. Soldiers on a battlefield will have no chance against automated machine guns with a reaction time of a few milliseconds. They will also be defenseless against swarms of tiny lethal drones. Being a soldier will be expunged of all virtue. Unfortunately, lethal autonomy is not restricted to battlefield weapons or drones. Lethal autonomy is not a weapon system. It is a feature set that can be added to any weapon system, including high-powered munitions and unmanned submarines that can launch nuclear weapons.  Weaponized artificial intelligence will lower barriers to starting new wars and will unintentionally exacerbate existing hostilities. More frightening than any speculative prospect for superintelligence, is the likelihood that we will delegate responsibility in all realms of life to machines for decisions that they lack the capabilities and full intelligence to make.

We, humanity as a whole, have entered an inflection point in human history.  The mechanical unfolding of technological possibilities will shape the New World Order, unless leaders cultivate the intelligence and discrimination to reject dehumanizing possibilities. While maximizing the benefits of emerging technologies for public health and productivity, it is essential to also work vigilantly to mitigate risks, dangers, and undesirable societal consequences. Unfortunately, the rapid and exponentially increasing rate at which new technologies are being deployed is far outpacing our ability to put in place ethical/legal oversight.  Without monitoring and addressing new challenges quickly, societies are confronted with the prospect of lurching from crisis to crisis.  Opportunities for reflection and responsible decision making quickly disappear. A serious need for new, agile, and adaptive forms of governance is evident. The institutions of the post-World War II World Order, based upon State sovereignty, are ineffective in a world increasingly dominated by transnational companies, particularly the tech giants, which are more powerful than many countries.

The world is not only divided between the countries leading the 4th Industrial Revolution and less developed economies, but each state is being increasingly divided between those who receive the benefits of productivity gains and those whose well-being has stagnated or is declining. This is a deeply destabilizing situation.  Societies will either forge effective means to redistribute the fruits of productivity gains, or they will invoke a destabilization crisis in which citizens lose faith in their government.  The bread and circuses afforded by information technologies, such as the Internet and social media, will not be sufficient to quell the unrest and disquiet already in evidence. The weaponization of social media has been an effective tool for propaganda in the short-term, but will backfire if it merely exacerbates dissatisfaction and unrest.  

Do we have the intelligence and foresight to shape the trajectory of technological development, or will political leaders and governments surrender the future to the inevitable, and at times dehumanizing, impacts of technological possibilities? Uncertainty is and always has been a fundamental characteristic of life, and yet the future can be modestly shaped by reinforcing appropriate values in the present. What values will need to be reinforced if we are to pass on to our children a world worth living in?


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