Responsible Innovation for a New Era in Science and Technology

3D Printer.                                                                                                                                                                             ©PIXABAY


Today we are at the dawn of an age of unprecedented technological change. Sometimes referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, this historic moment has inspired a growing consensus that recent developments in science and technology are of a unique nature, and likely to impact almost every facet of our daily lives.

In areas from robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) to the material and life sciences, the coming decades promise innovations that can help us promote peace, protect our planet and address the root causes of suffering in our world. Our enhanced ability to interact through cyberspace is sustaining and reinforcing these broad technological strides, multiplying the opportunities we have to share information and build knowledge across our increasingly networked planet.

As United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has argued, these technologies can accelerate the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and promote the values enshrined both in the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet along with unique potential, there are unique risks. Mitigating those risks will require new kinds of planning and collaboration.

Today’s revolution differs from previous leaps forward in three fundamental ways, with important implications for our future peace and security.

First, there is an incomparable level of technological diffusion, a democratization of means to create and access new technologies. Second, technological change is accelerating as combinations between innovations beget further advances and developments at speeds beyond historical precedent. Third, this revolution covers an unparalleled swath of human inquiry, bringing breakthroughs to disciplines from biology to computer science to materials technology.

The possibilities for improving the human condition through these developments are vast. Consider the field of medicine, where our burgeoning grasp of synthetic biology could someday help physicians tailor treatments to the needs of individual patients with extraordinary precision. This growing understanding is mirrored in outer space, where technology allows us a glimpse of distant worlds, even as it binds us closer together through our communication and transportation infrastructures back on Earth. Meanwhile, the on-demand production of customized parts and devices through additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, promises to tear down additional barriers in engineering and industry, accelerating progress even further.

These new characteristics, however, are also producing unique threats that are, sadly, as much a part of our current revolution as any that preceded it. History is replete with technological innovations created for humankind’s benefit only to be applied for less benevolent enterprises.

New tools for biological modification and synthesis, designed to help scientists better understand disease, could be misused to increase the potency of infectious agents that could be used as weapons. In outer space, robotic systems designed to refuel or repair orbiting satellites could conceivably be used to carry out attacks, inflicting damage on other spacecraft. 3D printing has already been used to manufacture aircraft and missile components for militaries, and to produce handguns, causing serious concerns about proliferation among State and non-State actors. Vulnerabilities in cyberspace can also pose threats to banking systems, hospitals, electrical grids and other parts of our Internet-connected critical infrastructure.

In each of these areas, the weaponization of scientific and technological breakthroughs could have unintended, unforeseen and dangerous consequences. Additionally, advances in big data and AI have raised concerns about the emergence of machines with the power and capacity to take human lives without human control.

Lethal autonomous weapons systems—or, more colloquially, “killer robots”—could create new threats to international and regional stability. They could, for example, produce difficulties for the attribution of various hostile acts; create new risks for unintentional escalation of conflict; and, by promising casualty-free warfare, lower government thresholds for using force. Non-State actors, such as terrorist groups and transnational criminal networks, could harness related technology in service of their own agendas.

The Secretary-General has staked out a firm position on this issue, stating that autonomous weapons capable of killing people without human involvement would be “politically unacceptable and morally repugnant” and should be banned.

The key question is how we diminish these many and varied risks without stifling our era’s flourishing technological creativity and advances. A vital first step for policymakers—particularly those tasked with negotiating multilateral treaties and international standards—is to build lasting partnerships with technical experts: scientists, engineers and doctors. These very different actors must learn how to talk to one another.

To understand the importance of these communities as advocates, consider the disarmament efforts of the cold war. Nuclear physicists, acting through new organizations and established institutions, helped to educate policymakers and the wider public about the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons, including the “nuclear winter” that could result from their exchange. Bringing this type of advice and activism inside the policymaking “tent” is even more crucial for today’s innovations in military technology, which generally originates in the private sector.  

Scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs possess unique authority when discussing the emerging threats in their areas of expertise. We have already witnessed this, as many have begun to raise their voices against the potential dangers posed by the weaponization of AI.

By cultivating a broad and enduring dialogue with these actors, policymakers can develop essential skills and insights around the technologies they hope to manage. Secretary-General Guterres has pledged to help, engaging and working with scientists, engineers and industry to encourage responsible innovation and dissemination of knowledge.

Innovators, for their part, should strengthen their focus on the social and security implications of their work—to “think before they code”. Peace and security considerations must come to the forefront of scientific discourse, including in classrooms and in early discussions on developing new technologies.

Ensuring our security and safeguarding today’s revolutionary innovations are not competing priorities. In fact, considering them together can help us succeed at both. We see this in the technological strides that could help hold Governments to account on their disarmament and arms control commitments. Advancements in X-ray technology could aid in the detection of nuclear weapons materials, for example, and globalized access to satellite technology could allow certain verification processes to be crowdsourced.

It is only through building lasting partnerships between Member States and these groups that we can create the necessary foundations for the responsible genesis and stewardship of technological revolutions. By working together to address how developments in science and technology can affect international peace and security, we can further support innovators and policymakers in helping to create a safer and more secure planet for all.