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In the Midst of Unprecedented, Unpredictable Technological Change
We are in the midst of technological change unprecedented in pace and scope and we cannot predict where it will lead.
What we do know, is that we need to start working much better together if we are to steer change for the good of all.
Within our lifetime, we’ve gone from digital technology being virtually unknown to now more than half of all humanity being connected to one another through the internet and mobile carriers.
Never before has a new technology spread so quickly. It took about fifty years in America for just a quarter of all households to adopt electricity. Access to the internet reached the same proportion of households in just seven years.
What will accelerating technological change mean for our children and our grandchildren?
Will they live in a world made more equitable, peaceful and just by technology or will they live in a world where technology has enabled the loss of privacy, increased autocratic control and fueled conflict and inequality?
How do we ensure that technology empowers us and doesn’t over-power us?
These are the critical questions of our time.
There are many reasons to be hopeful:
Past industrial revolutions have brought technological advances that improved living conditions for many and this digital age has great promise.
In agriculture with precision farming and the use of big data in weather forecasting, farmers are now more resilient against climate hazards.
In the health sector, we see frontier technologies related to genetics, vaccines, diagnosis aided by artificial intelligence and faster drug delivery saving thousands of lives, improving health outcomes and extending life expectancy.
Public services can grow more accessible, more accountable and inclusive thanks to digital identity powered by blockchain, facial recognition and other authentication technologies.
And while technology has been among the contributors to climate change, new and increasingly efficient technologies can now help us reduce net emission and create a cleaner world.
If we can work together to responsibly develop and implement such technologies, I believe we stand a better chance of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 and passing on to the next generation a more equitable and prosperous planet.
But this future is not guaranteed.
Much with regard to our current path gives rise for concern:
The digital realm which we are embracing, and which increasingly also embraces us, reflects and exacerbates existing inequalities.
Today in the 21st century, in 2019, the proportion of women using the internet is 12 per cent lower than the proportion of men; this gender gap widens to 33 per cent in the least developed countries according to the ITU.
And it is not just access, women also have less opportunity: At the three major digital platforms, women make up less than 25 per cent of the technology staff.
And if they are looking for venture capital funding, women entrepreneurs can expect just two dollars for every 98 dollars given to male-founded start-ups.
While digital access and opportunity are critical issues, for millions of people in developing countries, technologies that were invented decades ago remain a dream.
I am talking about basic technology like modern sanitation or electricity. In many developing countries more people have access to mobile networks than to clean water.
Related to the issue of addressing inequality, there are ongoing concerns about how new technology will affect jobs. How can we prepare workers for an economy where accelerating technology adoption will disrupt tens of millions of jobs in a matter of years?
If there is a break-through in self-driving vehicles, what will happen to truck and taxi and car hire drivers? Is it likely that they can be absorbed by new jobs in coding or in e-commerce?
The reality is that these disruptions, if not well managed threaten to leave large proportions of our societies further behind, exacerbating inequality and polarization.
Beyond disruption to job markets, there are other emerging threats.
A significant increase in cyberattacks and cybercrimes are posing multiple challenges for governments, citizens and entrepreneurs.
Digital technology has introduced a whole new realm for inter-state conflict and for attacks by non-state actors be they privateers, terrorists or political activists.
Existing law, including international law applies to the digital domain but exactly how it is to be applied and how violators are to be reliably identified and held to account is not yet so clear.
Capacities among states to protect their citizens and companies against these threats, which by their nature have international reach, also differs enormously.
A related concern is that digital technology and the ubiquity of social media platforms, while doing so much to bring people together, can provide new scope for undermining democratic processes, for spreading toxic disinformation and disseminating hate speech.
The collection of data that fuels so much progress also poses critical new governance challenges on where the dividing line is to be drawn between the greater public good and the right to privacy, between the fundamental tenet of state sovereignty and the desirability of a free flow of information across borders.
Moreover, digital surveillance combined with artificial intelligence can help law enforcement but can also be used to violate privacy and persecute dissenting voices.
If we don’t better address these challenges, if we leave current negative trends inadequately attended to, we risk heading into a world where the convenience brought to many by technological progress, will be accompanied by societies that are more polarized, less democratic and with widening inequalities.
So, ladies and gentlemen, what can we do?
Let me propose four areas where I believe we need to focus efforts if we are to steer change and not just be victims of it.
First, we need to create the multi stakeholder, decentralized, cooperation mechanisms that will steer technological change for good.
The formulation of standards, of policies and norms at national, regional and at the international levels has not kept pace with the speed of new inventions and their applications.
In the past, new technology was largely government sponsored or quickly adopted and steered by governments. Today, industry and private enterprise are driving the changes. No direction can be set without them in a prominent seat at the table.
New approaches to governance need to be not only driven by all concerned stakeholders but also need to be faster and more nimble to keep up with the pace of change. Hence the need for decentralized networks rather than heavy, slow, top down approaches.
The difficulty of setting policy, of determining standards and where necessary, of creating norms for the digital realm should not distract us from its fundamental necessity. We can already see how our values, how our human rights, how our ethical standards can be undermined both through malicious use and unintended consequences. We cannot simply rely on the invisible hand of market dynamics to steer the way for us.
What would cooperative or governance frameworks look like that would measure up to the task?
The Secretary General convoked a high-level panel precisely to respond to this question. It is co led by a Melinda Gates and Jack Ma and made up of a group of distinguished entrepreneurs, academics, civil society representatives and senior members of government all working in the digital domain. They come from across the globe and the group is both gender-balanced and age diverse. It will present its report in June of this year.
A second area where we need to redouble our efforts is to ensure that the spread of digital technology is inclusive.
New technologies must be equally available within and among countries.
We must ensure that there are high quality networks for the poorest people and the poorest countries.
Inclusion also requires a recognition that the rights people have offline must also be protected online.
It is also critical for us to support leading innovators—including the many young entrepreneurs and women—who are demonstrating how intelligent connectivity can further development and well-being for all.
The companies that recognize the benefits of driving social good will be rewarded in the market place—many in the next generation of customers expect it and our planet desperately needs it.
A good example in this respect is the mobile industry’s Big Data for Social Good. It allows insights collected from mobile data to be used to support humanitarian action and promote peace. I encourage those of you who are not familiar with it to learn more about it and see how you can contribute to it.
A third area we need to focus on is education.
We need to repurpose our current education systems.
We need to invest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Where it does not exist, we need to add software coding to grade-school curricula.
We also need to teach much more about the interface of ethics and science, of human rights and technology, of sustainable development and technology.
But that is not enough: We need to repurpose our education systems for lifelong learning, for resilience and for emotional and social intelligence in the face of uncertainty and change.
Whatever skills are required at the beginning of a career are likely to be obsolete ten years later.
And careers that exist today may well no longer exist five or ten years from now.
The labour market will continue to increase in uncertainty and we must be prepared for that.
With the arrival of deep fakes and AI generated writing we will also need to educate ourselves and the next generation to better differentiate real from fake information.
This relates to the fourth area I want to highlight and that this event exemplifies: The need for greater reflection across disciplines.
As individuals, as parents, as societies, it is so easy, almost inevitable to get carried away by the current pace of change. Which one of us has not adapted to the 24/7 work environment made possible by our hand-held devices?
Which one of us has not used a mobile device to distract or entertain a small child as an alternative to human interaction?
Now I think we are beginning to learn we need to take a step back. We need to ask what excessive screen exposure does for the development of the young brain, what it does to our own mental health and well-being and what it does for the cohesion of our societies.
We need to reflect together across academic disciplines and across stakeholder groups. In the UN, the Secretary-General has challenged us all to get more tech savvy.
Likewise, I would argue business needs to grow more savvy about the social, ethical, political and development implications of the wave of technological change driving us on.
And we need to talk more to one another in events like the one today.
Ladies and gentlemen in conclusion,
The world we leave for those who come after us has to be a matter of our choice not a consequence of our neglect.
Do we want to have technology that enables an equitable, peaceful and just society, or will we live in a world where technology has enabled the loss of privacy, more autocratic control, more conflict, and more inequality?
My hope is that we will find new ways to bring governments, industry and civil society together to boost the opportunities and better manage the unintended and negative consequences.
In this era of accelerating change, technology can help us move from hope to reality. Let us embrace it and shape it for the betterment of all people, in particular those whom past and present generations have left behind.