The challenges of governing emerging technologies are highlighted by the World Economic Forum in the 2015 edition of its Global Risks Report.
Focusing in particular on synthetic biology, gene drives and artificial intelligence, the report warns that these and other emerging technologies present hard-to-foresee risks, and that oversight mechanisms need to more effectively balance likely benefits and commercial demands with a deeper consideration of ethical questions and medium to long-term risks.
The emerging global risk landscape
For nearly a decade, the World Economic Forum has provided an annual expert analysis of some of the most most significant long-term risks worldwide. This year’s report provides insight into the likelihood and impact of 28 global risks in five domains: economic, environmental, societal, geopolitical and technological. Interstate conflict, extreme weather events and the failure of national governance are the top three risks in terms of likelihood, while water crisis, spread of infectious diseases and weapons of mass destruction are top in terms of potential impact (see below for infographics).
Governance of Emerging Technologies
Amongst these risks and risk trends, emerging technologies are singled out as one of three “risk constellations” in need of action. From the report:
The pace of technological change is faster than ever. Disciplines such as synthetic biology and artificial intelligence are creating new fundamental capabilities, which offer tremendous potential for solving the world’s most pressing problems. At the same time, they present hard-to-foresee risks. Oversight mechanisms need to more effectively balance likely benefits and commercial demands with a deeper consideration of ethical questions and medium to long-term risks – ranging from economic to environmental and societal.
How Can the Risks and Rewards of Emerging Technologies Be Balanced?
The report continues to delve deeper into the opportunities presented by emerging technologies, and the challenges that their development present. The report acknowledges the benefits that are nascent in emerging technologies. But it tempers this with caution, noting:
Both foreseen and unforeseen risks are amplified by the accelerating speed and complexity of technological development. Exponential growth in computing power implies the potential for a tipping point that could significantly amplify risks, while hyperconnectivity allows new ideas and capabilities to be distributed more quickly around the world. The growing complexity of new technologies, combined with a lack of scientific knowledge about their future evolution and often a lack of transparency, makes them harder for both individuals and regulatory bodies to understand.
The report highlights the dilemmas faced in designing regulatory systems that are “predictable enough for companies, investors and scientists to make rational decisions, but unambiguous enough to avoid a governance gap that could jeopardize public consent or give too much room to non-state actors.” And it advocates for the development of evolving and adaptive regulatory systems that are designed “in a flexible manner to take into account changing socio-economic conditions, new scientific insights and the discovery of unknown interdependencies.”
The analysis concludes
In light of the complexities and rapidly changing nature of emerging technologies, governance should be designed in such a way as to facilitate dialogue among all stakeholders. For regulators, to dialogue with researchers at the cutting edge of developing these technologies is the only way to understand the potential future implications of new and highly-technical capabilities. For the scientific community within and across certain fields, a safe space is needed to coalesce around a common language and have an open discussion around both benefits and risks. At the same time, given that risks tend to cross borders, so must the dialogue on how to respond. And given the power of public opinion to shape regulatory responses, the general public must also be included in an open dialogue about the risks and opportunities of emerging technologies through carefully-managed communication strategies. Governance will be more stable and less likely either to overlook emerging threats or to stifle innovation unnecessarily, if the various stakeholders likely to be affected are involved in the thinking about potential regulatory regimes and given the knowledge to enable them to make informed decisions.
The WEF report highlights challenges that the global emerging technologies community has been grappling with for well over a decade. Nanotechnology has been a rich driver of innovation in problem formulation around governance and risk resilience, and many of the insights gained are now finding traction in other areas – including synthetic biology and geoengineering, but also more broadly in areas that include cognitive enhancement, autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, robotics, and a plethora of other synergistic and converging areas.
Over the past decade, a number of initiatives have emerged that have pushed the boundaries of understanding and expertise around emerging technologies risk, governance and responsible development. For instance,
- Initiatives such as the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies and Synthetic Biology Project have been highlighting risk and governance challenges associated with technology innovation.
- The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has funded research on identify the risks associated with research in and applications of synthetic biology and to assess the ethical, regulatory, and public policy implications of these risks.
- The J Craig Venter Institute has explored governance options for synthetic biology.
- In the United States, the two Centers for Nanotechnology in Society funded by the National Science Foundation (CNS-ASU and CNS-UCSB) have been pivotal in changing the intellectual and practice landscape around societally responsive technological innovation and governance.
- In Europe, Responsible Research and Innovation is increasingly important to technology innovation. Globally, there is new thinking emerging on areas like adaptive governance.
- In 2014 a new Journal of Responsible Innovation was launched.
- And 2015 is the third year for the Annual Conference on Governance of Emerging Technologies.
And these are only a few of many global initiatives in this area. In other words, there is already a considerable international effort to grapple with the societal, environmental and economic challenges presented by emerging technologies that are not well-considered or appropriately governed. Yet this effort is no-where near sufficient if the benefits of emerging technologies are to far-outweigh the risks in the long run. There needs to be greater research investment in industry and government; massive engagement and education initiatives across sectors; and multi-stakeholder input to pathways to responsible innovations that ultimately benefit people and communities across the world.
The WEF Global Risks report shines a critical spotlight on the emerging challenges around the responsible development of emerging technologies. It is a critical step toward achieving what needs to be done to enable these technologies to reach their full potential, without jeopardizing the societies they are designed to serve.
The 2015 Global Risks Report can be downloaded here (PDF)