As digital technologies permeate our societies, “the potential strategic role of individuals has been magnified by the fact that [those] technologies provide individuals with power that they would have never been able to think about a few years earlier” (Dr. Jean-Marc Rickli at CyberPeace Lab). Indeed, the current wave of technological innovation triggers a disruptive process which is bound to grow exponentially. As the rate of computing power development doubles in general every eighteen months, so does the disruption to our use and interaction with these technologies.
From artificial intelligence to robotics, and from virtual reality to brain machine interface, disruptive technologies are irreversibly changing our lives, leading us along a converging path to the point where technologies are not just interconnected, but mutually reinforcing – either among digital technologies or between digital and physical technologies.
Among the latest groundbreaking developments mentioned by Dr. Jean-Marc Rickli, we can identify technologies which increase the computing capabilities of existing devices such as quantum computing. Interestingly, in performing repetitive tasks computers can perform better than humans, and even potentially make them irrelevant. Other upcoming technologies that will deeply disrupt our perception of information and space are represented by the use of virtual and augmented reality.
Currently used for lifelike training and gaming, virtual and augmented reality has immense potential in expanding our interaction with digital content, but also critically impacts how individuals – especially children – experience information and space.
Finally, some of the most disruptive upcoming technologies are exploring human-machine teaming applications which have the potential to link individuals directly to machines in the near future, connecting digital, genetic, and brain data, and resulting in a set of ethical, security, and technical questions that remain unanswered. While economy- and development-related impacts have largely been analyzed, little research is available on the human and societal impact of such technologies.
The CyberPeace Institute is working to fill this gap by offering a human-centric analysis which explores the societal impact of existing and emerging technologies, and forecasts the upcoming challenges to cyberpeace.
Contextualizing disruptive technologies
Disruptive technologies have the ability to significantly and radically alter the way individuals and communities interact among themselves, as well as how public and private entities operate. In other words, disruptive technologies trigger unanticipated effects in already established technologies and markets.
Disruptive technologies, and the exponential speed of their developments are revolutionizing the way individuals interact with and through technology. The degree of disruption depends on the extent to which the change will be permanent and irreversible. A traditional example is represented by Andrew Ng’s forecast that artificial intelligence will transform the industry “just as electricity transformed almost everything 100 years ago”.
However, as Thomas L. Friedman explains, disruptive technologies are dynamic and their timeframe for turnover can be as short as 5 to 7 years, while it takes almost double that for societies and regulatory regimes to adapt to such technologies. This gap between technological development and societal adaptation hides an underlying crucial issue: a fundamental lack of understanding of the societal impact of disruptive technologies.
While it is clear that the speed of innovation and the pervasiveness of disruptive technologies have the potential to deeply impact individuals and vulnerable communities, as well as the stability of cyberspace, the extent of the impact remains to be assessed through existing analysis and forecasting strategies.
How will individuals and communities at risk be impacted? Will technologies disrupt everyday life by providing full automation and no requirement for human control? Will they transform work practices and modus operandi? Where is the dividing line between acceptable technological pervasion in everyday lives and undesirable invasive technologies?
Assessing the societal impact of disruptive technologies requires case-by-case analysis of the risks, benefits and opportunities of using such tools, and this is at the forefront of Foresight activities at the CyberPeace Institute.
Technology, such as virtual and augmented reality, can improve training for humanitarian and conflict resolution personnel by simulating real-life scenarios. However, the implementation of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning into autonomous systems (from autonomous cars to weapons) can raise ethical and technical questions in terms of accountability and liability.
Furthermore, as Dr. Giacomo Persi Paoli added, while top-notch research in smart dust, smart textile, and e-fabric is bound to make user experience more rewarding, it may also bring about an all-new range of vulnerabilities that can be exploited. As disruptive technologies permeate the lives of individuals and communities, it is crucial to assess their impact from a human-centric perspective.
This requires us to look at risks and vulnerabilities from a holistic and contextual perspective. Firstly, analyzing the societal impact of risks means deconstructing them into the threats they pose and the vulnerabilities they rely on, as well as the potential that a successful malicious action would have on victims. Secondly, assessing the societal impact of threats and vulnerabilities requires analyzing how dependent we are on current technologies, and how vulnerabilities related to such technologies can impact society as a whole.
The current Covid-19 health crisis has condensed a multi-year digital transformation process into a timeframe of only a few months. “We are critically transforming the way the entire world operates. […] From a vulnerability perspective, the more humans are relying on digital devices, the more vulnerable we all become”, especially in the current time where we witness blurring lines between our professional and private environment (Dr. Giacomo Persi Paoli at CyberPeace Lab).
The impact on cyberpeace
To reduce the risks, while amplifying the benefits, associated with the development and (mis)use of disruptive technologies, it is crucial to assess their impact on cyberpeace and vulnerable communities worldwide.
At the CyberPeace Institute, we want to ensure that the impact of disruptive technologies does not hamper the creation of a cyberspace at peace, for everyone, everywhere. Our core mission is the achievement of cyberpeace by putting the individual and the human dimension first and foremost at the centre of every analysis and decision-making process.
As our interaction and dependence on existing, emerging, and disruptive technologies irreversibly increases, there is an urgent need to strengthen the human-centric approach in the analysis and assessment of the societal impact of the use and misuse of such technologies.
We define cyberpeace as the respect and safeguard of human security, human dignity, and human equity, which drives our forecasting of emerging and disruptive technologies.
Human security exists when services essential to human life and related to critical infrastructure are protected. Thinking about how emerging and disruptive technologies can impact human security requires first and foremost an understanding of what critical infrastructure is, and what is considered as an essential service at any given moment.
The more critical infrastructure and services essential for human lives depend on emerging and disruptive technologies, the more technical vulnerabilities will amplify human ones. As shown by our recent strategic report on attacks on healthcare, the impact of cyberattacks is more than technical; as well as highlighting the vulnerabilities of digital systems and processes on which we rely for our most delicate and sensitive activities, it shows that human vulnerabilities are amplified by technical ones.
Impact on human security, dignity and equity
While the security of the most delicate and sensitive technological processes for individuals and societies is often included in analysis and discussion, not enough attention is given to the respect of human dignity and equity.
Human dignity is represented by the protection of individual beliefs, cultural rights, and the opportunity to participate in society. When it comes to human dignity, attention should focus in particular on dual-use technologies and their use for predictive insights in conflict-prone and fragile countries.
“We need to learn to live with dual-use” (Eleonore Pauwels at CyberPeace Lab), assess the dangers posed by what she calls the “Internet of Bodies and Minds”, and the use of such data for tracking people and identifying human patterns. “Controlling populations, bodies and minds is the ultimate form of biopolitics, and there is a tendency to underestimate how converging technologies can be designed to manipulate behaviors for social and political control with corrosive human rights implications.” (Eleonore Pauwels at CyberPeace Lab) This includes, but is not limited to, civil and political human rights with direct implications for the future of democracy and democratic processes.
Ensuring human dignity in the analysis of emerging and disruptive technologies means strengthening democracy and democratic processes. Assessing the impact of disruptive technologies on human dignity implies an understanding of the extent to which such technologies facilitate or hamper free and democratic political participation. ICTs are often used to target those who work to promote the rights of the most marginalized groups, and this can have a serious impact on the achievement of dignity and equity for these vulnerable communities, and therefore presents a worrying threat to peace in cyberspace.
Human equity exists as the safeguard of individuals against discrimination, bias, prejudice, and inequality, and adds an empowerment and development perspective. Can disruptive technologies merge the existing divide or will they increase inequalities in accessing technologies and skills? As the global population is going to be connected more and more via emerging and disruptive technologies, there is an urgent need to identify required capacity-building measures when assessing the societal impact of disruptive technologies.
As Prof. Mariarosaria Taddeo explains, human equity can be analyzed through three key streams: equity of opportunity, equity of security, and equity of rights. In addition to the traditional North-South digital divide, the question of opportunity invites an analysis of the skills gap which exists among “connected societies” in the North. “We should start looking at digital technologies not so much anymore as the technology of tomorrow but as the technology of today and yesterday to ensure more penetration and use of these technologies if they are part of the infrastructure of the reality we live in” (Prof. Mariarosaria Taddeo at CyberPeace Lab).
Furthermore, as these technologies become part of the critical infrastructure of communities and societies worldwide, the security of these systems should not cause additional divisions in terms of affordability and accessibility. When thinking about human equity, it is also crucial to bear in mind that the disruptive technologies of today represent the basis and foundations of future technologies. Therefore, assessing the equity dimension of such technologies requires consideration of the governance and by-design technological path in their production.
“We are planting today the seeds for a technology that will mature tomorrow; and we are planting today the seeds of the technology which shapes the reality we live in, we are going to live in, and next generations are going to live in” (Prof. Mariarosaria Taddeo at CyberPeace Lab).
Artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, brain-machine interfaces, the confluence of information and data sciences, human-machine teaming, cloud computing, and natural language processing, have been identified as some of the technologies which have the potential to deeply disrupt everyday life, impact vulnerable communities, as well as pervading the professional environment and critical services such as, but not limited to, healthcare, access to food, and water management. Their societal impact is key to core analysis and forecasting using a human-centric approach. We strongly believe that there can be no cyberpeace or cyber stability unless the impact on security, dignity, and equity of individuals – rather than technology – is at the centre of the analysis.
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