The Coming Technological Revolution: Opportunities and Perils
After watching the second panel of the Strategic Foresight Forum, Global Strategists: How Prepared Are We for the Future?, Strategic Foresight Initiative Senior Fellow Peter Engelke wrote down some of his thoughts on the conversation.

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At the Strategic Foresight Forum’s “Global Strategists” panel, two strategists — Norway’s former Minster of Foreign Affairs, Espen Barthe Eide, and Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President (Technology Policy Group), David Tennenhouse — discussed how we can best take advantage of the upsides and prepare for the inevitable downsides of the coming technological revolution. 

The moderator, the Atlantic Council’s President and CEO, Fred Kempe, opened by asking the panelists to make an optimistic case for technology.

Minister Eide argued that there is enormous potential in the coming technological revolution, in the arenas of public health care — for instance, in vaccines but also in high-end health care technologies — in individual empowerment and interpersonal communication, in green technologies, and in a host of other areas. But taking full advantage of these technologies is a truly global challenge. Are we as a global society going to steer technologies toward a better future, or not? Will we do the right things in time to make a positive difference?

David Tennenhouse answered the opening question by pointing to the possible scale of impact. It’s going to take time to scale up some of these innovations, like 3-D Printing, to see a real impact. In the nearer term, ICT is going to be a huge driver of change, not just because of the devices that we have but because of the increasing ability to process big data. Individuals and small businesses and organizations (firms and cities) can take advantage. Cities are going to take a much bigger role in ICT for governance purposes, perhaps larger than regional and national governments. Mr. Tennenhouse emphasized that we have to be optimistic of technology’s potentiality, not pessimistic about it, as we see with the media. His biggest fear is a backlash against technology, where technology is seen as a villain.

Mr. Kempe asked what the role of government will be in terms of technological development.

Both Minister Eide and Mr. Tennenhouse agreed with the previous panelists that government will be critical, as it has been in the past. The government does many relevant things for S&T innovation; it’s not just a tech funder, it also does things like building the educational institutions that do the research and train the scientists and engineers. Mr. Tennenhouse emphasized that for a private company such as Microsoft, only so much of their R&D can be devoted to long-term challenges. So this is where the public sector must come in — it has a fundamental responsibility in doing work on the long run.

What, Mr. Kempe asked, is the prospect for China becoming the world leader in tech development?

Minister Eide said that China is likely to become the world technology leader, but only some time after 2018 (when the Chinese economy is projected to be bigger than America’s), because of some advantages that the US has as a society, for instance it’s openness to innovation. On the question of global leadership, Mr. Tennenhouse emphasized that US researchers have worked hard at building transnational R&D bridges, which gives US research much vibrancy. 

What about technological nightmares?

Both panelists stressed that we are seeing increasing societal inequalities that are undermining trust between citizens and governed, employers and employees. High youth unemployment in Europe and elsewhere is a genuine and worrisome fact. One troubling phenomenon is that ICT gives demagogues a voice, as it does for the good guys. Our entire society is at risk by these growing inequities. This is why a tech backlash is worrisome, because technology has to be part of the solution for getting us out of our economic dilemma.

Mr. Kempe took up this last point, asking whether technology drives inequality.

Minister Eide thought it is difficult to blame technology, given historical experience between technology and increased productivity. There is no easy answer, but much of the problem is about leadership and politics. In northern Europe, there is a big belief in skills training and education around a belief in the need to stay at the high tech frontier, and ultimately the need for social welfare mechanisms — again, the key role of governance and government. Mr. Tennenhouse thought it was critical to reframe the question. Perhaps we should ask: what is the right distribution between what humans do and what computers do? How do we invest and frame policies to steer the labor force into areas that are really important? 

So what do we do about all of this?

The panelists gave several answers.  One key response is agenda setting — asking the right questions with the right people — which is something the Atlantic Council is doing with this conference. Other institutions do this too, of course. For instance, at DARPA, technologists that cycle in from other institutions (academia, private sector, etc.) do the agenda setting. Unfortunately, other public institutions don’t have the same setup, where technologists are not at the head of the table and they aren’t cycling in from outside.

As for the inequality question, Mr. Tennenhouse questioned whether technology is really driving broader inequalities. It’s clear that some people have gotten very wealthy from tech innovation, but it’s not yet clear from the data that it’s the key driver of broad social inequalities. What is clear is that those people who have tools to use and manipulate the tech do very well, while those who don’t have those tools don’t prosper. 

Both panelists stressed social organization. One way to think about tech is a tool for helping us in any way we see fit. But how do we organize for using these tools? The answers aren’t easy, but we have no choice because inequality will eat at societies’ foundations going forward.

In the inequalities discussion and in the technological development question, both panelists placed great emphasis on governance. For instance, when it comes to the future of the Internet, without effective, multilateral, and multi-stakeholder governance, we will no longer be able to enjoy the best things about the Internet while we will suffer from increasing downsides, from a fracturing of the global Internet into national or regional Internet blocs. So for instance, we have to have agreed international standards and enforcement mechanisms for cyber crimes of many sorts. 

One interesting wrinkle on the governance discussion concerned fragmentation. It is now easy to fragment social and political discussion through ICT and the Internet, so people begin to splinter into like-minded groups. This is counter to our received thinking about the Internet, where we thought that the Internet would open up political discussion and debate. But we are seeing that this ICT revolution might make it harder, not easier, to form governing majorities due to splintering.

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