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On Monday, at the opening ceremony of Web Summit 2018, Antonio Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations (UN) spoke about the benefits and challenges that come with cutting edge technologies. Guterres highlighted that the pace of change is happening so quickly that trends such as blockchain, IoT, and artificial intelligence can move from the cutting edge to the mainstream in no time.

Guterres was quick to pay tribute to technological innovation, detailing some of the ways this is helping UN organizations improve the lives of people all over the world. For example, UNICEF is now able to map a connection between school in remote areas, and the World Food Programme is using blockchain to make transactions more secure, efficient and transparent.

But these innovations nevertheless pose risks and create new challenges that we need to overcome.

Three key technological challenges the UN wants to tackle

Guterres identified three key challenges for the planet. Together they help inform a broader plan of what needs to be done.

The social impact of the third and fourth industrial revolution

With the introduction of new technologies, in the next few decades we will see the creation of thousands of new jobs. These will be very different from what we are used to today, and will likely require retraining and upskilling. This will be critical as many traditional jobs will be automated.

Guterres believes that consequences of unemployment caused by automation could be incredibly disruptive – maybe even destructive – for societies. He further added that we are not preparing fast enough to match the speed of these growing technologies.

As a solution to this, Guterres said:

“We will need to make massive investments in education but a different sort of education. What matters now is not to learn things but learn how to learn things.”

While many professionals will be able to acquire the skills to become employable in the future, some will inevitably be left behind. To minimize the impact of these changes, safety nets will be essential to help millions of citizens transition into this new world, and bring new meaning and purpose into their lives.

Misuse of the internet

The internet has connected the world in ways people wouldn’t have thought possible a generation ago. But it has also opened up a whole new channel for hate speech, fake news, censorship and control.

The internet certainly isn’t creating many of the challenges facing civic society on its own – but it won’t be able to solve them on its own either. On this, Guterres said:

“We need to mobilise the government, civil society, academia, scientists in order to be able to avoid the digital manipulation of elections, for instance, and create some filters that are able to block hate speech to move and to be a factor of the instability of societies.”

The problem of control

Automation and AI poses risks that exceed the challenges of the third and fourth industrial revolutions. They also create urgent ethical dilemmas, forcing us to ask exactly what artificial intelligence should be used for. Smarter weapons might be a good idea if you’re an arms manufacturer, but there needs to be a wider debate that takes in wider concerns and issues.

“The weaponization of artificial intelligence is a serious danger and the prospects of machines that have the capacity by themselves to select and destroy targets is creating enormous difficulties or will create enormous difficulties,” Guterres remarked. His solution might seem radical but it’s also simple: ban them.

He went on to explain:

“To avoid the escalation in conflict and guarantee that international military laws and human rights are respected in the battlefields, machines that have the power and the discretion to take human lives are politically unacceptable, are morally repugnant and should be banned by international law.”

How we can address these problems

Typical forms of regulations can help to a certain extent, as in the case of weaponization. But these cases are limited. In the majority of circumstances technologies move so fast that legislation simply cannot keep up in any meaningful way.

This is why we need to create platforms where governments, companies, academia, and civil society can come together, to discuss and find ways that allow digital technologies to be “a force for good”.

You can watch Antonio Guterres’ full talk on YouTube.

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