On September 11th 2023, the Simon Institute co-hosted a workshop on frontier technologies as part of a series of foresight activities led by the UN Futures Lab Network. The workshop was hosted in collaboration with the UN University Centre for Policy Research (UNU), the International Telecommunication Union, the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, and the Tech Hub at the Geneva Graduate Institute, and welcomed participants from various international organizations in Geneva.
The workshop shed light on the risks and opportunities associated with frontier technologies such as artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and neurotechnology, and encouraged participants to look ahead into the future, and reflect on how changing societal trends, regulatory frameworks, and governance structures might alter the impact of these technologies.
Konrad Seifert, SI’s Co-CEO, first outlined the current status quo we find ourselves in – a world where technological change is progressing rapidly, technical expertise is centralized in private companies, and government regulation is lagging. He then went on to highlight how interpretations of global trends and current events are highly dependent on one’s socioeconomic status, education, location, and more. To illustrate this point, he outlined how people of different backgrounds might view the state of technological progress in the year 2050.
Perspective 1: Safe, inclusive progress
From the perspective of an Indian tech executive, frontier R&D appears tightly regulated across sectors, and uncertainty about how frontier technologies will develop remains low. Developer countries seem to be coordinating effectively to ensure equitable tech transfer, and automation is resulting in economic prosperity, widespread well-being, and stable population growth. Advancements in clean energy halt fears of resource scarcity, and local communities have started to thrive.
Perspective 2: Regional divergence
From the perspective of a retired Norwegian activist, frontier R&D is controlled by the US and its allies, and unexpected technological breakthroughs and shocks remain a source of concern. Regional blocks rarely cooperate, and economic growth is disproportionately benefitting the US. Rising levels of inequality appear to be perpetuating deepening political divisions across the globe.
Perspective 3: AI dominance
From the perspective of a Nigerian student, private AI R&D is outpacing government control, and companies are all turning to self-governance. Most information is kept secret, and major technological shocks and risks are expected. Automation and existential concerns seem to be driving people into virtual worlds. Fertility falls and life satisfaction appears to be dropping rapidly.
Following this, participants used foresight techniques presented by the UN Futures Lab Network to craft their own future scenarios on frontier technologies. Throughout the process, they were encouraged to stay cognizant of the ways in which their own backgrounds and biases might influence their scenarios.
The exercise sparked discussions on several issues, including the challenges of regulating rapidly evolving technologies, the merits and drawbacks of open-source tech, and the need for global accountability of large tech companies. Environmental concerns related to AI’s impacts were also highlighted, along with the challenge of balancing innovation with safe development.
Participants further emphasized the importance of agile governance structures, viewing agility as a key factor in ensuring equitable benefit distribution, responsible development and deployment, as well as robust data privacy measures. They also stressed the significance of having greater technical talent within governments in order to enable, rather than stifle, technical innovation.
This workshop, alongside other foresight events hosted by the UN Futures Lab Network, will inform ongoing multilateral technology governance processes and bodies, including the High-Level Advisory Body on AI, the Secretary General’s Scientific Advisory Board, and other activities leading up to the 2024 Summit of the Future. The workshop’s outcomes will also inform The Future of Human Rights and Digital Technologies roundtable during the Human Rights 75 High Level Event on December 11th - 12th, 2023.