Social impact is the litmus test for emerging technologies


The world is at an inflexion point in the course of the history of technology. Thanks to the imminent arrival of the internet of things, we will soon be more connected to each other and the technologies with which we have populated our world than we ever have been.

We are also expanding the physical horizons of human ambition, following the successful spaceflight missions undertaken in recent weeks by both Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. Such private sector investment should be celebrated for inspiring competition and innovation, helping to thrust us towards the stars.

At the same time, in light of the Covid pandemic, combined with increasing tensions between democratic states and autocratic regimes, we are entering a period of skepticism concerning the competing virtues of connectivity and globalization.

It is against this backdrop that I have launched The Institute for Emerging Technologies and Social Impact (ITSI). ITSI believes in the power of technology and connectivity to create a better, more free, and more prosperous world. We believe our generation is endowed with unprecedented power – and therefore responsibility – to put this technology to the best effect.

Pursuing such a goal is of course easier said than done, and involves more than a purely technological understanding. It requires a social and economic vision. This is because new technologies are neutral in themselves – it is only in their application that they are transformed either into boons or scourges for civilization. Technology is a means to an end, while a good society conducive to human flourishing is an end in itself.

ITSI will work to conceptualize, curate, and promote ideas for technological progress and regulatory frameworks that work symbiotically to the mutual benefit of each. Regulation must serve technology and creativity, rather than the other way around. Our focus will centre around the future of transport, the future of energy and the future of finance.

Autonomous technologies lie at the heart of the 5th industrial revolution. Driverless cars could serve to save thousands of lives each year and increase productivity by sparing us long journeys, while electric vehicles are indispensable to any plans for a net-zero future. Innovation in public transport also goes hand in hand with economic growth, social mobility and public health. However automation sits on a landscape abound with regulatory hazards and legal minefields. It our responsibility to harness its potential without harming people.

Energy is the pulse of our day-to-day life and how we create and use it is changing rapidly. The rise of renewable energy is also prompting changes in power networks. Since the industrial revolution, the geopolitics of energy have been a driving factor in global security and prosperity. It our responsibility to build infrastructure that empowers the populations it caters to and decreases their vulnerability to external attacks.

Cryptocurrencies have the potential to lay the foundations for a more open and inclusive global financial system, while blockchain technology can empower civil society through unmediated and verifiable contractual obligations. By the same token, Central Bank Digital Currencies might accrue the capacity to increase state control over individual citizens and quash civil liberties. It is our responsibility to ensure this groundbreaking technology serves the good of the people.

We must assume such responsibilities before it is too late. Nowhere is this precept better illustrated than in the dilemma of artificial intelligence, which is set to play a crucial role in the future of transport, energy, and finance in equal measure – as well as education, medicine, programming, the arts, and countless other sectors.

AI has the potential to revolutionize our societies to the extraordinary benefit of their citizens. However, it also has the potential to unleash unmitigated harm if not regulated appropriately. Governments and policy experts have started to realize that, in order to prepare for this future, in order to minimize the risks and ensure that AI benefits humanity, we need to start planning for the arrival of advanced AI systems today.

Progress in emerging technologies is unfolding at widely varying paces across the world. To harness their potential while circumventing their threats, the world needs a concerted effort focused on tackling unsolved problems related to emerging technology policy and development.

ITSI's ambition is to foster debate and discussion about the social impact of emerging technologies amongst industry pioneers and policy leaders. We welcome all open dialogue in the space of emerging technologies and their impact on society. By cultivating original research, disseminating ideas, and connecting people with the shared goal of harnessing technology for the greatest social and economic benefit, we hope to help move the dial in the right direction.