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Technological and Digital Transformation Should Top the New UN Secretary-General’s Agenda

By Anja Kaspersen and Wendell Wallach

“The United Nations was born from war. Today, we must be here for peace." Those were the words of the new secretary-general, António Guterres, outlining his vision for the U.N. And key to any discussion on peace is the question of how to navigate disruptions and transformations caused by technology.

Established players in every industry and sector are trying to anticipate how the pace and scale of technology might change the landscape, to identify risks and opportunities, and to get ahead of the process rather than waiting to be surprised. The U.N., like other multilateral organizations, continues to take a reactive approach to technology and its impact on the U.N.’s institutional mandate. A growing number of people and institutions see the U.N. as no longer relevant to the future.

The U.N. Charter talks of protecting against “untold sorrow” and establishing a just world of equal rights and access to social progress. Throughout history, technological advances have created asymmetries detrimental to those goals, but have also presented extraordinary opportunities.. Yet the U.N. shows little awareness of how current changes will inevitably and rapidly reshape its role. In 1975, the U.N. General Assembly stated that "scientific and technological progress has become one of the most important factors in the development of human society.” But few additional thoughts about how technological development impacts and transforms the U.N.’s mission have emerged in the succeeding 42 years.

There is now a chance to start afresh. António Guterres has become the first secretary-general with a science and engineering background. A former teacher of telecommunication and signal processing theory with expertise in sustainable development, he will appreciate how emerging technologies can have transformative and disruptive impacts on every aspect of life—from geopolitical relations to security, equity, employment, sustainable development, the environment, and humanitarian services. 

It is critical that he should bring this understanding from the outset to address three core questions: How might technology transform the U.N.’s work in the coming years? What should we be doing to prepare and adapt? And who needs to be involved to improve outcomes and change mindsets? 

The U.N. has already involved itself in some specific technologies. Treaties are under discussion, for example, on geoengineering  for managing global climate change. There are also ongoing discussions on lethal autonomous weapons systems, bio-weapons, and cyber warfare. Clearly, these technologies will have significant impact on the core purpose of the U.N. and will require a well-informed and collective response. However, the U.N. has proved a cumbersome mechanism for forging international agreements or promoting compliance on such matters.

There are two main problems. First, technologies and related vulnerabilities are interlinked and intersect in new ways, but U.N. discussions about them are not; the “one technology at a time” approach to addressing new developments is piecemeal, siloed  and haphazard. It makes little sense, for example, to discuss autonomous weapons systems separately from cyber warfare, or cyber warfare separately from internet governance. This approach also means that there can be blind spots about potentially transformative technologies and cyberphysical systems—most notably, the impact of artificial intelligence has been ignored altogether.

Second, the U.N.’s structures assume that power lies with states. This was true when it was created after World War II, but now multinational corporations and non-state actors are increasingly key players in geopolitical tensions. Wars are no longer only about combatants and tanks, but also about algorithms and bots. Technological warfare has no real beginning and no end. Furthermore, potentially weaponizable scientific and technological advances are no longer mostly owned or controlled by the state, which was not the case several decades ago. 

These two problems point toward an urgent need to build more agile mindsets across the U.N. by investing in greater technological and digital literacy. There is no shortage of calls for structural reforms of existing systems and responses, but we encourage the new secretary-general to dare to think more radically. The U.N. needs a mechanism that cuts across its silos.

In the near future, innovative technologies will converge with geopolitical realities to create new crises. A full-scale cyberattack on a country’s critical infrastructure could precede a kinetic attack. A new arms race in robotic weaponry is already underway and may well mean that commanders lose robust and meaningful control of future systems that might accidentally start new conflicts or heighten existing hostilities. A synthetic virus with no known antidote could start a pandemic with unprecedented social and economic consequences. Automation will continue to put downward pressure on job creation and wage growth across all countries. And in the future, swarms of tiny drones armed with facial recognition software might be released to assassinate the enemies of a tyrannical leader, or to merely create an environment of fear and compliance.

The interminable, circular nature of deliberations at the U.N. reflects its inability to expand conversations by bringing external stakeholders on board who are not necessarily political but nevertheless key to shaping the political landscape: the scientists developing disruptive technologies, as well as the multinationals deploying innovative systems and acquiring influence that rivals that of major states. These stakeholders are integral to the changing landscape of threats and could potentially offer innovative solutions.

Until recently, there has been a reluctance to engage more with the private sector for fear of allowing corporate influence in U.N. affairs. However, member states have already shown, albeit somewhat grudgingly, a greater acceptance for partnerships, like the Global Compact, a corporate sustainability initiative. And the process of defining the Sustainable Development Goals, with recognition that achieving them will depend on technology, has brought about a shift in attitudes and demonstrated how the U.N. can productively engage the private sector when the international organization clearly defines its objectives. 

While the need for innovation across the U.N. system is recognized, so far it has been limited and ad hoc. For example, the multi-stakeholder Technology Facilitation Mechanism points to how the U.N. could define crosscutting platforms for wider engagement, but so far it seems to work mostly as an internally-focused clearing house. The chief innovation officer, brought on board by the previous secretary-general, has focused more on the technical aspects of innovation and disruption rather than on the transformative role of technology on the U.N. system as a whole. 

The new secretary-general should kick off his tenure with a plan to transform the mindset of the U.N.—a plan anchored in the role of technology to help the U.N. transform and address the risks posed by technology to peace and security. His decision to establish a high-level post in his office for “ensuring coherence across the political, peacekeeping, development, humanitarian, human rights, and rule of law portfolios” is a promising first step toward overcoming a system of generational silos.

The world urgently needs a credible and multi-stakeholder platform for more informed discussion about innovations that have both civilian and military applications. Technological change is creating a new arms race that existing mechanisms of governance are ill-equipped to handle. The open-sourced platform through which contemporary society functions has opened a Pandora’s box of groundbreaking innovation for good, but has also democratized access to destructive tools and techniques. Technologies developed to help humanity can be repurposed in ways that may bring about a new era of “untold sorrow.”

Approaches must come from across the diplomatic, scientific, business, legal, and regulatory fields. Normative and ethical discussions of technological impacts must be based upon commonly understood definitions and shared narratives. Only fundamental changes in the U.N.’s approach and mindset will enable the body to provide collective leadership that will address the challenges of our time, optimize the opportunities offered by technological innovation, rebuild trust among those it assists, and protect and “be here for peace.”  

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Anja Kaspersen is a member of the Advisory Council at the World Policy Institute and the IEEE Global Initiative for Ethical Considerations in Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems.

Wendell Wallach is the AI project director at The Hastings Center and Chairs Technology and Ethics study at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics.

[Photo courtesy of Crossroads Foundation Photos]

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