Technological change in the digital era is transformational, but it does not always advance sustainable development or reduce inequality In some countries today, more people have access to smartphones than access to clean water or adequate sanitation. Over the past three years, the applications of artificial intelligence (AI) have grown, but so has the number of people living in hunger.
Many argue that global inequality has been exacerbated with a concentration of skill sets and digitally generated wealth in a limited number of companies from only a handful of countries. Access to the digital world is also unequal between men and women since those benefiting most from developments in that world are men. A March 2017 report by the United Nations Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, set up by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the International Telecommunication Union, notes that there is a worldwide digital gender gap of 12 per cent in male and female access to the Internet, which rises to almost 31 per cent in the least developed countries. (1)
Today, technological change is driven largely by private companies, making it harder for social scientists, policymakers, governments and legislators to keep up. Major innovations that occurred earlier in the life of the United Nations, such as the harnessing of atomic energy and manned space exploration, were made under government auspices. During that period, national and international policy kept pace better. One example is the Outer Space Treaty, signed early in the space age, in 1967. Another is the founding document of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which led to the approval of the Statute of the organization in October 1956.
Policy formulation in the digital era is challenging. While we have some clarity on what new inventions are in the pipeline, we have much less understanding of what they imply for humanity.
We know that by 2030, virtually all humans will be connected to the Internet, as will the majority of objects around us. In addition, many of us will have web-connected implants and other medical devices. We know that the combination of big data, machine learning and AI will replace human agency in multiple tasks, from driving cars to the conduct of warfare and police surveillance. We know that progress in gene technology and bioengineering will allow for better screening and treatment of embryos, allowing for the birth...