.
T

his is the final installment from a five-part series explaining World in 2050’s (W2050) megatrends. If you’ve been reading these, there’s a few themes you may have noticed are consistent throughout. We’re undergoing dramatic and rapid change everywhere, and each megatrend encapsulates a set of interrelated transitions. Those transitions are not just dramatic and fast—they’re also daunting. Handled wrong, the world will be a darker place in the decades to come but handled right there are some incredible opportunities for improving our world. This is true for each of our megatrends, but it is arguably far truer for this fifth megatrend—Exponential Technologies Radically Reshaping the World. Reflect on that for a moment and it's easy to see why—exponential tech plays a key role in each of the previous four megatrends: potentially confounding, potentially uplifting, or both. 

If you’re not quite sure what we mean by “exponential technology,” you can find a great explanation here. Put simply, exponential technology is that technology which is expanding in capability, enabling change, and disrupting systems at a pace that grows, well, exponentially. 

Exponential Tech as a Villain

It’s in the name. Exponential technology is the kind of technological innovation which proceeds at an exponential pace and drives change at a similar pace. There’s a lot to be excited about. Blockchain, AI, machine learning, digitalization—they’re changing the world and driving the fourth industrial revolution. The problem is that good regulation struggles to keep up, while selfish or outright bad actors seek to use these innovations for their own benefit—and that doesn’t equate to our good. 

Artificial Intelligence is being abused by autocrats to expand surveillance, censorship, and all manner of repression. Digitalization helps hackers to disrupt our infrastructure and steal our identities. Cryptocurrencies boost anonymity and underpin some very ugly practices on the darknet—a whole range of cybercrime including money laundering and human trafficking. That doesn’t even touch on broader social ills you’ve heard so much about - mis- and disinformation, deep fakes, echo chambers, and the like.

Speaking to W2050’s megatrends, exponential technology is a big part of the dangers espoused in several.

Societal distrust and fragmentation is the most obvious. Populism is on the rise, and it’s making us more fragmented and distrustful of one another. This growing tribalism is partly due to economic and geopolitical precarity, but it is amplified by the echo chambers that social media helps create as well as disinformation spread by selfish actors. When the digital revolution was young, we were enamored of the possibilities for bringing the world together—but we’ve experienced something very different. We can share ideas more openly and rapidly but rather than building common ground in many cases we trust our neighbors less than ever. 

For much the same reason, exponential technology is a culprit in making us trust our governance institutions less. A hallmark of populism is the tendency to distrust our established governance institutions. Populist politics, amplified by mis- and disinformation, poses a threat to national governance institutions as well as supranational institutions like the EU and IGOs like the UN. More broadly, the abuse of AI, digitalization, and blockchain increases uncertainty and we—justly—feel that our institutions have let us down. After all, good policy is typically outpaced by technological innovation.

As for climate change and the future of education and work, the impact of exponential technology is less obvious but still very real. In both cases, we need to rely on our institutions and one another to bring about the best future possible. Abuse of exponential technology undermines that. Misinformation has for decades made many of us dubious that climate change is a real problem, and it continues to muddy the waters on the best way forward. The adoption of exponential technology for our education systems and labor markets has in some cases exacerbated existing inequalities. We learned that access to technology is a big problem for education during the pandemic, even in rich countries—and the problem is far worse in the Global South. Education gaps will only exacerbate the inability of sections of society to participate meaningfully in the labor market. 

Exponential Tech as a Hero

It doesn’t have to be that way.

We’ve spoken about reforming institutions and rebuilding societal trust. Beyond that, all the things that excite us about the potential of exponential technology remains true. It not only lets us keep in touch with friends and family no matter where they are, it empowers us to turn strangers from far-flung lands into colleagues and friends. We have access to information—if we have the media literacy to sort the good from the bad—that is unprecedented. Our institutions can use digital tech to make services more accessible—look at Estonia as a great example—and they can use things like AI and blockchain to do their jobs infinitely better.

As for climate change and the energy transition, we must rely on exponential technology to avoid catastrophe. AI already plays a key role in monitoring and quantifying climate change. Digital twin technology is a fundamental part of making both clean energy and legacy fossil fuel energy more efficient. Nearly every aspect of mitigating the worst impacts of climate change and accelerating the energy transition does or will rely on exponential technology.

The positive potential of exponential technology on the future of education is even more clear. The pandemic taught us a lot about the role of tech in creating more resilient education systems, and if we can ensure equitable access then EdTech is poised to bring better future-focused education to everybody. Investment in EdTech is surging, research suggests it could even play a powerful role in bolstering social and emotional learning. Government institutions, meanwhile, are working with private enterprise to innovate ways to build better and more equitable education outcomes through blockchain. Companies are also using blockchain to better identify and credential skills beyond what’s shown in your resume or degree.

Mitigating the Scary, Amplifying the Positive

How do we circle the square and resolve this disconnect between the hurtful and helpful aspects of exponential technology? The answer is simple, but quite tricky. Helping the future arrive well comes down to good regulation and smart innovation. 

At W2050, we believe a big part of the solution will come through collective intelligence—a central component to our innovation labs. Techpreneurs are doing exciting things, but they often operate in bubbles. Governments and NGOs are already bringing together stakeholders to work with entrepreneurs to burst those bubbles. That’s a great start, but we need more of that—and we need to make sure that we’re getting a true diversity of perspectives so we’re not just forming a bigger bubble. 

The pitfalls of exponential technology are many and they’re not always obvious. How different iterations of exponential technology can cause harm differs on geography and social situation. Inclusive collective intelligence ensures that hard-learned lessons from often marginalized spaces can be taken into consideration as we propose targeted ways to use exponential tech for good. This requires us to put techpreneurs, regulators, investors, academics, and community stakeholders together. It also requires us to be thoughtful about where they come from—that way we do not run the risk of ignoring hidden harms in favor of chasing easy gains. 

One thing the potential and real harms of exponential technology makes clear is that every segment of “spaceship earth” is vulnerable. If our societies are fragmented and we can’t trust our institutions, then the promise of exponential tech will benefit only a few and many of us will be worse off than ever. If we work together as a crew, though, even the sky isn’t a limit.

About
Shane Szarkowski
:
Dr. Shane Szarkowski is Managing Editor of Diplomatic Courier and the Executive Director of World in 2050. A Marine Corps Veteran, he is an experienced editor and analyst with expertise in energy, security, and state failure. Follow him on Twitter @ShaneSzarkowski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Will Exponential Tech Be Our Doom or Salvation?

Image via Adobe Stock.

April 15, 2022

Technological innovation outpaces regulation, and that means exponential technologies are abused in frightening ways. Yet exponential tech is also key to helping the future arrive well, so we must find ways to mitigate the scary and amplify the good, writes W2050 Executive Director Shane Szarkowski.

T

his is the final installment from a five-part series explaining World in 2050’s (W2050) megatrends. If you’ve been reading these, there’s a few themes you may have noticed are consistent throughout. We’re undergoing dramatic and rapid change everywhere, and each megatrend encapsulates a set of interrelated transitions. Those transitions are not just dramatic and fast—they’re also daunting. Handled wrong, the world will be a darker place in the decades to come but handled right there are some incredible opportunities for improving our world. This is true for each of our megatrends, but it is arguably far truer for this fifth megatrend—Exponential Technologies Radically Reshaping the World. Reflect on that for a moment and it's easy to see why—exponential tech plays a key role in each of the previous four megatrends: potentially confounding, potentially uplifting, or both. 

If you’re not quite sure what we mean by “exponential technology,” you can find a great explanation here. Put simply, exponential technology is that technology which is expanding in capability, enabling change, and disrupting systems at a pace that grows, well, exponentially. 

Exponential Tech as a Villain

It’s in the name. Exponential technology is the kind of technological innovation which proceeds at an exponential pace and drives change at a similar pace. There’s a lot to be excited about. Blockchain, AI, machine learning, digitalization—they’re changing the world and driving the fourth industrial revolution. The problem is that good regulation struggles to keep up, while selfish or outright bad actors seek to use these innovations for their own benefit—and that doesn’t equate to our good. 

Artificial Intelligence is being abused by autocrats to expand surveillance, censorship, and all manner of repression. Digitalization helps hackers to disrupt our infrastructure and steal our identities. Cryptocurrencies boost anonymity and underpin some very ugly practices on the darknet—a whole range of cybercrime including money laundering and human trafficking. That doesn’t even touch on broader social ills you’ve heard so much about - mis- and disinformation, deep fakes, echo chambers, and the like.

Speaking to W2050’s megatrends, exponential technology is a big part of the dangers espoused in several.

Societal distrust and fragmentation is the most obvious. Populism is on the rise, and it’s making us more fragmented and distrustful of one another. This growing tribalism is partly due to economic and geopolitical precarity, but it is amplified by the echo chambers that social media helps create as well as disinformation spread by selfish actors. When the digital revolution was young, we were enamored of the possibilities for bringing the world together—but we’ve experienced something very different. We can share ideas more openly and rapidly but rather than building common ground in many cases we trust our neighbors less than ever. 

For much the same reason, exponential technology is a culprit in making us trust our governance institutions less. A hallmark of populism is the tendency to distrust our established governance institutions. Populist politics, amplified by mis- and disinformation, poses a threat to national governance institutions as well as supranational institutions like the EU and IGOs like the UN. More broadly, the abuse of AI, digitalization, and blockchain increases uncertainty and we—justly—feel that our institutions have let us down. After all, good policy is typically outpaced by technological innovation.

As for climate change and the future of education and work, the impact of exponential technology is less obvious but still very real. In both cases, we need to rely on our institutions and one another to bring about the best future possible. Abuse of exponential technology undermines that. Misinformation has for decades made many of us dubious that climate change is a real problem, and it continues to muddy the waters on the best way forward. The adoption of exponential technology for our education systems and labor markets has in some cases exacerbated existing inequalities. We learned that access to technology is a big problem for education during the pandemic, even in rich countries—and the problem is far worse in the Global South. Education gaps will only exacerbate the inability of sections of society to participate meaningfully in the labor market. 

Exponential Tech as a Hero

It doesn’t have to be that way.

We’ve spoken about reforming institutions and rebuilding societal trust. Beyond that, all the things that excite us about the potential of exponential technology remains true. It not only lets us keep in touch with friends and family no matter where they are, it empowers us to turn strangers from far-flung lands into colleagues and friends. We have access to information—if we have the media literacy to sort the good from the bad—that is unprecedented. Our institutions can use digital tech to make services more accessible—look at Estonia as a great example—and they can use things like AI and blockchain to do their jobs infinitely better.

As for climate change and the energy transition, we must rely on exponential technology to avoid catastrophe. AI already plays a key role in monitoring and quantifying climate change. Digital twin technology is a fundamental part of making both clean energy and legacy fossil fuel energy more efficient. Nearly every aspect of mitigating the worst impacts of climate change and accelerating the energy transition does or will rely on exponential technology.

The positive potential of exponential technology on the future of education is even more clear. The pandemic taught us a lot about the role of tech in creating more resilient education systems, and if we can ensure equitable access then EdTech is poised to bring better future-focused education to everybody. Investment in EdTech is surging, research suggests it could even play a powerful role in bolstering social and emotional learning. Government institutions, meanwhile, are working with private enterprise to innovate ways to build better and more equitable education outcomes through blockchain. Companies are also using blockchain to better identify and credential skills beyond what’s shown in your resume or degree.

Mitigating the Scary, Amplifying the Positive

How do we circle the square and resolve this disconnect between the hurtful and helpful aspects of exponential technology? The answer is simple, but quite tricky. Helping the future arrive well comes down to good regulation and smart innovation. 

At W2050, we believe a big part of the solution will come through collective intelligence—a central component to our innovation labs. Techpreneurs are doing exciting things, but they often operate in bubbles. Governments and NGOs are already bringing together stakeholders to work with entrepreneurs to burst those bubbles. That’s a great start, but we need more of that—and we need to make sure that we’re getting a true diversity of perspectives so we’re not just forming a bigger bubble. 

The pitfalls of exponential technology are many and they’re not always obvious. How different iterations of exponential technology can cause harm differs on geography and social situation. Inclusive collective intelligence ensures that hard-learned lessons from often marginalized spaces can be taken into consideration as we propose targeted ways to use exponential tech for good. This requires us to put techpreneurs, regulators, investors, academics, and community stakeholders together. It also requires us to be thoughtful about where they come from—that way we do not run the risk of ignoring hidden harms in favor of chasing easy gains. 

One thing the potential and real harms of exponential technology makes clear is that every segment of “spaceship earth” is vulnerable. If our societies are fragmented and we can’t trust our institutions, then the promise of exponential tech will benefit only a few and many of us will be worse off than ever. If we work together as a crew, though, even the sky isn’t a limit.

About
Shane Szarkowski
:
Dr. Shane Szarkowski is Managing Editor of Diplomatic Courier and the Executive Director of World in 2050. A Marine Corps Veteran, he is an experienced editor and analyst with expertise in energy, security, and state failure. Follow him on Twitter @ShaneSzarkowski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.