Technology ethics, artificial intelligence regulation and killer drones


The technology has the potential to dramatically improve the quality of life for people around the world, but there is no guarantee that it will. Concerns remain about everything from how the growing digital divide risks leaving large swaths of society – and the world – behind, to questions about data security and its potential weaponization. And, of course, there is the ongoing debate about how technology and information platforms can be used to undermine democratic processes, including elections.

To address these concerns, a panel of experts convened by the United Nations in 2019 called for a “multi-stakeholder” approach that would bring together governments, members of civil society, academics, technology experts and the private sector in the goal of developing norms and standards around these technologies. Even they couldn’t agree on what that structure might actually look like, highlighting how difficult it will be to ensure the technology is leveraged for everyone’s benefit.

The risks are particularly acute under authoritarian regimes, which are more interested in using new technologies to strengthen their grip on power – and stifle dissent – ​​than in having their hands tied by the multiparty vision that eventually emerges. There are also the questions raised by advances in weaponry technology, particularly the ethical issues and legal concerns surrounding autonomous weapons that push humans out of the decision-making chain.

More immediately, the role of Big Tech in our daily lives has put an unprecedented degree of power and influence in the hands of private companies like Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter. This has led to growing calls for government oversight and regulation of data privacy and online speech control. Technology, particularly the advent of 5G telecommunications infrastructure, has also become central to the strategic rivalry between the United States and China, even as “tech protectionism”, “tech nationalism” and “technological sovereignty” have become buzzwords in political debates. And the proliferation of cyber espionage and cyber attacks by state and non-state actors has added new tools, but also new vulnerabilities, to the international security landscape.

Despite the challenges they pose to governance and society, technological innovations will continue to emerge. In the absence of any global agreement, governments still have the opportunity to seize the benefits these advances could bring, while encouraging their ethical and democratic use.

WPR has covered the technology and its role in global affairs in detail and continues to examine key questions about what happens next. How will the spread of drone technology and the advent of artificial intelligence affect the global balance of power? What steps will governments take to prevent digital attacks on future elections and critical infrastructure? Can governments and the private sector curb weaponized disinformation without stifling freedom of expression online? Below are some highlights from WPR’s coverage.

Our most recent coverage

Drones are everywhere on the battlefields of the war in Ukraine, from small, inexpensive commercial systems used for reconnaissance to military platforms capable of precision strikes against armored targets. Ulrike Franke joins Trend Lines to discuss the ramifications of what we’ve learned so far for military planners and policy makers.

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Technology Regulation, Internet Governance, and Dissent

Nations are striving to strike a balance between digital freedom and protecting people from the dangers the internet and information technologies can unleash, from hate speech to invasions of privacy. Authoritarian countries, having recognized how technology can be used to organize opposition, are now increasingly deploying digital lockdowns at politically difficult times, while using digital tools such as spyware and surveillance technologies to target critics and silence dissent. Even European countries, in their efforts to regulate content, risk reducing free and open access to information.

Artificial intelligence, crypto and technological protectionism

AI is not a single technology, but a range of applications, including facial recognition and natural language processing. Although the true advent of AI remains on the horizon, the race is already on among the great powers to take the lead in developing its potential, with implications for the global balance of power. Meanwhile, the strategic competition between the United States and China has increasingly included battles over who will dominate future technologies like 5G networks, but also applications, algorithms, chips and, more recently, cryptocurrencies.

Drones, autonomous weapons and “killer robots”

Like many technologies, drones hold great promise, including the ability to deliver medicine and other supplies to remote locations. But they are primarily associated with warfare and in particular their expanded and controversial use by the United States over the past decade in the Middle East and Africa. Washington’s example may have sparked a global arms race, at a time when drones are increasingly accessible to unsavory groups, making them a growing risk to homeland security. At the same time, the emergence of technologies that allow weapon systems to act autonomously, removing humans from the decision-making chain, has raised concerns about the ethical, legal, and practical challenges of machines making potentially lethal decisions. For now, the threat remains hypothetical, but efforts to deal with it are already facing challenges.

Cyberattacks and the challenge of securing cyberspace

As public and private sector activities have become increasingly dependent on the Internet and digital networks, the threat posed by cyber espionage and cyber crime has increased accordingly. Attention has long been focused on state actors in cyberspace, particularly with regard to espionage and military uses of the cyber domain. But a series of high-profile ransomware attacks on critical infrastructure in the United States and elsewhere has drawn attention to cybercrime by hackers unaffiliated with governments.

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2019 and is regularly updated.


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