In a single lifetime, a typical morning in America has dramatically changed. Just twenty years ago, a clanging alarm rouses a woman from her slumber. She steps outside to grab the local morning paper and reads it over a bowl of oatmeal before starting her day. In 2016, this twenty minutes looks a little different. Instead of an alarm clock, a text with a traffic alert or the latest subway delays, or a work email noting an early morning deadline, or perhaps a gentle natural-light-replacement mimicking a rising sun wakes her. Before even getting out of bed, she is aware of the latest political news, has previewed her favorite band’s new single, and has perused menu of the newest restaurant in town all thanks to her smartphone. After answering a few emails that came in overnight from the London office and making reservations at that new restaurant for a weekend date, she grabs a power bar for breakfast and heads out the door. In a few years, she could hop in her self-driving car or, looking a few years further, take the Hyperloop to get to work across the state.
Technological innovation advances at astonishing rates. It’s so fast, in fact, that it is hard to predict how our daily lives will be different by 2035 with any accuracy. What we do know is that emerging technologies will disrupt our world in equal measure to the effects of electricity, sanitation, and motorized vehicles and will continue to diffuse strategic capabilities beyond nation-states.
However, the positive of this progress must not blind us to the negative risks of an increasingly connected world. The more connectivity there is, the more vulnerable we are. Thus, the greater the advancement, the more likely it will be abused.
On top of cybersecurity risks, which has drawn the most attention the past few months in light of the hacks to the email servers of the Democratic National Committee and General Colin Powell, there are other threats to the future of technological innovation, its advancements, and an open, accessible Internet.
First, in the years since the Arab Spring uprisings, where the power of social media and communications apps to destabilize regimes was proven, the quasi-democracies of Russia and Turkey have threatened to, and on occasion followed through with, blocking these applications. Their reasoning: defense against extremist, terrorist networks. The true motivation: disrupting opposition movements. Should this trend continue, the Internet may fracture as national sovereignty walls are erected, dividing the world wide web into regional, even national, Internets.
Second, as waves of innovation spread past the developed into the developing world, the cost-benefit ratios have reversed. Economically, the developing world reaps historic gains from the integration of technology. The developed world, however, faces increasing costs to secure connected systems from external risk. These rising costs lend fodder to arguments that have successfully devalued research and development programs, leaving the US government, for example, with decades old technology and increasingly inefficient systems.
Lastly, there are the dangers from the emerging technologies themselves. There are inherent risks to the overdevelopment in geoengineering, drones, synthetic biology, and nanotechnology that should require these fields of research be regulated and standards of behavior defined by the international community to limit their abuse (GR p.79). Many in the scientific community work to limit the possibility of dual-use technology falling into the wrong hands, but the risks remain. In the near-future, bioterrorism will be among, if not become, the single greatest risks facing nation-states, and it’s not difficult to argue that governments are wholly unprepared in their defense.
Embrace Change and All Its Flaws
Yet, even with the vulnerabilities and risks, the benefits to health, city infrastructure, and sustainability — to name a few — outweigh the potential consequences of continued technological innovation.
Over the summer, the Strategy Initiative in the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security conducted on-the-street interviews in Lafayette Square, asking participants what the world in 2035 will look like and how the US should best prepare now for the world of the future. Jim, a technology teacher, poignantly shared that the greatest global affairs issue in 2035 will be “how to drive down the benefits of mankind to the smallest of individuals in the furthest places on the earth.”
Smart grids will efficiently deliver utilities across cities, reducing costs and enhancing sustainability. Similarly, advancements in agriculture will limit ecological damage and slash pollution. Big data, while most often compared to the coming of Big Brother, will allow education and health to customize curricula and treatment plans to the person, not the 75 percent success rates from studies and clinical trials. On top of individualized medicine, quality of life will climb dramatically and, as all of these benefits reach advancing and developing nations, individual empowerment and accessibility will allow more and more people to realize their potential.
In Global Risks 2035: Search for a New Normal, Dr. Mathew Burrows explores the trends that will affect the global order for the next twenty years, including the future of technological innovation. In his analysis, the benefits of emerging technologies will be significantly weakened. Even so, stunting development because it may introduce new vulnerabilities is a dangerous road. Looking at the next twenty years, one must view the opportunities and risks as a choice between accessibility and exclusion, empowerment and disenfranchisement.
The fear of emerging technologies and their abuse must not sway the international community from pushing forward and embracing what the future may bring. Vigilance, though, is required.
The Atlantic Council Strategy Papers series is designed to enrich the public debate and build consensus on the great strategic challenges of our time, as well as to help shape strategic thinking in US and allied governments, the private and nonprofit sectors, and the global media. A non-partisan endeavor to influence policymakers, thought leaders, and the media at the highest levels to open new horizons in strategic thinking, the series has explored topics including grand strategy, sustainable energy security, failed states, economics, and space security. Regional strategies on Asia, Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Iran, and other Atlantic Council Strategy Papers, will join the series in forthcoming publications. The forthcoming Atlantic Council Strategy Papers Box Set will provide strategic foresight, outline a new strategy for the United States, and suggest recommendations for more effective strategy implementation to ensure the US government is best prepared and equipped to help shape and respond to dynamic changes in today’s world.