Education and Skills

Security, ethics and emerging technologies

Nayef Al-Rodhan
Honorary Fellow, St. Antony’s College, Oxford University
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Scientific research has for decades travelled from the lab to the battlefield. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union invested huge shares of their respective state budgets in research and development of new technologies for the military, space and ocean exploration. The Cold War may be over, but security – whether personal, national or cyber – continues to rely on developments from several industries and emerging technologies.

Emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology, wearable electronics, brain-computer interfaces, 3D printing and others, benefit from multidisciplinary approaches and cross-fertilization among disciplines. They are often prompted by partnerships between the private and public sectors.

Governments as well as non-state actors are taking the potential of emerging technologies seriously, especially as most of these technologies can be developed or transferred to military applications. Among these, I consider predictive analytics – the practice of extracting information from existing data sets to determine patterns and predict future outcomes and trends – to become particularly relevant for security in the near future.

Predictive analytics, typically used by the financial services industry, is an area of data mining which captures the relations between explanatory variables and predicted variables from the past to predict outcomes and determine future forecasts and patterns. Even smartphones can be used for this purpose as they record immense data and indicators of our activities. With input of data and specialized machine learning algorithms, the military could use predictive analytics to predict various security and military-related issues.

While the desire to innovate leads emerging technologies to develop at a galloping pace, it is important to remember that they can lead to catastrophic results in the absence of clear regulations, laws and ethical guidelines in the relevant industries. This risk is increased by the fact that, unlike in the past, new technologies can be used by private individuals or non-state actors more easily.

For example, while brain-computer interfaces – the possibility to interact with computers through thought alone – could benefit many patients, especially those paralysed by spinal cord injuries or neurodegenerative diseases, these technologies can have damaging repercussions in the field of cyber security as hackers could easily find ways to access sensitive and critical data, hijack systems or manipulate devices.

There are other pressing ethical issues. Emerging technologies offer states more instruments and means for control and surveillance, often infringing on civil liberties. The balance between the need to collect information and the respect for privacy must be pursued more fervently.

Furthermore, the possibilities laid out by emerging technologies – notably cognitive enhancement, biomedicine or synthetic biology – pose the likely danger of transhumanism, or radical physical and cognitive transformation. This threatens to alter the very foundations of human nature, the survival instincts that have been pivotal to our evolution and our social norms.

While innovation has clearly changed and benefited our societies, it must be balanced with a real concern for human dignity, sustainability and security. Policy-makers and civil society institutions need to take this challenge seriously and articulate benchmarks for the production and use of emerging technologies.

Author: Nayef Al-Rodhan is a Senior Member of St Antony’s College at the University of Oxford, and Senior Fellow and Director of the Geopolitics of Globalisation and Transnational Security Centre at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. He is the author of “The Politics of Emerging Strategic Technologies. Implications for Geopolitics, Human Enhancement and Human Destiny”.

Image: A student looks at a video screen with a microscope picture of nano-structures as he operates a  3D laser printer

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