Imagine that a terrorist cell has hacked your IQ-enhancing brain implant and is forcing you to create a biological weapon of mass destruction in your home laboratory. However, sensors in your “smart flat” have picked up your suspicious patterns of behaviour, and alerted the police to arrest you.
A far-fetched scenario? Perhaps, but it is at least a plausible one according to members of the Global Strategic Foresight Community, launched in Davos last month with a compilation of individual reflections on what the future holds. Taken together, these perspectives point to three trends that could redefine security threats and responses.
First, technology could greatly magnify the destructive power of individuals and small groups; second, it could also increase our vulnerability to attack; and third, it could create effective new ways to pre-empt security threats – albeit at a price.
Will individuals be able to make and deploy weapons of mass destruction?
A recurring theme in members’ perspectives is the growing empowerment of the individual to act independently, for better or worse. “Individualization is about to reach new stages, enabled by new technologies, low entry barriers and new value systems” and exemplified by the “rise of the DIY economy,” points out Trudpert Schelb, a member of the community.
People have already figured out how to use 3D printers to make guns. In the future, we may be able to manufacture weapons of mass destruction in our own homes. The prospect, writes another member, Jerome Glenn, is known as SIMaD, or Single Individual Massively Destructive. Synthetic biology is a fast-developing field, with affordable equipment already enabling DIYers to tinker with DNA and do things like make plants glow; in the future, it could be as easy to manufacture a deadly physical virus as it is now to write a computer virus.
Kathleen Hicks, a member of the community, includes “improvised explosive devices and handheld rocket launchers, robotics and other unmanned systems such as drones” in the technologies that will give individuals and small groups “increasing scope to threaten large numbers of people and have a strategic impact with relatively little investment”. Threats to security will be exacerbated by urbanization: “Population density and poverty create conditions for civil unrest and technology enables like-minded people to easily connect with each other. The fast-paced advances in cheap military-like technologies could potentially lead as far as lawlessness taking hold in megacities.”
Could our minds and bodies be hacked?
Further magnifying the risks, future individuals with malevolent intent and access to destructive power could be smarter than we are today. Arguing that “humans will become cyborgs as our biology becomes integrated with technology”, Glenn writes: “In the coming decades, we will augment our physiological and cognitive capacities as we now install new hardware and software on computers. This will offer access to genius-level capabilities and will connect our brains directly to information and artificial intelligence networks.”
Technology that makes individuals more powerful may also make us more exposed. “We can anticipate that buildings will ‘talk’ to each other,” predicts Chris Luebkeman – and while “facilitating the kinds of data collection and systematic interaction that will revolutionize whole cities”, this development will also create whole new areas of vulnerability.
Our homes could be hacked – and perhaps even our minds and bodies themselves. Glenn writes: “Connecting human brains directly to information and artificial intelligence networks raises the question of whether minds could be hacked and manipulated. How can we minimize the potential for information or perceptual warfare and its potential consequence of widespread paranoia?”
Could technology make it easier to predict and prevent crimes?
Technology will offer new ways to counter the security threats it creates. One community member, Derrick Gosselin, writes: “A specific domain of application of predictive analytics emerging today is its use to anticipate security threats and criminal behaviour. Several police forces already analyse Twitter and text messages as part of their activities to anticipate criminality and use ‘predictive policing’ algorithms to decide where officers should patrol by analysing what areas of a city typically see what kinds of crime at what time of day.”
Luebkeman’s expectation of buildings that talk to each other also raises the prospect of the data they generate being used in the same way as data from social media, to monitor and anticipate individuals’ behaviour.
However, Gosselin makes the point that harnessing big data to fight crime and terrorism will “have a profound impact on our society and democratic rights”, and notes: “Predictive analytics is all about correlation and interpretation, not causality and knowledge; it therefore raises fundamental moral and ethical questions related to privacy and the presumption of innocence.”
As technology creates new threats and new capacities to respond, what kind of approaches are we willing to countenance to balance individual freedoms with the need for security? To shape the future we want, we need to address this question now.
Authors: Kristel Van der Elst is Senior Director and Head of Strategic Foresight at the World Economic Forum; Trudi Lang is Director of Strategic Foresight at the World Economic Forum
Image: People walk into a store in New York November 28, 2014. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri