The World Economic Forum’s Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies recently released its Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2015, drawing attention to recent trends in technological change. The list includes advances in artificial intelligence, robotics and manufacturing.

Insights gleaned from the Global Strategic Foresight Community’s perspectives on global shifts provide understanding of how these technological developments might be put to use in the future, as well as the opportunities and risks they present. Community members raise the questions we should be asking ourselves now, if we are to guide the evolution of these technologies towards positive outcomes.

Could our ‘smart’ built environment become too smart?

Technology is becoming increasingly human-like; advances in artificial intelligence mean computers can learn by themselves and understand human language; neuro-inspired computer chips seek to emulate the way the brain processes information.

Applied to our built environments, these technologies could make them “so intelligent that they seem conscious”, says Jerome Glenn, the Executive Director of the Millennium Project. Chris Luebkeman, Global Director of Foresight, Research and Innovation at Arup Group Ltd, highlights the opportunities of a smart built environment, which he refers to as “ambient intelligence”. It will allow us, he says, to “coordinate city functions and eliminate inefficiencies to allow large metropolises to thrive in a resource-constrained future”.

But surrounding ourselves with intelligent buildings and appliances also presents risks – particularly if we allow artificial intelligence to operate beyond our control. Glenn says: “When artificial intelligence is able to rewrite its own code, based on feedback from global sensor networks, it will be able to get more intelligent from moment to moment. It could evolve beyond our control in either a positive or a destructive fashion.” He suggests that by exploring possible futures for the evolution of artificial intelligence, we can make informed decisions about which technological capabilities to develop for our built environment.

How could we all benefit from automation?

As artificial intelligence and robotics become more advanced, automation – the undertaking of tasks by machines with minimal human intervention – offers increasingly significant societal benefits. Nouriel Roubini, Professor of Economics and International Business at New York University, notes that these new technologies are “spawning a feverish excitement for a radical transformation in industrial production”, giving rise to what he and others have begun referring to as the third industrial revolution.

Peter Schwartz, Senior Vice-President, Global Government Relations and Strategic Planning at salesforce.com, is comparably of the opinion that artificial intelligence and other emergent technologies hold great potential as drivers of future economic growth, as not only will they “increase productivity … but also launch a new generation of products and services”.

Yet the widespread propagation of automation could also lead to massive job displacement, as increasingly complex tasks are likely to be taken over by machines. Roubini argues: “Highly skilled jobs will be created for those educated enough to participate in the new tech-savvy manufacturing world. However, for those workers not fortunate enough to participate in these gains, it may feel as though the whole revolution is happening elsewhere.” Similarly, Claudia Juech, Associate Vice-President and Managing Director for Strategic Research at the Rockefeller Foundation, believes that “people without the means to pursue advanced education or without the skills to adapt to technological solutions may be ineligible for the few stable employment offerings”.

Against this backdrop, Jill Wong, Director at the Strategic Policy Office, Public Service Division of the Prime Minister’s Office of Singapore, calls for governments to take action, arguing that they “play a key role in shaping how technology advances”. She poses a number of pertinent questions for policy-makers, including:  Should governments be bold in encouraging innovation, while helping the “losers” take part in the broader improvements – or at least help to buffer them from the downsides?

Roubini agrees that there will be a role for the public sector in helping workers adapt and reskill, albeit as a vital component of a broader societal effort; adding that any solution “must have a major educational component”. Correspondingly, Juech argues that the changing nature of jobs – due to automation, among other factors – requires us to adapt social support systems.

Could new manufacturing technologies empower individuals or make them more vulnerable?

3D printing, coupled with the maturation of the internet of things – i.e. the connection of any object to the internet – will reshape the way we design, produce and deliver products, notably by enabling the emergence of so-called “distributed manufacturing”. While the design of a product can potentially be crowdsourced on a global scale, its manufacture could take place at consumption points. Such manufacturing will allow us to move away from a predominantly mass-production model to a “mass-customization” model.

Trudpert Schelb, Director, Strategic Transformation, at Siemens AG, predicts that this will disrupt established companies and enable a greater number of individuals “to create niche businesses with low capital investment and global market reach via e-commerce platforms”.

Stefan Hajkowicz, Principal Scientist in Strategic Foresight at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), envisages: “It will no longer be necessary to own a factory … to capture value in manufacturing – anyone with creative-design abilities will be able to do so, further lowering the barriers to entry into the global economy.”

However, the challenge in realizing these opportunities, as Senior Adviser at FORO Nacional Internacional Francisco Sagasti points out, is that “exceedingly large undertakings and investments [such as ICT infrastructure] are required to provide the underlying products and services that make these interactions and entrepreneurial explosions possible”. Schelb highlights a perhaps even greater risk: that there will be a “dangerous dependence on digital backbone systems, such as IT platforms and smart energy grids, with significant degrees of monopolistic power”. This leads him to reflect on certain questions: Should we consider bringing parts of the digital backbone under public ownership, or enshrining individual rights to its use? Can we revitalize competition among system providers to strengthen the position of the individual?

As rapid technological change opens up new possibilities – such as living in safer, more efficient, better-organized environments; increasing productivity via automation; and lifting people out of poverty via new entrepreneurship models – what kind of approaches can we adopt to maximize the benefits for all and minimize the downsides? If we are to shape the future we want, we need to address this question now.

Authors: Trudi Lang is Director and Acting Head of Strategic Foresight at the World Economic Forum. Kristel Van der Elst, is a member of the Global Strategic Foresight Community. 

Image: An employee monitors an automated substance library at the Pharma Research Center of Bayer HealthCare in Wuppertal February 24, 2014. REUTERS/Ina Fassbende