How would you feel if you were admitted to a fully automated hospital in which robots performed all medical procedures, personal care and services? Emergent artificial intelligence and next-generation robotics are part of the World Economic Forum’s recently released list of the top 10 emerging technologies of 2015, all of which have the potential to reshape us as individuals, societies and institutions.

Much is being written about the possible applications and implications of new technologies, with some highlighting the opportunities and others the threats. The Forum’s Emerging Technologies: Debates of Tomorrow workstream encourages people to think about how technologies could be used, and to explore policies that can harness technology for a better future.

At the Annual Meeting 2015 in Davos, a diverse set of leaders from policy-making, business, academia and civil society discussed ways in which emerging technologies could be used to address global challenges related to social cohesion, the nature of work and natural resources, all spanning across a number of the Forum’s prioritized global challenges.

Participants emphasized three ideas that should guide our individual, as well as collective, use of technologies.

  1. Empathy

The ability to understand one another’s feelings is essential for a society that values diversity and preserves cohesion between different groups. Brain-computer interfaces can be used to enhance human communication, but if such technologies were to be adopted by the wider public, how can we keep control over the exposure of our thoughts and emotions?

In the workplace, automation could be an opportunity to provide the human workforce with more space for interactive, emotional and creative tasks. For example, a robot might focus on medical diagnoses, leaving the doctor to work with the patient. How can this opportunity be seized?

Empathy also involves caring about everyone’s access to basic resources, and can encourage responsible behaviour towards natural resources. Emerging technologies can play a major role in supporting such behaviour and ensuring the availability of resources.

  1. Self-determination

This is the right to choose if and how to use technology for oneself. For example, enhancement through genetic engineering should not be applied to unborn human beings, because it ignores their right to choose for themselves. Exceptions could be granted where there is a risk to health, but – were such a policy to be implemented – how might the definition of a “healthy” baby evolve? And how could diversity be preserved if enhancements were to become widespread?

Self-determination is also relevant to the future of work. Ideally, everyone would have the right to choose the job they do and how many hours they work. While education serves to make us technologically literate, job choices on the labour market should not be limited to programming software. If empathy is to be the competency of tomorrow, distinguishing us from machines and preserving our right to choose our jobs, how should educational institutions evolve to take such competency into account?

  1. Accountability

This refers to how responsible we are for our choices, for one another and the environment. In a cohesive society that supports multiple social groups, participants preferred accountability to be held by groups rather than individuals. This poses major questions about how to hold a group accountable.

Accountability is also central to the debate about artificial intelligence. Who is accountable if a robot commits a crime in the workplace? Do we always need to hold someone accountable or should we assume that, in some cases, accidents happen?

When accountability is widespread, it’s harder to continue exhausting natural resources and harming the environment, banking on our future ability to retrieve resources in space or reverse climate change through geo-engineering. Instead, technology should be used to support us in changing our behaviours, for instance through the use of labels that are updated in real time to tell consumers about every product’s environmental and social footprint. What would such an initiative in particular, and accountability in general, imply for short-term profit and policy-making?

Interestingly, the participants at the Annual Meeting in Davos highlighted ideas that combined collective empathy with individualistic values, such as self-determination and accountability. This is striking given that they were asked to state what matters to them as individuals.

The Industrial Revolution saw new institutions, such as social security, spring up in response to socio-economic changes. A similar institutional shift might be required to meet the demands of the digital age. Should the values mentioned above be widely shared, they can guide such a shift.

When it comes to the future we all want, the Forum will continue the debate with a diverse set of decision-makers, exploring how such a future could be best enabled by policies and institutions.

Authors: Natalie Hatour is Associate Director, Strategic Foresight at the World Economic Forum; Olivier Woeffray is Senior Associate, Strategic Foresight at the World Economic Forum

Image: A vendor demonstrates the Micro Drone for a prospective retailer at the International Consumer Electronics show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada January 6, 2015. REUTERS/Rick Wilking