We face an increasingly urgent need to focus on the intersection between emerging technologies and international security. As outlined in our earlier article, while emerging technologies are poised to have a huge positive impact across the globe, many can potentially also be used to create lethal havoc. Consider some applications of emerging technologies that either are already becoming, or may one day become significant headaches from a geopolitical perspective:

  • 3D printing – potentially meaning a wide range of weapons could be produced locally from digital templates, evading controls on sales and exports
  • Synthetic biology – could create new types of mind-altering drugs, or the possibility of targeting lethal viruses at specific ethnic groups
  • Meta materials – by interacting with light in unconventional ways, could make real-life “invisibility cloaks” enabling combatants to hide among civilians

These technologies are emerging in a context of asymmetric warfare – that is, conflicts between very different kinds of adversary. The doctrines of mutually assured destruction (MAD), disruption and dependence have so far prevented the wide deployment of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons – but MAD makes most sense in contexts of symmetric warfare, where opposing powers have broadly similar military resources and tactics.

As emerging technologies come within reach of non-state actors and even individuals, the potential for havoc and instability increases greatly. Legislation, regulation and international accords of the kind that have, until now, had some success in delineating the acceptable limits of warfare are not going to deter “garage terrorists” or rogue individuals. Stopping attacks originating either from the fallacies of cyberspace or emerging technologies through legislation is simply not possible with the pace and increasing ease of innovation, as regulation will not stop people who are using these technologies for bad purposes, only those who are attempting to use them for good. We will need new tools to combat these threats. What should those tools consist of?

Most basically, we need to start with ethical codes. The current approach is patchy, varying geographically and even within institutions. At KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology), for example, ethics is the first topic covered in synthetic biology or metabolic engineering classes. At many other universities, the ethical implications of technological development are still discussed only in social sciences departments.

The private sector can and should play a key role by imparting the code of ethics needed to ensure that these technologies are used for good. There is also a clear role for civil society organizations in advancing the debate on how best to balance concerns of security, privacy and human rights. We need to seek global consensus on ethical codes of conduct, perceiving culture as a kind of critical infrastructure at the nexus of emerging technology and international security. Not everyone will abide by ethical codes, of course, but they are a prerequisite for guiding and informing additional responses.

Where the nefarious potential of academic research projects is especially clear, we will need direct oversight. For example, at Caltech the CIA and FBI are monitoring research into bio-synthesizing opiates using yeast, which could potentially be used by drug traffickers to produce heroin without the need for poppy fields. Likewise, private companies which work in areas such as mapping and synthesizing DNA sequences should also have adequate disclosure and oversight requirements.

However, we need to recognize that politicians and traditional regulators will always be playing catch-up in such fast-developing fields. Models of industry self-policing are therefore needed – and are emerging, based on recognition that responsible companies in any emerging field face the risk of harsh regulatory crackdowns if the actions of just one irresponsible company turn public opinion against the technology as a whole. Communities of hobbyists, such as the “do it yourself bio” movement, are also keenly aware of the need to self-police.

The cost of developing defensive technology is more expensive than for offensive technologies, given the broad range of threats that need to be defended against. Given these high costs, it will be beneficial for countries and industries to foster better collaboration around defensive technologies across borders to increase their impact.

Simultaneously, there is a fall in the cost of exercising power through cyber or virtual or other emerging technologies. This calls for a novel approach to crack down on non-state actors to hedge against the fragmentation of the global system. There is a urgent need for better and in some cases new mechanisms to advance the necessary multilateral responses to the international security implications of emerging technologies – platforms which can bring governments together with private sector innovators, academia and civil society to think clearly about how risks can be addressed, without foreclosing opportunities. The Geneva Convention and related protocols needs to be revised to deal with new potentially lethal technologies and mechanisms for implementation need to be revamped and strengthened.

The need for multilateral defense strategies is also made more acute by the current lack of trust in world leaders and regulators, which makes it difficult for leaders to come together and produce viable solutions. In the words of Marc R. Benioff, the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Salesforce: trust is a serious problem, we have to get to a new level of transparency – only through radical transparency will we get to radical new levels of trust. There have been some regional agreements in response to new international security threats which are better than nothing, but they are not as comprehensive and powerful as they could be with a multi-stakeholder response. While governments have a role in advancing these multilateral responses, other stakeholders including businesses should take on a more proactive role in addressing this challenge as well.

Finally, emerging technology is creating new potential mechanisms of surveillance. These could, for example, be crucial in enabling the International Atomic Energy Agency to police the recent nuclear agreement with Iran. However, developing defensive technology is generally more difficult and expensive than developing offensive technologies, and requires better collaboration among countries – at a time when global institutions of governance are fragmenting into ad hoc regional initiatives, and levels of geopolitical trust are decreasing.

Practitioners in the fields of technology and geopolitics need to gain greater mutual appreciation of each other’s’ work and concerns – a process which the World Economic Forum is uniquely positioned to facilitate.

Have you read?
Is the business world ready for today’s security challenges?
Cyberspace: the new frontier in warfare
8 emerging technologies transforming international security

Authors: Anja Kaspersen, Head of International Security and Member of the Executive Committee and Andrew Hagan, Member of the World Council on Industrial Biotechnology.

Image: People are silhouetted as they pose with laptops in front of a screen projected with binary code and a Central Inteligence Agency (CIA) emblem, in this picture illustration taken in Zenica October 29, 2014. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic