Until recently, to inflict damage on a very large scale – that is, beyond the reach of traditional terrorist means – you needed either a large number of people (as in an army) or a large, sophisticated organization (to develop, for instance, a nuclear weapon). Typically, these capacities were held by states. As a consequence, the world eventually developed tools – albeit imperfect – to prevent the escalation of inter-state disputes. These include treaties, conventions and international organizations, but also the concept of deterrence, and in the nuclear age, the shared notion of mutually assured destruction. The latter was one reason why the Cold War, after all, remained cold.

As the world abandoned this Cold War logic, the focus shifted away from the power dynamics of strong states. From the 1990s onwards, the primary focus of international security was on state collapse rather than strong states, and on asymmetric threats rather than symmetric competition.

Today, it looks like we have the worst of both worlds: strategic geopolitical competition has re-emerged, but fragmentation, fragility and violent chaos “from below” continues; coupled with a serious crisis of international governance, this new world order is stymieing our ability to respond and adapt.

With the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and its promise of technological progress on many fronts simultaneously, comes a dark reality: we are also experiencing a rapid and massive democratization of the capacity to wreak havoc on a very large scale. From 3D-printed weapons to genetic engineering in home laboratories, destructive tools across a range of emerging technologies are becoming more readily available.

We spoke with leading experts from a range of fields and asked them for their take on the security implications of emerging technologies:

  1. Unexpected threats can arise when fields of research merge

With the rise of technology fusion, recognized technological fields are developing rapidly and new technological combinations are being invented faster than we can even dream them up.

  1. Interactions of high-tech and low-tech can also surprise

As is being demonstrated in Syria and Iraq, traditional models of warfare – such as infantry forces using artillery – are being combined with new techniques in ways that create challenging and unpredictable dynamics.

  1. Non-state actors are increasingly powerful

Access to emerging technologies is allowing organized criminal groups to operate with the speed and reach of multinational corporations, for example launching DDoS attacks at an impressive scale.

  1. It is hard to broach the subject of security in emerging technologies research

The world lacks a credible platform for critically important discussions about how we should prepare for the risks which could emerge from new technologies.

  1. We need a new approach to regulating space

Decades ago, only the United States and the Soviet Union could afford space programmes. Now, dozens of countries have a presence in space, and more than half of all satellites are commercial. As space could play a role in future conflicts, concerns are growing that current mechanisms to regulate space activities are no longer fit for purpose.

  1. Autonomous weapons are becoming an urgent concern

Are advanced robots, running on artificial intelligence platforms, liable under international law? If robots fight robots, can we ever again have strategically stable situations, given that a software upgrade or a hack could flip the balance of power overnight? Game theory suggests fighting robots would need to be made adaptive and unpredictable, but how then could their future behaviour be predicted when deployed? Will they become unpredictable even to their creators? Discussions on such issues are just starting to happen, partly because much technological innovation is taking place far away from the confines of inter-state conferences on disarmament, non-proliferation and humanitarian law.

  1. Internet for all” in an unequal world brings global resent

Increased internet access promises to bring significant economic opportunities; but it also creates new ways for significant numbers of desperate and underemployed young people to express anger at their sense of relative deprivation. It also creates opportunities for cultural collisions – what is permissible in one setting can be shocking in another – without the cultural mediation that human contact traditionally brings. Thanks to the power of the internet, ideas and expressions cross the globe in nanoseconds, long before cultural adaptation.

  1. In cyber warfare, attack is easier than defence

For most states, their destructive capacity already significantly exceeds their defensive capacities. They therefore have an economic incentive to continue investing in their offensive capabilities rather than their defensive ones, which leads to vulnerabilities in industrial and government control systems. The age-old insight that the defendant always has a certain advantage over the attacker is hence turned on its head.

In the face of these challenges, how do we incentivize people to take the security threats from emerging technologies seriously?

  1. The search for MAD 2.0

Over the second half of the last century, the fear of nuclear warfare gradually gave way to the relative stability of mutually assured destruction. MAD has so far worked when only a limited number of entities possess the power to destroy each other, and a proliferation of potentially lethal actors could undermine it. But could we discover some alternative equilibrium that analogously turns vulnerability into stability?

  1. A non-proliferation model for emerging technologies

How can we create legally binding frameworks to control potentially damaging emerging technologies, without impeding on the capacity of research to deliver innovation and economic growth? Some lessons could be found in the history of the nuclear non-proliferation effort, although parallels will not be exact and no existing framework is able to handle emerging technologies. With governments facing difficulties in reaching agreements, it may be up to industry to take the lead.

  1. Ethical norms for teaching and developing new technologies

Conversations about the ethical standards that should apply among educators and developers in emerging technologies are happening in individual institutions, but at different stages. We need to broaden, merge and expedite those conversations to develop common ethical guidelines and embed them in society and culture.

  1. The need for new champions

Who could lead the way in discussing and promoting ethical standards and serious political action on the security implications of emerging technologies? The role for directly affected industries should be clear, but other champions could also be significant – for example, in the gaming community.

  1. A forum for discussion and fostering joint action

While cooperation between states is still of paramount importance, it will not suffice, as the mindboggling speed of technological change will run far ahead of the capacity to regulate and negotiate treaties. We are in dire need of a serious, credible platform for multistakeholder dialogue on all the above issues, fostering an understanding of shared concern and shared responsibility.

Authors: Espen Barth Eide is Head of the Centre for Global Strategies and a Member of the Managing Board at the World Economic Forum; Anja Kaspersen is Head of International Security and a Member of the Executive Board at the World Economic Forum

Image: REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Files