Resilience, Peace and Security

How will the Fourth Industrial Revolution affect international security?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is creating new threats – and exacerbating old ones. Image: REUTERS/Kadir Celikcan

Klaus Schwab
Founder, Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum
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A lot of attention has focused on the ways in which the Fourth Industrial Revolution will affect how we work, carry out business, or even how we interact as human beings. But perhaps one of the most important impacts – largely because it cuts across each and every one of these issues – is how the technological changes under way will affect state relations and international security.

Unfortunately, as well as being one of the most important elements, it’s also one of the least discussed, at least outside of governments and the defence industry. But as leaders meet in Munich this weekend to examine the future of international security, my message is this: this issue is too crucial for it to be limited to policy circles only. Here’s why.

A new – and potentially less stable – future

For all the opportunities that arise from the Fourth Industrial Revolution – and there are many – it does not come without risks. Perhaps one of the greatest is that the changes will exacerbate inequalities. And as we all know, a more unequal world is a less stable one.

Already, we have seen that widening social exclusion, the challenge of finding meaning in the modern world, and disenchantment with established elites and structures, has motivated extremist movements and allowed them to recruit for a violent struggle against existing systems.

The hyperconnectivity that defines this digital revolution offers opportunities to bridge the gap between previously divided people and nations. But this is not a given. If some people continue to feel left behind by the changes, the same hyperconnectivity could result in greater fragmentation, instability and volatility.

Changing nature of conflict


While fragmentation persists, the scale of conflict is also changing. Last year we saw how a conflict in one country can have repercussions far away, whether that be through Europe’s refugee crisis, triggered by the war in Syria, or ISIS’s increasingly global reach – in both its recruits, who come from more than 100 countries, and its targets.

And it is not just the scale of conflict that is changing – the nature of conflict is, too. Modern conflicts are increasingly hybrid in nature, combining traditional battlefield techniques with elements that were previously mainly associated with armed non-state actors.

Take cyberattacks as an example. Once a tool used only by lone hackers, they now present one of the most serious threats of our time. Any future conflict between reasonably advanced actors will almost certainly include a cyber-dimension. No modern opponent would resist the temptation to disrupt, confuse or destroy their enemy’s sensors, communications and decision-making capability. And yet for the size of the threat, discussions about this new era of cyberwar are still in their infancy, and the gap between those who understand the highly technical issues – academics and experts from the technology industry – and those who are developing cyber policy is widening by the day.

Beyond the world of cyberwar, we heard from AI and robotics experts in Davos how autonomous weapons – sometimes referred to as “killer robots” – could be the next weapons of mass destruction. The worry is that with the pace of technological developments, policy-makers in international security and defence will constantly be playing catch-up, and the regulatory agility required will be wanting.

Source: Campaign to Stop Killer Robots

A coordinated and collaborative response

How then can we respond to these changes in international security? The answer seems clear: as the threats broaden in scope, so too must our response. If everything from social media, to unemployment, to robotics, to income inequality (and these are only the elements I have touched upon here) now have a direct effect on international security, we can no longer tackle these issues in isolation.

While it remains unclear what the future of international security will look like, one thing is certain: it is only by stepping out of our industry, policy and regional silos, and working together, that we will have any constructive role in shaping the direction it takes.

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Related topics:
Resilience, Peace and SecurityGlobal Cooperation
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