Social Innovation

Our human rights need to adapt, and fast, if they're to keep up with technology

A hand is silhouetted in front of a computer screen in this picture illustration taken in Berlin May 21, 2013. The Financial Times' website and Twitter feeds were hacked May 17, 2013, renewing questions about whether the popular social media service has done enough to tighten security as cyber-attacks on the news media intensify. The attack is the latest in which hackers commandeered the Twitter account of a prominent news organization to push their agenda. Twitter's 200 million users worldwide send out more than 400 million tweets a day, making it a potent distributor of news. REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski   (GERMANY - Tags: CRIME LAW SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) - RTXZUYD

The implications of technology for society and politics. Image: REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski

Sherif Elsayed-Ali
Director, AI for Climate, Element AI
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Social Innovation

Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp. Young people, activists and protest movements using the internet and mobiles. These are the images that usually come to mind when technology is discussed as a catalyst of social change. This was only the beginning: in the next 10–20 years, emerging technologies will fundamentally change societies; it will be nothing short of revolutionary.

The internet and mobiles have forever changed how people communicate, spread information and organize. Wherever the internet has spread, it has introduced a new reality, with fundamentally different human interaction to anything that’s gone before. Half of the world’s population is now connected to the internet and initiatives like Google’s Project Loon and Facebook’s internet drones could bring connectivity to everyone on the planet.

At the same time, exponential technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics and synthetic biology will become mainstream and their effect on people’s lives and rights will be tremendous. Here are 5 areas where these technologies will reshape human rights in the future:

1. Data and privacy

The Internet of Things (IoT) will force us to rethink what privacy means.By 2020, it is estimated there will be 20–30 billion devices and possibly billions more sensors connected to the internet. Eventually, it will be the norm for any appliance, car, or gadget to collect information on its usage and its environment. Privacy is not dead but it means different things for different people — we will always want ways to keep certain things private, but it will get harder.

Trillion sensor visions
Image: Motherboard

Societies will need to reconsider what privacy mean in several ways.

Smart sensors in homes, cities and even the country side can help reduce energy usage, monitor the safety of infrastructure and maximize the utilization of roads, but to do this they have to collect a lot of data. The analysis of large data sets by artificial intelligence, for example to improve medical diagnostics, can have huge benefits but also have privacy implications. If we are to fully benefit from IoT we will need robust data protection systems — not just laws but also encryption, cybersecurity and oversight. Within countries, people will need to have an open public debate about what privacy is, what people expect their governments to protect and companies to respect. To have meaningful public buy-in, this debate about privacy must go beyond the narrow confines of “national security”.

Privacy is usually thought of in the context of an individual’s private thoughts or actions or in relation to their interaction with other people, but people already entrust a lot of their private lives to their devices. The idea of devices such as smartphones being digital extensions of ourselves, and the dependency that comes with it, will deepen as artificial intelligence develops and human-machine interaction becomes more profound. Concepts of privacy should therefore also develop to encompass human-machine interaction — that is, privacy should not just exist in relation to one individual or between a defined set of individuals, but also as a fundamental part of the relationship between an individual and the devices they use. This is a critical test for the private sector: will companies build products and services that people trust enough to consider their interaction with them private?

2. Policing and criminal justice

Predictive policing will be a reality. There is nothing new about law enforcement agencies gathering and using intelligence to identify where a crime is being planned and try to stop it before it occurs. However, predictive policing could take this concept another - very significant - step back through the identification of people or groups who could commit a crime before they even have the intention of doing it. Some police forces in the USA and the UKare already using or experimenting with predictive policing: the approach uses existing information about past crimes and artificial intelligence to identify the likelihood and location of crime before it occurs. In its short history, this technique has faced a lot of criticism, particularly that it can reinforce existing biases against racial and religious minorities. There have been many calls for stringer standards for the design of algorithms to that the possibility of bias or discrimination is reduced.


But there is a much more fundamental question that has to be resolved: predictive policing fundamentally changes the notions of innocence and guilt. If people are treated like criminals when they have not even had the intent to commit a crime, it will be no different than living in the world depicted in the movie Minority Report — but with the improbable precognitive mutants replaced by much more widespread and efficient artificial intelligence.

3. Work and workers’ rights

Technology is disrupting business in very fundamental ways. Uber may be the highest profile example of a completely new business model enabled by modern technology that overturned an established industry, taxis in this case, but it is far from the only one. These new business models are changing employment relationships in significant ways.

With the growth of the gig-economy in many countries, employment rights are weakening. Whether it’s Uber or others, millions of people are making a living by working for a company that is not legally considered to be their employer. They enjoy few, if any, of the protections that regular workers have. Zero-hour contracts and other forms or “flexible” employment relationships are likely to increase, facilitated by technology. While this trend continues, trade unions and collective bargaining more generally will weaken: a transient and fluid workforce is much harder to organize and, critically, workers will increasingly compete with machines.

 Job automation
Image: Citigroup

Looking ahead, the prospect of increased automation of jobs may mean that some of today’s dangerous and abusive jobs will be overtaken by machines, but this is just a small silver lining in a future where hundreds of millions of jobs could be lost to automation. This won’t be restricted to blue collar jobs — many white collar jobs will also go. This will create huge risks for the right to work and standards of living. The accelerating rate of automation will put a very large proportion of current jobs at risk across the world, with developing countries at greater risk. According to analysis by the University of Oxford and the World Bank, 35% of jobs in the UK could be replaced by automation; in OECD countries 57% of jobs are at risk, in China it’s 77% and in Ethiopia it’s 85%. This will happen quickly: a recent report by market research company Forrester concluded that by 2021, 6% of jobs in the USA will have been automated.

While new jobs categories will be created, the rate of change is likely to have profound impacts on societies and employment related rights. There could be a significant rise in unemployment because new jobs are much less labour intensive or not created fast enough. Will people be able — and supported — to acquire new skills to avoid long-term unemployment? Governments will have to seriously consider introducing universal basic income — an idea that may sound as a leftist pipe dream is now being actively reconsidered by mainstream economists.

If your job could be replaced by a machine, you may have no other choice but to accept lower pay and job security in an attempt to stave off automation. This will only delay the inevitable; eventually costs will come down to the extent than event employing poorly paid workers doesn’t make economic sense.

4. Inequality

Global development indicators are continuously improving — extreme poverty, undernourishment and maternal mortality are falling, while access to education and clean water is increasing. While not nearly as fast as it should have been, there has been significant progress just in the past 25 years and it should continue in future. But at the same time, income inequality has been rising. Economic inequality within countries will continue to increase and unless there is much fairer taxation and wealth redistribution, it will increase social tensions and political instability.

 Historical US income inequality
Image: US Census Bureau

While technology will probably make it affordable for more people to have the essentials, it will also create a new social class that will replace today’s super-rich — think space travel and 3D printed organ replacements. A world with a new class of “super-haves” will create resentment and political instability, unless governments and businesses finally decide to act more responsibly –harmful austerity measures, tax evasion and unaccountable business practices must end, and quickly.

Inequality between countries is also likely to increase. The path to development for many countries in the 20th century has been through industrialization — typically starting with labour intensive manufacturing, followed by higher end export industries. With automation and additive manufacturing, a US-based company could bring back the manufacturing of its products to the USA with much less, if any, impact on costs. There will be political pressure, and possibly incentives, to bring manufacturing back to the wealthiest countries as pressure on jobs increases — even if these new factories have fewer jobs for humans. If this was to happen at a large scale, the changes to the structure of the global economy and global trade would have profound effects on developing countries, which will have to find new paths to development and wealth; failing to do so will lead to economic and political instability.

Finally, pressure on jobs in the future will likely hurt gender equality. Progress towards equal pay and equal access to economic opportunities for women has been painfully slow. In a world with fewer jobs, there is a very real danger that we could see a reversal in the small gains that have been achieved. Serious policy action will be needed to avoid such an outcome.

5. Unrest and conflicts

Technological development could also indirectly lead to new conflicts and political unrest. Countries that are heavily reliant on oil and gas for their national income risk substantial economic losses caused by the move away from fossil fuels to renewable energy. In Saudi Arabia, the oil and gas sectors account for 50% of GDP and 85% of export earnings, in Venezuela 95% of export earnings come from oil revenues, and in Russia oil-related taxes were 50% of total tax receipts in 2014. These and other countries have already been hit by falling oils prices in the past two years and could suffer even more in future.

The tumbling price of solar and wind power and the growth in their adoption (they are now regularly winning contracts against fossil fuels, unsubsidized), combined with the development of utility-scale storage for renewable energyand an electric vehicle revolution could further substantially reduce demand for fossil fuels.


Recognizing this risk, Saudi Arabia launched an ambitious plan to diversify its economy earlier this year, aiming to triple its non-oil revenue just in the first five years; other oil-reliant economies also need to change. Future oil declines will seriously destabilize economies that still rely heavily on income from fossil fuels. History tells us that economic decline can often lead to political instability caused by falling standards of living and increasing social tensions; this in turn could turn into violence.

When countries go to war, the nature of conflicts itself will change as war will be waged by semi-autonomous and fully autonomous machines. Unless their development is prohibited, we will soon see fully autonomous “killer robots” enter war zones. Today, there are semi-autonomous machines — like drones — used in warfare, but the “kill” decision is left to humans. The difference between semi and full autonomous machines is huge — not because a machine is used to kill people, that’s how war has always been waged — but because an artificial intelligence will kill people. This will mean that one of the most important moral principles in the development of artificial intelligence is breached: that robots should not be designed to kill or harm humans. The principle, which can be traced back to Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics has been a key part of many serious efforts to guide the rapidly growing field of artificial intelligence. If the principle is broken in warfare, it will inevitably finds it ways to law enforcement and the private security sector. More dangerously, it will encourage the development of an industry devoted to creating better and more efficient autonomous killing machines.

A conclusion of sorts

I’ve talked about many of the potential negative impacts of new technologies, but my intention is not to say that the future is bleak. I believe that emerging technologies will help solve many of the world’s problems, from climate change to diseases, but others will persist and new ones will appear. The challenge for human rights is to keep pace with the coming changes. The international human rights system has been — like most legal and political systems — very slow to adapt to technological change, but managed to stay relevant as change was gradual. This will no longer be the case.

What makes this period different is that the rate of technological advance is unlike anything we’ve seen before. It will take us by surprise, no matter how much we prepare for it. We tend to think linearly — when we project into the future, we imagine that in five years things around will be more or less as different as today is compared to five years ago. But a number of technologies are advancing exponentially — from artificial intelligence to robotics and additive manufacturing (3D printing) to synthetic biology — these will fundamentally change individual lives and societies. The international human rights framework, just like national legal and political systems, will have to adapt very fast, or become irrelevant.

And one last note:

I’ve included many links to a lot of interesting articles and reports. Here is an extra one: this is a great Ted talk by Andrew McAfee, co-director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, where he talks about the future of jobs, inequality and society. It raises many important questions about the choices we face… well worth it.

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Social InnovationFourth Industrial RevolutionCivil Society
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