It’s easy to assume that every leap forward in technology is a leap forward in benefit, but this is not always the case. Technological innovation, particularly of the fast-paced kind we see today, is full of possible benefits but also fraught with risk.

The Global Risks Report 2017 by the World Economic Forum highlights 12 key areas of innovation and their inherent risks and benefits.

The list of 12 includes 3D printing, artificial intelligence and robots, biotechnologies and the internet of things amongst others. The full list is below.

 Table 1
Image: World Economic Forum/GRR

Benefit versus risk?

The report’s conclusions on risk are heavily based on its Global Risks Perception Survey, which gathers the opinions of the World Economic Forum’s multi-stakeholder communities of leaders from business, government, academia and nongovernmental and international organizations. Members of the Institute of Risk Management are also consulted. The survey was conducted in September and October 2016.

This chart, which plots the results of the survey, suggests that respondents to the survey are broadly optimistic about the balance of the risks and benefits of emerging technologies. However, the amount of risk, versus the amount of benefit, that they think each technology brings varies widely.

 Table 2
Image: World Economic Forum/GRR

Emerging technologies with lots of risk, but also lots of reward

The emerging technology with by far the most negative consequences is artificial intelligence and robotics. There is no doubt that the impacts of these technologies will be dramatic.

Among key concerns is the question of whether this technology will deprive millions of their jobs. For example, if this robot chef becomes a common sight in cafes and restaurants all around the world, will millions of people currently working in the hospitality industry lose their jobs? Or in a world where machines are powered by artificial intelligence, how do we make sure that the decisions they make are ethical? For instance, if a self-driving car has the choice to either crash into a person crossing the street, or crash into a wall injuring, or possibly killing, its passengers, how can it make that split-second decision, one that even humans struggle with? That said, this technology also has an above average benefit. Self-driving cars could eliminate 90% of the approximately 1.3 million road fatalities each year. They could also reduce congestion and therefore pollution, especially in our cities.

Biotechnology, where we modify living organisms for medicinal, agricultural or industrial uses, could also bring us enormous benefit, but is also high risk. This technology, could give the world more food to eat, for example, and could solve many health problems, but contains many ethical dilemmas, such as whether genetically modifying plants or animals could lead to problems we haven’t foreseen.

 Genetically modified mosquitoes created to help stop the spread of Dengue fever.
Genetically modified mosquitoes created to help stop the spread of Dengue fever.
Image: Reuters

New computing technologies, such as quantum computing, are also high risk, but could dramatically alter our lives. The time it takes for scientists to perform valuable medical research, which relies on huge amounts of data, could be dramatically reduced, leading to quicker breakthroughs in medicine. However, it could also unleash new and unforeseen behaviours in computing systems.

 A D-Wave Vesuvius processor for quantum computing.
A D-Wave Vesuvius processor for quantum computing.
Image: Reuters

Emerging technologies with lots of risk, but not so much reward

The emerging technology with the second worst performance in terms of risk is the internet of things, shown in the diagram as “proliferation and ubiquitous presence of linked sensors”.

This technology is designed to make our lives easier; we can switch on the heating before we get home (saving energy use and heating costs), we can monitor our home remotely to make sure it’s secure, we can even switch a kettle on through wi-fi, giving us a (valuable) extra few minutes in bed in the morning.

But we could also be giving cyber-criminals a window into our world, straight into our identities and into our bank accounts. How to keep those connections secure is the biggest challenge in this type of technology.

Next is geoengineering. On the face of it, geoengineering – tackling climate change by removing CO2 from the air or limiting the sunlight reaching the planet – is a good thing, because its aim is to help us save the planet.

But it has above average negative consequences, and very little benefit. That’s because some argue that this technology takes away focus from the very important job of reducing emissions, or that the side effects of some of the technology cancel out its benefit. They may also prove simply too expensive to put into action.

Image: Reuters

Blockchain also appears in the high risk/low benefit quadrant. This technology is particularly relevant today in the financial world, where it is bringing about faster and more secure payments. That said, we have limited experience of this type of technology, and some of the risks may not become apparent until it is being used on a wider scale.

Emerging technologies with average risk, average reward

Neurotechnology is the only technology to provide an average risk and an average reward. This is the technology that will make it possible to manipulate the brain. Whilst theoretically this technology promises great things, we are still at the experimental stage, where we don’t know all the risks.

Emerging technologies with lots of reward, and very little risk

Perhaps the most promising of new technologies are those that carry great reward and little risk. Among the technologies that the survey respondents thought fit into this category was energy storage, capture and transmission.

Technologies of this type include greatly improved battery power. The so-called “next-generation” batteries will be capable of storing much more energy, and could even end energy poverty. It could also bring us sustainable chemicals, energy and other materials as well as zero-waste bio-processing.

The importance of governance

The report highlights the fact that any new technology has to be developed alongside a system of good governance. While we already have this in the field of biotechnology, the same can’t be said of AI or robotics. But governance is a complex issue. If we have too much regulation we could stifle the very innovation – and benefit - we are trying to create, but if we don’t have enough we may never trust it enough to use it.