• Technology will power the global recovery from COVID-19.
  • But it must be properly regulated to avoid negative impacts.
  • The World Economic Forum’s Global Technology Governance Summit explored how to ensure that a tech-driven future benefits everyone.
  • Listen to the podcast: Radio Davos.

The new technologies driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) will be key to the global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic – but only if they are harnessed properly.

That was the message from the World Economic Forum’s Global Technology Governance Summit 2021, where leaders gathered virtually to discuss how we can ensure emerging technologies are designed and used responsibly.

Without effective governance to ensure new developments enhance equality and inclusion, technology could increase inequality and bias and enable abuses of power, the summit heard.

“COVID-19 has accelerated our transition into the age of the 4IR,” Klaus Schwab, the World Economic Forum’s Founder and Executive Chairman, writes in the Global Technology Governance Report. “We have to make sure that the new technologies in the digital, biological and physical world remain human-centred and serve society as a whole, providing everyone with fair access.”

The report highlights governance gaps in the areas of privacy, liability, cross-border regulatory discrepancies and the potential for misuse by bad actors, citing the surge in ransomware attacks and deep-fake video technology.

So how can technology be used to benefit everyone? Here are five visions of a future influenced by emerging technologies that were discussed at the summit.

Global Technology Governance Report 2021
Today’s technology governance gaps.
Image: World Economic Forum

1. Synthetic biology could change the world

Synthetic biology includes CRISPR, the gene-editing technology currently being used to fight COVID-19. “We’re talking about improving biology and redesigning organisms for beneficial purposes,” said Professor Amy Webb of New York University’s Stern School of Business.

“It's going to allow us to not just edit genomes but also, and importantly, to write a new code for life – we will have write-level permissions,” she added. “This could and will transform not just health but also materials. I can’t think of an area in which we won’t see a significant improvement.”

Synthetic biology could transform health and materials, the summit heard.
Synthetic biology could transform health and materials, the summit heard.
Image: Pixabay/Gerd Altman

2. Diminished reality will change how we experience it

If you own a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, you’ve already experienced diminished reality. It’s about removing extraneous things to allow us focus on what matters to us. Diminished reality spectacles, for example, could soon allow us to cut out things we don't want to see for certain tasks.

Professor Amy Webb of New York University’s Stern School of Business, told the summit about noise-cancelling windows which create an “anti-wave” to block sound. “In the near future it could totally transform our cities and turn the volume down on all that extra noise,” she said.

3. We’ll move beyond devices

Always keen to get the latest smartphone? Soon it won’t matter, said Mike Bechtel, Chief Futurist at Deloitte. “Over the next 10 years its going to be about moving beyond the device,” he said. “We can’t realistically have 15 smart speakers everywhere we go.

“We are going to be moving to ambient experiences, which is shorthand for a sort of digital Downton Abbey where we don’t ask Echo or Google ‘What’s the weather?’, we just say ‘What’s the weather?’ and the right agent jumps up at the right time to give the right answer.”

Will a world without devices be like “a digital Downton Abbey”?
Will a world without devices be like “a digital Downton Abbey”?
Image: Pixabay/Vane Monte

4. Real investment in human capital could be transformative

Why are some jobs better paid than others? Professor Stuart Russell of the University of California, Berkeley said it all comes down to investment in training.

A surgeon, for example, draws on thousands of years of medical research while training for about a decade, and is rewarded with a high status and salary. But using babysitters as an example, Russell says that: “We’ve put almost nothing into the science, engineering, professionalisation and training involved in childcare.”

“If we could do it right it would be wonderful. We have plenty of data on what happens when you have one-on-one human tutoring as opposed to classroom education. A really good human tutor can teach at about three times the rate of a typical school classroom. So roughly speaking you would bring children to college level by the age of 10.”

5. AI won't take our jobs… yet

Russell also told the summit that if you’re worried about losing your job to a robot or a computer right now you can relax – at least for the time being. “The kind of AI that people are worried about taking all the jobs doesn’t exist yet,” he said.

The OECD says 14% of jobs globally are at risk from automation within the next two decades, while 32% could change radically.

Low-income jobs hat higher risk of automation.
Low-income jobs hat higher risk of automation.
Image: Statista

But while artificial intelligence could be seen as a threat, the World Economic Forum’s research says it will create more jobs than it replaces.

Catch up with the highlights or watch whole sessions from the Global Technology Governance Summit on the World Economic Forum’s website.