West London Model United Nations 2017: New Technologies, New Promises, New Problems
Thank you Madam Secretary General, esteemed chairs and honourable delegates for the kind introduction and for inviting me to the Second Annual West London Model United Nations Conference. It is a great pleasure to open these proceedings today on ‘New Technologies, New Promise, New Problems’ and to explore ideas with you, the next generation of leaders, who have the greatest potential to change our world for the better.
Today, there are over three billion people connected online; that’s approaching half the world’s population communicating with and learning from each other, and experiencing life in previously unimaginable ways. People who would otherwise never have a voice, never have an opportunity, and from whom the next great invention might come from, now that they have a chance.
That’s a remarkable achievement and it represents significant opportunities. Our lives are without a doubt easier, more convenient, and more efficient. When you want to get home quickly, you can use your phone to order a taxi or call an Uber in minutes. You can check your route home to see if the train is operating without delays. You can even click on something of interest in the meanwhile and within hours it arrives at your door, and that package might one day soon be delivered by a drone. Most importantly, with a tap of the finger, you can participate in a global movement and make your voice heard on any topic or issue.
All of these advances require technology but the latest technology does not just make our lives better, sometimes it also makes people less relevant. In fact today, many people are feeling disenfranchised; left behind, anxious. This surge in technological capability has yet to fix the economic realities of a new world where technology and globalisation are replacing human workers with robots and shifting jobs on a mass scale to places with lower costs of production.
Whilst the economy continues to recover in most western countries, salaries and job opportunities for a significant proportion of workers have not. Across various sectors, including medicine, manufacturing, transportation, logistics, customer service and office support, workers are at risk of being displaced by machines, threatened by the fact artificial intelligence is more efficient and cost effective than any human being can ever be.
Let’s start with medicine. A host of new startups are applying deep-learning technology to the analysis of X-rays and CT scans. Tests comparing these techniques with the analysis of three human radiologists, working in collaboration, showed that the AI technology was 50% better at classifying malignant tumours with zero chance of missing cancerous growths, compared with 7% for the expertly-trained technicians. According to The Economist “vulnerability to automation is not whether the work concerned is manual or white-collar but whether or not it is routine. Machines can already do many forms of routine manual labour and are now able to perform some routine cognitive tasks too”.
In retail, Amazon will soon be introducing Amazon Go, a store with virtually no employees that uses the same types of technology as self-driving cars. Their ‘Just Walk Out’ technology automatically detects which products you take from the shelves and keeps track of them in a virtual cart. When you’re finished you can just leave the store and shortly afterwards your Amazon account will be charged and a receipt sent to you. No need for human contact. Today, in some other stores, you can pay with just your fingerprint.
Our social experiences are changing dramatically as well. In Japan, innovators in food service have been automating various elements of restaurants for decades, from taking orders, serving food and washing dishes to even preparing food, and now automatic restaurants are starting to appear in the US, Czech Republic, Germany, Thailand, China and India. There are even robot chefs that can cook you michelin starred food in the comfort of your own home.
Forrester’s 2015 survey found that at least 45% of US adults online use virtual assistants like Alexa, Cortana and Siri as digital concierges. These forms of AI are currently relatively simple but in the near future they will be able to make more complex decisions for us, and with access to all of our digital administrative tools and online profiles they will be able to offer highly personalised assistance. This may in turn pave the way for social acceptance of more risky automated breakthroughs, like self-driving vehicles. All in all, by 2021 Forrester projects that robots will eliminate 6% of US jobs.
Elon Musk, Founder of Space X and Tesla expressed the inevitability of this tectonic social shift in February at the World Government Summit in Dubai: “What to do about mass unemployment he asked? This is going to be a massive social challenge. There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better [than a human]. These are not things that I wish will happen. These are simply things that I think probably will happen.”
Automation has also fuelled new means of warfare. Night after night on the evening news, we hear about selectively targeted drone strikes; the consequences of which are disturbingly detached from our reality. Only this week Daesh, or the so-called Islamic State, released footage apparently depicting a simple commercially available drone, delivering a devastating attack in Mosul, showing even the most basic forms of this technology can cause great terror and destruction.
However drone technology embodies the moral duality of technology’s impact on society, as it can also be used as a significant force for good. In the aftermath of natural and manmade disasters, drones can be positioned to survey damage, locate stranded and injured victims, and assess ongoing threats, without risking the safety of rescue teams and first-responders.
Drones can support law enforcement by searching for missing children, providing tactical surveillance, assisting in accident investigations and monitoring large crowds. Their aerial dexterity can aide safe infrastructure maintenance and management, more efficiently than scaffolding, cranes and harnesses. In aerial photography, filming for a news broadcast or movie scene can be completed efficiently and effectively with drones, enabling viewers to experience images they otherwise may not have been able to.
So given all of these consequences, positive and negative, how do we harness what is good about technology and protect against what is destructive? How do we build a safe, inclusive and equitable society where everyone has a fair chance to live a productive, healthy and secure life? How do we change a world that, despite all this progress, still seems unfairly tilted to benefit a few, to one that enables everyone’s dreams?
It is daunting. You are probably listening to me and thinking, “that’s great, your generation got to dream about a more connected, automated and efficient society and now my generation has to deal with the consequences”. Well there is some truth in this, but I would suggest that you, the world’s digital natives and enlightened technology leaders, are now in charge.
As you debate these issues in your committees, bear in mind that you are the first generation to grow up more technologically literate than your parents and teachers, giving you an unparalleled aptitude to harness the great potential of these new technologies for good. You are uniquely positioned to lead in this new advanced society.
Let me close by recalling the Atticus Finch quote that Ms. Hester shared when introducing today’s session, from To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Remember that technology will continue to become more pervasive and powerful, but there will never be a substitute for human empathy, compassion and creativity. The decisions you make are still and will always be your own.