The views expressed in this report are those of the authors. Their statements are not necessarily endorsed by the affiliated organisations or the Global Challenges Foundation.

Disruptive technologies can affect societies in unexpected manners. As a first step towards better understanding how technological development may hinder or improve global governance, we conducted a survey with experts around the world. The results shows a high level of optimism. Among eleven disruptive technologies, only two were identified as more likely to have a negative impact: genetic modifications and autonomous robots. On the positive side, clean and abundant energy was seen as the most likely to have a positive effect, followed by big data, digital governance systems, and biometric identification.

Disruptive technologies have a way of impacting the societal order in unexpected manners. Internet-based social media, for example, has already shown its merit in bringing about the Arab Spring on the one hand, and disseminating fake news on the other. The immediate impact of disruptive technologies is often unclear – but futures studies methodologies can be utilized to develop scenarios about the way in which future technologies will impact global governance.

As a first step towards understanding the potential impact of new technologies on global governance, we conducted a survey with futurists in different organizations, including the World Future Society, the Millennium Project, TechCast, Wikistrat and others. We created a preliminary list of disruptive and emerging technologies, presented them with a brief explanation, and asked about their potential to either “improve global governance” or “hinder global governance”, with a scale of 1 to 7 (and an “I don’t know” option). Participants were also asked to comment on the potential impact of the technology. 

Altogether, 285 respondents provided answers to the survey questions: 76% of those hold a graduate degree of some sort, and 49% are American citizens, while the rest come from over fifteen other nations around the world. In total, we collected at least 185 answers for every question, and 80 – 140 detailed comments about the potential uses of each technology.

For each technology, we examined responses as to the potential for improving or hindering global governance, then calculated a Positive/Negative Impact (PNI) index as follows

A technology that has a large PNI index is one for which the potential for positive impact outweighs the potential for a negative one. A technology with a low PNI index is one in which there is more potential for a negative impact. This PNI index can help us identify which technologies we should invest in to promote global governance, and which technologies garner more futures thinking and preparation before we make use of them.

 The PNI index reflects the overall optimism or pessimism that people feel towards specific technologies. When the PNI index is larger than 1, people are generally optimistic – they think that the technology has greater potential to improve global governance than to hinder it. As such, it is remarkable how optimistic respondents to this survey have been about most technologies.  

Biometric identification, aerial drones and algorithmic regulation are often connected to dystopian visions of the future – yet here, experts are generally optimistic about those technologies. Even autonomous robots, which are the stuff of futuristic horror movies, have been recognized as nearly neutral (i.e. their PNI is only just under 1) in the eyes of the experts surveyed. 

The precise reason for this optimism is unclear but certainly encouraging. That said, the experts are still cautious about many technologies – sometimes unexpectedly so. “Internet for all”, for example, was seen throughout the last two decades as one of the main goals of developed and developing nations. And yet, it receives a PNI index of only 1.264: while the respondents understand its major impact on global governance, they are fearful of its negative uses – as these have been demonstrated lately with the onset of ‘fake news’ and the rise of a ‘winner takes all’ phenomenon in the digital world.

In order to better understand the precise arguments for and against the technologies in this report, we conducted a more extensive analysis of the answers provided for the three technologies with the largest PNI index. We also analyzed the two technologies that received a PNI index smaller than 1. These answers can help us understand the hopes, fears, opportunities and risks associated with each technology, while also providing us with expert advice regarding the challenges for making the most out of the technology.

Positive tech #1: clean and abundant energy

With the growing need to move towards an economy less reliant on carbon, new clean forms of energy creation – particularly renewable energy, usually solar- or wind-based – have become a booming market. This, in turn, is expected by many to reduce the reliance of many nations on fossil-based fuels and on centralized power plants, and shift global power relations, particularly in regions that have been heavily reliant on fossil fuels for their development. More generally, some have seen this shift as heralding a new era of energy abundance. 

It is remarkable to note how optimistic the experts are about this technology. It has received both the second-largest “positive impact” ranking, and the lowest “negative impact” ranking. This may be in part because of the positive description of the technology as “clean” and “abundant”.

Participants believed that the main beneficial result of this development would be a betterment of people’s lives all over the world. It will lead to a cleaner environment and better health, to better food security due to the capability to utilize energy for growing crops, and to more innovation worldwide – leading to higher productivity. Altogether, these developments should lead to a future of higher prosperity and better subjective well-being (also known as happiness) – and content people tend to fight less. Moreover, abundant energy should reduce the frequency of resource wars, and will shift power away from the select nations that currently control fossil energy sources.

Disruptive technologies have a way of impacting the societal order in unexpected manners. The immediate impact of disruptive technologies is often unclear – but futures studies methodologies can be utilized to develop scenarios about the way in which future technologies will impact global governance.

However, this development is not without some risk. The process of moving over to renewable energies will cause a dramatic shift in international power structures, and may lead to much conflict and strife along the way, as nations that base their economies on fossil fuel production suffer greatly. In addition, without the reliance on fossil fuels, some measure of interdependence between nations will be lost, which may make it more difficult to form binding international agreements. Finally, there is currently a move towards global governance agreements regarding climate control, and by ‘taking that sword off our neck’ we may find that reaching such agreements becomes more difficult.

The experts have expressed some concerns about future developments in this field. They’ve warned that the new technologies for harvesting energy may fall into the hands of only a select group of nation and that a new “politics of sun” may crop up. They were also worried that governments will turn their attention to other scarce resources, like rare earth metals (which are needed for some renewable energy production systems), or even digital resources like data and AI.

Positive tech #2: big data and predictive analytics

Big data and predictive analytics systems can be used to collect massive amounts of data and determine the likelihood of certain future events (e.g. natural disasters, wars, etc), and thus enable better preparation for them. The capabilities of this technology stand to be amplified by AI-based systems that could directly support decision making.

A technology of this kind could help improve overall efficiency of global agreements by monitoring and tracking food, energy and water usage, and regulating it on a global level. The same would apply for tracking immigration. The technology would also help nations better prepare for future adverse effects like terrorist attacks, thus limiting damage and preventing escalation of conflicts between nations and non-state actors.

The risks and challenges of using big data and predictive analytics, however, are substantial. Nations will fight over data collection (“data will be the new oil”), and nations with more data and better AI systems will be better positioned to reap the most benefits – while quickly leaving others in the dust. Governments and economic entities could centralize the collection and analysis of regional and global data, and abuse this information to disempower individuals and groups, fermenting anger and dissent. 

Finally, an unexpected negative side effect of big data and predictive analytics could be that it will increase the speed of decision making inside nations, while global agreements and decision making will keep evolving at a snails’ pace. 

While experts see great potential for big data and predictive analytics, they caution us to remember that insights gained from this technology are only as good as the data they rely on. Furthermore, data collection and interpretation could easily be biased to reflect cultural preferences. Therefore, data will need to be collected from many different sources, and interpreted with caution. 

Positive tech #3: digital governance systems

Digital governance systems allow citizens to influence their government or directly participate in decision making through the internet, by taking part in committees, conducting public discussions and voting online.

The experts believe that digital governance systems will increase the public’s involvement in the collective global governance systems, by making it easier for people to vote, and making sure there’s no fraud in elections and decision making processes. Furthermore, such systems could promote worldwide partnerships at the grassroots level, leading to better acceptance of global governance.

On the other hand, a digital global democracy that is not inclusive could damage global governance. In addition, the experts expressed doubt about the potential of these systems to achieve mass-engagement, as oftentimes the subjects discussed are remote from the daily lives of most people. There is real worry that digital systems for public discourse will be dominated by the most vocal and radical participants, leaving moderate voices unheard. This fear ties closely with the rise of the Internet as a ‘fake news’ engine, leading to people making unwise decisions under the influence of ‘junk information’.

Finally, hacking is a very real issue that will need to be addressed in order to maintain trust in digital governance systems.

Negative tech #1: autonomous robots

Research & development efforts are currently under way to create autonomous robots – robots that can act without human control – to be used in warfare and for keeping order.

While the experts understand that robots could improve monitoring and remote strike capabilities with minimal loss of human life, and thus make it more difficult for conflicts to escalate, there is a concern that they could also normalize war and conflict as a ‘lower risk activity’. This could even lead to robots fighting robots, with no humans involved on the battlefield, and result in an AI arms race while reducing trust between nations. This development would obviously be disastrous for global governance. 

Some see robots as “fair witnesses” and “fair judges” with no human biases, but others express concern that robots would have the same biases as the humans who programmed them. 

As the cost of developing, deploying and operating robots goes down, they will almost certainly be used by non-state actors as tools to wreak havoc and conduct terrorist attacks. Even the most sophisticated robots could still be vulnerable to hacking and potentially be reprogrammed by non-state actors. In the words of one of the experts, “Autonomous military robots will be a force multiplier for anyone who possesses them – and in ten years, fifteen at the outside, that will mean just about anyone. By reducing human deaths, they will make war more palatable, giving large, technologically sophisticated, and aggressive powers much greater freedom of action against the relatively defenseless.”

Negative tech #2: genetic modification

Genetic modification could allow nations to engineer the next generation according to certain paradigms and perceived needs. Human babies may be engineered, for example, to have enhanced intelligence, or to withstand harsh environments such as those found on high mountains.

The experts are worried that genetic modification will draw a ‘new line in the sand’ between two kinds of ideologies: those that emphasize human change and adaptation, and those that wish to stay and halt the change. Due to the potential power of genetic engineering in enhancing human intelligence (a power which has not been demonstrated yet), it is conceivable that the next ‘arms race’ could be focused on this technology. As some countries leap forward ahead of others in this field due to lax ethics and regulations, they will gain greater economic and military power over other, more conservative, nations.

On the other hand, in the far future, genetic engineering could easily be used to increase resistance and immunity to certain diseases, as well as age-related illnesses and potentially even aging itself. Obviously, the nations that choose to make use of this technology would again receive a great power over other nations that choose not to use genetic engineering – or those that don’t even have the choice.

Addendum: blockchain technologies

Blockchain technologies are currently the subject of many discussions, with particular interest in their impact for the future of nations and governance. For this reason, we chose to include the experts’ ideas and opinions on this topic. Blockchain technologies enable complete decentralization of data storage and computation, and are the basis for Bitcoin, the first decentralized currency outside any government control. Blockchain technologies could enable the decentralization of monetary systems, dispute resolution (i.e. justice) systems, document storage systems and many other services. 

These technologies can help move funds around the world more quickly, speed efforts to share resources across borders, and decrease the power of large corporations. They could, however, prove to be a major force to challenge the control of nations over these services, and even aid the formation and existence of black markets and money laundering schemes, as well as monetary manipulation. While experts were generally enthusiastic about the potential of the technology to provide greater transparency and hinder governments’ ability to conduct misdeeds, they also recognized that blockchain technologies could diminish the overall coordination and governance capabilities of traditional governments by pushing the power to the edges of society. As one of the experts wrote: “Blockchain could be the first step in the death of the nation state and the democratization of power to the community and citizen level.”

Roey Tzezana

Roey Tzezana is a futurist and researcher at Blavatnik Interdisciplinary Cyber Research Centre (ICRC), Tel Aviv University. He is also affiliated with the Humanity Centered Robotics Initiative (HCRI) at Brown University, and is a senior scientific advisor for the World Future Society (WFS). The research has been conducted in collaboration with the World Future Society.