This glossary attempts to clarify some of the key terms used in this report, including new forms of hardware and software, their applications, and general underlying principles. This is, however, no more than a first rudimentary entry point: the list is by no means exhaustive, and some of the terms below cover entire academic disciplines. To better grasp the complexity behind each of these words, we strongly encourage interested readers to seek more detailed accounts than could possibly fit in the short space of a glossary.
An aerial drone, also described as unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), is a flying object without a human pilot aboard. Aerial drones are increasingly sophisticated and becoming capable of autonomous action, as well as increasingly small. Drone networks are planned to become commonplace in both urban and rural environments, supporting a range of surveillance systems, as well as new forms of military and police intervention.
An algorithm is a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.
Algorithmic regulation is a governance system in which data is collected from citizens’ devices or through a range of sensors and cameras in urban areas. This data is then used for efficiently organizing the citizens’ lives. Algorithmic regulation could be used, for example, to automatically ticket speeding motorists, or – as in China today – to automatically collect photos of people who cross the street under a red light, and display these on digital boards to shame the perpetrators.
Artificial intelligence (AI) refers to technology that enables machines to accomplish complex goals – or forms of intelligence that are non-biological. We typically distinguish between weak or narrow AI, designed and trained for a particular task such as spam filters, self-driving cars or Facebook’s newsfeed, and general AI or Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), which is able to find a solution when presented with an unfamiliar task, with human-level ability or beyond.
Augmented reality is a view of a real-world environment whose elements are “augmented” by sensory input such as sound, video, graphics, or other. These inputs are typically generated by computers, and accessed through devices such as phones, tablets, or Google Glasses. Augmentation typically occurs in real time and in relation to environmental elements – for instance, by overlaying supplemental information like scores over the video feed of a sporting event. The most notable uses of augmented reality would be the popular smartphone game Pokémon GO, car manufacturer Volvo’s experiment with augmented reality aided production lines, and ThyssenKrupp’s overview for lift maintenance.
Autonomous robots are machines that can act without human control, through integrated computer systems. Factory robots, with a degree of autonomy, were already developed in the 1930s (with the first patent granted in 1961) and robots have been used as vacuum cleaners (Roomba), pets (AIBO the robot dog), and as chauffeurs (driverless cars). Autonomous robots are already used in warfare, where their autonomy is restricted by a human giving the final command to attack. Law enforcement is a potential growing area of use for autonomous robots – for instance, the Dubai Police force is now using modified Reem robots.
Big data technologies are computer systems that collect and aggregate massive amounts of data gathered through a combination of sensors and Internet data sources. This data is used to determine a certain situation (e.g. environmental conditions), or predict the likelihood of a future event (e.g. natural events, wars, etc). The capabilities of this technology will be amplified by AI-based systems that can directly support decision making by analyzing big data in relation to different goals.
Biometric identification technologies can verify the identity of human beings by examining distinct biological features. They include face recognition, fingerprints recognition, iris recognition, voice recognition and many others. Biometric identification could provide a highly efficient way to identify every person – sometimes from considerable distances (as in the case of people being filmed by aerial drones) – and could be used for airport security, building access, and car access through voice recognition.
Blockchain is a technology that enables complete decentralization of data storage and computation, through a network of computers or smartphones connected over the Internet. Using smart software and cryptography, the nodes in the network can share inalterable data, without any central authority, and the system works even if participants do not trust each other. Blockchain already serves as the basis for Bitcoin, the first decentralized currency outside any government control, and should enable decentralization of monetary systems, dispute resolution systems, document storage systems and many other services – challenging the control of nations over these services.
Clean and abundant energy
Recent technological developments, particularly in the field of renewable electricity sources (solar- or wind-based) or – in a more uncertain future – nuclear fusion, hint at the possibility of clean and abundant energy creation. As these technologies become more prevalent, many expect that they will reduce the reliance of many nations on fossil-based fuels and on centralized power plants, while opening the prospect of economic abundance.
CRISPR is a gene editing technology that allows to precisely target and permanently modify certain sections of DNA in living organisms. The technology relies on a naturally occurring genome editing system in bacteria. Unlike other gene editing technologies, CRISPR uses the cell’s own DNA repair mechanisms to add or subtract pieces of genetic information or to replace an existing segment with a tailor-made DNA sequence. CRISPRs do not need to be paired with separate cleaving enzymes as other tools do. It can also be used to target multiple genes simultaneously.
CRISPR is currently applied in biomedical research, crop and livestock breeding, in the research to engineer new antimicrobial drugs and to control disease-carrying insects with gene drives. CRISPR could be applied to humans in the foreseeable future, where it could serve to reverse genetic mutations responsible for a range of illnesses dependent on single genes, such as cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, and sickle cell disease or transform DNA to genetically enhance individuals. The first procedure where an adult received cells edited by CRISPR took place in 2016 in China.
The word data is omnipresent in discourses about new information technologies. Data can be loosely defined as information about people, places, and environmental elements, gathered from a range of sources – from dispersed sensors to texts – that exists in digital and other forms. Information technology allows a range of sources to be converted into formats that allow for their joint processing and computation, whether for the sake of monitoring, prediction, or other purposes.
Digital governance technologies are systems that allow citizens to take direct part in and influence their government’s decision making through the internet, for instance, by taking part in committees, conducting public discussions or voting online.
Genetic modification refers to the transformation of the genome of a living organism. This is typically done through a process called ‘gene editing’, a type of genetic engineering where DNA is inserted, deleted or replaced in the genome of a living organism. The main technologies to do this are ZFN, TALEN, and CRISPR/Cas9. Genetic modification is already applied to bacteria, plants and animals, and technology currently exists that can be applied to humans. Genetic modification could allow nations to engineer the next generation according to certain paradigms and perceived needs. Babies may be engineered, for example, to have enhanced intelligence, or to withstand harsh environments.
Internet for all
Internet for all refers to the potential provision of Internet services to everyone (possibly without the consent of the state), through technologies like Google’s router-balloons, Facebook’s mega-drones, satellites or device-to-device communication.
Internet of Things
The Internet of things (IoT) is an emerging integrated technological network, where digital and sensor technologies embedded in physical devices, vehicles, buildings and other items can collect data from their environment and communicate with each other using the Internet – or this information can be used in human-machine communication. The analyst firm Gartner estimates that by 2020 there will be over 26 billion connected devices in the world. Sensors can detect changes in state – for instance, temperature – and trigger changes of behavior on this basis, operating like a thermostat, but in a connected way.
Machine learning is a field of computer science that gives computers the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed. Various technological models underpin machine learning, but the most common at present is neural networks, which are loosely modeled on the human brain’s layers of densely interconnected simple processing nodes. Unlike machines that operate on the basis of algorithms developed by human programmers, machine learning results in computing systems developing models of operation that are opaque to their developers. Machine learning is also an evolving process, whereby machines are capable to improving their own competence and reformat themselves independently of human input.
Mass surveillance is the intricate surveillance of an entire or a substantial fraction of a population in order to monitor that group of citizens. Mass surveillance is exerted through the combination of a range of technologies – typically dispersed sensors, aerial drones and biometric identification.
Open data refers to one of the underlying principles of the Internet, whereby data should be made available to as broad a range of individuals and organizations as possible, with the minimal level of limitations attached. The principles of open data apply at two levels: that data should be made available at no cost, and that it should be formatted in a way that makes it maximally transferable. The underlying logic of open data is that it will allow and incentivize individuals, governments, NGOs and corporations to produce useful innovations making use of this data in order to address local and global challenges in unexpected ways.
Predictive analytics refers to a variety of statistical techniques that analyze large amounts of data to make predictions about future or otherwise unknown events, in order to guide better decision making, by humans or machines.
Quantum communication is a field of applied quantum physics. Closely related to quantum information processing and quantum teleportation, it works by transferring a quantum state from one place to another. Quantum states code quantum information, or qubits, through single photons. Those photons are randomly polarized to states representing ones and zeroes, and serve to transmit a series of random number sequences used as keys in cryptographic communication. Its most interesting application is in protecting information channels against eavesdropping by means of quantum cryptography, making it practically unhackable by foreign powers.
Sensors are electronic components or devices whose purpose is to detect events or changes in the environment, then send the information to other electronic components, typically computer processors, typically communicating through radio waves or wifi. Sensor networks disseminated through cities and the environment underpin the structure of the Internet of things and many big data projects.
Space exploration refers to the development of manned and unmanned craft that can travel in space. Space technology already supports the network of satellites that make GPS and many communication systems possible. Further space exploration opens the possibility of colonising other planets, manufacturing in microgravity – enabling entirely new materials which could not be developed with Earth’s gravity – the construction of widespread solar farms in microgravity, or mining resources present in space, such as precious metals present on asteroids.
Virtual reality (VR) is a technologically-mediated illusion, whereby the human brain falsely infers real presence in a virtual environment. This illusion can be achieved through a head mounted display system that renders a virtual environment in alignment with each eye’s perspective, and changes the image projected in relation to the movement of the head. VR technology has been used in areas like aviation training and clinical psychology since the 1960s, and more recently for gaming and entertainment.