It is needless to say that emerging technologies have begun gaining prominence in shaping solutions to future problems and as I seek to understand the reasoning behind such developments including their subsequent applications and potential impacts to our way of life, it becomes imperative to define their ‘future potentials’ as many advanced technological developments have been labelled.
Herein, I define potential as a condition of the future.
The critical question, then, is to differentiate between potential and actuality, or likelihood of delivery; by defining the sort of changes being envisioned and how they would impact our day-to-day lives, such as the social contract, job profile, competition, livelihood, infrastructure and security in the upcoming years and decades. Most of these changes are already underway and being dealt with in various policy frameworks. The prospects are so immense that it becomes essential to understand why such changes are taking place and what would the consequences be for us and our future generations.
Emerging technologies are highly complex technological innovations built at exponential scales that could have significant impacts on our lives and how we work.
Emerging technologies are therefore an emergent process that responds to the demands of an ever-changing world. Thus, most emerging technologies have been designed with the intention of building processes that optimally suit the emergent needs of society, for example in the context of nanotechnology and quantum computing. Another example would be advanced software systems that can perform complex tasks without any supervision, such as automated data mining.
However, the potential impacts of emerging technologies to humanity’s way of life can also be elaborated into two illustrative categories, namely more focused technological disruptions and broader societal disruptions.
The division between technological disruptions and societal disruptions is useful in the sense that technological disruptions create transformational change, while societal disruptions are socially and culturally disruptive and usually poorly accepted. This is because technological disruptions are largely tied to evolving concepts of technology, while societal disruptions are usually matters of public policy, which are unrelated to the notion of technology.
As an example, consider the notion of “digital disruption” versus “societal disruption”
The former captures the same concept as “disruption”, but the latter considers the societal aspects of disruption and the processes and conditions leading to it. In some sense, widespread availability of smart mobile devices as well as broadband internet can be interpreted as an example of societal disruption, despite their many economic benefits to society. Hence, digital disruption usually serves as a source of social, cultural and economic expansion. By contrast, societal disruption is usually considered as an event or occurrence that is caused by the unexpected (and at times unprecedented) emergence of a technology without prior social or economic preparations.
Emerging technologies are not exclusively transformational however, as they may also enable greater societal disruptions.
The combination of technological innovations with human creativity and social practices often results in drastic societal transformations.
For example, many have speculated that the current decline in physical social interactions relates to the growing emergence of online “social spaces”.
The “disintermediation” of society (or social fragmentation), which is rooted in the ideas of net neutrality and which can also be understood as an example of societal disruption, usually leads to social detriment that is greater than the good technological disruptions can bring to society.
This threat of societal disruption is why many governments are increasingly reluctant to adopt certain emerging technologies or provide subsidies for such technologies, but as technology continues to evolve, the resultant societal disruptions will not cease to occur.
As long as emerging technologies are gradually introduced in a legal way and collaborative manner, then these technologies would most probably lead to a net positive societal disruption and advancement.
Achieving a net positive societal disruption may consequently require developing an appropriate legal framework that will allow for and encourage innovation and deter unwanted or excessive uses of emerging technologies.
Undeniably so, emerging technologies addresses (and will continue to address) some of humanity’s most pressing challenges and despite their potential societal disruptions to our way of life, human civilization has nonetheless always harnessed new technologies to innovate exponentially and build a better world. Of course, because some emerging technologies such as neural implants and predative drones can cause greater harm to individuals or society, it is therefore important to discourage the harmful use of technologies that could lead to violations of the basic rights of everyday citizens.
That is why I argue for reaching global consensus in developing legal rules and regulations that can deter such abuses.
Although the societal impact caused by technological disruptions is always an existential threat, it is not necessarily a negative one, since they may very well lead to a substantial increase in expansive innovation and economic growth, as expected with the roll-out of 5G.
The remaining question is, what does it take to harness emerging technologies needed to produce a real net positive outcome for society, while preserving individual rights?