The UNGA held an informal briefing and a plenary discussion on opportunities and risks associated with rapid technological change.
Fabrizio Hochschild, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Strategic Coordination, outlined the UN Secretary-General's current initiatives to ensure that "frontier technologies" work for all.
In the plenary debate, UNGA President Espinosa emphasized the need to accelerate the development of low-carbon technologies in order to achieve the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
18 October 2018: The UN General Assembly (UNGA) held an informal briefing and a plenary discussion on opportunities and risks associated with rapid technological change, with a focus on the millions of people at risk of being “left behind” by technological development. Member States called for increased cooperation to both harness the positive and transformative power of technology to improve livelihoods, and address the security and development challenges it brings.
The UNGA’s meetings on the impact of rapid technological change on the achievement of the SDGs took place on 18 October 2018, at UN Headquarters in New York, US. The informal briefing was convened by UNGA President Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces, after a session on the topic during the third UN Multi-stakeholder Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for the SDGs (STI Forum) in June 2018.
Fabrizio Hochschild, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Strategic Coordination, outlined the UN Secretary-General’s current initiatives to ensure that “frontier technologies” work for all. He said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has formulated the UN system’s first-ever internal strategy on new technologies, to define how the UN will support their use to accelerate achievement of 2030 Agenda and other mandates. The strategy sets out four commitments:
- Deepen the UN’s internal capacities and exposure to new technologies;
- Increase understanding, advocacy and dialogue around new technologies;
- Enhance UN system support to governments capacity for development; and
- Support dialogue on normative and cooperation frameworks in this area.
Hochschild reported that the Secretary-General has created an innovation lab in his Office to test ideas and build partnerships with technology companies to improve decision-making. He also established a high-level panel on digital cooperation, which plans to submit its report in the first half of 2019, with recommendations on digital values, principles, and methods and mechanisms of digital cooperation, as well as innovative examples of digital cooperation in data privacy, inclusive finance, and human rights in the digital age.
Shamika Sirimanne, UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), presented UNCTAD’s publication titled, ‘Technology and Innovation Report 2018: Harnessing Frontier Technologies for Sustainable Development.’ The report outlines how developing countries can maximize the benefits and minimize the risks of the digital revolution.
The co-chair of the 2018 STI Forum (Mexico), which is part of the UN’s Technology Facilitation Mechanism (TFM), highlighted key conclusions from that meeting including recommendations for the work of the sub-group on rapid technological change within the Inter-Agency Task Team on STI for the SDGs (IATT) of the TFM. He said the fourth STI Forum in 2019 should address “STI bottlenecks” in order to inform global follow-up and review under the UNGA.
Representatives of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) informed participants about the World Economic and Social Survey 2018, and findings of the TFM and the UN Chief Economist on rapid technological change. For example, the growing use of cryptocurrency demands more electricity, and environmental considerations should be built into the design of emerging technologies, DESA noted.
In the formal plenary meeting on rapid technological change, President Espinosa emphasized the need to accelerate the development of low-carbon technologies in order to achieve the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as established in the Paris Agreement on climate change, and in light of SDG 13 (climate action). She pointed out that technological evolution can contribute to the creation of clean energy sources that are affordable for millions of people who are currently lacking an energy source. The President further underscored that certain technologies still under development, such as artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning, require robust regulatory frameworks in order to face the challenges and risks that their use represent for the future of humanity, adding that “our organization cannot remain on the sidelines of this paradigm shift.”
Luis Videgaray Caso, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Mexico, said Member States should aim to harness technological advances without limiting or halting innovation. He said Mexico is working to identify the impact of new technologies on achieving the 2030 Agenda. Sven Mikser, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Estonia, noted benefits of digitalization, such as improvements in governmental effectiveness, transparency, and trust in public processes, as well as enhancement of citizen engagement in building more inclusive societies.
Israel emphasized the role of education, noting the work of an Israeli start-up that teaches very young girls and boys the basics of programming through play. She added that technology can provide women and marginalized groups with new opportunities. Armenia noted the role of new technologies in creating start-up ecosystems for young entrepreneurs. Canada said it is critical to ensure that the ways the world harnesses the potential of emerging technologies support economic and societal inclusion, with a special focus on gender equality.
The EU noted concerns about the impact of new technologies on employment, privacy and security, calling to ensure that all people can benefit from the opportunities presented by new technologies. He said the EU set up a digital single market that is creating hundreds of thousands of jobs and established a clear set of data protection rules for all companies operating within its borders.
Georgia reminded delegates that technology is only a tool that can equally be maliciously used to enable new digital, physical and political threats. Noting that AI and robotics‑driven automation may result in the widespread displacement of workers, she cautioned that developing countries and economies in transition are likely to bear the brunt of this disruption.
Russia, supported by Turkey and India, warned that new technologies can contribute to an increasing technological divide, but Russia said the UN has the tools to address this issue. Cuba said meeting the challenges calls for increased involvement of developed states, explaining that equal access to new technologies on a global scale requires financial and investment commitments by developed countries. India called for a “serious discussion” on the possible needs and scope of international cooperation and governance in certain areas.
Turkey and the Republic of Korea said the UN should serve as a platform to build awareness and establish good models for country regulatory frameworks on technological advances. Turkey expressed support for strengthening the capacity of the least developed countries (LDCs) including through the Technology Bank for the LDCs, which he said has the potential to help foster productive capacity, structural transformation and sustainable development.
Switzerland recommended pursuing an innovation-friendly approach when it comes to government intervention and regulation of digitization. He pointed out that digitization is not only connecting people and objects but also various policy fields that have traditionally been addressed in silos. He welcomed the launch of the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation, which he said should help generate ideas on how numerous actors that discuss and make decisions regarding various aspects of digital governance can cooperate better so that everyone will benefit from digitization. Norway emphasized the need for a more systemic and goal-oriented approach to technology, to which the high-level panel can contribute.
Chile noted that new technologies have the potential to alter behavior and value systems. The United Arab Emirates observed that the international community must agree on the mechanism and values on which the management of technology will be based. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) called for new science governance models to effectively manage new technologies. Guatemala expressed support for a draft resolution on the impact of rapid technological change on the achievement of the SDGs.