How do we govern technology in a divisive world?

The State of Maine is the latest American State government to ban the use of facial recognition technology by police. The Chinese government has rolled out nation-wide photo recognition technology on a massive scale and even custom developed such technology to pick out Uighurs and other non-ethnic Han Chinese. To stop terrorism, apparently. Russia too uses such technology. The Israelis used artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology to remotely assassinate an Iranian nuclear energy scientist.

Automated drones played a critical role in the recent Azerbaijani and Armenian conflict over the Nagorno-Karabach issue. The technology was supplied by the Turkish government likely with Russian help. America has of course, been using manned and automated drones in Iraq and Pakistan for years.

Then there’s the world of international trade and the role of Big Tech in our marketplaces. The predominantly largest companies are American and Chinese from Amazon and Facebook to Alibaba and Ant respectively. The U.S. government appointed a brilliant and tech activist chair of the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), Lina Khan, who has Big Tech plainly in her sights. Amazon got cranky and wrote a letter to the government demanding she be removed, and they appoint someone Amazon prefers. That is unlikely to happen. Nor should it. Big Tech has big britches, but the battle lines are being drawn.

Research has also shown the impact Artificial Intelligence has on racism, from being harder on African American sentencing to firing an employee with the HR department in the company no even knowing. And gender and cultural biases. Google hired an AI ethicist, Timnit Gebru and when she pointed out some glaringly negative issues with Google’s AI use, they promptly sacked her. Now she’s on the latest cover of Wired Magazine and Google’s “do no evil” is looking more contrite than ever.

The UN formed a committee to dissuade the use of robotics in warfare. It talks a lot. Writes papers. Does nothing. Elon Musk and a few others formed Open AI in a bid to provide ethical and moral guidance on the development of AI. China, Russia and other authoritarian governments rather like it. Such hand wringing delays weaponization and advancement of AI in democracies where authoritarian governments have no such moral compunctions.

Overlying this is an increasingly fractious and politically divided world. China is playing a no-holds-barred game to win economic and soft power influence. Russia is doing whatever it can, in an increasingly weakened state, to keep disrupting democracy. Both countries and increasingly Iran, are waging information warfare on a scale never seen before in the history of humanity. America is battling for the very heart of its democracy as the Republican Party flocks to the authoritarian brutishness of Donald Trump who’s a sore loser, while various Republican States seek to further disenfranchise non-Republican voters. It is a rhyme to the slow rise of Hitler. It isn’t fascism this time, it’s just a desire to be in power at any cost. Democracy is gasping around the world. The European Union is struggling and for the first time in centuries has no really big tech company in the global game of trade.

While globalization is fading away, something new is coming or is here, we just don’t have a name for it yet. Although no country has declared we are in an Information War, we are in everything but name. As our world becomes even more connected through information technologies and thus ever more digital, the internet has become part of the very fabric of how our world operates. If we can slap a sensor into something and hook it up to the internet, we will.

As the world tussles for a new type of rules-based order that authoritarian governments bulldoze over, so are we fighting to develop rules around how technology, specifically digital and information technologies, are governed and regulated. Global technologies from electric vehicles to cryptocurrencies and Artificial Intelligence also have an impact on our climate. To create one bitcoin is the energy equivalent to doing 24 loads of laundry. Despite the fact that bitcoin, is not really at all profitable. If it were a manufactured good, no one would make it.

Our world is in a kerfuffle over systems of government, trade and warfare and where technology fits in and how it is governed when some don’t respect any rules that don’t favour them. The business world is in a struggle to define the role and governing and regulating of digital technologies as Big Tech continues to push the legal boundaries and governments barely understand what these companies do and the societal and political impacts.

Our world is divided, and many countries are increasingly divided within themselves. So far, the only impacts we are seeing that show we can find a way to a better place is the GDPR privacy rules in Europe and new privacy laws in California, where many Big Tech companies are located and do business. Canada is undertaking a drastic and much needed overhaul of its privacy laws that will likely be enacted in 2022. This is a hopeful light in the murky world we live in right now. As governments begin to wake to the dangers, it is likely we will see the next front of legislation, after privacy and anti-trust be free will and human agency, which includes racial and gender equality when it comes to digital technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, genetics and robotics. The issue of cybersecurity will become pressing over the next year as losses to businesses mount and insurance companies seek every way not to pay a ransom claim.

With authoritarian governments, they have no moral or ethical qualms to get in the way. They host many cybercriminals because it is convenient for them when they want to do something nefarious to another country. For a country like china that has little to no human rights, using AI and other tools to repress citizens and keep them in line will grow stronger. China, Iran and Russia, North Korea and other authoritarian governments are unlikely to sign on to any international treaties that respect humanity and bolster democratic norms and ideas.

How this will all play out and what kinds of disasters will unfold, is anyone’s guess. But it will not happen quickly. There will be struggles along the way. But one thing is for certain, governments need to better understand the role digital technologies play not just at home, but in geopolitical terms. For now, expect ever larger attacks on critical infrastructure for highly lucrative ransoms. Litigations over racial issues with regard to AI and other technologies. Governments will continue to probe and mess with each other in the cyber warfare space. Data breaches and the loss of our personal financial and health data will continue apace as well. These are liminal times. They are going to be messy.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious