Shifting sands: governance of—and by—emerging technologies

The world of governance—understood here as the actors, institutions, traditions and processes by which collective decisions are made—is in flux. In part this reflects current political and geopolitical trends. But in part it also reflects the enormous scale, complexity and speed of the interconnecting systems that now require global governance. We are living through a period of disruptive change on many dimensions, with complex interconnections within and between systems creating huge coordination challenges.

One key source of this pattern of global disruption is technological. Digitalisation is changing many, if not most, aspects of the world. This promises (and in many areas has already delivered) huge benefits, but it also requires new ways of thinking if we are to properly assess and respond to the kind of complex, ambiguous and systemic risks that are becoming increasingly prevalent.

It is no surprise that some of the most pressing governance challenges at present relate to emerging technologies. This is not simply a matter of needing to take decisions about technology. As new technologies advance at breakneck speeds, getting their governance right increasingly means thinking also about whether to delegate some governance capacities to the technologies themselves. In other words, the relationship between governance and technology is becoming less hierarchical and more circular. As well as thinking about the governance or regulation of technology, we also need to think about governance by technology—the ways in which, for good or ill, technology now forms part of our collective decision-making processes.

In some senses, the idea of governance by technology is not new: think of the use of a speed-limiting device to prevent a vehicle exceeding a legal limit. But new technologies can go far beyond this kind of rudimentary governance role. It is one thing to embed a settled norm or rule in a piece of technology, quite another when a technology like machine learning allows for algorithmic rules that have the capacity to evolve independently of human intervention.

Working out how to deal with a technology like machine learning is a major challenge. How do we ensure that we take advantage of the societal benefits that it promises, while also ensuring that we are making informed assessments of the corresponding risks that we are willing to accept? Too great a focus on governance and we risk losing out on life-enhancing innovations. Not enough focus on governance and we risk storing up a world of adverse consequences.


Europe’s role in a changing global landscape

The tight intertwining of governance and technology in the contemporary world is why technology forms a key strand of the EU’s TRIGGER project, which seeks to develop the knowledge and tools needed to understand the changing global governance landscape. TRIGGER’s technology strand will analyse the changing patterns of governance of and by emerging technologies, asking how these technologies are shaping the EU policy agenda and new modes of governance. Machine learning is one of a number of technologies that TRIGGER focuses on. The others are blockchain, open source software and open standards.

The decisions that the EU and its member states make about these and other emerging technologies will influence the evolution of the international governance system. Already there are clear geopolitical and geo-economic implications, as the world’s major powers jostle for technological predominance. As a European Commission paper on artificial intelligence put it in 2018: “Like the steam engine or electricity in the past, AI is transforming our world, our society and our industry. Growth in computing power, availability of data and progress in algorithms have turned AI into one of the most strategic technologies of the 21st century. The stakes could not be higher. The way we approach AI will define the world we live in. Amid fierce global competition, a solid European framework is needed.”

One way of looking at the developing global technological rivalry is as a global race. But most races have a clear destination and an agreed set of rules. With emerging technologies, we are at a much earlier, more formative stage, with positions and priorities still in flux.

There are numerous open questions about the governance of emerging digital technologies. Some of these relate to practical considerations. For example, as machine learning is introduced into more and more domains, how do we define—and then guarantee—acceptable levels of accuracy, safety and robustness? Other questions are more explicitly normative in character: how to balance privacy and convenience, for example; or how to deal with algorithmic bias; or whether to worry about a general erosion of human agency.

The EU is already grappling with these questions, in ways that will influence its future role in the global governance landscape. But there is still a lot of work to do and, crucially, Europe’s future is not solely in its own hands. As other powers (most notably the US and China) develop and implement their respective strategies, the global terrain will be shaped in ways that are likely to constrain Europe’s options.

Thus far, both the US and China have adopted strategies that place a strong emphasis on promoting innovation, growth and security ahead of other considerations. The EU also stresses the importance of these factors, but balances them with a stronger focus on normative precautions, such as those embodied in the landmark data protection legislation that took effect across the EU last year.

How might the EU’s position evolve in the global governance landscape for technologies? Could it “export” a values-led approach so that it becomes the global norm? Is it more likely that the EU’s approach is conducive to governance leadership only in specific technologies or sectors, such as those where privacy and ethics are at a premium (medicine and public administration might be examples)? Or might the EU’s approach to technology be squeezed out by the resources being deployed by others on innovation, competitiveness and geopolitical positioning?

Time will tell the answer to these and many other questions. But decisions are already being made. The hope is that the TRIGGER project will help to ensure that well-informed decisions are taken in the EU about the paths that can be taken, the goals that can be targeted, and the inevitable trade-offs that will be required along the way.


Author: Aengus Collins

 EPFL International Risk Governance Center