(TRANSCRIBED AND ABRIDGED BY TOPE FASUA)
No one can ignore a gathering force that is reshaping the future of every member of this assembly; there has been nothing like it in history. When I think of the great scientific revolutions of the past; print, the steam engine, aviation, the atomic age, I think of new tools that we acquired and over which we the human race have the advantage; which we can control. And that is not necessarily the case in the digital age. You may keep your secrets from your friends, from your parents, your children, your doctor, even your personal trainer. But it takes real efforts to conceal your thoughts from Google.
And if that is true today, in future there may be nowhere to hide. Smart cities will polulate with sensors, all joined together by the Internet of Things; pollards communing invisibly with lamp posts, so that there is always a parking space for your electric car, so that no bin goes unemptied and no street unswept, and the urban environment is as antiseptic as a Zurich pharmacy.
But this technology could also be used to keep every citizen under round-the-clock surveillance. A future Alexa will pretend to take orders, but this Alexa will be watching you clacking her tongue and stamping her toes. In future, voice connectivity will be in every room. Your mattress will monitor your nightmares, your fridge will beat for more cheese, your front door will sweep wide open the moment you approach, like some silent, invincible butler. Your smart meter will go hustling on its own accord for cheaper electricity and every one of them minutely transcribing your habits in tiny electronic shorthand stored not in their chips or in their innards; no where you can find it, but in some great cloud of data that lowers ever more oppressively over the human race; a giant dark thundercloud waiting to burst and we have no control over how or when the precipitation will take place.
And every day that we tap on our phones or we work on our Ipads we not only leave our indelible spur on the ether, but we are ourselves becoming a resource, click by click, tap by tap, just as the carboniforus spirit created indescribable wealth, leaf by decaying leaf of hydrocarbons, Data is the crude oil of the modern economy and we are now in an environment where we don’t know who should own these new oil fields. We don’t know who should have the right or the title to these gushers of cash and we don’t know who decides how to use that data. Can these algorithms be trusted with our lives and hopes shared. The machines and only the machines decide whether or not we are eligible for a mortgage or insurance or surgery or medicines we should receive? Are we doomed to a cold and heartless future in which computer says yes or computer says no with the grim finality of an Emperor empower in the arena.
How do you plead with an algorithm? How do you get it to see extenuating circumstances and how do we know that the machines have not been insidiously programmed to fool us or even to cheat us? We are already using all kinds of messaging services, that offer instant communication at minimal costs, but these same programs, platforms could also be designed for real-time censorship of every conversation with offending words automatically deleted. Indeed, in some countries, this happens today. Digital authoritarianism is not, alas the stuff of dystopian fantasy but of an emerging reality. I believe government are being simply caught unawares by the unintended consequences of the internet; a scientific breakthrough, for more reaching in its everyday psychological impact than any other invention since Guttenberg!
And when you consider how long it took for books to come into widespread circulation, the arrival of the internet is far bigger than print, it’s bigger than the atomic age but it’s like nuclear power in that it’s capable of both good and harm and of course it is not alone. As new technologies seem to rush to us from the far horizon, we strain our eyes as they come, to make out whether they are for good or bad, friends of foes.
AI, what will it mean? Helpful robots washing and caring for an ageing population, or pink-eyed terminators sent back from the future to cull the human race? What will synthetic biology stand for? Restoring our livers and our eyes with miracle regenerative tissue like some fantastic hangover cure or will it bring terrifying limbless chicken to our tables?
It is a deep human instinct to be wary of any kind of technical progress. In 1829 they thought that the human frame will not withstand the speed attained by Stephenson’s rocket. And there are today people who are still anti-science; a whole movement of anti-vaxxers who refused to acknowledge the evidence that vaccinations have actually eradicated small pox, and who by their prejudices are actually endangering the children that they want to protect. And I totally reject this anti-scientific pessimism. I am profoundly optimistic about the ability of new technology to service as a liberator and to remake the world wondrously and benignly. Indeed, in countless respects, technology is already doing just that. Nanotechnology revolutionizing medicine by designing robots a fraction of the size of a red blood cell capable of swimming through our bodies, dispensing medicine, and attacking malignant cells like some Star Wars armada.
But how to design the emerging technology behind these breakthroughs and what values inform their design will shape the future of humanity. And that is my point to you tonight my friends, excellences.
At stake is whether we bequeath Orwellian world designed for censorship and repression and control or a world of emancipation, debate and learning where technology threatens famine and disease but not our freedoms.
Seven decades ago, this General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with no dissenting voices, uniting humanity for perhaps the only time behind one set of principles. And our joint declaration upholds freedom of opinion and expression, the privacy of home and correspondents and the rights to seek and impart information and ideas.
Unless we ensure that new technology reflects this spirit, I fear our declaration will mean nothing and no longer hold. So the mission of the United Kingdom and all who share our values must be to ensure that emerging technologies are designed from the outset for freedom, openness and pluralism, with the right safeguards in place to protect our people.
Month by month, vital decisions are being taken in academic committees company board rooms and industry standards groups. They are writing the rule books of the future, making ethical judgements, choosing what will or what will not be rendered possible. Together we need to ensure the new advances reflect our values, by design. There is excellent work being done at the European Union, the Commonwealth and The United nations to ensure no country is excluded from the benefits of these technologies and the industrial revolution that it is bringing about. But we must be still more ambitious.
We need to find the right balance between freedom and control, between innovation and regulation, between private enterprise and government oversight. We must insist that the ethical judgement inherent in the design of new technologies are transparent to all, and we must make our voices heard more loudly in the standard bodies that write the rules. Above all we need to agree a common set of global principles to shape the norms and standards that will guide the government of emerging technologies.
If we master this challenge – and I have no doubt that we can – then we will not only safeguard our ideals we will surmount the limits that once constrained humanity and conquer the perils that once ended so many lives. Together we will vanquish killer diseases, eliminate famine, protect the environment and transform our cities. Success will depend now as ever on freedom, openness and pluralism; the formula that not only emancipates the human spirit but releases the boundless ingenuity embedded in mankind.