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Frontier Technologies for Sustainable Development

Frontier Technologies for Sustainable Development

Executive Summary of World Economic and Social Survey 2018

Frontier technologies herald great hopes for humanity. They can help eradicate hunger and epidemics, increase life expectancy, reduce carbon emissions, automate manual and repetitive tasks, create decent jobs, improve quality of life and facilitate increasingly complex decision-making processes. Frontier technologies can indeed make sustainable development a reality, improving people’s lives, promoting prosperity and protecting the planet. However, the rapid pace of technological change also introduces significant policy challenges, creating winners and losers in societies and presenting new ethical and moral dilemmas. Notwithstanding these challenges, societies—with the appropriate policies, institutions and international cooperation—can harness frontier technologies to achieve sustainable development, while mitigating their adverse economic and social consequences.

Frontier technologies, which encompass an array of new materials, products, applications, processes and business models, are interdependent, interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Advances in one technology foster progress in others. For example, the invention of new materials is transforming energy production and storage, additive manufacturing and 3D printing; artificial intelligence (AI) is increasingly enabling automation, online search engines and social media platforms; and rapid increases in computing power are enabling breakthroughs in genetics, nanotechnology, blockchains and cryptocurrencies. The present Survey focuses only on a selected set of new technologies that are deemed most pertinent and promising for sustainable development.

Addressing the Challenges

Frontier technologies are generating breakthroughs in genetics, nanomedicine, personalized medication, 3D imaging diagnostics and new methods of organ development and transplantation. While those breakthroughs promise to extend longevity and transform human well-being significantly, advances in many health and genetic technologies present ethical conundrums, including the possibility of off-target genetic modifications affecting long-term health and safety considerations. Ethical standards, reflecting fundamental human values adopted and enforced globally, will be instrumental in guiding further advances in these technologies.

Concern for the state of the planet is also driving many innovations. Technological breakthroughs in carbon capture and sequestration have the potential to drastically reduce net emissions and mitigate climate change. The new materials used in photovoltaic cells have great potential for energy efficiency and renewable energy technology. Biodegradable plastic offers a means for reducing plastics pollution, which has become the second most important threat to the environment, after climate change. There are, however, no guarantees that these technological advances will protect the planet on their own. Policies and institutions will remain paramount in ensuring that these technologies are widely diffused and adopted.

Frontier technologies are transforming the relationship between humans and machines. Machines that are now capable of building new machines and solving complex problems, which until recently could be solved only by humans, have the potential to replace humans. Smart robots, equipped with AI, promise to raise productivity to a much higher level and enable production of many new products and services. On the other hand, robots capable of performing “mental labour” are likely to take over many tasks and occupations, potentially leading to higher levels of unemployment. The prosperity of nations may also be at stake, as the robotization of jobs may foreclose manufacturing and industrialization opportunities for many developing countries. Policies must, therefore, play a critical role in ensuring that frontier technologies leave no one behind and create prosperity for all people and all nations.

Read More: Sustainable Development Goals, A paradigm shift?

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