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ASU experts call for new approach to tech policy and governance

Technological innovations, especially in the last half-century, have altered the way we live, work and interact with one another. Breakthroughs in technology are now happening so rapidly and frequently that they often change the way the world works far faster than our laws, regulations and standards can react, creating a “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (4IR) that is straining political, economic and social systems around the world.

The original Industrial Revolution was driven by steam power facilitating mechanized production. The days of individual craftsmen making most products by hand ended with the advent of steam power, which also revolutionized transportation when steamboats replaced sail and railroads connected cities, allowing goods and people to flow globally as never before.

The Second Industrial Revolution was largely defined by electricity’s ability to take mechanized production to a scale never before possible. With the computerization of that mass production, the Third Industrial Revolution transformed manufacturing once again while ushering in the digital age, also called the information age, a shift that irrevocably changed the nature and scale of how we communicate, how we manage information, and how we manipulate the world around us.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is naturally growing out of the third, but with a host of new technologies driving this metamorphosis rather than one powerful advancement. Another defining characteristic of this new epoch is the propensity for new technologies to interconnect, enabling them to produce new developments at an accelerated rate.

Like the three industrial revolutions before it, 4IR is a new phase in human history that is fundamentally altering our lives and our civilization — transforming jobs, leisure, communication and even how we perceive our humanity. No aspect of modern life will be left untouched by this sweeping wave of technological change that includes disciplines and breakthroughs such as nanotechnology, advanced brain research, 3D printing, high speed mobile communication networks, ubiquitous cloud computing, blockchain, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, big data and data analytics, green energy, quantum computing, the internet of things and the internet of systems, just to name a few.

These giant leaps in technology make the Fourth Industrial Revolution a time both of great promise and grave peril because they have tremendous potential benefits as well as serious risks. One new technology could lead to a cure for cancer and another new technology could put millions of people out of work. This accelerating pace of technological disruption urgently calls for new and improved rules and laws, designed and delivered through a global, multistakeholder approach to managing the risks and benefits of technology worldwide.

That is the sum and substance of a new white paper prepared by experts from Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and School for the Future of Innovation in Society, for the World Economic Forum.

ASU Now spoke to Thunderbird Director General and Dean Sanjeev Khagram, who will present the paper at the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting, which takes place in Davos, Switzerland, from Jan. 21–24.

Man in blue tie with smile

Sanjeev Khagram

Question: What do Thunderbird and ASU together bring to this collaboration with World Economic Forum, and why is our contribution significant on this issue?

Answer: A key strength of ASU is the ability to rapidly convene experts from different areas who can transcend conventional disciplinary boundaries and provide transformative insights into complex and pressing challenges. This combination of size and agility is reflected in the speed with which I was able to pull together experts from the College of Law, the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and Thunderbird School of Global Management, to work together on a unique global challenge within a highly compressed timeline. Here at ASU, we have some of the world’s leading experts on this issue, including Andrew Maynard, associate director for faculty at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society; new Thunderbird professor Mark Esposito; and Diana Bowman, professor and associate dean at the O’Connor College of Law. Once I got them on board, the collaboration took off. The challenge itself — a multistakeholder approach to emerging issues around the global governance of technology innovation — is one that governments, companies and nonprofit organizations around the world are struggling with, and it’s a challenge that we were poised to address.

This collaboration with WEF drew on a unique combination of law, policy, business and governance expertise, through the College of Law; emerging technologies and socially responsible innovation, through the School for the Future of Innovation in Society; and global management, through Thunderbird; that few institutions could amass. Add to this the secret sauce of ASU’s ability to remove disciplinary barriers from effective and responsive collaboration, and the result was a set of unique insights into global technology governance that, through the partnership with WEF, will inform public and private leaders around the world as they navigate the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

WEF is one of the most influential international organizations in the world. It brings together top leaders from the public sector, business and the private sector, and from NGOs and civil society. They’re the founders and framers of this concept of the 4IR, so it’s a great opportunity for us at Thunderbird and ASU to partner with WEF on thought leadership that will have influence and gravitas. It allows ASU as a global institution to tap into WEF’s range of expertise and combine that with ASU’s vast Knowledge Enterprise to contribute to solving a major problem facing humanity, a contribution that will have significant reach and impact, which goes to the heart of ASU’s charter. 

Q: How did this Thunderbird-ASU team come to partner with WEF to write this paper, and why is it important to you personally?

A: Several people at ASU have been involved in WEF activities connected to 4IR, and this collaboration grew out of those connections. Earlier in my career, I was a Young Global Leader with WEF and have been engaged with them for many years on different initiatives. I went to the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, last January where I was able to have some great conversations with people at WEF about what we’re doing at ASU and Thunderbird around global leadership and management for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, technology and engineering, and being ranked No. 1 in the U.S. for innovation. Among others, I had these discussions with Nick Davis, who’s now a professor of practice at Thunderbird but at the time was head of society and innovation at WEF, and also with Thomas Philbeck, WEF’s head of technology, society and policy, both of whom ended up being primary authors of the white paper.

We talked about collaboration and everyone was excited about having WEF work with Thunderbird and ASU for our reputation as a leading global management school within the most innovative university in the US. Based on my history working with WEF, they asked if I would put together a transdisciplinary team to help write a white paper on global technology governance, and because of all the experts across ASU on areas connected to technology, I was able to assemble a collaborative research team fairly quickly that could leverage deep knowledge on subjects such as artificial intelligence and automation, the internet of things, quantum computing, and blockchain or distributed ledger, for example.    

A critical aspect of this collaboration was the caliber and foresight of several ASU student researchers from the three schools involved — Josh Entsminger of Thunderbird, Brittany McCall and Edna Contreras of the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and Walter Johnson and Lucy Tournas from the College of Law. The relevance, depth and scope of the white paper are testaments to the expertise and talent of ASU’s graduate students, and their ability to work at a high level across multiple areas of expertise to address real-world challenges.

Q: The white paper takes a critical approach to exploring the landscape of global technology governance and pulls no punches in its recommendations. Why is it critical to have not only strong governance when it comes to technology but also a multistakeholder approach?

A: These technologies are impacting every part of society and human life. If you look at the emergence of autonomous vehicles and their potential to catalyze a global paradigm shift in transportation, or take gene editing for instance, which can change us on a biological level — without established norms, rules, regulations and laws to govern these evolving technologies, we can’t maximize the benefits and minimize the potentially negative costs such as infringements on personal privacy, for example.

Look at biometrics technology such as facial recognition software. It can make airports safer and more convenient, but there’s a lot of potential for abuse too when an unregulated industry emerges around a new technology like this. We’ve seen what can happen when companies that develop new technology are allowed to write their own rules. There will also be major implications for the future of work. Many jobs will cease to exist in the near future as new ones emerge, but all jobs will be transformed in some way as 4IR progresses. There will be jobs lost and also opportunities created. Without good practices and standards in place, without coordinating bodies and a structure for governance, we can’t maximize the economic potential of those opportunities to offset the losses.

It has to be a multistakeholder approach because government alone cannot come up with governance arrangements capable of handling the job. Most of the time, governments don’t have a solid understanding of the full range and intricacies of new technologies and how fast they’re changing. The private sector is making and using a lot of these technological breakthroughs, but by themselves, private businesses don’t have the public legitimacy or authority to create and implement a new governance architecture.

Just look at the personal data privacy issues that many software companies are having with a lack of laws, rules and norms established to standardize and govern a relatively young industry. Civil society — citizens' groups, scientists and academics — they have a lot to offer in terms of knowledge, ideas, critical thinking and problem-solving, but they can’t do it alone either. Only when we bring all these parties together in a coordinated effort can we design systems of governance that really will maximize the benefits and minimize the costs.

Q: The paper states that technology is developing so rapidly that it often outpaces policies, rules and laws. How does that strain global political, economic and social systems?

A: When technology outpaces policy and governance, it creates all sorts of negative externalities and potential for bad behavior. The global financial crisis that started on Wall Street at the end of 2008 is one example. Some exotic financial instruments were being created in leading financial centers around the world, and governments couldn’t keep up with understanding them, let alone regulating them. That lack of oversight contributed heavily to a global financial crisis.

Privacy issues exemplify the potential for exploitation by bad actors. Can private companies that are profiting immensely from harvesting and selling your personal data be trusted to create and implement regulatory frameworks for collecting information about you? A look at some of the headlines coming out of Silicon Valley tells that story.

We have the same type of outpacing emerging with other technologies such as artificial intelligence and automation, which are proceeding rapidly and could end up causing unemployment on a massive scale in a world where you already have increasing inequality and persistent poverty. In countries where many people are unemployed, we could potentially see even more jobs lost and people displaced by technologies like AI, which will, in turn, have negative social consequences.

For example, in the U.S., the job of truck driver is one of the professions that employs the most people, and it’s an occupation that could be virtually eliminated in the next decade as self-driving vehicles become commercially viable. This could create social upheaval and also put a lot of pressure on our educational system. We have to train our students and get them skilled up for this new world of technology, and when educational systems are under-resourced and behind the times, how are we preparing the next generation for this current and future reality?   

Q: Why is global policy and governance necessary when it comes to technology?

A: Many of these technologies and their consequences cross borders, so if each country tries to create its own regulatory framework, we would have cross-border conflicts, limitations and other effects that couldn’t be addressed. The benefits of economies of scale would also not be realized. Patient medical records provide an example of benefits we could miss out on without a global approach. If we want precision medicine and telemedicine and e-health, then patient records need to be remotely accessible by multiple care providers, but how do you deal with that when those records have to also be private and secure to protect the patient?

We have to figure out how to deal with that to improve people’s lives. It would be great if anyone could have access to precision health care from a specialist who can review your medical history, even if you’re in a rural area where there’s no hospital. With a system of governance in place for sharing medical records, you’d be able to have an expert help with a diagnosis, for example, but right now we have no rules across borders, no well-recognized system in place that can be used in different countries. Many of these technologies cross borders, so you need international cooperation to manage and capitalize on them.  

Q: What will it take to truly get everyone aligned and on the same page, and if it doesn’t happen in a unified way, what’s the potential outcome?

A: Without a coordinated global effort, there will be fewer positive outcomes from these technologies and more negative consequences. Overall, we lose out on potential benefits in every sector and as human beings across society. Part of the solution is what we’re doing at Thunderbird and throughout ASU, improving our knowledge of the challenge at hand. We’re doing the research, describing the problem and what is happening around it, finding and sharing innovations that can be replicated and scaled. That’s one of the major contributions of this collaboration between ASU and WEF.

Another is creating and establishing processes where stakeholders come together to review knowledge, exchange ideas, collaborate and innovate. Building these ecosystems of cooperation among stakeholders is an area where the World Economic Forum excels as a global leader, which is why I wanted to use my position as head of Thunderbird to forge this connection between WEF and ASU. Through this collaboration, we’re bringing people together for evidence-based dialogue, debate and ideation on what these governance arrangements should be. We need to continually improve the research, discovery and knowledge sets while simultaneously creating broader opportunities for coordination.

This also requires leadership, and that’s why we’re so focused on seeding and cultivating that key quality in our students at Thunderbird. The world needs leaders to step up in government, the private sector and civil society to help guide forward and develop these governance arrangements, giving them the support and resources that will be required for success.  

Q: What is your hope for an outcome on this issue?

A: The white paper lays out what is happening in terms of governance in different fields, key patterns and trends, interesting and innovative experiments that have been launched, and lessons that have been learned, so it’s very much an analytic knowledge paper that stimulates the conversation on this issue. It recommends further knowledge creation and presents greater opportunities to stakeholders around the world in different sectors and industries to engage and collaborate so that we don’t miss or underutilize the best opportunities of the 4IR and its new technologies. We can avoid a situation where we have negative consequences that we don’t address until one becomes a crisis. The idea is to be able to prevent crises from happening on the one hand and maximize the benefits from these technologies.

In the end what we want at Thunderbird and more broadly at ASU is for effective global policies and governance arrangements with solid norms, rules, laws and regulations that lead to these new tools being used for the benefit of humanity, the economy, society and the natural environment, while preventing them from being exploited by bad actors for their own nefarious ends, to enrich themselves or advance their own interests at the expense of everyone else.

Q: What’s next in this collaborative effort?

A: We’re hard at work building and deepening the partnership with the World Economic Forum. We’re going to continue collaborating with them and other key partners on global leadership and management for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. For example, we’re hosting several exciting events in Davos at WEF’s Annual Meeting, we have experts conducting joint postdoctoral research with WEF, and more projects being planned in areas such as 4IR, Smart Cities and the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, all of which advance ASU’s Charter and Thunderbird’s vision of inclusive and sustainable prosperity worldwide.

Top photo illustration courtesy of Pixabay....