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The Costs and Benefits of Disruptive Technologies

Brittaney Warren, Researcher, G7 and G20 Research Groups
February 3, 2016
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Disruptive technologies are at the top of the global agenda for 2016, raising speculations about the possible impacts of these technological advances. This year's World Economic Forum (WEF), with the theme of the 'Fourth Industrial Revolution', predicted that by 2020 business will experience widespread disruption, as cities, cars, homes, devices and services all become smarter, and as rapid advances in artificial intelligence, biotechnology and machine learning grow. The WEF's The Future of Jobs report expects that between 2015 and 2020 up to 7.1 million jobs will be lost due to disruptive technologies. Just two million jobs will be gained. Men are expected to lose four million jobs and regain 1.4 million, while women, who make up a smaller share of the total global workforce, will lose three million and regain 550,000. Yet a disrupted labour market is only one example of the new trends we can expect to see over the next five years. 

World leaders are increasingly aware of the potential costs of disruptive technologies and some are working together in an attempt to ensure a smooth and safe digital transformation. On 25 September 2015, the United States and China announced an agreement to cooperate on controlling the cyber theft of intellectual property. The agreement was timely as it came just two days after The New York Times reported that the US Office of Personnel Management had been hacked into, resulting in the theft of 5.6 million employees' fingerprints. Yet although identity theft and online safety can be compromised by hackers, they can also be protected by them. As one cyber security industry analyst from Gigaom Research observed, hackers are stepping up as a sort of "digital Robin Hood" to protect civil liberties. For instance, when governments failed to control uploads of ISIS recruitment and beheading videos, the hacker group Anonymous declared cyber war and removed the terrorist organisation's accounts from social media. 

Concerns over surveillance and privacy also extend to the 'Internet of Things', with wearable technologies, connected homes and cars, and new sharing apps such as Uber and Airbnb. These types of technologies also have some observers worried about changes in cognitive development. Increases in attention deficit disorder, addiction and escapism, especially among younger generations born into the fourth industrial revolution, are also concerns. Paradoxically, these same technologies also offer safety and security. Wearables such as smart tattoos and implantable chips are already used to find missing children and to detect diseases in their early stages. 

But perhaps one of the greatest benefits of technological innovation is not that it helps us live longer, but that it can foster a more inclusive global society. Electronic health services are making healthcare more accessible to all. The finance sector is seeing greater numbers of people in developing countries connect to the banking world. Here, Kenya is leading the way with M-Pesa, a company that provides a digital wallet through its mobile money-transfer service, allowing developing countries to leapfrog old technologies. Innovations in clean energy technologies can improve sustainable energy access for the 1.2 billion without it. Moreover, the advancement and deployment of wind, solar, and geothermal solutions promise to drastically reduce the amount of polluting emissions that contribute to climate change. These new services and technologies can help the global community realise the Sustainable Development Goals agreed in September 2015. 

At the World Economic Forum, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke of innovations in technology as having the potential both to spur and hinder progress. Chinese Prime Minister Xi Jinping has indicated that innovations in science and technology will be a priority for China's G20 presidency this year. Likewise, in the lead-up to this year's G7 summit to be held in Ise-Shima in May, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has spoken of showing the world what Japan has to offer in the realm of advanced technologies. As 2016 unfolds, how will world leaders work together to ensure the benefits of disruptive technologies outweigh the costs?

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Brittaney WarrenBrittaney Warren is a researcher with the G7 and G8 Research Group, the G20 Research Group and the BRICS Research Group, based at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Trinity College at the University of Toronto. She has worked in Spain and in Peru where she conducted field research on a sustainable development project with women living in extreme poverty. She has conducted research on the compliance of CARICOM members with their summit commitments on non-communicable diseases. Brittaney leads the social media strategy and marketing program for the G20 Research Group's books and works on climate change, and is the lead researcher on an e-book project on "Delivering Sustainable Energy Access."

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