Equality risks from emerging technology must be addressed

A raft of emerging technologies, potentially worth over $3 trillion, is set to drive the world’s recovery from COVID-19, but governments and the international community have been urged to use them to reduce the inequalities brought into sharper focus by the pandemic.

UNCTAD, launched its Technology and Innovation Report 2021 which identified the technologies which will play a part in shaping the future. These frontier technologies – those that take advantage of digitalisation and connectivity – include artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things, big data, blockchain, 5G, 3D printing, robotics, drones, gene editing, nanotechnology and solar photovoltaic.

These rapidly developing technologies represent a $350 billion market, which by 2025 could grow to over $3.2 trillion, according to the report entitled “Catching technological waves: Innovation with equity.”

“It is key that developing countries do not miss the wave of frontier technologies, otherwise it will further deepen inequalities. Hence, societies and productive sectors need to be well prepared and build the required skills,” said Acting UNCTAD Secretary-General Isabelle Durant.

She said frontier technologies have already brought enormous benefits, but rapid advances can have serious downsides if they outpace the ability of societies to adapt.

According to the report, each wave of technological change has brought inequality in new shapes.

“The great divides that exist between countries today started with the onset of the first industrial revolution over 250 years ago,” explained the report. “Since then, every spurt of progress has brought sharper inequality between countries.

“The outcomes for one generation have affected the opportunities for the next, resulting in intergenerational transmission of inequalities. Between 1820 and 2002, the contribution of between-country inequality to global inequality rose from 28% to 85%.”

The report added frontier technologies can affect inequalities through differential access to their benefits and their potential unintended consequences.

“Today, major concerns are related to risks of automation taking jobs in large scale, the gig economy and the reduction of labour rights. Others are the inequalities created by market and profit concentration, the increase of inequality driven by AI and widening technological gaps.”

How the new technological wave will affect inequalities in and between countries will depend on national policies, according to the report.

It found that the countries best prepared to equitably use, adopt and adapt these technologies are mainly in Northern America and Europe, while those least prepared are in sub-Saharan Africa and other developing regions.

“Technologies are not deterministic. We can shape their pathways for good. And we have an obligation to do it,” said Shamika N. Sirimanne, director of UNCTAD’s division on technology and logistics.

Ms Sirimanne said whole economies and societies are being reshaped by rapid technological change, and “although we don’t know yet how the final picture will look, it’s safe to say that changes will be more far-reaching than we imagine.”

She added: “Governments and other development actors will need to prepare fast. Developing countries, particularly the least developed ones, can’t afford to miss this new wave of rapid technological change.”

UNCTAD warned of serious implications for developing countries if poor communities and countries are either overwhelmed or simply left behind by this new technological wave.

“Technological progress is essential for sustainable development but can also perpetuate inequalities or create new ones. The task for governments is thus to maximize the potential benefits, while mitigating harmful outcomes,” the report stated.

The report also emphasised that governments have a critical role to play in paving the way for technologies, especially in creating an enabling environment and ensuring the benefits of these technologies are shared by all.

These rapidly developing technologies represent a $350 billion market, which by 2025 could grow to over $3.2 trillion, according to the report entitled “Catching technological waves: Innovation with equity.”