The latest issue of the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report seems to indicate that nanotechnology is less risky than it was in previous years with scant mention of it apart from a brief mention along with other emerging technologies:
A final outlier is threats from new technologies – unintended consequences for human, animal or plant life from the release of agents into the biosphere created by genetic engineering, synthetic biology or nanotechnology. Stakeholders rated this threat as of low impact and likelihood. However while experts interviewed concurred that numerous regulatory authorities in this area lower the risk’s likelihood, it was being underestimated in terms of impact.
However the report is rather vague about what sort of technologies may constitute risks:
Negative consequences for human, animal or plant life created when know-how, technologies, materials, or equipment are diverted to or developed specifically for malevolent purposes or when harmful substances are accidentally released.
That statement would apply equally to WikiLeaks as to synthetic biology, and covers everything from the AK47 to lasers. While the WEF report cannot define what technologies may constitute a threat, it can somehow put a number on the risk, deciding that “threats from new technologies” have a low chance of having an impact in the range of $150 billion.
Then it gets even vaguer, with the possible impacts being identified as:
- Strong public concerns and mistrust over new technologies (e.g. synthetic biology) which could hold back highly beneficial research and development.
- Long-term negative impacts on health and healthcare systems.
- Proliferation of unconventional weapons based on new technologies.
- Plethora of court cases on product liability as well as insurance claims.
Perhaps what the report really shows is that technology is something that doesn’t really appear on the radar of international relations, and that it is an area that is taken for granted. The lack of differentiation of technologies in the report indicates how little time has been spent on researching the ‘risk.’ This despite the number of risks identified which are dependent on the application of technology, from weapons systems and cyber warfare to quantitative finance.
But let’s look beyond the risks. Up in the top right hand corner of the perceived risks chart are items such as Climate Change, Energy Price Volatility, Water Security and Chronic Disease, all areas where emerging technologies are set to have a positive impact in averting or mitigating the risks.
Identifying the risks is a start, but making sure we have the tools to avoid or at least mitigate them is the real challenge.