Mon. Dec 5th, 2022

Written by Andrés García Higuera.

A recently published Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) study offers a bird’s eye perspective of the key societal and ethical challenges that can be expect as a result of the convergence of artificial intelligence (AI) and communication technologies, and proposes some policy options that can be considered to address them.

Ethical discussion about digital technologies in the past few years has frequently focused on AI. It is important, therefore, to note that the challenges extend well beyond those that are typically or usually discussed in the AI ethics literature. The convergence of digital technologies will lead to new technological applications, but will also contribute to the creation of new sociotechnical systems and systems of systems, which may raise their own challenges. The convergence will therefore most likely result in technological possibilities and features that extend beyond those of individual enabling technologies like AI, the internet of things (IoT) and blockchain. To address these challenges, we need to look for policy options and regulation that extend beyond the realm of AI and the concerns it has raised.

Supported by the arrival of 5G and, soon 6G, digital technologies are moving towards an AI-driven internet of robotic and bionano things. New acronyms reflect this blending of technologies: ‘AIoT’ (AI and IoT merging), ‘IoRT’ (IoT and robotics merging) and ‘IoBNT’ (IoT and bionano tech merging). Blockchain, augmented reality and virtual reality add even more technological options to the mix. Smart bodies, smart homes, smart industries, smart cities and smart governments lie ahead, with the promise of many benefits and opportunities. However, unprecedented amounts of personal data will be collected, and digital technologies will affect the most intimate aspects of our life, like the realms of love and friendship, more than ever. The STOA report offers a wide overview of the key societal and ethical challenges we can expect as a result of this convergence, and of the possible policy options to address them.

Many, if not all, new applications and sociotechnical systems will display one or more of the following features: interactive, long-distance, distributed, autonomous, intelligent, adaptive, reconfigurable, hybrid, fully connected, invisible, fast, precise in location, intimate, immersive, persuasive, and commercially exploitable. These features partly stem from the individual technologies ‘in the mix’. For example, features like interactivity, autonomy, intelligence and autonomy are typical characteristics of AI systems. However, some features also emerge due to new combinations of technologies. Moreover, it is often the combination of the features that creates new challenges for society, policy-making and regulation. Based on these features and inspired by the interviews with a number of experts, the STOA study identifies (and explains in more detail) a series of key opportunities and challenges. Using responsible research and innovation (RRI) as the overarching framework for developing policy options, an analysis then centres around four dimensions: inclusiveness, anticipation, reflexivity and responsiveness. Inspired by these dimensions, the report puts forward a variety of policy options in response to the challenges identified. These range from measures aiming to give digital innovation a clearer space in the Horizon Europe funding scheme and to stimulate industrial development in the sector, to fostering the development of critical infrastructures. The proposed measures also address the societal impact of these technologies in relation to specific issues such as digital literacy, privacy and digital rights for citizens.

Read the full report and STOA options brief to find out more. Some preliminary results of this analysis were presented by its authors to the STOA Panel at its meeting of 20 January 2022. A complete version of the study has now been released, incorporating the ideas provided at the time by the STOA Panel Members through their suggestions and comments.

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