The World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council meetings are going on this week in Dubai. More than 1000 experts (including Scientific American editor-in-chief Mariette DiChristina) have gathered to discuss big world problems such as climate change, poverty, water shortages, energy and innovation. Here we are publishing a series on discussions that have taken place in the past year under the Forum’s auspices about emerging technologies, written by WEF’s Kristel van der Elst, Head of Strategic Foresight (her first was this article on impacts to society). Here is her piece on impacts to geopolitics.

Four geopolitical questions we can’t avoid when we think about emerging technologies

by Kristel van der Elst, World Economic Forum

Not so far in the future, resources might no longer be closely linked to territories, it might be possible to visualize another person’s thoughts and predict the actions and decisions of world leaders before they act. What would this mean for our geopolitical landscape? Here are the 4 main questions emerged from participants’ of the WEF’s discussions:

1. Will technology be the future gold?

Resources have always been a key driver of geopolitical relations. Some emerging technologies have potential to provoke the de-territorialisation of resources and thereby make most resources irrelevant as a source of geopolitical power. Through biosynthetic processes, for example, many resources that are considered scarce today might be produced synthetically anywhere in the world tomorrow. Access to new technologies, along with their development and regulation, might become the new drivers of geopolitical leverage. The gap between developed and developing countries might increase; alternatively, boundaries might be completely redrawn along early adopters of technology, fast followers and those who lag behind. These differences in outcome might depend on regulation as much as on innovative capacity. What will be the most coveted resources of tomorrow and how will they reshuffle geopolitical relations? Which technologies will be scarce and most desired and which will be universally accessible? Will speed of adoption of technology translate into power gains or put citizens at unprecedented risk?

2. Will we transcend cultures?

Technological advancement will continue to make communication an easier and richer experience. Technology will not only allow us to be constantly in contact in an increasingly close-to-reality manner, it will also soon enhance communication beyond what traditional face-to-face interaction could ever allow. These developments might enable us to overcome most of the current barriers to inter-cultural dialogue, such as language and perception differences. Will we strive to preserve our cultural differences or will we allow for cultural convergence? Will cultures still matter? Will we develop a new globalized concept of diversity?

3. What about political representation, Big Brother, and so forth?

Technology has the potential to redefine the relationships between civil society, government and business. For example, greater civil participation might be achieved through e-democracy developments. Elected officials (if elections are still necessary?) could be held more accountable through instant dissemination of information or through the visualization of thoughts, ultimately allowing for more representative governance. This might lead to more efficient or to more deliberative decision-making processes. On the other hand, participation through technology could also lead to more inequality as only those parts of society who have access to technology might be represented. Government services may be partly automated and software might replace some tasks of politicians as we know them today. Who – or what – will we allow to control the algorithms that would have so much influence over our lives? Will technologically induced complexity and individual empowerment lead to diffusion of power or to total state control? Will the speed of innovation empower authoritarian as well as small countries while threatening big democracies?

4. Will we stop talking?

Communication will be increasingly enhanced through live speech conversion technology, augmented reality and, potentially, the visualization of emotions. Technology might therefore significantly increase the level of predictability and understanding between diplomats – making dialogue and negotiation smoother than ever – which could ultimately lead to a qualitative progress in conflict resolution. Enhanced communication technologies could however also make traditional international diplomacy irrelevant as all necessary information could be obtained without having to engage in an exchange with our peers. Emerging technologies are also impacting the military sector; more anonymous and efficient battles or more invasive attacks, such as hacking enhanced human bodies could be the result. Thus, a duality of technological impact could disrupt and redefine the balance between hard and soft power, which in turn would shape the conduct of international relations and the importance of diplomacy. If transnational challenges continue to have a predominant role in inter-state relations how will we use technology to solve conflicts? Will dialogue become more effective or obsolete? Will diplomats choose communication and brain-computer interface technologies to improve communication or will these technologies be applied upon them without their knowledge?