3 Key Takeaways from the Innovations Dialogue

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Advancements in technology are indisputably posing new challenges for disarmament and arms control. Here I’ll mention two: 1) advances in technology are creating new weapons that are currently unregulated; 2) threats posed by “old” weapons, such as nuclear weapons—never fully controlled—are being enhanced.

The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) Innovations Dialogue held on August 19 at the UN Office in Geneva, Switzerland sought to address  the implications of artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, blockchain, and the Internet of Things on arms control and disarmament. The sessions were recorded, so check them out for yourself.

After a day in Geneva filled with thought-provoking formal and informal discussions, I noted 3 key takeaways:

1. There is a need for clearer definitions. Or at least a definite understanding of which technology, and what aspects of it, are being examined.

Several of the panelists and participants noted that there is a need to be clear about which technologies and which dimensions of the technology are being discussed and pose a threat. Even brief definitions could ensure that experts and policymakers are not talking past each other. Policy analysts are hungry for a simple primer on the relevant aspects of various technologies.

As a panelist pointed out, some policymakers think of AI as a magic bullet, without a clear understanding of what the technology can do and its possible limitations and misuses. Some participants wanted to focus on specific cases or examples of technology to help refine the object in need of regulation. Such refinement would also address concerns over tech hype and ease the panic that can come from learning about the intended and sometimes malicious uses of different technologies. The result would be that experts and public alike would find the challenges less overwhelming.

2. Cybersecurity is a worry for many.

Many of the proposed benefits of a particular technology came with caveats about simultaneous cyber vulnerabilities. Some voiced concerns that cyberattacks could cause destabilization and conflict escalation.

These cyber worries don’t relate only to new weapons and tech. Older components of weapon systems, including nuclear weapons, designed decades ago when security concerns were very different, are seen as particularly vulnerable to hacking.

3. Multi-stakeholder involvement is necessary.

Multi-dimensional contemporary challenges need multi-stakeholder solutions. Much of the technology is being developed by industry, not government, and has an array of implications for global security. But dialogue between technologists, policymakers, industry and civil society on arms control and disarmament issues remains under-appreciated and under-developed.

In her address, UN Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu emphasized that we cannot work in silos. There must be greater engagement and dialogue among all relevant communities.

For example, we must consider the environmental impacts of new technologies. Surely such a discussion is key to all discussions on security. So, we need to bring in those who are environment advocates—especially the young.

Tech workers who work on technologies that could be weaponized are another group that must be at the discussion table. Many of these individuals have become advocates for greater transparency on the types of technology that are being developed and for what purposes. Some have suffered the common fate of whistleblowers. These people, too, must be at the table.

By all indications, this first Innovations Dialogue will be followed by others. There is clearly a need and interest for the discussion to continue.

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