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Not enough attention is being given to the social impact of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, before they hit the market, a conference has heard.

This content was published on September 20, 2008 - 11:03

Speakers warned that the technological revolution could meet the same problems as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) unless governments and other interested parties formed long term strategies.

The speed at which such life changing inventions are being developed was compared to a new world wide web being created every two years. The subject was discussed at a conference on Tuesday hosted in Switzerland by the Wolfsberg think tank – an institution founded by the country's largest bank, UBS.

Professor Nigel Cameron, president of the United States-based Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies, told swissinfo that the dramatic social implications of these technologies should be on the agenda of national elections rather than being discussed in backrooms.

"We need a new kind of conversation among three communities which don't usually mix – government policy makers, the investment community and non-governmental organisations," he said.

"Governments and companies are taking shorter and shorter-term decisions while at the same time technology developments – that are exploding exponentially – require longer and longer term decisions."

Past disasters

Cameron blamed the negative public reaction to GMOs and a recent row between Europe and the United States on converging technologies on a failure to hold meaningful and transparent global dialogue between high level parties.

"It was an utter disaster for GMOs. Now you have policy makers a decade later wrestling with the issue because nobody was thinking ahead," he said. "This will happen again over and over as technologies explode and converge. We need to make sure that we have a much more stable social conversation."

The Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies was set up exactly for that reason.

Cameron can also see many potential conflicts of interests as more technologies emerge and have an impact on society. For example, robots with humanoid features are being developed in Japan that may one day replace factory workers or even surgeons.

Social implications

"Will vast unemployment be one of the consequences? If you replace a surgeon with a smart machine, what happens if there is a bug in the software? What are the legal liabilities when you have humanoid robots that can partly make their own discussions?" he asked.

"These are enormous questions that nobody in senior government circles have addressed and that should scare investors. This is making it easier for the Luddites who want to bring these technologies crashing down."

Cameron believes that large-scale global discussions would save time by cutting down barriers between different groups rather than resulting in endless rounds of debate. The point of the exercise is to spread information and opinions rather than to find consensus, he added.

"I don't expect everyone to agree but it is surprising what you can achieve if you think 15 years ahead," he said.

swissinfo, Matthew Allen

Nigel Cameron

Professor Nigel Cameron is president of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies – an organisation that is seeking to bring together policy makers, industry and NGOs to talk about the future impact of new technologies.

Cameron is also a scholar in residence at the Wolfsberg think tank institute, which was set up by Switzerland's largest bank UBS in 1970. The think tank is based at the historic Chateau Wolfsberg in canton Thurgau.

Cameron holds the post of research professor of Bioethics and is associate dean at the Chicago-Kent college of law. He established the journal Ethics and Medicine in 1983.

He has represented the US on delegations to the United Nations general assembly and is a member of the US national commission for Unesco.

Cameron has testified before both house of Congress, the European parliament and the European Commission's group on ethics in science and new technologies.

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