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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 July 2018

Future Forum: There is a disconnect between technology experts and policymakers

The event organised by The National was unique in bringing together science and policy innovators to start a real conversation, writes Nasser bin Nasser

The National Future Forum brought some of the world's leading thinkers to Abu Dhabi to discuss the challenges of the future. Chris Whiteoak / The National
The National Future Forum brought some of the world's leading thinkers to Abu Dhabi to discuss the challenges of the future. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Last week, I had the privilege and good fortune to attend the Future Forum, organised on the occasion of The National’s 10-year anniversary.

The event brought together technologists and policymakers in an intimate setting to explore what the future has in store for us. I was blown away, to say the least.

Presentations focused on subjects as far-ranging as human brain enhancement to the future of money, cities, education and journalism, among a wide range of other issues.

Participants were in awe to see speakers such as Olivier Oullier discuss what his company Emotiv’s brain-computer interface could do, including the ability to drive a Formula One car and fly a drone using brain signals alone.

He also demonstrated how the device could map his brain’s vital signals (anxiety, interest, focus, excitement, engagement and stress levels) using complex algorithms.

Mr Oullier says this could potentially transform the discussion on mental health away from diagnosis and treatment to wellness and prevention and help address what he described was a mental health epidemic afflicting a staggering 450 million people worldwide.

I have always been a strong believer in the role that science and technology can play in addressing humankind’s most pressing challenges and alleviating human suffering, yet I have also been equally demoralised by the lack of joint-up thinking and real discussion between scientific and policy communities.

More often than not, I find there to be a disconnect by what technology and science has to offer and what impact and consequences they may have on a policy level.

For instance, while we praise and cheer on Elon Musk for his huge technological achievement to pilot-test driverless truck fleets in the US, a technological feat certainly worth praising, we tend to ignore the fact that truck-driving is the number one profession in at least 29 US states and that driverless fleets could leave this segment of society unemployed, disillusioned and increasingly prone to extremism and violence.

The argument that technology can have adverse consequences on humankind is not new.

Even at the earliest onset of automation in the agricultural and industrial sectors, people worried that their jobs working in the fields and factories would be taken over by machines. This never really happened.

For every job that was lost to a machine, several others had been created. The examples are plentiful and not solely focused on issues relating to employment.

The recent data and privacy controversy involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica is reminiscent of a time when people were similarly scandalised by the invasiveness of DNA technology on privacy and well before that, of fingerprinting.

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Nevertheless, the retelling of these warnings is important. At the onset of what has been deemed the fourth industrial revolution, the disruptive scale and impact of the new technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data and additive manufacturing on our wellbeing and our security is unprecedented.

Sceptics might correctly point out that each era of technological advancement was also described as unprecedented at its time and to that there is little retort or counter-argument.

What made the Future Forum so unique was that The National had successfully created a space to bring both technologists and policymakers together in a setting where a real conversation could be started, a setting that is drastically different from the public circuses that have come to characterise some other conferences.

It reminded me of a recommendation made by the UK’s Royal Society in its publication New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy, which advised that establishing and nurturing links between the scientific and policy communities informs scientists and policymakers alike: “the former, about the realities of policymaking and the latter, about the role and limits of science in policy”.

The reason that left me hopeful for our shared humanity is that The National proved that a good and apolitical conversation about the role of science in policy is possible. The onus is on us to keep the conversation going.

Nasser bin Nasser is a non-resident scholar of the Washington-based Middle East Institute