Megan M. Roberts is director of policy planning at the United Nations Foundation.
In the midst of frenzied diplomacy around spiraling conflict in the Middle East and other crises around the world, the UN Security Council met virtually last week to discuss the growing role of emerging technologies in matters of peace and war.
Though it has met previously to discuss cyber threats, this was the first time diplomats convened, under China’s Security Council presidency, to discuss how the rapid advancement of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, biotech, and additive manufacturing, along with digital technologies, are changing the landscape of peace and conflict. The United Nations has in recent years expanded its work to ensure the world realizes the benefits of new technologies and mitigates their risks. Secretary-General António Guterres has identified the risks of new technologies as one of the “'four horsemen’ in our midst—four looming threats that endanger twenty-first-century progress and imperil twenty-first-century possibilities.” His Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, launched last year, includes a series of proposals to ensure that everyone is connected, respected, and, protected online. He has repeatedly called for a ban on lethal autonomous weapons and the need to avoid the weaponization of new technologies. Member states have also for years engaged in discussions on cybersecurity and lethal autonomous weapons, slowly building shared understandings of norms and limits, if not keeping pace with the rapid pace of the threats.
Three Digital Divides
The Council’s first debate on emerging technologies exposed some familiar tensions even as it trod new ground for the UN body with primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security. In particular, divides across three issues are likely to shape how the Council engages on emerging technology in the future.
First, although the Security Council is a body of member states, and an exclusive one at that, countries differed in important ways on who should have a seat at the table, and particularly the role for governments and that of civil society, companies, researchers, and other non-government actors. Here, member states fall into two camps familiar to discussions on cyberspace: those that see digital and tech policy as the exclusive purview of states and those that encourage a more inclusive and multisectoral approach.
Indeed, even China’s hosting of this meeting in the Security Council, which initially seemed at odds with its usual preference to limit the thematic issues on the Council’s agenda like climate change and human rights, is an expression of its perspective of the strong role for states in determining the rules of the road on emerging technologies. Belarus went even further, underscoring the need to advance a concept of sovereignty online that gives states the exclusive right to develop digital policy within their territories, reminiscent of similar calls by Russia, which did not participate in the Council debate.
Compare this to the perspective put forward by a wide range of states in addition to the United Nations itself that addressing the risks of new technologies requires working with other actors, like civil society, companies, and researchers, who all have both roles and responsibilities. Indeed, ensuring that emerging technologies are used for good requires cooperation across all of these sectors.
Second, as the pace of technology development quickens, the space between the haves and the have-nots is growing. This is true at the individual level: people with access to digital technologies are able to tap economic, social, and political opportunities that are out of reach for those who remain unconnected—still nearly half the world—especially as COVID-19 pushed so much of life online. This gap is also widening at the country-level. And that growing gap is making many states on the wrong side of the digital divide feel increasingly insecure, as those at the forefront of the technological revolution put new technologies to work in their economies, their social sectors, and their militaries.
Although member states were concerned about inequalities in other areas, it was the advent of new advanced weaponry that caused the most concern, with some warning against an arms race fueled by AI, biotech, and other emerging technologies. Such a race risks the premature deployment of new weapons without an appreciation for their possible harms or ways they can fail. In the process, this can create new uncertainties, increasing the likelihood for misjudging threats, and introducing the prospect that states enhance other military capacities, including nuclear weapons, in response.
Moreover, there is a worry that such discrepancies between states may mean that a small number of countries are de facto setting the rules for the rest of the world when it comes to how weapons that only they possess may be deployed.
Third, countries differently scoped the harms emerging technologies might pose to international peace and security. In addition to the ‘hard’ security risks created by the early deployment of new weapons or the strengthening of extremist groups through access to 3D-printed hardware, many member states raised a wider set of risks to individuals and societies. These included threats to human rights, including privacy violations from surveillance systems deployed by governments to monitor their populations and limits on freedom of expression when states shut down or restrict internet access. States were also concerned about algorithms that introduce bias or discrimination as well as state-sponsored or -enabled cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns that can undermine democratic societies and the rule of law.
This latter group of countries also underscored the need for any use of emerging technologies to be guided by international law, including international humanitarian and human rights law as well as the UN Charter. This is critical to avoid a blank slate approach to governing emerging technologies, but it will likely suffer from some of the same challenges in application as we see in ongoing discussions on cyberspace.
Finding Common Ground?
Despite these differences, the discussion did shine light on two areas of apparent convergence. First, in addition to the many ways these technologies could be used to destabilize or exacerbate conflict, countries agreed that emerging technologies can play important roles in promoting peace. In particular, AI and drones, when used in ways that respect the core principles of the United Nations, have the potential to offer UN peacekeepers greater situational awareness and improved data analysis, and can help missions be both more effective and efficient.
Second, countries agreed that the growing importance of emerging technologies and their risks to international peace and security meant that this would not be the last time the Security Council discussed these issues and that greater cooperation was needed going forward.
This informal meeting of the Security Council won’t result in a resolution or agreed path forward, but even in exposing deep disagreements between members—including and perhaps especially among the Council’s permanent members—it did offer an opportunity to generate greater awareness and understanding for how countries are assessing the risks of emerging technologies to international peace and security. Further discussion is unlikely to bridge these differences alone, but it can keep these issues high on the Council’s agenda and contribute to greater understanding of country perspectives and potential spots of emerging consensus. Setting out a vision and identifying limits for the technologies of today and tomorrow is a fundamental challenge that will be at the heart of how governments and other actors decide to work within—rather than outside—the multilateral system.