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Finance & Innovation

New Tech Will Change the World, But Not Without Risks, UN Report Says

New technologies like 3D printing, artificial intelligence, and widespread access to the internet will transform both developing and developed nations over the next 12 years, according to a new report released by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) on Wednesday.

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Though the report celebrated the potential of technology to help countries advance, it also cautioned against the danger that rapid change could have on societies. The report urged the international community to be proactive in creating policies that minimize those risks, while boosting technology’s immense benefits.

“Frontier technologies” — tech that's being researched and developed but is not available on a mass market scale yet — are being produced more quickly and cost-effectively than ever before. And they could hold the key to ending poverty.

"Frontier technologies hold the promise of reviving productivity and making plentiful resources to end poverty for good, enable more sustainable patterns of growth, and mitigate or even reverse decades of environmental degradation,” UNCTAD Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi said.

Read More: Technology for Good, ICT enabling Sustainable Cities

However, while technology has the power to unlock unimaginable benefits to people and societies, it also has the power to disrupt systems and potentially devastate societies. The rate of technological development and availability threatens to outpace the rate at which societies and governments are able to adapt to it. In China, for example, 77% of Chinese jobs were at risk of automation in 2016, meaning that as technology develops, hundreds of thousands of people could be replaced by machinery without alternative employment opportunities.

The report calls for governments to work together and support each other to create policies that will address the emerging economic, environmental, ethical, and societal challenges.

Advanced countries will produce and implement frontier technology more than other countries, according to the report. As a result, there must be an emphasis on boosting countries with limited capacity, so as not to create further inequality in the world.

Still, the benefits of technology to people around the world are already evident.

For example, 3D printers are being used to create custom prosthetic limbs cheaper than mass-produced ones. Since a specialized powder, a 3D printer, and a computer are all that is needed to print such customized objects, people in remote areas now have access to small-scale production of unique parts. This can provide affordable solutions that extend from farming to architecture.

Read More: How Technology and Connectivity Can Extend Refugees' Opportunities Beyond Borders

Meanwhile, analysis of big data and social media is becoming the preferred method of assessing needs and providing disaster relief. During Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, Filipino authorities reacted to requests for help by sorting distressed tweets into geographical clusters, allowing them to scale and prioritize their responses. Instead of relying on phone operators, social media platforms enabled a quick and mobilized response. Tweets and posts from other platforms compiled into open maps allow for simple communication across relief groups allowing for agile disaster response.

The UNCTAD report urges countries to share information and technology across borders in order to build partnerships, which experts say will be fundamental for international collaboration and spontaneous innovation.

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