RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – A report from the World Economic Forum warning about growing threats from the “unintended consequences” of new and emerging technologies makes for sobering reading. In other words, WAKE UP and BE MORE CAREFUL.

The title is appropriate:

“Wild Wide Web

“Consequences of Digital Fragmentation”

As world thought leaders gather in Davos for the annual World Economic Forum this week, it’s likely climate change will receive most of the attention. However, technology is growing in importance around the globe and if we can’t hope to corral man-created tech how can man every hope to control nature and climate?

We are on the brink of possible technology chaos. The so-called technology-driven Fourth Industrial Revolution, or 4IR, faces plenty of challenges. Keep reading, please, and be warned,

World Economic Forum graphic

In analyzing the matrix of threats facing mankind, cyberthreats places fifth behind:

  1. Economic confrontations (think US-China trade war)
  2. Domestic political polarization (think current US situation, or UK Brexit)
  3. Extreme heat waves (climate change)
  4. Destruction of natural ecosystems (climate change, manmade i.e. Amazon rain forest destruction)

Pretty heavy issues indeed. To have tech exploitation place fifth is indeed scary.

“Cyberattacks have become a common hazard for individuals and businesses: our surveys rank them as the seventh most likely and eighth most impactful risk, and the second most concerning risk for doing business globally over the next 10 years,” the report warns.

Rick Smith, WRAL TechWire’s editor and a cofounder and author of The Skinny blog.

At the forefront: Next-generation wireless, quantum computing and artificial intelligence – each of which offers the potential to improve humankind’s existence and at the same time help the planet. Not to be overlooked: The internet of things, which is rapidly becoming ubiquitious, and cloud computing with more and more data being house across a universe of servers and thus susceptible to exploitation.

The new tech plays are “creating not only opportunities but also new threats of their own,” the WEC says.

A key reason:

“The lack of a global governance framework for technology risks fragmenting cyberspace, which could deter economic growth, aggravate geopolitical rivalries and widen divisions within societies.”

But is a global governance framework a possibility?

Opportunities and threats

Without global tech security, it’s up to companies, governments and individuals to put in place privacy and security safeguards if anyone is to have hope of avoiding data nightmares.

Obviously there is much potential for growth and development for good.  The following chart shows the impressive financial impact of emerging 4IR technology:

World Economc Forum graphic

Yet there are downsides.

Here’s a sample of what the report says about each category:

  • Cyberattacks. The digital nature of 4IR technologies makes them intrinsically vulnerable to cyberattacks that can take a multitude of forms—from data theft and ransomware to the overtaking of systems with potentially large-scale harmful consequences. … Cyberattacks have become “the new normal.”
  • Internet pf Things: The IoT is also amplifying the potential cyberattack surface. It is estimated that there are already over 21 billion IoT devices worldwide, and their number will double by 2025. Attacks on IoT devices increased by more than 300% in the first half of 2019 … In 2021, cybercrime damages might reach US$6 trillion20— what would be equivalent to the GDP of the world’s third largest economy.
  • Vulnerable data. 4IR technologies run on data, making privacy a major challenge. IoT devices collect and share data that are potentially highly sensitive for individuals, companies and states, from personal identification and medical records to national security information. The data brokering market—aggregating, disaggregating, copying, searching and selling data for commercial purposes—is worth an estimated US$200 billion a year.
  • Artificial intelligence (AI). AI has been dubbed both “the most impactful invention” and our “biggest existential threat”.Indeed, we may not even be able to comprehend AI’s full potential—or its full risk. Some risks—such as manipulation through fake news and “deepfakes”—are well known. Others are yet to be fully uncovered, including in such areas as brain-computer interfaces and hyper-automation (combining robotics and AI).
  • Fifth generation (5G). 4IR technologies rely on high-speed digital infrastructure—on 5G networks and, further down the road, 6G. … Current projections show the risk of a US$1 trillion global gap in telecommunication infrastructure investments through 2040. In developed countries, the challenge is not only to build modern infrastructure but also to overcome reliance on legacy systems, on which the public and private sectors currently spend up to 80% of their technology budgets. Here, introducing new, safe and reliable systems into existing capabilities is key; some entities have already begun to do this
  • Quantum computing. Quantum computing could dramatically reduce the time needed to solve the mathematical problems on which encryption techniques currently rely—from months to minutes and seconds. It risks rendering useless most of our existing data security and critical infrastructure systems, including military networks, email and power grids.
  • Cloud computing. While many technical advancements of 4IR are essentially digitally based, cloud computing has the potential to enhance trans-sectoral development, expand technological access to remote areas and further link AI to other 4IR technologies. At the same time, with increasingly more data hosted in the cloud, companies are amassing personal information like never before, which could ultimately create potential new data privacy and security risks.

For more nightmares and a briefing about what to watch out for, read the full report online. 

You have been warned.