Covid-19 has accelerated the Fourth Industrial Revolution. E-commerce, online learning, online services and remote work will likely continue to transform society long after the pandemic has ended. By 2025, it is estimated the human race will produce data in the range of 180 zettabytes (1 zettabyte equals 250 billion DVDs). Advances in artificial intelligence, 5G, and cloud and edge computing will bring about a whole new level of connectivity, automation, accuracy and efficiency that will transform our daily lives in a manner we could never have imagined before.
As modern life becomes increasingly dependent on technology, new risks and dangers come to light while existing ones amplify. The World Economic Forum’s 2021 global risks report highlights technological risks that may lead to some of the following crises in the next decade:
1. Digital Power Concentration
The pandemic has shown that many of our online retail, communication, entertainment, learning and digital services are restricted to a limited number of big tech companies. As these companies grow stronger through diverse revenue streams and enhanced investment power, they may create barriers to entry in the global digital marketplace that will result in reducing competitiveness. This could lead to a concentration of critical digital assets, capabilities and knowledge among a handful of companies and in turn may lead to challenges in discretionary pricing, lack of impartial oversight, unequal private or public access to digital necessities, and a heightened risk of losing digital autonomy.
2. Digital Inequality
As society evolves around technology, the digital divide may broaden, which could manifest in several forms: Countries that have access to technology and connectivity may have a greater advantage than those that don’t. People who can use technology may be favored over ones that cannot, whether due to a lack of necessary skills, insufficient purchasing power, or other geopolitical and cultural challenges. Such a digital divide could undermine prospects for an inclusive economic recovery post-pandemic. This kind of threat to digital inclusion can reduce people’s chances of finding quality employment.
3. Failure Of Cybersecurity Measures
The frequency and intensity of cyberattacks are rising in part because the interconnectivity of systems introduces new loopholes and vulnerabilities. Trends like remote work and the rapid move to cloud computing are making breaches more likely to occur. Additionally, cybercriminals are showing entrepreneurial and cartel-like behavior, functioning like global enterprises. Policymakers and industries are failing to challenge these threats head-on, due to a lack of investment in security awareness training, skills and resources. The cybersecurity market suffers from a severe talent crunch, and finding the right tools can be challenging. As cybercrime grows in sophistication, it’s becoming even stealthier and more targeted. Digital content is being manipulated to create hyper-realistic spoofs of video footage (deepfakes), and disinformation is being used as a geopolitical weapon to cause political unrest and divide nations. Such tensions will undoubtedly result in widespread economic disruption, social discord and geopolitical conflicts.
4. Failure Of Technology Governance
The absence of global frameworks and regulations surrounding the use of digital networks, technology, cross-border data transfers and privacy could lead to incompatibility in infrastructure and protocols. In addition, governments are facing a daunting challenge keeping up with the rapid advancements in technology and a growing cyber threat surface. For example, businesses are increasingly relying on the use of AI for an untold variety of applications—to help diagnose health results, pick investments, track employee productivity, etc. However, research shows that AI algorithms can be manipulated to achieve a specific outcome. In absence of well-defined global standards, such technologies can pose a major threat to society, especially when leveraged by big tech companies.
These Are Global Issues, Not Isolated Ones
I think it’s time for governments, nations and policymakers to keep pace with these technological changes and come together to formulate policies to create an open, transparent, level playing field for smaller businesses. The digital divide is slowly narrowing, but the gap remains. Nations must focus on strengthening digital literacy, especially in those parts of the world that have limited access to technology. The internet is inherently global and distributed in nature, so reforms are specifically needed at a global level, but local governments must also create policies and environments that favor local businesses to foster more inclusion.
Smaller businesses, too, have a responsibility—they must evolve with changing times and embrace technology and security as a competitive weapon. It was once the “small” companies (those now considered “big tech”) that challenged the status quo and changed the game (Facebook versus Orkut; Zoom versus Skype; Netflix versus Blockbuster). The consumer demand for privacy and security is rising. Businesses that design products and services while keeping security and privacy in mind will likely enjoy a significant competitive advantage over larger, incumbent businesses.