Synthetic biology and artificial intelligence are two examples of the "next cyber"; emerging technologies with the capacity to deliver enormous benefits but which also present significant challenges to government, industry and society.
Take synthetic biology: creating new organisms from the building blocks of DNA offers the potential to fight infectious disease, treat neurological disorders, alleviate worries about food security and create biofuels.
The flipside is that the genetic manipulation of organisms could also create significant harm, through error or terror. The accidental leakof dangerous synthetized organisms, perhaps in the form of deadly viruses or plant mutations, could create massive damage.
Bio-terrorism threats could emerge from organized groups or lone individuals in the growing "biohacker" community who access synthetic biology inventions online.
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The double-edged sword of Artificial Intelligence
Artificial intelligence (AI) is also a double-edged sword. Advances in AI can increase economic productivity, but might also create large-scale structural unemployment leading to serious social upheaval.
AI developments also raise new questions about accountability and liability: who is accountable for the decisions made by self-driving cars, when they weigh the choice of harming pedestrians versus passengers? Some have even posited that the achievement of "singularity", when machine brains surpass human intelligence, presents an existential threat to humanity.
Risk governance for these and other emerging technologies is extremely challenging. Many more institutions, as well as communities, are engaged in research and development and the pace of innovation is accelerating.
National legal and regulatory frameworks are underdeveloped, so certain topics and techniques escape scrutiny by not being specified.
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Cash-strapped institutions that are meant to provide oversight are struggling to cope with advances that cross departmental jurisdictions and they are often unable to assess the risks with the rigor that they might wish.
Weaknesses also exist at an international level. For example, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety provides guidelines on the handling and transportation of living modified organisms, but not their development. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity addresses synthetic biology, but the resulting agreement is not legally binding.
A current live concern is that large-scale international negotiations such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) may inhibit new governance proposals and influence global norms in pursuit of open markets and more streamlined regulation.
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