Data : the revolution is underway

The pandemic may have had deep consequences on the world this past year, it didn’t derail the on-going data revolution. Blockchain, artificial intelligence, IoT and more are still developing and in need of strong shared regulatory framework to be fully successful. Ruth Hickin, strategy leader at the center for the fourth industrial revolution of the World Economic Forum shares her views on what is to be looking forward to in the thrive of data.

By Lola Breton

The 18th century had its steam engine, the 1800s had their loads of petroleum, gas, and electricity while the early 1970s saw the internet coming. Progress is not over yet. For a few years now, the fourth industrial revolution has taken over. The key word: data. “Artificial intelligence, blockchain and precision medicine are just a handful of the technologies of [this revolution] which are putting enormous pressure on regulatory frameworks”, warns the World Economic Forum. In 2017, the global institution launched its center for the fourth industrial revolution (C4IR) to help public and private actors co-design protocols and policy frameworks around advanced science and technology “to maximize their social benefits and minimize their risks”. “The intersection of technology and society or technology and the environment is only becoming more acute by the day. Covid-19 brought to the forefront people’s understanding of how technology is being used and how much technology needs to be used in a variety of different ways”, points out Ruth Hickin, Strategy leader at the C4IR.

The pandemic really did have this effect. Data collection and use in their variation of ways have been part of our everyday lives for a while now: we have used smartwatches and voice assistants; we have trusted tech companies with our doctor’s appointments and saved our fingerprints into our phones. But Covid-19 forced the entire world to transfer information and documents through the internet for work, to rely on data collection to follow the virus’ spread or to make an appointment to get a shot of vaccine. “Everyone understood that being able to harness data more effectively is an advantage on your counterparts, says Ruth Hickin. And from a government perspective, digital infrastructure is more understood to be as critical as roadways or water in being able to provide now.” However, as her position amidst the Word Economic Forum implies, she warns: “Technology can solve issues, but it also comes with challenges. It takes work to harness it effectively in a safer responsible way.”

Targeting interoperability

On April 6th and 7th, 2021, the forum held its Global technology governance summit, “a moment in time for [them] as an international gathering which brought together a high level multi stakeholder community on both the potential of technology and how to manage the risks”. Participants took this time to discuss what is to be done to, indeed, design, shared frameworks for the data revolution to thrive – even though Ruth Hickin does not know if there is “an endpoint” to the fourth industrial revolution, since “technology is on a constantly evolving path at this point”.

One of the first thing to be put into place surrounding data today is interoperability. “Technology obviously doesn’t exist in borders and tech companies work across borders, so one of the potential risk areas is that if policy makers don’t work with each other or have some kind of commonality, this will have impacts on innovation, for example”, explains Ruth Hickin. Hence the need to stop having to comply differently according to the regions. Cooperation on this matter is a huge deal to achieve, as states want to preserve “their sovereign interests and their geopolitical differences whilst also understanding that we have to address global challenges”. Same goes for private companies. Ruth Hickin is seeing enterprises change their perspectives on how to tackle the issues surrounding technology and data. During the pandemic, Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM all decided to stop selling their facial recognition tools to governments and public institutions as long as a federal regulation is not enforced. “We might not necessarily agree with the exact policy that will be put in place, but we can agree to the principles that we want to adhere to around human benefit and solving global challenges together, whether it be environmental, social, health care”, believes Ruth Hickin. And this can be made possible through what the C4IR calls “agile governance or agile policy making, which translates into developing the policy hand in hand with technology.”

No revolution without inclusion

As difficult as it may be to grow towards this, the full potential of data will only be harnessed if it stops being kept in silos. “If we were able to aggregate a significant body of healthcare data and use artificial intelligence to analyze it, for example, we would be able to better predict diseases, better predict genetic predispositions to diseases, aims the strategy leader of the C4IR. One of the things that we focus on is: how do we create data for common purpose and how do we find mechanisms to share the insights of the data whilst maintaining privacy to have better outcomes?”

Ethics may not have an ideal representation internationally, but Ruth Hickin likes to believe that the actors share common principles that will help co-design strong frameworks. This is what led the forum to wonder in early April: “Do we need a Paris agreement for tech ?” In principle, each participant agreed. In concrete terms, just like the issues surrounding climate change, inclusion will be key in the data revolution. On one hand, each state needs to have access to technology and data. “An equitable fourth industrial revolution is something we’re certainly aspiring to, assures Ruth Hickin. “There are countries like Rwanda, for example, that are really kind of leapfrogging, in the use of technology, even in pandemic response. They had been using drones for delivery of medical supplies, but they are now using chat bots to better predict and triage in rural areas.”

To have a bottom-up approach, citizens will also have to be involved in the process, especially in terms of tech education. Ruth Hickin does think that “it’s part of policy to make sure that citizens are aware of what technology is being used and what the impact will be”. If governments, the civil society, and private actors take on this task, we all might at least learn how to read the general terms and conditions before agreeing to them.