The MIT Technology Review has published its list of the 10 “breakthrough technologies” coming this year that will (according to them) “truly change how we live and work” by “solving big problems”. It isn’t about gadgetry – it’s about the big changes which will have big effects. So far, so good.
But we would add “and which therefore will change aspects of our collective landscape of risk” – remembering that big changes have a long reach, and often have unforeseen and unintended consequences. They can eradicate some risks, create new ones and change the way other risks occur and present themselves. Hence the importance of this study for disaster and resilience specialists, even though not all of the 10 resonate immediately with our current professional concerns. The full list and explanations can be found here.
We have posted on three of the MIT’s 10 breakthroughs in the last few months. The first was quantum computing, with its potential for making public-key encryption systems - as we know them today - completely obsolete. Given the extent of our (increasing) reliance on these systems, the implications for security, welfare and normal life are serious and pretty obvious. Read our posts on this risk here and here.
The next one of the 10 we’ve covered relates to the issue of privacy and the associated human right to a private life, and the threat posed to it by big data systems in a future “instrumented” society. The post can be read here.
The fact is that even the best-intentioned collectors of big data (like government census agencies) find it very hard in practice to keep mass data private and so keep within the legal requirements of data protection. The breakthrough in question is a mathematical technique called differential privacy.
It’s at an early stage of development and is either brilliant or bonkers – we aren’t sure which yet and aren’t qualified to comment. It works by selectively introducing inaccuracies or “noise” into the data – changing minor details that are not particularly important, to protect the privacy of the subject. The problem is that too much or the wrong sort of noise can render the data useless. Apparently, a form of this is used by some major IT providers to aggregate data without identifying particular users.
The third of the MIT breakthroughs we’ve already examined is the attribution of climate change definitively to the occurrence of individual climate events. This is something scientists were reluctant to try until very recently. But tools and techniques have improved, as well as access to data and computing power. In the words of the Technology Review…
“By disentangling the role of climate change from other factors, the studies are telling us what kinds of risks we need to prepare for, including how much flooding to expect and how severe heat waves will get as global warming becomes worse”.
It follows this with a pungent conclusion…
“If we choose to listen, [this] can help us understand how to rebuild our cities and infrastructure for a climate-changed world”.
Risk anticipation, and its strategic cousin horizon-scanning, have featured in a number of our other publications recently. We suggest you check out our paper from last year called Anticipating and Preventing Emergencies. It can be accessed here.
You might also want to look into our ensemble papers called Risks in the Spotlight. Volumes 1-3 are in print and available here. Volume 4 follows shortly.
Also, look out for the next imprint in our Short Guides Series. It is called Risk Anticipation and Horizon-Scanning. We expect to publish it in middle-to-late March 2020.
We were going to duck the obvious pun about horizon scanning and 2020 vision...