“Emerging Technologies” Is in Vogue… but Also Vague

Gone are the days when a well-intentioned friend would introduce me to another one of their friends based on the sheer fact that we are the only two gay people they know. This tactic, which often led to an overly emphatic introduction, followed by the realization that we had very little in common beyond being gay, and an intensely awkward conversation fizzle, has (thankfully) fallen out of vogue. This is because the LGBTQ+ community has become more established and more visible, giving people a greater understanding of the diversity of LGBTQ+ individuals.

Yet, recently I have found myself back in that familiar scenario of being introduced, under good intentions, to someone only to find out that I share very tangential similarities in interests. The difference this time around is that I brought it upon myself, because I started listing “emerging technologies” as one of my areas of focus.

If you pay attention to national security or foreign policy, chances are you have heard the term “emerging technologies.” The term has become a headliner for panels at conferences, an appendage used to call for urgency or to underscore security concerns in op-eds and articles, and a frequently-used marker of interest in biographic profiles. However, more often than not, the term usage lacks a descriptive component that would afford it a context-specific orientation and a more commanding impact.

While the two-word term may have been sufficient in the initial identification phase for the new wave of security threats, more descriptive usages of the term will be necessary to develop a meaningful, concrete, and transparent understanding of the security impact emerging technologies will have. Only after an increased depth is developed can successful policy recommendations emerge. In order to push for this depth, we must start to realize the diversity of topics in the field of “emerging technologies,” and specify which aspect our individual interests, article usages, and conference panels are focused on.

RECENTLY IN VOGUE

Emerging technologies, as a collective disruption, have garnered a lot of attention recently in the foreign policy and national security fields. At the national level, emerging technologies have been identified as an impending concern to US security across agencies and departments, such as in the 2019 US National Intelligence Strategy and in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019. At the international level, the United Nations Secretary-General issued a strategy on new technologies in September 2018, in which emerging technologies are identified as a risk to the international strategic security environment.

Are the technologies emerging in their distribution? Or in the magnitude of their disruption potential? Or perhaps in sheer novelty?

OFTEN TOO VAGUE

Despite increased attention and usage, the term “emerging technologies” alone is vague. The lack of clarity lies not only in the definition of certain technologies that fit within the grouping, but also with respect to how they are emerging. Are the technologies emerging in their distribution? Or in the magnitude of their disruption potential? Or perhaps in sheer novelty? How are they distinguished from other technologies?

If the term is used too vaguely, an internet search will offer little refuge to a confused reader and may further obfuscate the term’s usage under too broad of a search. Today, a simple search shows that “emerging technologies” is used across nearly every field: healthcare, energy, economics, defense, etc. Furthermore, there is often a nesting doll phenomenon, where a narrower set of emerging technologies lies within a broader set of emerging technologies. For example, in many contexts cyber alone is considered an emerging technology, however, one may also find a whole subset of emerging cyber technologies, or even within the field of encryption cyber. Thus, unless the term is given greater description in the context it is used, there is limited opportunity for a confused reader to gain greater insight.

WHAT’S IN THE NAME?

While the terminology can introduce definitional confusion if used without enough description, the importance of studying emerging technologies itself is concrete. At its core, the study of emerging technologies is the study of how science and technology innovation will impact an existing domain. The essence of this generalization in the national security field is captured in a 2018 report by the Department of Homeland Security, in which emerging technologies are defined as “any technology that augments or hinders military, intelligence, or other security activities.” However, even with this definition, an immediate qualification is given by stating that emerging technologies “can also more broadly represent any innovation vis-à-vis the economic importance of a technology that can impact US national security.”

DESCRIPTION TO PUSH FOR DEPTH

In order to harness a growing interest in emerging technologies, we must begin to be more specific when we use the term. Because it has already been established that emerging technologies are a security threat, the security field must begin to use more mature language when discussing the topic, identifying different tracks and focus areas, to make meaningful progress and establish different sets of priorities within the field. The term “emerging technologies” can no longer serve as a sufficient place-holder for a risk area; its usage must be refined to clarify the application of the term through identifying the specific technologies in question, indicating with respect to what baseline they are emerging from, and establishing how their emergence presents a new problem.

Through breaking the term down further with these points, a more constructive dialogue, or tracks of dialogue, can emerge that will lead to more concrete studies and solutions. Although it is easy and sometimes true to simply say “emerging technologies” as a passing reference, the security field must push itself to begin to define and reference specific areas within the broader subject. For example, the term could be detailed in usage by referencing specific technology areas, or by referencing specific emerging technology problems, such as lack of emerging technology arms control agreements, or limit of emerging technology verification options. Adding greater description would still allow for the general science and technology-policy interface identification to be maintained when using the term, but it would also push the field to evolve beyond the simple stage of problem identification and to begin to establish dialogue tracks with narrower focuses that will help to produce more concrete recommendations.

Furthermore, it could lead to more productive introductions with others in the field working on similar aspects of emerging technologies.

Lindsay Rand is a graduate student at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. She is also a research assistant at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland.