When I hear the word “emerging technology” in a synesthesia-like induced haze, all I am able to see is the color silver. My mind conjures a Pinterest-inspired mood board of silver — aesthetically pleasing images depicting chromatics, machinery, silk, smooth, and fast. It’s sexy. It’s modern. It’s chic. Such connotations make it clear why people are eager to discuss emerging technology as a concept. However, it is also evident that people are less eager to slow down, take a step back, and consider the semantics. Namely, it’s time to start thinking more critically about how we are talking about emerging technology at a fundamental level.
Because of its trending popularity, emerging technology has become somewhat of a buzzword in the nuclear nonproliferation, disarmament, and arms control policy community, a buzzword evoking not only stylish future-esque imagery but also connotations of danger. Waves of technologically determined fears of international instability have begun to drown out more benign pictures of modernity, especially in the literature discussing both emerging technology and nuclear weapons issues.
FINDING THE MIDDLE GROUND
While there can be reason to worry about the instability and escalation-induced side effects of emerging technology, it is likely that such fears are hyperbolic. Nonetheless, the literature serves as a negative reinforcer, acting in a feedback loop between inflated risk assessments and concerned policy experts programmed to be risk-averse (albeit reasonably so). For example, the Hamburg-based Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy’s in-depth report recently demonstrated how 30 diverse nuclear weapons experts gauged several different technologies as having a “predominately negative” effect on international stability and human security. According to the report, artificial intelligence, quantum technology, and hypersonic weapons are all anticipated to weaken arms race stability. Importantly, the report also acknowledges how availability heuristics might bias probabilistic judgments. Simply put, if people have only read about emerging technologies as problematic, they’re more likely to view them as problematic.
While disagreement about emerging technology might continue to persist, thinking more critically about how we talk about emerging technology in the nuclear policy sphere can pave the way for an avenue of common understanding.
Availability heuristics, however, can go both ways. It’s also likely the technologically savvy proponents on the other end of the spectrum may be a little too quick to sing the praises of technology. All too often, should one speak positively of the effects emerging technology might have on nuclear weapons issues, optimistic conversations are labeled as “naïve.” A recent literature review surveying discussions on emerging technology and nuclear weapons notes that the term “disruptive” often accompanies “emerging” when speaking about technology, and negative connotations are an input of the analyst’s preconceived ideas on escalation rather than an output of actual technological assessment. The same review notes the literature is heavily skewed to conflict-based assessments of emerging technology rather than more positive peace-time applications.
Positive technological conversations are dismissed as having a techno-tunnel vision that only sees the dazzling projected promises and not the reality of potentially risky implications. In other words, proponents of emerging technology often get classified along a binary; either they put too much faith in the technology or do not understand enough about it. Either way, it’s presumed they have the propensity to mischaracterize.
As most polarizing discussions go to show, talking in isolated extremes does not bode well for nuance. Rather, there must be a middle ground in approaching the intersection of emerging technology and nuclear weapons. Despite their differences, both ends of the technology talk spectrum imply that it is not the technology itself that is inherently positive or negative, but rather, it is how the technology is designed and the underlying intentionality of its use that determines its effects. That is to say, both sides of the conversation discussing emerging technology’s impact on nuclear weapons issues are alike in the understanding that technology itself is not neutral. In making explicit their assumptions about the value ecosystem in which emerging technology will be deployed, common ground in how we talk about emerging technology and nuclear weapons can be reached.
To clarify, based on the above characterizations of the conversations happening at the intersection of emerging technology and nuclear weapons, it is clear that both sides are predominantly concerned with the effects or outcomes of technology rather than the mechanics of an explicit technology under consideration. This is not a new concept or tendency. In fact, it has been in discussion amongst technology philosophers for years. Specifically, most thinkers in the discipline reject the concept of “value-neutral technology.” Again, this boils down to the conclusion that technology is not innately neutral. Rather, the moral value of the technology (i.e., positive or negative) flows in the directionality of the value of the user, or, in our case, the discussant. In talking about the impact of emerging technologies on nuclear weapons issues then, both sides of the conversation are technically correct. The technology will either be risk or stability-inducing depending on the values of its deployer.
EMPLOYING A RISK AND BENEFIT LENS
When we discuss emerging technology and nuclear weapons issues, it is critical that those engaged in the conversation employ both a risk and benefit lens of analysis. Because technology is not neutral, the risks of technology cannot exist without the benefits of technology and vice versa. To obtain the benefits associated with emerging technology, you have to control the risk. In this sense, technology is also not zero-sum. So why should our conversations about it be? To more accurately and effectively analyze the relationship between emerging technology and nuclear weapons, scholars would do best to avoid “setting up camp” on one side or another, favoring a happy medium that considers both costs and rewards. (Even if the middle of the road is full of statements like “it depends…”, because, clearly, it does!)
Ultimately, then, neither side is right or wrong about the effects of the technology, but the tone of discussions about impact can nonetheless shape how technology is eventually developed and deployed. Instead of a false dichotomy between stabilizing and risky technological attribute assessments, a principle of responsible innovation should take center stage in our conversations. Instead of focusing on narrow potential applications and subsequent implications, responsible innovation takes into account the wider impacts of technology development, research, and innovation to ensure that negative and unintended impacts are accounted for throughout the entire technology lifecycle. To do this, responsible innovation lowers the barriers to positive technological dissemination and adoption, helping ensure the applications of the technology are for societal good rather than harm by infusing positive value into technology streams.
While disagreement about emerging technology might continue to persist, thinking more critically about how we talk about emerging technology in the nuclear policy sphere can pave the way for an avenue of common understanding. Dissecting the way in which each “side” of the emerging technology conversation approaches technology clearly shows there are more similarities than differences. Agreements can be reached, even if they’re just agreements about the way we think and talk about technology rather than the future of technology itself.
Jamie Withorne is a Research Affiliate with the Oslo Nuclear Project, and a graduate student in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Oslo, Norway.
This piece was written as part of an ongoing project with The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs’ #Youth4Disarmament #Leaders4Tomorrow program, a youth outreach initiative established in 2019 by the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs to connect geographically diverse young people with experts to learn about current international security challenges, the work of the UN, and how to actively participate.