2020 marks the 75th Anniversary of the founding of the United Nations.  To commemorate this milestone, United Nations Academic Impact has asked academics, educators and leading figures in the fields of science, technology and innovation to share their views on the multilateral experiment born of war to foster peace, what they see as the role of the organization in the 21st Century and beyond, and what the world might look like in 25 years when the UN celebrates its 100th anniversary. UNAI will be running this series throughout the year and invite you to engage in the global conversation using #UN75 and #ShapingTheFuture.

This article was contributed by Alex Pentland, director of MIT Connection Science, an MIT-wide initiative, and previously helped create and direct the MIT Media Lab and the Media Lab Asia in India. He is one of the most-cited  computational scientists in the world, and Forbes recently declared him one of the 7 most powerful data scientists in the world along with Google founders and the Chief Technical Officer of the United States.  He is on the Board of the UN Foundations' Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, co-led the World Economic Forum discussion in Davos that led to the EU privacy regulation GDPR, and was central in forging the transparency and accountability mechanisms in the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.  He has received numerous awards and prizes such as the McKinsey Award from Harvard Business Review, the 40th Anniversary of the Internet from DARPA, and the Brandeis Award for work in privacy.

People around the world are realizing that AI-driven capitalism requires crafting a new sort of social contract, and the balance must be restored by constructing institutions and laws that control rights, ownership, and use.  This new social contract will require new solutions for managing civic and government systems, for digital privacy and cybersecurity, and for providing more agile, inclusive, and transparent responses to societies’ problems and for funding of supporting infrastructure.  

One idea for what this new social contract might look like is summarized by the phrase “stakeholder capitalism”, that is, capitalism that benefits everyone. Unfortunately, it has not been clear how stakeholder capitalism can support an inclusive, fair social contract. At MIT Connection Science we and our partner nations are exploring the realization that the same technologies that are causing social unrest may also permit creation of new types of civic systems where power is distributed among the stakeholders rather than concentrated in just a few hands.

From these explorations a path to the sort of stakeholder capitalism that could support a viable new social contract is becoming clear. Capitalism that benefits everyone cannot measure itself by money alone, but instead must encompass all aspects of human life, using metrics such as those developed to quantify the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Perhaps the greatest achievement of the SDGs that sustainability, as well as access to opportunity, education, and health now have quantitative metrics, agreed to by every nation on earth, that can be used to guide both enterprises and nations to a more sustainable, inclusive, fair, and lower risk future.

This new stakeholder capitalism, where capitalist performance is measured by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is enabled by the fact that technologies like AI, blockchain, and IoT are lowering the cost of measurement and coordination to the point where traditional centralized, hierarchical organizations are no longer required even for large-scale projects or production.  As a consequence, people are beginning to create substantial organizations that are far more distributed and flexible, and which can operate adjacent to existing capital markets, labor pools and legal frameworks. 


Many of the most contentious elements of a social contract concern ownership rights and the means of production, specifically Capital, Labor, and Property. To this list of production and ownership rights we must now add Data rights and realize that questions about the force and effect of AI are determined by how we control flows of data.  Thus, to regulate AI or any of the new information technologies, one must first and foremost specify data rights, regulations, and systems. This will then allow fine-grain, distributed management of all other aspects of our social contract, as illustrated by the following examples.

Capital: new ways spreading opportunity

They say that money makes the world go ‘round, but in reality, there are a lot of wobbles.   Can we make our financial systems more transparent and less winner-take-all?   To make make progress on this goal we have formed the Prosperity Collaborative, a commitment by organizations such as EY and New America to renovate developing nations tax and social payments systems by using free, open-source software, with training and deployment paid by organizations such as the World Bank.  

MIT Connection Science is also helping multinational organizations help improve the health of the financial ecosystem. Two examples from our sponsors are Mastercard announcing ThreatScan, a system to protect small businesses around the world from cyberattack, and ORS announcing an open-source AI system to help small business and cities make tourism more sustainable and inclusive.

Philanthropy is changing as well. Currently today only 2% of giving has both impact plan and impact monitoring. Guiding philanthropy using quantitative impact assessment as measured by SDGs will transform philanthropy from a feel-good cottage industry into a serious force for good.

Labor: new types of engagement

The robot overlords are coming!   Everyone is worried about how AI will transform work and society.  Key to meeting this challenge is for companies to stop working on AI that replaces people and start working on AI that enhances human intelligence. This move to human-centered AI, commonly referred to as “Extended Intelligence”, is being adopted by many of the largest companies. 

At our Davos 2020 event we heard from CEOs of a dozen of the largest companies…including TCS, BT, Mastercard, and more…who are committing to changing from AI to EI.  We also highlighted international initiatives aimed at replacing AI with Extended Intelligence. Most striking was the IEEE’s creation of Extended Intelligence standards (the IEEE is the world’s largest professional organization, and home to virtually every AI, Blockchain, and IoT researcher and professional), and the ELLIS network in the EU, a grassroots effort by AI researchers to replace old-style AI with human centered extended intelligence.

Finally, we heard from the leaders of many international companies such as Verizon, Tata, Cisco, BT and others that they were helping this transformation by establishing apprenticeship programs, providing real-world experience and life-long learning for their communities. Aiding this transformation is MIT Connection Science’s development of a new science of learning that can determine what skills and training will make companies and cities not only resilient but bloom in this new AI-enabled world.

Property: new infrastructure, more inclusive trade

The new distributed, technology-enabled organizations we are developing are particularly attractive outside of the developed world, where existing institutions are weak, and in poorly served neighborhoods inside of wealthy nations. For instance, one of our partners developed an investment platform that crowdsourced of an almost billion-dollar hydroelectric project in Pakistan, built with only minimal government participation. 

The rise of these new distributed finance and management systems appears to be the beginning of a great experiment in creating widely distributed infrastructure. Such infrastructure can be supported by broadly distributed funding mechanisms enabled by variants of our Tradecoin architecture, funding that is largely independent of large nations, large banks and the wealthy western world.

Success of these new types of ventures are causing many countries and companies to focus on the trade routes linking the EU, Africa, South Asia, and China. This is a heartening development, because trade between EU, Asia, Africa and India will determine the future of half of the world’s population and will make or break the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, including goals for climate change.

Data: enabling citizen power

If data is the “new oil”, then what about citizen rights over this new resource?  People are worried about surveillance capitalism, and the concentration of data in the hands of just a few companies. The core problem is that data is now as important as property, money, or labor, but our social contract is silent on how data rights should flow within our society.   Moreover, despite impassioned calls from advocates of every stripe, the outlines of a fair, healthy framework for data rights and data use are not yet completely clear, if only because the availability and use of data is changing so quickly.

This suggests achieving consensus about data rights and data use will require a process similar to the process that established rights for labor, capital, and property: collective bargaining by citizens to reach satisfactory trade-offs with both government and companies. The idea of data cooperatives, giving citizens and employees the data and AI tools to demand fair treatment from both government and companies, is similar to how Labor unions of early 1900’s established rules for labor.

At MIT Connection Science we are developing digital platforms tools for data cooperatives, ranging from Open Music…a platform that uses AI, blockchain, and IoT to enable digital artists to come together and revive the entertainment industry…to data platforms for use by international consumer unions and associations of labor unions.

Summary: Toward a New Social Contract

Balancing these and other elements of a new social contract will be the job of law. However current practice of law is proving unable to cope with our rapidly changing world and is increasingly unable to ensure access to justice. To keep up with this rapid pace of change, the practice and application of law is becoming computerized, in ways ranging from filling out forms to tax computation to trial discovery.  

However, the migration of today’s legal algorithms to computer platforms risks displacing human judgement and sensibility. Consequently, we must think carefully about how computation interacts with the processes of law and regulation. This rethinking of how to manage the computerization of law is the focus of an alliance of Law schools with MIT Connection Science,  as seen in MIT’s new Computational Law Report.  

The goal of this Law alliance, and of MIT Connection Science’s work more broadly, is to carefully leverage computational tools to develop more transparent, accountable, and inclusive legal, civil, and government processes. It is through this digital transformation that people everywhere will get the benefits of a true stakeholder capitalism, based on a reinvigorated social contract, together with the sort access to justice that only the wealthy enjoy today. We welcome your participation in this vitally important journey.

To join the conversation on UN75 and learn more about the United Nations’ Charter and history, check out these resources: