New York

23 March 2018

Remarks to Turtle Bay Security Roundtable: Managing the Frontiers of Technology

António Guterres

I thank Ambassador Bessho and the Permanent Mission of Japan for inviting me today and for hosting this gathering of experts on an important and fast-moving set of issues.

We live in an era of unprecedented technological advances – one that many are calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution, with tectonic social and economic shifts. These have implications for all aspects of modern life, including how we work and the overall security environment.  It is clear that what we once considered frontier issues have moved rapidly to the front door.

The advances of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, including those brought on by a combination of computing power, robotics, big data and artificial intelligence, are generating revolutions in healthcare, transport and manufacturing. I am convinced that these new capacities can help us to lift millions of people out of poverty, achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and enable developing countries to leapfrog into a better future.

New technologies could also enhance the maintenance of peace and security, including disarmament and non-proliferation objectives, by providing new tools and augmenting existing ones. 

For example, the use of shared ledger technology such as Blockchain in nuclear safeguards, or machine learning in multilateral disarmament verification – as the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization is pioneering.

The United Nations itself has been using unarmed, uninhabited aerial vehicles in our peacekeeping operations, helping to improve our situational awareness and to strengthen our ability to protect civilians.

There is wide scope to use these and other innovations to build our defenses against vulnerabilities in our collective security.

However, together with these clear benefits, there are also clear risks.

Advances in technology are giving rise very quickly to new methods and means of warfare, with potentially undesirable or unclear consequences.

Already, enabling technologies – such as information communication technologies, artificial intelligence and 3D printing – can be used for military purposes. Innovations intended for civilian applications, such as synthetic biology or facial recognition software, can be repurposed for harmful outcomes. 

Of course, some technologies have purely military applications, such as precision-guided long-range weapons, including so-called “hypersonic” weapons.

But in the long-term, deployment of new means and methods of warfare could potentially allow armed conflict to be waged from greater distances, at faster speeds and with enhanced destructive power. Such developments, that we are already witnessing to a certain extent, have unexamined consequences relating to, for example, escalation control and attribution.

These new technologies pose unforeseen challenges to regional and global stability.

The ‘democratization’ of many of these technologies also means that non-state actors, including terrorist groups, could acquire them.

The links between emerging technology and weapons of mass destruction also poses challenges.

For example, cyberattacks against nuclear command and control facilities could increase the possibility of accidents or miscalculation.

Such developments would be worrying even in the most benign security environment, but today, we live in a climate characterized by fragmentation and an absence of confidence, namely among the big powers, that we can witness every day in the Security Council. There is a danger that military solutions could take precedence over dialogue and diplomacy.

Military spending continues to rise while tens of thousands of civilians die in armed conflict. The threat posed by nuclear weapons is at a height not seen since the end of the Cold War, and tensions are running high and heated rhetoric is common.

In this environment, extra care must be taken to avoid actions that could heighten tensions, increase the prospect of misunderstanding or precipitate dangerous outcomes such as arms races.

In the broadest sense, our challenge is to maximize the benefits of the technological revolution while mitigating and preventing the dangers.

And specifically on disarmament, the key question is this: how do we use these innovations to make progress on disarmament without losing control of these technologies and fuelling an arms race and conflict?

The innovations we are talking about are at various stages of maturity.

Some are already having an impact on international peace and security.  Others remain on the drawing board.

Likewise, any response should also be layered.

There is a spectrum of possible responses.

One option could be industry self-regulation, such as codes of conduct, to promote responsible innovation.

Another is the robust implementation of national measures such as legal weapons reviews pursuant to Article 36 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions.

A further possibility could be formal confidence-building measures such as political declarations on the use of weapons.

And if necessary, international legally binding instruments might be part of the picture.

A first step we can all take is a holistic attempt to improve global awareness and understanding of the implications of these inter-linked technological advances on international peace and security. After all, the long-term ramifications of much of this technology will affect everyone.

The United Nations, as it was said, stands ready to assist however we can, but leadership on ideas and implementation must naturally come from the membership.

Many of these issues are already being taken up in UN forums – including in the disarmament machinery.

The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which deals with lethal autonomous weapons systems, is a good example of the kind of multi-stakeholder dialogue that can be convened within the UN architecture.

More broadly, with its mandate to discuss questions of international security and disarmament, the First Committee of the General Assembly is a natural home for multilateral discussions on these issues.

While the First Committee has the mandate to discuss them, it would be important to involve other stakeholders. After all, civilian industry is responsible for the development of much of these technological gains.  Such stakeholders should be connected with governments to build understanding about mutual concerns. Similarly, the voices of civil society and academics working on these issues should also be taken into account.

In Geneva last month, I announced my intention to launch a new initiative aimed at giving greater impetus and direction to the global disarmament agenda. That initiative will include consideration of the risks and challenges posed by the weapons of the future. Some consultations with member States have already taken place, and will continue.

I have also been asked by the General Assembly to prepare a report on developments in science and technology and their potential impact on international security and disarmament. As requested, I have sought the views of Member States in preparing this report, and it will be issued for consideration at the 73rd session of the Assembly.

Finally, I am working with colleagues throughout the entire UN system to determine how our organization can better harness the benefits and address the risks of new technologies, and how the United Nations itself can make better use of innovation. And I must tell you that there is still a long way to go in this regard.

Throughout history, science and technology have overwhelmingly been forces for good. In view of the nature of the technologies we are looking at today, let us together consider what should constitute responsible state behavior and responsible innovation.  Let us take care that these technologies bolster, not weaken, our collective security.

In this effort, I look forward to working with you all and with all those that must contribute to our collective security in the difficult times we are facing.

Thank you very much.