CS74: High-level dialogue – Frontier technology innovation: policies to accelerate the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals

Delivered at 74th Session of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok, Thailand

Excellencies,
Distinguished delegates

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, defined by technological breakthroughs such as artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, the Internet of Things, FinTech, Big Data and quantum computing is going to change the way we work, live and do business.

Our challenge is to ensure these extraordinary technologies not only power economic growth, but also work for our societies, businesses and the environment, and help us achieve the 2030 Agenda.

Let me set out the main challenges and opportunities brought by the latest wave of tech innovation.

Challenges

By 2020, over half of total existing employment in the region could be automated. The nature of work will change rapidly. 65 per cent of today’s children will grow up to hold jobs that do not yet exist. This goes to the heart of the way we organise our economies.

Globally, the shortage of high-skilled workers could exceed 40 million by 2020, as technological change outpaces educational achievement. Meanwhile, education in ICT is struggling to keep abreast of the pace of change.

As the significance of frontier technologies increases, a digital divide remains. Presently, eighteen ESCAP countries have less than 2 per cent subscriptions to fixed-broadband services per 100 people; this unequal access will leave behind a large segment of population from enjoying the benefits of frontier technology. As the digital activity grows and feeds big data, it will shape the way policy and commercial decisions are made. If the digital divide remains, we run the risk of overlooking the needs of those who are not digitially engaged.

Frontier technologies also pose ethical issues. For instance, what rules should dictate the algorithms that decide how much we can borrow or what healthcare we receive? Balancing privacy and openness of data is a challenge. The data made available through the open and big data movements has combined with advancements in computing, machine learning and behavioural economics to fuel the growth of artificial intelligence. Data trust between governments, private sector and citizens is critical.

Opportunities

Despite these challenges, there are also great opportunities. Frontier technologies are central to long-term growth because they increase productivity. The main hubs of Asia and the Pacific are fast innovating and producing frontier technologies. China is the biggest robot market in the world and the Republic of Korea, Singapore and Japan are also big players. Technology and innovation are revolutionising production processes. The Internet of Things, not only increases overall productivity but also enables more intellingent, greener production and smarter cities and infrastructure. Embedding the internet of things into China’s manufacturing sector alone could add over $700 billion to China’s GDP by 2030.

Frontier technologies have the potential to make a major contribution to achieving the SDGs. With the right legislative frameworks, frontier technologies could support the delivery of essential healthcare, education and education services. They could help detect cancer, improve transport logistics to reduce carbon emissions, identify crop disease and deliver early warnings of natural disasters. Let me give you a few examples of work already underway.

In the Republic of Korea, the entire smart city of Songdo is built around the Internet of Things. Smart cities reduces traffic pollution; save energy and water and create a cleaner environment. Thailand has been implementing a Digital Economy and Society Development Plan. Bangladesh is implementing its Vision 2021 and Digital Bangladesh action plan to transform the country into a developing middle-income country by 2021. Malaysia, Philippines and Viet Nam have been implementing digital technologies.

Moreover, the value of data and information continues to grow and globally collected data is being made freely available to the public. The Indian Space Research Organisation’s geoportal now provides datasets for other countries in South Asia. Digital data is doubling in size every two years, and it is expected to reach 44 trillion gigabytes by 2020. Real-time data analysis, supported by machine learning, should increase the precision of policy responses.

The policy response

Governments in the region are leading globally on the policy response to frontier technologies. In 2017, China published a comprehensive artificial intelligence development policy with the overarching goal to make the country “the front-runner and global innovation centre in AI” by 2030; the Republic of Korea has developed the world’s first robot tax; Japan has proposed establishing an international set of basic rules for developing artificial intelligence, and devised “Japan’s Robot Strategy” recognizing the need for robot regulatory reform; and the Government of Singapore now offers adults personal accounts which they can use to buy training, and tax incentives to encourage firms to invest more in their lower paid workers. These are just some of the policies that have been put in place to maximize the positive, while minimizing the negative, impacts of frontier technologies.

Conclusion

Bridging the digital divide is an urgent development challenge for ESCAP countries with special needs. Promoting regional cooperation to enhance broadband connectivity through initiatives such as the Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway (AP-IS) should be a priority for investment and policy interventions.

ESCAP has focused on research and analysis, capacity-building and fostering regional knowledge-sharing on frontier technologies. Reports have been published on artificial intelligence, digital and virtual currency, and big data. Through ESCAP’s Regional Space Applications Programme for Sustainable Development (RESAP), and related Regional Drought Mechanism, ESCAP provides a regional cooperative platform that facilitates low-capacity countries that do not have their own space technology infrastructure to enhance their institutional capacities in space applications. Since 2017, ESCAP provided around 220 satellite imagery and tailored tools and products to its member States for early warning, response and damage assessment of earthquakes, floods, drought, typhoons/cyclones and landslides.

Gathered here are some experts in this field from the public and private sectors, and academia. I look forward to hearing their view on all these areas.