Controlling the Genie of Emerging Technologies

Six steps to mitigate risks created by innovation

Innovation is vital to progress. Advances in science, and the new technologies flowing from them, have propelled economic and societal development throughout history. Emerging technologies that are visible today have the potential to further increase global prosperity and tackle major global challenges.

However, innovation also creates new risks. Understanding the hazards that can stem from new technologies is critical to avoiding potentially catastrophic consequences. The recent wave of cyber-attacks exemplify how new technologies can be exploited for malicious ends and create new threats to global safety. Risk governance needs to keep pace with advances in scientific innovation.


John Drzik, President of Global Risks & Specialties at Marsh, discusses what risks are being created by innovations.

Error or terror

What is the “next cyber”?  Synthetic biology and artificial intelligence are two examples of emerging technologies with the capacity to deliver enormous benefits but which also present significant challenges to government, industry and society at large.

Take synthetic biology: creating new organisms from DNA building blocks offers the potential to fight infectious disease, treat neurological disorders, alleviate food security and create biofuels. The flipside is that the genetic manipulation of organisms could also create significant harm, through error or terror. The accidental leakage of dangerous synthetized organisms, perhaps in the form of deadly viruses or plant mutations, could create massive damage. Bio-terrorism threats could emerge from organized groups or lone individuals in the growing “biohacker” community who access synthetic biology inventions online.

Six steps to take

So what is the way forward? Realising the potential benefits from emerging technologies requires a willingness to accept risk, but we also need to manage this risk to avert disasters that might have been avoidable. Governance and control frameworks need to be reinvigorated and accountability needs to be clearer. I recommend six actions:

  1. More energetic dialogue around risk governance priorities between stakeholders – this includes innovators, industry more broadly, civil society, governments and regulators.
  2. Increasing funding and priority for research related to risk governance.
  3. Broadening disclosure standards to allow deeper risk assessment – we need to find the right balance between confidentiality and transparency, but intellectual property rights should not be used to restrict access to information needed for effective risk regulation.
  4. Filling gaps in national regulation in the areas that present the greatest risk, and changing regulatory design to be more adaptable to new developments.
  5. Strengthening discussions within international governance bodies to reach beyond principles to more binding protocols.
  6. Promoting a culture of responsibility around innovation – to encourage more self-policing among innovators, and de-glamorize hackers.

Innovation must be encouraged, but in parallel we need to set a course for rigorous risk governance of emerging technologies. It is much better to confront difficult issues now than endure an incident with disastrous consequences later. As we know all too well, history is littered with risk mitigation measures that proved ineffective because they were put in place too late.

Global Risks Landscape 2015

The potential impact and likelihood of global risks over the next 10 years

Controlling the Genie of Emerging Technologies