Researchers from around the world have embarked on an effort to try to build a system allowing humanity to anticipate violent conflicts before they erupt – and thus potentially prevent them.
They will examine dramatic advances in artificial intelligence and how the decisions taken by the world’s leaders could be swayed at a time when war in Ukraine has reshaped reality for tens of millions of people.
“We are living in a crisis society… and different kinds of non-desirable futures exist,” Sirkka Heinonen, a professor of future studies at Finland’s Turku University, told AFP.
Heinonen was among some 30 researchers from around the world who gathered in Geneva earlier this month for a first round of discussions focused on “Anticipating the Future of Peace and War”.
“When we explore them (future crises), we have to find solutions to prevent them from happening. And for preferred futures, we must decide what are the steps and measures to make them happen.”
Looking decades ahead
The project is backed by the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator Foundation (GESDA), the Geneva Center for Security Policy (GCSP), and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).
The initial workshop, held behind closed doors, focused essentially on identifying ways that this kind of anticipation could happen.
Further workshops to be held in New York and Geneva later this year could zero in more on specific developments with the potential to dramatically change the course of human history.
While the topic may appear timely as the biggest war since World War II rages in Europe, workshop participants stressed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was not necessarily their main focus.
Instead, the ambition was to create a system for anticipating events years and even decades in advance – and then advise decision-makers on how to move towards better long-term outcomes.
“This project was not triggered by the war in Ukraine. It is something more structural,” said former UN under-secretary-general for peacekeeping Jean-Marie Guehenno, currently the head of SIPA’s Kent leadership program on conflict resolution.
“It is important to focus the attention on things that citizens are not yet thinking about,” he told AFP after the workshop.
At a time of rapid and radical changes that are often complex and interconnected, anticipating developments months let alone years in advance is a towering challenge.
Experts point among other things to the swelling concentration of power among companies that manage our data and decisions that could be taken to regulate them.
They also highlight a myriad of possibilities and risks linked to swiftly developing artificial intelligence, including the emergence of killer robots and possibly AI sentience.
“There are several alternative futures, with a huge number of drivers affecting them,” Heinonen said, adding “there is urgency to anticipate”.
With AI, she warned for instance that if we wait much longer to set the ethical requirements, premises, and regulations to steer it in the right direction, “it will be too late”.
Alexandre Fasel, Switzerland’s ambassador for scientific diplomacy, also highlighted the speed with which artificial intelligence has evolved in just the few months since ChatGPT exploded onto the scene, prompting calls for a moratorium while its implications are considered.
Such calls are “living proof that we need an instrument” for anticipation, he told AFP, warning that “ChatGPT is small potatoes compared to what is coming”.
Guehenno suggested that if a similar exercise in anticipation had been conducted 20 years ago, “maybe we would not have been so surprised by the impact of Facebook today, because political leaders would have been able to see the disruptive potential”.
To understand what developments might lie ahead, it is vital to identify shifting power structures, he said, pointing out that big data companies like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon have now acquired more power than many states.
“The question of governance of this new center of power, which is the management of data, is at the very beginning,” he said.
To understand the difficulty of anticipating developments 25 years in the future, Fasel meanwhile suggested thinking 25 years back.
In April 1998, Fasel pointed out, “Putin was not in power. We did not even know his name. There was no smartphone.
“That gives you the sense of the challenge we have.”