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Opinion

Time for global cooperation on governing digital technology

UN can contribute to bringing together stakeholders and charting way forward

Digital opportunities must reach all, for the benefit of all.   © Imaginechina/AP

The digital economy will figure prominently on the agenda of the upcoming Group of 20 summit in Osaka.

New technologies offer monumental opportunities to turbocharge the work of the United Nations for peace, sustainable development and human rights. Scientific progress is helping to cure deadly diseases, feed growing populations, drive economic growth and connect businesses, communities, families and friends across the world like never before.

Rapidly-developing fields such as artificial intelligence, blockchain and biotechnology hold great potential to improve well-being and generate innovative solutions for global challenges.

The pace of change is remarkable. New technologies are leaping from the lab to global use at an unprecedented pace. More than 90% of all the data that exists today was produced in the last two years. As a tech leader said to me recently, even though the field already advances at lightning speed, future developments will never again be as slow as they are today.

We must make full use of these lifesaving and life-enhancing capacities. As the world strives to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals -- the internationally agreed blueprint for building a better world for all -- digital technologies can be especially helpful in those areas where the world is most lagging behind.

We must pursue inclusive approaches that bring together all stakeholders. And we must take serious steps to promote the meaningful participation of women and to train young girls in science, technology, engineering and math.

While many of us struggle to recall how we lived without the internet, a gaping digital divide remains. For more than half the world's population, access is expensive, slow or simply nonexistent. This divide is exacerbating inequalities in other key areas such as education, health and wealth. Digital opportunities must reach all, for the benefit of all.

We must also recognize the threats posed by new technologies. Weapons systems that can identify and kill on their own are closer to becoming a reality -- a morally repugnant development. Social media is being used to spread hatred and lies. Technology is being exploited by terrorists, and organized criminal networks lurk on the dark web, profiting from encryption and near-anonymous cryptocurrency payments to traffic in people and illegal drugs.

An Indian family mourns the death of relatives who were killed in a mob attack fueled by social media messages in July 2018.   © Hindustan Times/Getty Images

While innovation continues to open up new fields of employment, many workers fear their jobs will fall victim to automation, underscoring the need for large-scale retraining, expanded social protection schemes and education from the earliest grades that emphasizes lifelong learning.

We can and must do more to ensure that digital technologies are a force for good. That is why I established a High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation, which has just issued its report. Led by Melinda Gates of the Gates Foundation and Jack Ma of Alibaba, the panel brought together diverse experts who consulted globally, debated vigorously and examined a wide spectrum of challenges, and put forward detailed recommendations for eliciting the best of new technologies.

The panel has recommended ways to close the digital divide, increase cooperation, and better govern digital technology development through open, agile, and multi-stakeholder models. Classical forms of governance do not apply. Technology moves so fast that by the time decision makers gather to prepare, discuss, approve, ratify and implement a convention or new agreement, the landscape has changed entirely. Analogue policymaking won't work in a digital world.

I welcome the High-Level Panel's recognition of the United Nations as a uniquely legitimate and dynamic platform where governments, civil society, academia, the scientific community and the tech industry itself can come together to discuss the way forward. Beyond the UN's convening power, our standard-setting, capacity-building and data-gathering efforts are also well-placed to contribute. I will devise a road map for the UN role, and host any discussions that stakeholders would find useful.

That conversation cannot wait. The age of digital interdependence deepens with each livestream, online transaction and pathbreaking platform. As with other quintessential global phenomena -- trade, communications, climate change and human mobility -- international cooperation can be the difference between progress and chaos. We need to move now to build trust, stay ahead of emerging issues and shape a peaceful, prosperous and positive digital future for all.

  © AP

Antonio Guterres is the United Nations secretary-general.

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