Comment: Now is the time to shape our tech future

As government struggles to keep up with the pace of change, more long-term vision is needed so we can avail of the opportunities and deal with the challenges of the technological revolution

While science and technology hurtles forward, government and public policy globally, for the most part, struggles to keep up

While we continue to face this pandemic, there is also the positive news that each day of this global challenge, about 350,000 babies on average are born all around the world.

One of those is my new niece. Like every baby born, she is beautiful. In the first few years of her life, a vaccine will be found for Covid-19 and she will only know about the virus through family stories and reading about it as part of history.

She will receive part of her education through augmented reality headsets and online technology that will allow her to tap into the best learning resources and educators internationally.

In her late teens, she will observe humans landing on Mars. Autonomous vehicles will transport her to meet friends, and she will pay for things, which artificial intelligence and sensors will have determined she wants or needs, using a blockchain-enabled currency.

She is likely to live in a 3D-printed house which will be made of sustainable materials and use renewable energy sources. She will have a one-in-three chance of living beyond the age of 100, and with advances in genetic medicine, biotechnology and bionics, she may not have to face many of the illnesses and diseases that we deal with today.

With the convergence of new technologies and the exponential rate of change, none of this should surprise. Look at how far we have already progressed on the futuristic predictions of 2002 film Minority Report – it is actually worth watching again for that alone.

These developments, while they can unleash human potential in positive ways, also carry risks – to security, to privacy and to democracy. While science and technology hurtle forward, government and public policy globally, for the most part, struggles to keep up.

There has been limited debate on how we will fund public services in the digital future. The “modern” income tax model, dating back two centuries, was designed originally for the funding of wars, but it is increasingly challenged in an era of the gig economy and in a global environment where income can be earned in multiple jurisdictions and those with the knowledge and connections can shift their wealth to avoid contributing.

Commercial rates as a model for funding local government is an even more archaic idea. The size of your shop floor determines how much you must pay to your local council, so immediately puts the main street trader at a commercial disadvantage to their online competitor.

While the OECD, EU and others battle to address this (and some countries take unilateral action), there is no emerging global consensus on how to pay for what we need as a society as part of a future social contract.

Those in Ireland who obsess about the 12.5 per cent corporation tax rate are looking at the wrong priority: the battle this century is for talent, and for Ireland that includes reviewing our visa system to make it easier to bring in talent from outside the EU.

Our parliamentary model is from the 19th century. The fact that we don’t have virtual sittings of the Oireachtas to hold government to account is deeply conservative, especially when one considers that the courts themselves now conduct virtual sittings.

Public services could be transformed by blockchain – everything from education credentials to land registration to citizen identity. A number of companies globally are currently working on a blockchain-secured Covid-19 immunity passport. Malta has developed a detailed blockchain regulatory framework but there is little real engagement by Irish authorities.

How can we also use artificial intelligence and machine learning in innovative ways to improve interaction between authorities and citizens?

The debate around how we deal with online abuse has been limited. The sharing economy, involving companies such as Airbnb and Uber, is disruptive and we are not certain how to regulate this model. We are now also only looking at serious investment in remote working because of the current crisis.

Supporting organisations in developing remote working will assist in sustaining rural communities as well as reducing carbon emissions thanks to fewer people commuting.

Part of the problem is that many in the public sector and in political life don’t understand the technology nor appreciate how quickly it is going to disrupt all that we do. If we look at the public discussion, including some politicians’ utterances around 5G telecoms technology for instance, it has sometimes been about unproven and scaremongering health concerns with very little real consideration of the genuinely vital issues of security and ownership.

Our political system does not encourage long-term thinking (generally focusing on electoral cycles) but in the context of the formation of a new government and how we need to rebuild as a society and as an economy post Covid-19, there is an opportunity to reshape the focus as well as the architecture of government so that we can avail of the opportunities and deal with the challenges of the technological revolution.

A new government department, focused on higher and further education, research and technology, would give focus to this agenda, with an emphasis on reskilling and upskilling, as well as preparing citizens and business for change. But a whole of government approach will be needed as everything from content creation in the arts to improvements in food quality in agriculture will result from developing technologies.

We need to look at how we can encourage home-grown innovation. Make it attractive for employees to take shares in the companies that they are helping build. We need to attract international venture capital to Ireland, continuing to promote ourselves as the bridge into the EU but also as a global honest broker in the digital space. We must do more in schools to promote careers in technology. We must choose to invest in blue-sky research and not focus primarily on applied research.

In our planning, while there rightly will be a greater emphasis on sustainability, we also need to imagine how technology will shape the cities, towns and rural communities of our future. Every government department and local authority should have access to a futurologist who can inform and challenge plans on the basis of predicted technological change. The management of big data and how we can securely use it to help plan where and how we live is a public debate that government needs to lead.

There is an also an obligation on those in technology and research to explain what is happening, to communicate the benefits to society and to help equip political and public service leaders in regulating and encouraging technological progress. The risk for those in technology of not helping develop the regulatory environment in which they operate is that it will be shaped for them and that may not make operations flow smoothly.

The world my niece will inherit and shape requires positive vision on all our parts now to ensure that technology makes life better, safer and fairer for her and the millions of others born globally during these difficult times. Government and policy makers, working with those in tech, have to plan now.

Malcolm Byrne is a Wexford-based Fianna Fáil senator.