(By Stephanie M. McPherson)
The UN was formed in 1945 to foster cooperation between governments, intending to “maintain international peace and security, give humanitarian assistance to those in need, protect human rights, and uphold international law.” In the intervening decades the mission hasn’t changed, but the world has.
2045 will mark the centennial of the United Nations. In preparing for that milestone, the UN will develop a suite of new goals that will guide governments toward equitable use of the technological advancements from the past 100 years.
What those specific goals should be is the subject of a new publication from the United Nations Centennial Initiative titled Remaking the World: Toward an Age of Global Enlightenment. The book’s 23 chapters outline how to harness the power of technology, artificial intelligence and big data to improve conditions for everyone the world over.
“This book is the first shot over the bow at thinking about what we want the world to be like in 2045,” says Alex “Sandy” Pentland, the Toshiba Professor at MIT, Director, MIT Connection Science and Human Dynamics lab and an author or co-author of four chapters. “Most discussions that you see about the future focus on zero carbon or microplastics or access to water. And those are extremely important, but they’re part of a larger picture. And the larger picture is really how are we going to govern ourselves to make these things possible?”
The United Nations Centennial Initiative was formed in 2019 as a joint endeavor between the United Nations Academic Impact and The Boston Global Forum. Both groups bring academic experts together with world leaders to discuss future governance, aiming to create the deepest possible pool of knowledge. Remaking the World outlines ideas from these thought leaders in everything from equitable data use to decision making via artificial intelligence.
Authors include Shinzo Abe, Ursula von der Leyen, Ban Ki-Moon, Michael Dukakis, Vint Cerf, and Ramu Damodaran, among others. The book opens with a social contract for the AI age, which acts as a set of guidelines for how governments can get the most out of artificial intelligence and other data-based technology while protecting their citizens. Section one further discusses use of technology in governance. Section two details research into how data can be used to improve the lives of and opportunities for people of any country.
Looking Back, Looking Ahead
This is not the first time the United Nations has created stated goals that align with specific milestones. The eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), laid out in 2001 to be achieved by 2015, spanned health, education, and social issues. In 2015, world leaders built on the progress made thanks to the MDGs and set 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be completed by 2030. The SDGs aim to create a better socioeconomic world while reducing the environmental impact of industrialization.
The MDGs were largely successful. Programs created to follow the MDG guidelines led to: the number of people living in extreme poverty falling from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 836 million in 2015; the decline of maternal mortality by 45 percent; the prevention of 6.2 million malaria deaths between 2000 and 2015. The ongoing SDGs have been dealt a blow by the Covid-19 pandemic and other global factors, but there are still nine years to go before a final assessment and many areas show promise.
The centennial goals must build on these preceding successes and incorporate the wild changes in technology and their resultant world impact over the last 20 years.
“We worry about fake news and foreign influences now, but that’s going to become dramatically more evolved than it is today,” says Pentland. “Institutions everywhere are becoming digital. Global warming, microplastics, power struggles, poverty—there are all these different problems out there and the current modes of international cooperation are inadequate.”
Take, for example, the Covid-19 pandemic. Modern data-driven information systems can track the spread and emergence of variants. Vaccine development is proceeding blisteringly fast. But the world is still suffering the effects of this rapidly evolving disease. “It’s not the technology that’s missing,” says Pentland. “It’s getting everybody on the same page and doing the same thing.”
Data for Good
Pentland has long studied how data can be used for good and for ill. “Our group at the Connection Science Initiative does work all over the world, primarily in helping people harvest digital resources for the community as opposed to for big commercial things,” says Pentland. “For instance, very early on in our study of how to use data we showed how you could track communicable diseases, because diseases go with people. If you know where people go, you know where diseases go.”
Pentland’s two solo-written chapters, Cycle of Prosperity: Ensuring Equal Opportunity and Our Digital Future: From the Internet to the Interledger, argue that the vast reams of data available on citizens online can be used to create a more equal, more prosperous world for all—if citizens are allowed to responsibly manage their data as though it were money or other capital.
“People think of data only as this thing that Facebook uses to target you,” says Pentland. “But if you’re going to have good governments, you have to have good data. My goal for the last many decades has been to get the good things while minimizing the bad things.”
Decades ago, Pentland’s lab was among the first to show the power of data. These collection methods and analysis techniques were built into the UN’s previous sets of goals to help sociologists and policy makers track where poverty was occurring and allow epidemiologists to see where disease was spreading. Now, Pentland hopes the centennial goals will harness the power of data to create specific, forward-looking solutions that will open doors to progress.
“How can we really make governments use all this data to be able to make things work?” asks Pentland.
Even if all the subjects discussed in Remaking the World aren’t explicitly covered in the eventual centennial goals, this book will at least start conversations and illuminate the major issues that need to be dissected.
“The world is a lot better than it was in the 30s and 40s,” says Pentland. “But it’s time to ask ‘what’s the next move?’ How can we cooperate globally to solve all the challenges—water, carbon, you name it. That’s what this book is about, and that’s why it’s important.”