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Should governments move as fast as the pace of technology innovation?

Over the last two weeks, the technology sector has seen some major gatherings of the tech sector. This includes, among many others, the Web Summit in Dublin, Ireland, and the Techonomy conference in Half Moon Bay, California, USA. At both events, global technology leaders and commentators came together to discuss the impact of technology, the internet, and the plethora of new tech startups on addressing the challenges of the modern world.  Indeed technology is now changing almost every process in almost every aspect of our lives, but it seems that the technology industry feels governments are too slow to understand and react to the impact and pace of this technology innovation.

On the one hand, we’ve seen that technology has become ubiquitous and is changing the world, but as one panel comprising Jack Dorsey, Genevieve Bell, Nandan Nilekani, and David Miliband debated at the Technonomy conference, is it helping us build a better world? Mobile connectivity, social media, big data, are all empowering us but for what?

If anything, the best example of technology building a better world is the Aadhaar identity project in India, which has issued 700 million unique identification numbers so far in the country. Aadhaar facilitates ‘anytime, anywhere’ online authentication of a resident through universal verification of a person’s identity based on the demographic and biometric information of an individual, thereby eliminating any chances of duplication or fraud.

Aadhaar not only provides universal mobility of identity to every resident, but also assists in things like online booking of tickets and in applying for a passport. It is also a proof of identity and a proof of address for opening a bank account, as it meets the criteria of the Reserve Bank of India. It proves one’s digital identity beyond doubts and uniquely enables an individual to open a bank account instantly, in a paperless manner. Aadhaar is now the world’s largest biometric database.

The Techonomy panel reached consensus in that technology is only as good as the hands of the people it is in. It can’t act alone in addressing bigger issues such as bringing equality and peace – and technology is only a tool which needs to be put to use in the right way by people who have the will or the desire to bring peace or equality.

On the other hand, leading tech writer and author, David Kirkpatrick posed the question: “Can Government get a better grip on tech?” According to his article, the pace of innovation is accelerating and outstripping the ability of governments to react. He says that worries are growing across the tech industry, especially with technology’s influence spreading into virtually every sector of society and every process of business and human interaction. He suggests that few in the industry are confident government will respond to the changes with sufficient speed and understanding.

Tech-oriented companies are disrupting the traditional business models in all sorts of industries: transportation, financial services, energy, education, and healthcare. And they are creating innovations like digital currency Bitcoin, new online systems to exploit citizen’s personal data, self-driving cars, drones, increasing deployment of sensors and cameras controlled by business and individuals; and making rapid advances in biotechnology and biosciences. All these developments pose challenges to existing regulatory regimes, which were designed in a different era.

On top of this change, he says governments also face increasing pressure from ordinary citizens, empowered by the tools made available by technologists, potentially disempowering regulators and legislators. Kirkpatrick cites the example of a young citizen in Beijing, concerned about pollution, who began in 2012 to regularly fly a kite carrying an inexpensive data sensor to measure airborne particulate levels. She posted her readings on a social media site. The U.S. embassy also began publishing online similar readings taken on its roof. This resulted in the Chinese government finally publishing its own previously secret pollution data.

This is an example of technology and social media platforms facilitating a change in government transparency. While this might be beneficial, there is also a flip side – according to Kirkpatrick’s article, it would be undesirable to live in a society where government could typically get ahead of change, as it could mean it is only possible to use things if the government says you can.

The latter point raises the question as to whether we would want governments to adapt as fast as the pace of technology innovation. Yes there is a case that there need to be more people in government with technology backgrounds to understand the impact of technology on society, and how it can help shape a better society. But they also need to consider the implications of any policy changes so that they can adapt rules and regulations in a measured way rather than through simply reacting just to satisfy or accommodate the technology or company that is in favor at the time.  In other words, they need to consider the long term societal impact rather than short term political gain. Technology is after all just a tool to facilitate change.

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