Students & Campus
26 October 2021

On the Confluence of Science and Diplomacy

Keshav Khanna (pictured right) is a student in the Master in International Affairs programme. He was invited to participate in the 2021 Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA) summit as a student rapporteur and speaker during the closing plenary.

His interaction with the summit this year helped him understand emerging challenges at the intersection of science and diplomacy. It also highlighted new challenges, like the importance of including the youth in other summits like these and reforming our international institutions of governance for the future. 

How to deal with the challenges posed by scientific advancement: to regulate or not to regulate?

This is a question that has long eluded policymakers.

Recent hearings in the U.S. Congress with Facebook and other tech companies have shown that, left untouched, science has the potential to radically alter our societies. It can change how we work, how we interact, and the very idea of what the truth is. It can affect our faith in institutions of governance and the media.

Even fundamental advances in science, like the internal combustion engine, can, over time, drastically alter our climate.

There is a pressing need to anticipate challenges that advances in science will pose in the future and present viable solutions to them now.

What will happen when advanced artificial intelligence accurately simulates human thought and expression? Or when gene-editing and human augmentation entrenches this idea in global elites that further enhancement of their capabilities is possible?  

The Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA) summit this year attempted to tackle some of these challenges by bringing together stakeholders in both science and diplomacy, with sessions that looked at quantum computing, gene-editing and advanced AI among others.
Its goal was to anticipate, accelerate and translate these advances for the benefit of the many.

As a student of International Affairs, it was fascinating to see the breaking of disciplinary silos into a melting pot of fresh ideas and multistakeholderism.

Over the summit's three days, I had the pleasure of interacting with exemplary scientists, a few of whom were fabricating organs from scratch to test drugs on them. I had the honour of meeting academics who patiently answered my questions on autonomous weapons. I also got to speak with diplomats who expressed their frustrations with (the lack of) international consensus on issues of any importance. 

It reiterated in my mind the importance of inviting more students and young researchers to summits of this nature. After all, the problems that were discussed here will be our inheritance.

But the summit also raised a more fundamental question in my mind. We study that politicians have a vested interest in appeasing their electorates and doing as the electorate demands of them. So how do you get an electorate to care about issues of the future? How do you convince them to not only anticipate the challenges that will be faced by some temporally distant being but to also fix their present actions accordingly? It seems like a major challenge, to put it mildly.

The failure of the consensus over climate change is an example of this, where despite decades of warnings, the action was scant, and the incentives, skewed. 

The perils of multistakeholderism also persisted as a double-edged sword.

Technology is no longer emerging just from university campuses in the Global North. The rise of new global powers is resulting in a contest in scientific advancement for national prestige.

Therefore, accommodating these varieties of stakeholders, individual innovators, private sector companies, governments, international organisations, is going to be an uphill task, especially since some actors have no desire to participate in the process of regulation, while others have no means of representation in them.

Speakers at GESDA emphasised the importance of fostering and nurturing inclusivity, especially in the co-creation phase of new technology. Yet, a lot needs to be done to ensure the kind of equity that will allow for a fairer advancement in science. 

Regardless, the importance of anticipatory summits like GESDA cannot be understated to answer some of the more future-facing challenges we face as a species. Especially for those future diplomats and researchers who intend to take a scientific approach to policymaking.

The summit concluded with a pleasant session on the use of AI in making art, of software rendering masterpieces. It was a work of science-fiction.

But I ask you, for how long will it remain just a work of science-fiction? And what will happen to the numerous artists replaced by this advancement? 

2021 GESDA Conference: Comment anticiper, accompagner et partager les évolutions scientifiques à venir ?
GESDA Summit 2021 Closing Plenary Session featuring Keshav Khanna.