Weak threats and strong opportunities for digitalisation
The future work team of the Digital and Population Data Services Agency examines trends, phenomena, weak signals and scenarios, the findings of which are linked to both strategic and practical development work. This article is a supplement to the Digital and Population Data Services Agency's annual Digihumaus report.
The Digital and Population Data Services Agency's scenarios for the future of digitalisation by the year 2030, can be read in the Digihumaus 2022 report, which was published in the spring of 2022.
Why are weak threats being examined?
The Digital and Population Data Services Agency's scenarios and trend work have identified how the security environment faces multiple crises, has become more complex and is also more threatening. Familiar paradigms are changing and there is no return to "normal", at least not in the near future. For example, even though we are highly dependent on each other on this small planet, the trends of deglobalisation are elicited At the same time, technology plays an increasingly important role in the competition for power. Complexities and interconnectionsof this kind and the resulting trends are not made any easier by the ecological crisis.
At the same time, the boundaries of the digital and physical world are becoming increasingly blurred, such as with the emergence of the metaverse and boundary-breaking AI services. Thanks to affordable, even free devices and applications, many of even the most mundane things have become real-time, hyper-connected, personalised and measurable, while remaining very much hidden and inconspicuous. It is generally worth pointing out that digitalisation and technologies as socio-technical phenomena and drivers of change alter us and societies, while creating new meanings and uses for them.
Weak threats signal potential adverse events or trends. Due to the changed digital environment and security situation, we have examined the weak threats of digitalisation through weak signals and tensions related to the future of digitalisation. The weak threats we have identified are follow-up work on weak signals. We believe that anticipation and imagination can also be used to identify strong opportunities for taking a different course of action or creating a positive future.
With this article, we want to introduce and provide tools for identifying key tensions and weak threats related to the future of digitalisation as well as for examining weak threats in other areas.
Tensions in digitalisation
The development of digitalisation is associated with many tensions. Issues involving tensions stemming from the application of future power in this day and age will define digitalisation far into the future. Here are some key identified tensions related to digitalisation and, in particular, public digital services.
Human – Machine
Rapidly evolving technologies make life and doing things easier, but humanity, human work and interaction still have their place. In the future, the division of labour between humans and machines will require making a lot of choices. Where is a machine better, but a human best?
Global – Local
International tensions, fragmentation in globalisation and our shared world are accelerating. However, we are exceptionally connected with the whole world, where local and regional solutions also compete with each other.
Where do we need cooperation, and where do we need distance and independence?
Privacy – Innovation
How are digital services built ethically and in a way that protects personal data, while still taking advantage of the benefits that digitalisation and enabling technologies offer? How much are we prepared to compromise on when it comes to convenience and usability?
Long life – Functional capacity
People are living longer and longer, but ageing, dependency ratio and the ageing of the population are unevenly distributed both in Finland and globally. A long life also brings health and functional capacity challenges. How can digitalisation improve people's functional capacity?
Control – Trust
An open society is based on trust and there is still enough trust in Finland. We trust both the authorities and our fellow citizens. Trust and freedom have been important values in the development of digitalisation, but trust is often replaced by control. Democratic and autocratic trends in digitalisation are competing with each other, and the choices made now will have a major impact on future power. How will control and trust be balanced in the future?
Individualisation – Diversity
People's needs and life situations are extremely diverse. At the same time, more individual decisions and choices are made and understood. How is the diversity of individual needs and people reconciled in digital services?
Bureaucracy – Flexibility
Bureaucracy is needed to ensure that things go smoothly, not to mention equally, reliably, safely and fairly. However, a bureaucratic approach might prevent seeing new opportunities - we also need the ability to renew and be flexible. What kind of capabilities should we have in facing the future? Should systems adapt more to people's needs and not the other way around?
Autonomy – Automation
The autonomy of people, i.e. the way in which they act and their decision-making power in their own affairs, is crucial. However, responsibility for choices requires a great deal of understanding and skills. Automation is about making everyday life smoother, but it also means transferring control to others. What kind of feelings does digitalisation evoke? How should experiences be taken into account? Can autonomy and automation go hand in hand?
What are weak threats?
Weak threats signal potential adverse events or trends. By gathering weak signals, identifying connections and interpreting them collectively, it is possible to identify different potential trends as well as threats. The weakness of weak threats is a lack of information and uncertainty regarding the phenomena of weak threats in their initial development. Trends may be difficult to predict, but over time the impact may be dramatic. The most immediate threat is not necessarily the greatest one, but it is possible to identify both the development of threats and the related strong opportunities to respond to weak and hidden threats.
A weak threat could be likened to a new or alien species swimming in a pond that is hooked by a sharp-eyed angler. Sometimes a weak threat might require the angler to examine a familiar pond more comprehensively so that the threat can be detected.
We hope that weak threats help to verbalise trends related to tensions and open up a dialogue for possible futures. The most threatening thing for the future of digitalisation is the lack of answers to questions arising from tensions. Weak threats can support discussion, as they are based on systematic foresight work. Indeed, our message is that it is not worthwhile to fear threats, but rather to identify and verbalise them, thus making it possible to consider different ways of turning potential threats into more favourable outcomes.
How to identify a weak threat
The identification of weak threats is based on the work of the Digital and Population Data Services Agency's futures team work with tensions and weak signals. Key tensions in terms of digitalisation and digital public services have been identified on the basis of the Digital and Population Data Services Agency's future work. Weak signals were collected during summer and autumn 2022. Several workshops were held to interpret signals, based on which different potential trends and weak threats were identified, as the signals were also interpreted with regard to tensions.
Next, we present three weak threats to digitalisation, which have been singled out for this article. We have examined weakly threatening trends, especially from the perspective of Finnish and public digital services, as part of the foresight work of the Digital and Population Data Services Agency. We hope that the article will also inspire other organisations to identify weak threats and the strong opportunities associated with them. However, the interpretation of weak signals and threats requires an open mind and curiosity to also challenge familiar perceptions. Threats and opportunities become concrete when the results of foresight work are used, for example, as part of strategic planning or risk management. The weak threats presented by us have been further refined in the process and reconnected to different contexts.
How to identify a weak threat
- Observe and collect. Collect weak signals, i.e. strange, funny, new or even suspicious phenomena from different places, from media to margins. Weak signals are the first signs of potentially significant future phenomena.
- Identify tensions, phenomena or trends related to a specific theme that open up interesting what-if questions.
- Group and identify connecting factors. Does the grouping reveal any weak threats, i.e. potential adverse events or trends? What kind of story about the threat takes shape?
Weak threats 2022
Call of duty
Everyday life has become filled with all sorts of technological aids. Some devices are also personified and, for example, a robot vacuum cleaner, with its name and clumsiness, might seem more like a pet than an appliance. Devices are controlled with different functions, such as touch or voice, and in the future, increasingly in languages other than English.
The home's voice assistants operate with simple commands. To get a voice-controlled device to perform the desired task, it does not expect a courteous approach, with a polite request and thanks. Studies on voice control have shown that, as voice assistants become more commonplace, possible long-term impacts on the social and cognitive development of children should be considered. If the identification framework of the smart device is narrow, it is also suspected that it will affect children's learning and empathy. Consequently, verbal and non-verbal interactions between children who use smart devices a great deal may be reduced. Studies show that if children try to imitate the tone, volume, stresses and intonation of devices, it can weaken their empathy, compassion and critical thinking.
Users need a lot of understanding of how technological aids work. At the same time, people's needs and life situations are extremely diverse. If voice assistants only understand things expressed in a certain way, the assistance and automation provided by the devices may reduce the freedom of choice and, in turn, the autonomy of the individual, if the voice assistant can only perform the tasks that it understands. The threat in the long term is if we start talking to each other like we talk with devices, both in and outside the digital world, even though ease of use is indeed one of the virtues of digitalisation. At the same time, it should be noted that voice-controlled aids are not only fun, but also necessary for many people in their everyday life. In this case, it is important that technologies are developed by expanding diversity and assessing their impact.
Strong opportunities: In fact, the development of digitalisation is increasingly based more on images, sounds and semiotics than text. At the same time, multiple senses and experiences are emphasised. Technology, such as voice control, can be used to foster ways of creating autonomy and solving issues in one's own way. In the future, perhaps we will also see more digital services in Finland that work with voice control?
A digital market in every home
Many homes have gradually become smart device environments, in which the devices are not only remotely controlled but also function autonomously, communicating with each other, monitoring their environment and collecting data from it while being continuously connected to the Internet. The number these types of devices is increasing and, at the same time, being integrated in the environment and goods. With the data economy and platform services, home and everyday life can also be tailored to meet one’s own needs digitally.
Digital services based on personalisation and profiling at both the individual and household level can help in measuring and controlling different things, such as resources used, in a more sustainable way. However, because the “to each their own” requirement also increases the amount of data in systems, it can also increase the risks of information security and privacy. At the same time, it can result in bubbles at the individual level and growing pressure on the service system from customisation and system flexibility. At their greatest extent, digital divides can increase inequality between people.
Responsibility for learning and creativity in the digital realm lies with the individual, who may need help anyway. In addition, expertise on the datafied impacts of devices may not necessarily be available even where the devices are sold. One can also imagine how a home or building corporation can become a place to negotiate not only privacy and the accumulation of data points, but also the increasing dependence on technology and services provided by digital giants. In order to avoid putting the solution of all digital issues on the shoulders of individuals, new intermediate levels are needed between the individual and regulation. The hidden threat to the future in the digital home and everyday digital life also lies in the fact that there may not be room for individuals to stay out of the digital realm.
Strong opportunities: Technological aids are not only fun, but also essential to many people. Digitalisation and smart assistants offer solutions to support everyday life, as it enables people to, for example, monitor their energy consumption or get information on their own health. In addition to this, automation helps people with disabilities in their everyday life. The important thing here is that digital services are built ethically and in a way that protects personal data, while still taking advantage of the benefits that digitalisation and enabling technologies offer. In the future, will it become necessary to compromise on values for the sake of convenience and usability?
Art now, propaganda later
Creative AI programs enable automatically generated text, images, sounds and websites for actors who do not have the resources to produce them, with minimal input. In many industries, particularly creative sectors, AI as a Service (AIaaS) can mean significant disruption to both employment and business logic in the sector. Examples of AIaaS services are Dall-E, Stable Diffusion, GTP-3 and AIVA. They focus on different media: images, videos, text and audio. Artistic outputs are fascinating, but it is equally important to understand that the underlying technology can also enable outputs that are problematic for administration and society.
The threat stems from the fact that cybercriminals, trolls and malicious actors are able to make use of new, easy and open technologies more quickly and adaptably than administrative actors. Artificial Intelligence as a Service enables AI methods to be employed, in principle, by anyone, which can lead to more sophisticated cybercrime, manipulation, propaganda and disinformation, especially with regard to synthetic media. At the same time, Cybercrime as a Service is stronger than ever in the dark web.
With respect to agency, the individual's requirement level and need for awareness will continue to grow in the future. With an increasingly blurred line between the virtual and real world, is supported or assisted digital media literacy necessary?
Strong opportunities: Artificial intelligence services provide a great deal of assistance, both in creative work, administration and everyday life, but they will never replace human work. Indeed, there is ample reason to consider where technology is better, but human beings are the best. Artificial intelligence services provide a lower threshold for experimenting and trying things because they do not require expertise or learning. But, could they provide opportunities for public digital services? Does administration have sufficient expertise and imagination to use them?
Threats must be examined multisectorally
From the perspective of digitalisation and public digital services, weak threats raise interesting issues that should be examined with regard to scenarios, strategy or preparedness. When it comes to weak threats and digitalisation as a whole, it is important to examine the phenomenon as multisectorally as possible, as this is not only a question of technological development, but also a rapid change in operating methods and culture. For example, the dual use of technology is a good example of this: Russia's invasion of Ukraine immediately produced forms of digital activism that were beneficial to Ukraine, as information influencing and resistance were conducted, for example, using Google Maps, Tinder, Etsy, AirBnB and crowdfunding campaigns. However, these approaches should be monitored, as platforms can also be put to malicious use in the future, to which the weak threat identified for AI services also draws attention.
At worst, the consequences of technology separate us from each other, but, ideally, digitalisation brings people together. That is why it is also important to recognise strong opportunities and consider the questions raised by genuinely weak threats. By examining the threats, it is easy to see that the development of digitalisation and automation requires diversity, inclusion and support, not to mention a dialogue on what is expected of digitalisation in the future.
Authors of the article: Joonas Aitonurmi, Maria Laukkanen and Marko Latvanen of the Digital and Population Data Services Agency (DVV).
Illustrations: Maria Laukkanen
Special thanks to Juho Reivo of DVV and the Digital Power and Democracy team at Sitra.
Those interested in DVV’s future work and research cooperation can contact Specialist Joonas Aitonurmi, firstname.lastname @ dvv.fi.