The future of technology: a human rights perspective

Author: Tatiana Makunike
Freelance writer

From a constructive perspective, technology has the potential to significantly contribute to the progress of the human rights agenda, especially in Africa. Healthcare, education, emerging laws that restrict freedom of speech, and abuses by armed groups are some of the Human rights issues that technology could positively impact. Technology is increasingly becoming the backbone of most infrastructures and playing an important role in modern humanity; so automatically, its necessity as a tool for human rights has also increased.

The need for digital structures that improve the predictions of pressing human rights situations is evident. Fortunately, the tools for analysing the situations and strategising ideal responses exist and continue to improve. For instance, remote sensing and satellite data analysis systems now  identify patterns indicating humanitarian disasters and displaced groups which may be useful when monitoring inaccessible areas or countries such as Uganda, Sudan, and Ethiopia which are currently home to over 3 million refugees. Decentralised technologies like BlockChain are also proving valuable when it comes to eliminating labor exploitation issues in certain supply chains and forensic technology can reconstruct crime scenes.

The internet has especially been a great mobiliser regarding human rights awareness by providing opportunities to share free speech, ideas, and information beyond our immediate communities. It has also created new possibilities for work, innovations in healthcare; improved education, increased political participation and more. Artificial intelligence (which allows for machines to learn from experience, modify to new inputs and perform human-like tasks) has the potential to help boost crop growth which would help to promote food security ,and tools such as facial recognition may assist in reuniting families who have been separated from their loved ones. Improvement and accessibility of mobile phones and other recording devices has increased ‘citizen journalism’, with everyday citizens recording and posting incidents of human rights violations which increases awareness and can potentially lead to perpetrators being brought to justice.

On the other hand, technological developments also have the capacity to undermine human rights efforts. The increased use of automation and AI has disrupted global employment by replacing millions of jobs with self-service technologies which directly impacts people’s right to fair and decent work. Again, the right to privacy is invaded every day as we use internet domains that blur the lines of private and public data; Devices track our whereabouts and watch our every move as corporations target communities offering “free” services while extracting personal data and criminal hacking has become more lucrative, increasing ransomware which has resulted in situations such as unprecedented cyber-attacks on nuclear power plants and government systems, directly threatening the fundamental right to liberty, the security of person and potentially the  right to life. Even free speech on the internet can be manipulated.

As a result, it’s clear that while technology is just a tool, its effects can drastically differentiate depending on its usage and while some people can’t imagine their lives without technology, a disproportionate amount of people in Africa don’t have access to it in ways that would benefit their lives. In a research survey by Pew, out of the six sub-Saharan African countries they studied, a medium of 41% used the internet occasionally; this is less than half of the 89% of Americans who use the internet. Consequently, during the coronavirus pandemic and lock downs this further highlighted the prevalent inequalities regarding technology. Currently, biotechnology is a significant contributor in the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, but African countries with minimal technological resources are left at the mercy of developed nations; waiting for a vaccine and not participating at the rate of first-world countries.

In essence, most African countries are behind. It’s important to catch up and get to a level where they are contributors in technological developments in order not to become biased and/ or marginalised by it. Ensuring African governments should have effective digital services and regulations in place and be prepared to allow for free speech and exchange online. A great foundation to begin from would be reliable basic infrastructure, such as internet connectivity and mobile networks, as well as electricity supply.

It is safe to conclude that, while technology has been beneficial to human rights, it also has a dark side. It continues to expand rapidly while legislation regulating its use, catches up very slowly, leaving protective regulations behind. There’s a need for stakeholders in designing new technologies to remove bias from digital intelligence for it to reach the needs of marginalised communities as far as human rights are concerned.

Technology isn’t something humanity should be wary of as it becomes more intelligent, rather it’s important to ensure technology is developed with the integration of human rights and values in mind. Technology should be able to identify when it’s being used unethically and block it. This will require collaboration, and coordination from civil society, academia, government, and technology-business leaders.

About the Author

Tatiana Makunike is a writer with a focus on human rights and child rights. She has a certification in children’s rights from Harvard University and is currently a freelance writer living in Johannesburg.

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