February 16, 2024

Unlocking Technology for Peacebuilding: The Munich Security Conference’s Role in Empowering a Peacetech Movement

By Stefaan Verhulst and Artur Kluz

At a time when global tensions escalate, the Munich Security Conference stands as a crucial platform for redirecting the focus of technology from conflict to peacemaking, advocating for the development and prioritization of Peacetech.

This week’s annual Munich Security Conference is taking place amid a turbulent backdrop. The so-called “peace dividend” that followed the end of the Cold War has long since faded. From Ukraine to Sudan to the Middle East, we are living in an era marked by increasingly unstable geopolitics and renewed–and new forms of–violent conflict. Recently, the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, measuring war since 1945, identified 2023 as the worst on record since the Cold War. As the Foreword to the Munich Security Report, issued alongside the Conference, notes: “Unfortunately, this year’s report reflects a downward trend in world politics, marked by an increase in geopolitical tensions and economic uncertainty.”

The Munich Security Conference has an Important Role in Empowering a Peacetech Movement

As we enter deeper into this violent era, it is worth considering the role of technology. It is perhaps no coincidence that a moment of growing peril and division coincides with the increasing penetration of technologies such as smartphones and social media, or with the emergence of new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality. In addition, the actions of satellite operators and cross-border digital payment networks have been thrust into the limelight, with their roles in enabling or precipitating conflict attracting increasing scrutiny. Today, it appears increasingly clear that transnational tech actors–and technology itself–are playing a more significant role in geopolitical conflict than ever before. As the Munich Security Report notes, “Technology has gone from being a driver of global prosperity to being a central means of geopolitical competition.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. While much attention is paid to technology’s negative capabilities, this article argues that technology can also play a more positive role, through the contributions of what is sometimes referred to as Peacetech. Peacetech is an emerging field, encompassing technologies as varied as early warning systemsAI driven predictions, and citizen journalism platforms. Broadly, its aims can be described as preventing conflict, mediating disputes, mitigating human suffering, and protecting human dignity and universal human rights. In the words of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), “Peacetech aims to leverage technology to drive peace while also developing strategies to prevent technology from being used to enable violence.”

This article is intended as a call to those attending the Munich Security Conference to prioritize Peacetech — at a global geopolitical forum for peacebuilding. Highlighting recent concerns over the role of technology in conflict–with a particular emphasis on the destructive potential of AI and satellite systems–we argue for technology’s positive potential instead, by promoting peace and mitigating conflict. In particular, we suggest the need for a realignment in how policy and other stakeholders approach and fund technology, to foster its peaceful rather than destructive potential. This realignment would bring out the best in technology; it would harness technology toward the greater public good at a time of rising geopolitical uncertainty and instability.

1. Concern over Technology in Conflict

Even before this week’s Munich Conference, there were signs of growing anxiety over the prospects of war. Just before the new year, Estonia’s foreign minister, Margus Tsahkna, warned of the need for dramatic reform of international governance and institutions, arguing that the world risked slipping into a new “age of empires” where “might makes right.” Shortly thereafter, US Congressman Michael Turner issued a dramatic warning about the dangers of a new Russian nuclear capability, designed to target America’s satellite system. While subsequent clarifications have cast doubt on the urgency (if not substance) of this last warning, both incidents, combined with growing alarm over Israel’s war in Gaza and the spread of Mideast violence, highlight a general sense that the world may have entered a new era of unchecked conflict.

Turner’s warning brings to the fore a second aspect of this era: the unconventional battlefields on which 21st-century conflict may play out, and the central role of advanced digital and communications technologies. We are living, as the Economist recently put it, in “a new era of high-tech war,” one in which technology is often blamed for fanning the flames of conflict. Amid this general concern, two specific technologies–and technological frontiers–occupy center stage.

The first, as indicated by the Congressman’s alarm, concerns the transition away from purely terrestrial-based to space-based conflict–what the Economist dubbed the emergence of a “celestial struggle” between superpowers. A growing race to dominate space has increasingly led to the militarization of satellite technologies, with nations investing heavily in capabilities for communication, navigation, reconnaissance, and surveillance. These celestial tensions are frequently a reflection of existing land-based conflicts. As tensions rise on Earth, there are concerns that adversaries may seek to disrupt or destroy satellite networks, leading to significant disruptions in communications and navigation, for military as well as civilian purposes. Perhaps predictably, these concerns have in turn led to increased interest in–and funding for–anti-satellite weapons, opening new frontiers in the development of technologies for warfare. Testifying recently before Congress, John F. Plumb, assistant secretary of defense for space policy, stated that the president has requested a $33.3 billion space budget for 2024, much of it devoted to developing new defensive and offensive capacities and representing a 15% increase over the previous year.

The risk of space-based conflict has been accompanied by the heightened profile of another technological frontier: the growing deployment and development of artificial intelligence (AI). As illustrated by the recent AI summit at Bletchley Park in the UK–and as pointed out by a number of commentators–the spread of AI is now intimately linked to geopolitics in an unstable multipolar world. AI is already being deployed on the battlefield, for example in Israel’s efforts to identify targets, and–as reported by The New York Times–in the 2020 assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist. Recently, Jen Easterly, director of the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, predicted that AI could emerge as the most “powerful capability of our time” and the “most powerful weapon of our time.”

Furthermore, a significant issue that future generations will face is the rapid decrease in AI and technological differentiation. As the barriers to entry lower and the capability for replication rises, it becomes increasingly difficult to develop technologies that are truly unique and unreplicable by others. This raises concerns about maintaining a long-term competitive edge, as the ability to safeguard and sustain technological superiority becomes ever more challenging.

A growing reliance on such technologies poses several thorny dilemmas and challenges. Among these is the well-known unreliability of even the most sophisticated models, as well as the biases and other flaws embedded in AI algorithms. Recently, the ICRC warned of various risks involved in so-called “algorithms of war,” including the dangers of mistargeting and threats to civilian well-being. More generally, General John Allen (retired) and Amir Hussein have pointed to the dangers of “hyper war”: by eliminating human decision-making, AI risks creating a new kind of out-of-control, far more intense, and rapid conflagration, unlike any previous conflict known to humankind.

2. The Potential of Peacetech

The situation seems dire. If technology accelerates war, then the ever-increasing pace of technological innovation may lead us to conclude that the future of conflict is only one of increasing intensification. There is, however, an alternative–one that similarly rests on the pace and ingenuity of technological innovation, yet that leads us to a very different destination.

In recent years, the promise of Peacetech has become increasingly clear. This is due in part to a new awareness among tech entrepreneurs and the tech ecosystem, as well as growing adoption by tech companies, civil society, and governments, which have revealed several use cases around the world. To be sure, the promise is incipient, but the field of peacetech is still nebulous and fledgling. But it offers a far more hopeful vision for the future of technology in human conflict–and also, an alternative channel and purpose for the large amounts of donor and other funds currently pouring into technology-enabled battlefields.

Case studies offer a useful gauge of potential. Based on a review of the numerous submissions to the Kluz Prize for Peacetech, along with a mapping we have conducted of the broader field, we identify at least three specific potential benefits of Peacetech.

To begin, Peacetech offers promise for rapid conflict prevention. Satellite imagery and data analysis can track population movements and identify potential flashpoints ahead of time, preventing escalation. Early warning systems, such as those deployed in Eastern Africa, can send real-time alerts about rising tensions and mobilize peacekeepers before violence explodes. Another example is the ACLED Conflict Alert System (CAST), a conflict forecasting tool that predicts political violence events up to six months in the future.

Peacetech can also empower marginalized voices and foster intercultural understanding. Such goals can be achieved, for example, by communications platforms that crowdsource conflict resolution strategies. In Thailand, the Journalism that Builds Bridges Project helped 50 young citizen reporters provide a people-centered and gender-sensitive light on local challenges to social cohesion. By giving communities a platform to share grievances and build bridges, Peacetech can chip away at the foundations of conflicts rooted in misunderstanding and exclusion.

Beyond its immediate conflict prevention capabilities, Peacetech also contributes to long-term peacebuilding and reconstruction efforts. For example, advanced data analytics enable the analysis of complex socio-political trends, providing insights for sustainable peace strategies. Biometrics and digital identification systems can also help rebuild societal structures, for instance, by supporting fair elections and transparent governance. In 2021, Albania integrated electronic voting and biometrics authentication, earning praise from international observers for faster, more reliable elections, and eliminating multiple voting concerns. In the context of the Ukraine War, the Global Peace Tech Hub explored how matching algorithms in refugee allocation worked on the private, national, and EU levels. Another method uses advanced data analytics to prevent. For instance, Project Didi employed machine learning to analyze news and social media discourse to identify parameters that may signal conflict.

Additionally, 3D printing technology can aid in post-conflict reconstruction, offering rapid, cost-effective solutions for rebuilding infrastructure. In 2023, Ukraine began building a 3D printed school in the city of Lviv amid the ongoing Russian invasion. Thus, Peacetech not only plays a crucial role in immediate conflict resolution but also in shaping a resilient and inclusive post-conflict society. Similarly, Commit Global has built a humanitarian digital civic infrastructure to facilitate access to crucial services for over 1.6 million refugees, including verified information on legal aid, social, medical, and educational services, as well as safe housing and counseling.

3. Conclusion: How to Unlock the Potential of Peacetech

The contours of technology and warfare are still being defined. It remains a contested, dynamic landscape, with various stakeholders and competing currents. How can we navigate this complex terrain, where the stakes are so high, possibly even existential for the human species, and nurture the potential of Peacetech in the months and years ahead?

To conclude, we offer six specific suggestions that provide an outline for a policy and funding framework to help fulfill the promise of Peacetech. When considered together, these suggestions may lead to a future of less conflict rather than more.

  • First, it is essential to build awareness among technology stakeholders, including programmers, engineers and entrepreneurs, about the potential of Peacetech. Building awareness is the first step toward soliciting their broader involvement in helping to define and build the field.
  • Second, we need to call for active engagement–in dialogue and action–among all stakeholders, including transnational technology companies (so-called Big Tech), entrepreneurs, policymakers, funders, and others who are helping to define what Ian Bremmer has labeled the new reality of a “technopolar” world.
  • Third, we call for a fundamental realignment of funding priorities. Currently, the world spends some $2.2 trillion annually on military expenditures. Figures for Peacetech are hard to come by, but it seems fair to say that it is only a tiny fraction of this amount. If we want peace instead of conflict, then our funding priorities need to change.
  • Fourth, it is critical to address issues related to access and capacity building in the field. Peace matters to the vast majority of citizens. Investing in digital literacy and bridging the digital divide will ensure that they have a voice in the ongoing process of geopolitical realignment, whether that process plays out peacefully or through conflict.
  • Fifth, we need to foster international cooperation to help develop ethical frameworks and norms for responsible development and deployment of peace technology. Such frameworks would include mechanisms for oversight, transparency, and accountability to prevent misuse and protect vulnerable communities, as well as to promote the realignment discussed above.
  • Sixth, we call for a new global political tech authority (or forum) and careful examination of how this authority can effectively govern and monitor the use of disruptive tech and tech-related activities of states, international organizations, as well as powerful tech entrepreneurs and private entities in the geopolitical arena.

Ultimately, a true embrace of technology for peace requires a fundamental change in mindset on the part of key geopolitical stakeholders. There needs to be a shift from viewing technology as a tool for wielding military power to a catalyst for shared security and collective well-being. More broadly, the perspective must move from one of competition and zero-sum understandings of the world to one focused on collaboration and growth mindsets. Only then can we harness the immense potential of technology to build bridges across divides, dismantle the machinery of war, and forge a more peaceful future.