Peace by Design?

Unlocking the Potential of Seven Technologies for a More Peaceful Future

By Stefaan G. Verhulst and Artur Kluz

Sep 18, 2023

On Thursday, September 21, the world will celebrate International Peace Day. The evening prior, at an event in New York City, the Kluz Prize for PeaceTech will seek to recognize and celebrate exemplary initiatives and projects that effectively leverage technology for peace. Below, to expand our perspective in the PeaceTech dialogue, we delve into the potential and applications of seven technologies to foster peace.

The Role of Technology

Technology has always played a crucial role in human history, both in winning wars and building peace. Even Leonardo da Vinci, the genius of the Renaissance time, in his 1482 letter to Ludovico Il Moro Sforza, Duke of Milan promised to invent new technological warfare for attack or defense. While serving top military and political leaders, he was working on technological advancements that could potentially have a significant impact on geopolitics.

Today, we are living in exceptional times, where disruptive technologies such as AI, space-based technologies, quantum computing, and many others are leading to the reimagination of everything around us and transforming our lives, state interactions in the global arena, and wars. The next great industrial revolution may well be occurring over 250 miles above us in outer space and putting our world into a new perspective. This is not just a technological transformation; this is a social and human transformation.

Perhaps to a greater extent than ever since World War II, recent news has been dominated by talk of war, as well as the destructive power of AI for human existence. The headlines are of missiles and offensives in Ukraine, of possible — and catastrophic — conflict over Taiwan, and of AI as humanity’s biggest existential threat.

A critical difference between this era and earlier times of conflict is the potential role of technology for peace. Along with traditional weaponry and armaments, it is clear that new space, data, and various other information and communication technologies will play an increasingly prominent role in 21st-century conflicts, especially when combined.

Much of the discussion today focuses on the potential offensive capabilities of technology. In a recent report titled “Seven Critical Technologies for Winning the Next War”, CSIS highlighted that “the next war will be fought on a high-tech battlefield….The consequences of failure on any of these technologies are tremendous — they could make the difference between victory and defeat.”

However, in the following discussion, we shift our focus to a distinctly different aspect of technology — its potential to cultivate peace and prevent conflicts. We present seven forms of PeaceTech, which encompass technologies that can actively avert or alleviate conflicts. These technologies are part of a broader range of innovations that contribute to the greater good of society and foster the overall well-being of humanity.

The application of frontier technologies has speedy, broad, and impactful effects in building peace. From preventing military conflicts and disinformation, connecting people, facilitating dialogue, drone delivery of humanitarian aid, and solving water access conflicts, to satellite imagery to monitor human rights violations and monitor peacekeeping efforts; technology has demonstrated its strong footprint in building peace.

One important caveat is in order: readers may note the absence of data in the list below. We have chosen to include data as a cross-cutting category that applies across the seven technologies. This points to the ubiquity of data in today’s digital ecology. In an era of rapid datafication, data can no longer be classified as a single technology, but rather as an asset or tool embedded within virtually every other technology. (See our writings on the role of data for peace here).

1. Social Media: Social media plays a wide variety of roles in responding to, and often reducing the scope of, conflict. For example, social media platforms have been used as tools for peace education, and they have also played a role in facilitating post-conflict reconciliation. In addition, public accounts and recordings of conflict, often posted on social media, play a powerful documentary role, helping ensure peaceful interventions or ensure accountability. This can be seen as one example of the more general role that crowdsourcing and crowd-documenting can play via social media to foster peace in a variety of ways. Another example, commonly found in post-disaster or post-conflict situations, is the role of social media in helping to track down victims and re-connect separated families.

2. AI and ML: One of the most promising areas in PeaceTech concerns the growing use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) techniques. AI and ML can be used in a variety of ways, including to predict conflict, to improve mediation efforts, and to analyze data to assess and help drive responses to infrastructure damage. For instance, AI is being deployed alongside other imaging techniques, such as satellites and drones (see below), to assess conflict situations and predict potential conflicts with minimal risk to human peacekeepers. AI can also be used to analyze social media streams to identify, assess and sometimes respond to hate speech and other forms of communication that could incite violence or conflict. In another example, AI/ML can be used to analyze and subsequently mitigate climate related threats, which can lead to resource scarcity and conflict over resources.

3. Satellites and Drones: Satellites and drones provide imaging that can help prevent or mitigate the effects of war, respond to conflict, and foster post-conflict reconstruction in a number of ways. Several interesting examples can be found in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. For instance, open source information derived from satellite images is being used to identify and minimize harms from potentially booby-trapped equipment, night lights data is being used to identify areas of conflict, and high resolution imagery is being used to help the Ukrainian government mobilize resources and evacuate citizens. Satellites and drones have also been used in a number of other conflict arenas in similar ways, playing a particularly important response in planning and responding to war-related damage and destruction. More generally, satellites play a key role in enabling communications, as evidenced by the important role played by Starlink in maintaining Ukraine’s Internet and cell phone coverage. Satellites are also valuable in the maritime environment, providing critical situational awareness and aiding in the protection of seas and oceans. Their unique vantage point from space allows for extensive coverage of vast maritime areas, making them instrumental in detecting and monitoring potential threats such as enemy naval activities, illegal operations like smuggling of goods and weapons, and the ever-present threat of piracy. Additionally, satellites contribute to addressing environmental concerns such as oil spills by enabling early detection and facilitating swift response efforts.

4. 3D printing: While the role of 3D printing in creating weapons and untraceable firearms is often emphasized, 3D printing also offers a low-cost alternative for a variety of tools and equipment that can be used to reduce conflict. 3D printing can be used to rapidly manufacture a variety of essential goods and tools in scarce supply in conflict zones. One example is to be found at the Basra Science Camp, which uses 3D printing to create educational and other equipment for students, thus helping provide them with an education. Joshua Pierce, a researcher at Michigan Tech who researches low-impact solutions to engineering problems, sums up the variety of possible uses when he says that “low-cost open-source 3D printing has enormous potential to do real good for the world — particularly for the poor as it radically reduces the cost of high-value products like scientific tools and consumer goods.”

5. Virtual and Augmented Reality: Virtual Reality (VR) may still be an emergent technology, but several researchers and peacemakers are exploring its possibilities in conflict zones. For example, a variety of research points to VR’s potential in disaster preparedness and in responding to post-disaster and emergency situations. In addition, the possibilities of VR have also been explored as “the ultimate empathy machine,” for instance helping facilitate compassion and charity toward migrants (though some have expressed skepticism). Dr. Alexandra Ivanovitch argues that virtual reality is the new frontline of peace and “help[s] us transcend neurophysiological limitations inherent to our own point of view, and to adopt the perspective of another human being.” Further, augmented reality (AR) also holds potential in contributing to peace, particularly in the realm of rapid learning. Considering the potential job loss due to automation and AI, the power of AR in enabling on-the-job learning and skill development can play a crucial role in mitigating unemployment and promoting peace by empowering individuals with the necessary tools for sustainable livelihoods.

6. Biometrics: Biometrics, while contentious from a privacy perspective, have also been used in a variety of conflict and post-conflict settings. For example, biometrics can help facilitate referenda, elections and other democratic mechanisms aimed at easing or avoiding tensions and conflict. Biometrics also play a key — and increasingly common — role in post-conflict settings, for example by helping to distribute aid in a more efficient and targeted manner. This is a particular manifestation of the growing use of biometrics to deliver development and other forms of state aid (India’s Aadhaar project is often cited as an example). Advocates of biometrics also argue that it holds promise for delivering aid and easing post-conflict situations in a manner that is more privacy-protective, and overall, upholds the dignity of aid recipients.

7. Robotics: Isaac Asimov’s First Law of Robotics, described in his book titled, I, Robot, is that: “A robot may not injure a human being.” In fact, despite frequent reports about “killer robots” and the use of robotic weapon systems, robotics can play a powerful role in fostering peace and minimizing wars. For instance, robotic drones have been used in surveillance efforts to foster peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006, and in delivering aid to displaced populations following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and other locations. More recently, “peacebots” have been used to spread social media messages propagating peace and compassion, offering an intriguing counter to the hate speech and misinformation often spread on social media platforms by bots. All of these offer glimpses of possibilities where sophisticated robots reduce warfare rather than fan the flames of conflict.

The emerging field of PeaceTech can be seen as a particular instance of growing interest in the use of technology to foster public good. Other examples include the study of technology to reduce socioeconomic inequality, increase health outcomes, and widen educational opportunities. PeaceTech occupies a particularly important, or at least salient, niche in this wider ecology.

Amidst mounting concerns about the prospect of great power conflict in a newly multipolar world, it is heartening to remember that technology can actively contribute to easing conflicts rather than simply exacerbating them. At the same time, the adoption of technology for peacebuilding markedly lags behind its utilization for military offenses. To ensure a paradigm shift towards technology-fueled conflict prevention, we must advance the development and use of PeaceTech responsibly by collectively:

  • Fostering Collaboration: Encourage collaboration between technologists, peacebuilding organizations, governments, and academia to promote the exchange of ideas, expertise, and resources to prototype, develop and apply innovative technological solutions for peace.
  • Investing in Research and Development: Increase funding and support for research and development of technologies specifically aimed at conflict prevention, resolution, and peacebuilding. This investment may also focus on building advanced tools and strategies to address the root causes of conflicts, such as climate and inequalities, and promote sustainable peace.
  • Promoting Responsible Tech Development: Emphasize the ethical and responsible development and deployment of technologies for peace. Ensure that technologies are designed with a human-centric approach, respecting human rights, inclusivity, and cultural sensitivities. Implement guidelines and regulations to mitigate potential risks and ensure responsible tech usage.
  • Enhancing (Digital) Literacy and Access: Promote digital literacy programs and initiatives to ensure broader access to technology, especially in conflict-affected regions. By providing the necessary skills and tools, individuals and communities can harness the potential of technology for peacebuilding and conflict prevention.
  • Supporting Local Capacity Building: Invest in building local technological capacity in conflict-affected areas. This can be achieved through training programs, workshops, and collaborations with local tech communities. By empowering local communities, they can take ownership of technological solutions tailored to their specific needs.
  • Sharing and Utilizing Data and Analytics: Leverage the power of data and analytics to gain insights into conflict dynamics, identify early warning signs, and facilitate evidence-based decision-making. Develop trusted data collaboratives that can provide valuable information for conflict prevention strategies and targeted interventions.
  • Engaging Stakeholders: Engage diverse stakeholders, including governments, civil society organizations, tech companies, and local communities, in multi-stakeholder dialogue and decision-making processes related to technology for peace. By involving all relevant parties, it ensures that technological solutions are inclusive, effective, and sustainable.
  • Establishing Evidence on Impact: Encourage further research on the impact and effectiveness of technology in promoting peace. By conducting rigorous studies and evaluations, we can gain valuable insights into the most effective approaches and best practices. This research can guide the development and implementation of technological solutions for peacebuilding.

By implementing these recommendations, we can advance the responsible use of technology for peace, contributing to conflict prevention, resolution, and the overall well-being of societies.

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Join Us: To advance all of the above, the Kluz Prize for PeaceTech was initiated to recognize and celebrate exemplary initiatives and projects that effectively leverage technology for peace. This prize seeks to incentivize innovation and encourage the sharing of successful practices, inspiring others to adopt similar approaches. It seeks to help raise awareness about the transformative potential of technology in advancing peace. The announcement of this year’s Kluz Prize will be on September 20th in New York City. Let us know if you would like to attend.

Dr. Stefaan G. Verhulst, Co-Founder and Chief Research and Development Officer of The Governance Laboratory at New York University and Co-Founder of The Data Tank (Brussels)

Artur Kluz, CEO Kluz Ventures, founder of The Kluz Prize for PeaceTech

Kluz Prize for PeaceTech 2024

Application Deadline Extended

Apply to the 2024 Kluz Prize for PeaceTech and be recognized for your achievements and contributions to the evolving field of technologies for peace.

Applications are now due July 29th at 11:59pm ET.