The creation and development of cyberspace has profoundly changed people’s thinking and behavioural habits. Current academic discussions on a range of issues such as web policy, web ethics, web culture and ideology have also become borderline academic topics.
Accurately grasping the connotation, characteristics and essence of cyberspace and scientifically defining its attributes in everyday life are the foundations and prerequisites for exploring this kind of problem. Otherwise, it will be difficult for us to understand and accurately grasp the origin and roots of these issues, which will influence the scientific nature of research.
For discussing the Internet-related issues, social science research mainly uses the “web society” and “cyberspace” as conceptual tools to impact on the topic.
With the fast development of web technology and people’s proactive participation in communication practices, cyberspace has been widely recognised and has affected people as a new form of environment. Nevertheless, there are still many differences in the understanding and definition of the cyberspace concept. Further work on theoretical identification is therefore needed. Many scholars have made a structural analysis of cyberspace and some consider it to be a three-tier structure, including:
A. the lowest physical layer, which forms the material basis of the web information system. The term cyberspace, for example, leads some people to think that information travels over the air: this is not the case at all! The Internet spreads via underground terrestrial and marine fibre-optic cables, and radio base stations are connected to this cable network. The antennas we see towering on the hills receive the signal from the network of underground cables and transform it into electromagnetic waves so that they can be transmitted and then picked up by our smartphones: in other words, the illusion that cyberspace is wireless in the air, while it is, in fact, ground-to-ground.
B. The intermediate grammar layer, i.e. the instructions, programs and protocols with which the machine interacts between the system designer and the machine user.
C. The highest semantic layer, which mainly refers to the information contained in the machine and to some services that are needed to make the system information work.
Other scholars classify it into five layers:
A. the “physical layer’ refers to the hardware devices that make up the computer.
B. The “protocol layer” emphasises that the different versions of communication protocols are, to a large extent, the source of power and authority in cyberspace and provide users with key identifying marks in cyberspace.
C. The “logic layer/code” is the software operated by the computer, which defines and limits the ways in which users can use the web.
D. The “content layer” mainly expresses the various objects and/or narratives created by the Internet users.
E. The “relations layer” emphasises the transmission of cyberspace, i.e. the social relationship between the users who make, exchange, disseminate and share web content embedded in objects and narratives.
As a result, scholars not only see the material and technical foundations that constitute cyberspace, but also reveal the human relation aspects contained in it, thus considering cyberspace as a kind of “virtual reality”. Some scholars have interpreted this “relational” aspect from a more specific viewpoint, and have considered cyberspace to be a stand-alone electronic field – separate from political professionals – a field containing many topics such as politics, economy, society, culture and religion.
Hence what is the essence of this “virtual reality”? Traditionally, with a view to meeting their basic survival needs, “real people” first engage in the production of material goods. In production activities, the division of labour, the practice of communication and the methods of production will inevitably arise, which – characterized by different behaviours – will give rise to different social forms.
It can be said that perceptual and concrete practical activities are the driving force behind the establishment of human social relations. In fact, the emergence of the Internet is exactly the product of human practical activities and an important result of the transformation of the objective world into human production practices. In other words, as a technical tool, the web represents advanced productivity and embodies the legacy of human knowledge, abilities and skills.
Based on the Internet technological platform, the social participation of “real people” enables the creation and development of cyberspace. The information flow is the basic form of existence in cyberspace. Information, as a symbol, brings the people’s actual social relations, which have consequential values and meaning.
Based on these attributes, cyberspace – as a product of human social practice activities – has further expanded and enriched the field and methods of human practice. It has changed people’s thinking and behavioural habits: new forms of real life.
In short, whether in terms of production, content or actual impact, cyberspace displays clear social characteristics and sociability is its fundamental attribute. It can be said that cyberspace is a new form of social space created with the development of web technology, and it is the further extension and expansion of social space in the context of information technology.
This process of extension and expansion produces and reproduces the social space itself, i.e. the space in which we actually live. For cyberspace, as in everyday life, people’s interaction and practice activities based on different interests and purposes – which cause the continuous differentiation of cyberspace – are marked by the generation of secondary spaces such as the Web, the forum, the post to be posted, and the circle of friends that begins to create widespread consensus.
On the other hand, once the secondary web space is generated, it will produce a certain value and meaning of aggregation (“pro”) or exclusion (“anti”), and will thus divide people into different web groups. Consequently, two relations are established between man and cyberspace: one is that people use the web as a means and instrument to be applied; the other is that the web constitutes the actual conditions of human existence: people “are” in the web, they exist only there, as the real is only necessary as a search for food and physical subsistence, and not even so much for sex.
In further analysis, man and cyberspace manifest themselves as a spatial relationship of symbiosis and coexistence. In this relationship, cyberspace has not only changed the way people receive, process, and send information (as in the past), but it has also changed the way information itself is generated, in a different and/or opposite way than before.
People have created and developed web technology through practice, but at the same time they have reshaped and improved themselves with web technology, as well as expanded the boundaries of life and achieved the spatialisation of life itself. It can be said that cyberspace is not only a space for the digital information flow, but also a space for social interaction, a new space in which the essential power of the human being can be shown in a new guise that is no longer casual or accidental, such as physiological birth.
People are used to summarising the basic features of cyberspace with words such as virtuality, anonymity (albeit illusory as noted in an article published a few weeks ago), freedom and openness, as well as trans-temporal and spatial features, and then making common sense of them. Usual and ordinary things, however, are more likely to be marked by omissions or illusions, not being able to grasp a fact or a truth in depth.
Cyberspace is often said to be “virtual reality”. When we call it virtual space, what does the word “virtual” mean? In a general sense, the word “virtual” has the following meanings: one refers to a kind of empty space, or something that does not exist in reality, while the other is to represent a potential possibility. For example, a piece of wood can become a table or a cupboard, and a stone has the possibility of being the statue of a leader or the sculpture of a lion. These can all be transformed into a certain reality by relying on intermediary human practical activities: the carpenter, the artist. “Virtual” can also be understood as a type of real existence, but this type of existence does not play a practical role, although it plays a certain role. The virtual nature of cyberspace can also be understood and defined from several angles. From a technical viewpoint, cyberspace is a spatial form based on digital and computer technology. It is not a world composed of atoms, but a virtual world composed of “bits” that simulate real things. From the identity viewpoint, the apparent anonymity (i.e. the illusion of it that the provider offers the user) brought about by virtuality deconstructs the subject’s professional role, social status, and even the gender of men and women, transforming X into what he/she would like to be, but is not.
As a result, “real people” become ghosts wandering in cyberspace. Past social interaction between people is turned into technical and symbolic interaction. When several computers are connected to form a huge network linking people through different interfaces, communication practices take place in which there is no longer any need for movement, travel, encounter. It is here that the virtual world takes shape.
The “virtual nature” of cyberspace does not certainly focus on the so-called emptiness=real existence, but its essence comes in the form of simulation and digitalisation. This virtualised way of constructing the world does not only contain the potential for the development of things, but also possesses the actual path of transformation from possibility to reality.
The US computer scientist, Nicholas Negroponte, pointed out: “If the words “virtual reality” are seen not as noun and adjective, but as “equal halves”, the logic of calling “virtual reality” a pleonasm is more palatable”. The implication is that virtual can also be understood as part of reality. Virtual things will be as real as reality, and even more real than reality. Because, as a form of technology, the “virtual” cannot only unfold around real problems, but also reveal the real parts of things and bring people a realistic experience, making it easier to achieve people’s expected goals.
In short, we cannot regard cyberspace as an “unrealistic space” because of its virtual nature. Cyberspace is not an abstract space that depends on the human imagination to perceive and grasp. Its spatial form is embodied in what is by no means a figment of imagination.
“Freedom” is the universal value concept of modern political civilisation and it is the fundamental human right, second only to the right to life. The creation and development of cyberspace has given this right a new expression, i.e. the Internet freedom. Some scholars have specifically structured the Internet freedom into (a) freedom of expression on the Internet; (b) freedom of access to the Internet and (c) freedom of communication on the Internet.
“Freedom of expression on the Internet” means that the so-called netizens can use the Internet to post and convey their thoughts, opinions and even personal feelings. They are not passive receivers of information, but proactive publishers and disseminators of this information.
“Freedom of access to the Internet” refers to the netizens’ rights to obtain and use the network infrastructure and to choose and obtain web information.
“Freedom of communication on the Internet” refers to the freedom of Internet users to use media.
In general terms, we can further understand and define web freedom by the following aspects. Cyberspace is an equal and open form of disseminating thought. Based on access conditions and technical thresholds for the release of basic information, everyone can participate freely, thus having the opportunity to freely release, access, choose and consume information online. At the same time, cyberspace overcomes – to some extent – the shortcomings of the information asymmetry of traditional media and breaks down the natural barriers of physical time and space.
Netizens can share information resources online and develop free exchanges and interactions. The virtual nature of cyberspace has actually hidden the different representations of identity, status, wealth, job, etc. in real social relations. Based on the fundamental characteristics of cyberspace, individualisation in it has been strengthened, thus generating a bottom-up inner power. With this kind of power, netizens generally have an autonomous experience of freedom. It can be said that for real people, the development of technology and the creation of the web space also have an important liberating significance from a psychic viewpoint.
Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web (WWW), wrote: “My ideal for the World Wide Web is that everything can potentially be connected. It is this ideal that gives us new freedom and enables us to develop faster than our own hierarchical classification system”. Nowadays, faced with the fast development of the Internet and the profound social changes it entails, some scholars have directly pointed out that the value and significance of the Internet lies in its internal values of civilisation. It is the spirit of the Internet that advocates and supports freedom, equality, openness, innovation and sharing. The freedom of the Internet, however, is not absolute. Cyberspace itself has not only the function of individual empowerment, but also the function of “control”, which is mainly achieved through the creation of technical barriers. These types of operations can effectively set the authority to post information, as well as netizens’ access authority, and can selectively display or mask relevant information, thus intentionally guiding or even controlling the public opinion trends on the web, ranging from the illusion of being free and independent to that of being controlled and hetero-directed.
This kind of operations, however, can also be used for special purposes, and the advantages gained by “hidden third parties” achieve a comprehensive monitoring of netizens and web information.
Quoting Michel Foucault, referring to Jeremy Bentham, cyberspace can become a “panoptic ring-shaped prison”, i.e. a “super panoramic prison” for the observer. Milton Mueller had to say: “Although the Internet has greatly expanded the scope and interaction between public and individual discourse, it has also fostered the development of technology and organisational means to monitor and control online discourse”.
In the governance process, with a view to effectively regulate netizens’ sloppy and superficial use of “freedom”, and overcome misguided trends of thought such as cyber violence and rumours, cybercrime, fake news, cyber anarchism, unbridled liberalism and nihilism, States and governments have also actively intervened, striving to base netizens’ thoughts and actions on legal regulations and moral constraints. Only in this way can the Internet freedom truly embody the subject’s consciousness and awareness, the value of rights and obligations, and netizens’ public spirit.
Therefore, we cannot only understand the web from the perspective of individual freedom. It also aims directly at the creation and maintenance of a holistic public order. In short, cyberspace is not a non-proprietary technology-centred “space” system, but a human-centred system with “unification of rights and obligations”. The Internet freedom is not abstract freedom, nor freedom of individualism, but includes the protection of other people’s rights and the overall construction of public order. Therefore, the Internet freedom is ultimately a kind of “limited freedom” and the freedom to break this limit will turn into a destructive and consequently illegal force.
As mentioned above, cyberspace is essentially a social space. The production of cyberspace is fundamentally the production of human social relations, and this production process is completed through interactions between people. The characteristics of virtuality, anonymity and intertemporal nature inherent in cyberspace provide new spatial conditions for human interaction, which is prominently manifested in the “non-centrality” or “decentralisation” characteristics of the web interaction.
Manuel Castells pointed out: “The net has not a centre; it only contains nodes. Each node has a different relevance to the net”. Hence we ask ourselves: what kind of person crosses the “node”? What is the relevance of the mode of communication? First of all, the web communication is made in the electronic square and the whole process is completed in the links of production, exchange, consumption and processing of web information. It can be noted that web interactions are based on the Internet technical platform, using symbols such as texts, videos, voice and even emoticons, in various online communities, forums and other secondary spaces.
It is a typical technicality of activity. The virtual nature and anonymity of cyberspace, as well as the interaction between people, break down the restrictions of face-to-face communication and make them obsolete. The presence of the mind and the absence of the body become the technical behaviour of interaction.
Web interaction has also become a new form of spiritual communication for “real people”. Value and meaning are constantly being created in the process. Secondly, this production of value and meaning is more procedural, i.e. the production of value and meaning is created in the process of interaction between the subjects of the communication. It is no longer prefixed, given, instilled by a third party, but consciously forms the power and influence of the discourse in the interaction, thus constructing different worlds and modes of meaning.
Taking some question-and-answer web platforms as an example, netizens can edit together, share knowledge and experiences through the aforementioned interactive mode, with a simple registration. Between question and answer, netizens establish a social relationship by adding followers (actual followers), sending private messages and posting comments. In question-and-answer style interaction, these professional and rational answers can acquire the power of discourse more and faster, and are universally recognised by netizens.
In this world and in this way, on the Internet, the social network of the others, of the unknown selves, is constantly being constructed, and this is where the value and meaning of the new social relationship arise. Finally, the ‘non-centrality’ of web interaction does not mean ‘non-subjectivity’: the web subjects are always the main vectors of communication activities, and they are fully reciprocal.
Communication activities will establish new relations and will form a new social structure, but at the same time they will take place within the social relations and structures established with non-visible knowledge.
In real society, people’s communication activities are inevitably influenced by the subject’s pre-existing identity, manifested in specific social roles: status, wealth, physical beauty and other pre-existing elements even to their contrary – which makes interaction appear “not so natural”, but influenced precisely by wealth, position, and physical appearance factors.
Conversely, web interaction has largely changed the hierarchy of power and formal degrees of value in real society. When everyone becomes the centre, people enter the web space and enjoy the same opportunities and rights for communication. The structure of democracy is thus formed, which is not based on visible values in the known exterior (society), but on invisible values in the unknown interior (the web).
Obviously this kind of reciprocity is also discussed in a general sense, and it is not absolute either. For instance, some Internet influencers and opinion leaders publicly disclose their identities. The reason why they have a strong ability to “acquire unknown fans” does not exclude the aggregation of their social status (the aforementioned status, physical appearance and other pre-existing factors), so as to use it in real society. In other words, the known figure exploits the cyberspace to impose himself/herself within society; in other words, the shepherd leads nameless sheep where he/she wishes. There is therefore a certain degree of unequal power structure in cyberspace.
The activity of the cyberspace figure known from the outside, as he/she is present and active in real society, is represented by various information, involving all aspects of production and people’s lives, such as education, medical care, insurance, real estate, advertising, legal services, etc. The data flow is ultimately the information flow. The information flow in cyberspace, with its wide source, high speed, large capacity, rich content and form, completely surpasses the traditional information flow. As a result, the well-known figure who uses the net does so to overtake real opponents in his or her respective field, while the followers think he or she is a disembodied guru or anything else.
Through “nodes”, netizens can spread and receive information without being limited by time and space. On the one hand, the virtualised and anonymous characteristics of cyberspace deconstruct or weaken the subject’s fixed identity, which in cyberspace is strongly contextualized, thus showing ambiguity in the practice of fluid communication, as the nature of cyberspace has changed the traditional meaning of space-time coordinates.
The Internet physical equipment is the “new field” of the subject’s activities, but the meaning of the subject’s geographical “position” disappears, and the IP address determines his/her existence. Mobile identity can enable web subjects to become “ubiquitous” and to exist and be mobile across different web interfaces.
The fluidity of cyberspace reflects the following aspects: firstly, the dynamic nature of cyberspace. The characteristic definition of “flow” has the dual meaning of time and space. Due to the flattening and levelling of cyberspace, this type of flow is not a change in the position of individuals in the social class in a sociological sense, but is a flow without hierarchical meaning. Due to the borderless and trans-temporal nature of cyberspace, this type of flow has no physical boundaries in the topological sense, but takes on the undefined meaning of “place”.
Secondly, it reflects the interaction between web entities in the process of web information flow. Human needs are the source of information production, and the web information flow has become the bearer of value and meaning from the very beginning. It is also in the flow and collision of information that new values and meanings are created, thus showing the complex social relations between people. Therefore, in a fundamental sense, the information flow is a social movement related to the generation of meanings and signifiers. In Italy we had a great example, which later ended up in the disappointment of the vast majority of voters, to the benefit of a few who knew how to study (sometimes fraudulently) the bureaucratic apparatus.
Thirdly, it reflects the dynamic development of the social structure based on technological progress, which fundamentally reflects the procedural nature of the practice of “real people”. Castells pointed out: ‘Space is not a reflection of society, but an expression of society. In other words, space is not a copy of society: space is society”. This emphasises that the generation of cyberspace is fundamental to its self-generation.
On the one hand, the fluidity of cyberspace has become an endogenous force for the differentiation and integration of cyberspace itself and its dynamics influence and change the structure of value and meaning in cyberspace. On the other hand, through online and offline interactions, it ultimately transforms – through concrete actions – real society itself that, in turn, promotes changes in the overall social structure. Hence, as a “quality of flow”, cyberspace is basically embodied as a process of social practice.
The creation and development of cyberspace is the result of the continuous differentiation and integration of social space in its own changes. Hence, is cyberspace a so-called “public domain”? According to our understanding, we can see the basic elements that constitute the public domain: firstly, individuals with a rational and critical spirit; secondly, independent media and thirdly, public opinion forming a rational consensus.
As to cyberspace, the public is active: when faced with general events, the public does not stand on the sidelines, but actively participates in the discussion of important issues to safeguard public interests and control power. This kind of fair and dialogic communication and interaction not only reflects the independent thinking, judgment, choice and even critical capacity of netizens as rational subjects, but also reflects their good moral and legal literacy, thus playing a key role in maintaining public order.
In the media sense, the basic characteristics of cyberspace make it relatively independent. There are no hierarchical and strict public power organisations, institutions or systems in cyberspace: it is open to everybody and people communicate and interact in a relatively free environment. The development of web technology – at least the one presented as such – also provides sufficient guarantee for this equality, freedom and independence.
When people online express opinions on various events, a large number of opinions and discussions are quickly gathered in the online public opinion with the help of the relevant platform. Through massive pressure, related issues are resolved in a fair or at least not covert way, and promote the reform and improvement of the relevant systems, and of the rules, too, where necessary.
It can be said that the critical and controlling functions of people online through public opinion have become a positive and constructive force. From this viewpoint, cyberspace has actually fulfilled its function of public domain. But can we infer from this that cyberspace is really in the public domain?
As the main entity of the web, not all netizens can be called “public” in a rational spirit. On the contrary, with the exception of the netizens who are addicted to online consumption and entertainment all day long, some netizens arbitrarily vent their emotions by attacking and verbally abusing their opponents. Aggressive cybernetic pursuits, rampant defamations that ignore facts, and unprincipled cyber parodies make them outright saboteurs.
Public spirit and rationality are completely unfamiliar terms to such netizens. There are unidentified cyber forces that become the packagers and manipulators of information for further aims. Fake information with extremely unreliable sources and content, cybercrimes that trample on the bottom line of laws and morality, etc.
They have also turned cyberspace into a foggy environment. Hence, based on its complexity and in view of creating good web “ecology”, countries around the world are strengthening the management and control of cyberspace, thus achieving the penetration of public power into it. Therefore, we see that cyberspace is not completely independent in a theoretical sense.
In short, in the process of information flow and collision, there is the creation of value and meaning, but also its destruction. Web communication and interaction do not always contribute to resolving incidents of any kind, but in many cases simply act as a destabilising force. Indeed, we cannot simply decide that cyberspace is a “public” or a “quasi-public sphere”.
When discussing the spatial attribution of cyberspace, the yes/no-1/0 method of judging is the result of mechanistic understanding and application of commonly accepted public domain theories. It is very easy to hide the complexity of the structure and the inherent contradictions of cyberspace, and this prevents us from accurately understanding and judging the essential characteristics and functions of cyberspace – and by essential I mean and refer to utility as a shared value, and not to the individuals’ personal benefits.
In my opinion, the greatest significance of the public domain for cyberspace is that it must exist functionally. Cyberspace cannot simply be judged at the aforementioned 1/0 digital level, but can actually perform service operations for everyone. When attempting to orient and guide web subjects from “individualised” to “public” netizens, they can express not only their own needs for interest under the form of help with knowledge and exchange of purely personal experiences, etc., but also uphold the spirit of public rationality by actively paying attention to public events, supervising public power, and safeguarding everybody’s interests.
As a result, it is hoped that cyberspace will rise to the status of a “rational information agent”, and hence a proactive constructive force. When cyberspace plays the role and function of the public domain, it can effectively communicate the relationship between the private sphere and the power sphere, between the online and the offline space, and effectively rebuild the relationship between government, society and citizens, thus contributing to the adjustment and optimisation of the general order of social space.
Conversely, as far as the ownership of cyberspace is concerned, we cannot simply identify cyberspace as ‘being’ or ‘not being’ in the public domain, but we must seek to orient its role in the public interest. In a fundamental sense, cyberspace is a social space, a new ‘environmental’ form that extends and differs from the social space of everyday life with the development of the Internet technology.
Nevertheless, based on the technical dimension, cyberspace as a “virtual reality” is different from the social environment in a general sense, displaying its own characteristics and operating rules that all too often defy moral, civil and criminal behaviours.
Digital Child’s Play: protecting children from the impacts of AI
Artificial intelligence has been used in products targeting children for several years, but legislation protecting them from the potential impacts of the technology is still in its infancy. Ahead of a global forum on AI for children, UN News spoke to two UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) experts about the need for improved policy protection.
Children are already interacting with AI technologies in many different ways: they are embedded in toys, virtual assistants, video games, and adaptive learning software. Their impact on children’s lives is profound, yet UNICEF found that, when it comes to AI policies and practices, children’s rights are an afterthought, at best.
In response, the UN children’s agency has developed draft Policy Guidance on AI for Children to promote children’s rights, and raise awareness of how AI systems can uphold or undermine these rights.
Conor Lennon from UN News asked Jasmina Byrne, Policy Chief at the UNICEF Global Insights team, and Steven Vosloo, a UNICEF data, research and policy specialist, about the importance of putting children at the centre of AI-related policies.
AI Technology will fundamentally change society.
Steven Vosloo At UNICEF we saw that AI was a very hot topic, and something that would fundamentally change society and the economy, particularly for the coming generations. But when we looked at national AI strategies, and corporate policies and guidelines, we realized that not enough attention was being paid to children, and to how AI impacts them.
So, we began an extensive consultation process, speaking to experts around the world, and almost 250 children, in five countries. That process led to our draft guidance document and, after we released it, we invited governments, organizations and companies to pilot it. We’re developing case studies around the guidance, so that we can share the lessons learned.
Jasmina Byrne AI has been in development for many decades. It is neither harmful nor benevolent on its own. It’s the application of these technologies that makes them either beneficial or harmful.
There are many positive applications of AI that can be used in in education for personalized learning. It can be used in healthcare, language simulation and processing, and it is being used to support children with disabilities.
And we use it at UNICEF. For example, it helps us to predict the spread of disease, and improve poverty estimations. But there are also many risks that are associated with the use of AI technologies.
Children interact with digital technologies all the time, but they’re not aware, and many adults are not aware, that many of the toys or platforms they use are powered by artificial intelligence. That’s why we felt that there has to be a special consideration given to children and because of their special vulnerabilities.
Privacy and the profit motive
Steven Vosloo The AI could be using natural language processing to understand words and instructions, and so it’s collecting a lot of data from that child, including intimate conversations, and that data is being stored in the cloud, often on commercial servers. So, there are privacy concerns.
We also know of instances where these types of toys were hacked, and they were banned in Germany, because they were considered to be safe enough.
Around a third of all online users are children. We often find that younger children are using social media platforms or video sharing platforms that weren’t designed with them in mind.
They are often designed for maximum engagement, and are built on a certain level of profiling based on data sets that may not represent children.
Predictive analytics and profiling are particularly relevant when dealing with children: AI may profile children in a way that puts them in a certain bucket, and this may determine what kind of educational opportunities they have in the future, or what benefits parents can access for children. So, the AI is not just impacting them today, but it could set their whole life course on a different direction.
Jasmina Byrne Last year this was big news in the UK. The Government used an algorithm to predict the final grades of high schoolers. And because the data that was input in the algorithms was skewed towards children from private schools, their results were really appalling, and they really discriminated against a lot of children who were from minority communities. So, they had to abandon that system.
That’s just one example of how, if algorithms are based on data that is biased, it can actually have a really negative consequences for children.
‘It’s a digital life now’
Steven Vosloo We really hope that our recommendations will filter down to the people who are actually writing the code. The policy guidance has been aimed at a broad audience, from the governments and policymakers who are increasingly setting strategies and beginning to think about regulating AI, and the private sector that it often develops these AI systems.
We do see competing interests: the decisions around AI systems often have to balance a profit incentive versus an ethical one. What we advocate for is a commitment to responsible AI that comes from the top: not just at the level of the data scientist or software developer, from top management and senior government ministers.
Jasmina Byrne The data footprint that children leave by using digital technology is commercialized and used by third parties for their own profit and for their own gain. They’re often targeted by ads that are not really appropriate for them. This is something that we’ve been really closely following and monitoring.
However, I would say that there is now more political appetite to address these issues, and we are working to put get them on the agenda of policymakers.
Governments need to think and puts children at the centre of all their policy-making around frontier digital technologies. If we don’t think about them and their needs. Then we are really missing great opportunities.
Steven Vosloo The Scottish Government released their AI strategy in March and they officially adopted the UNICEF policy guidance on AI for children. And part of that was because the government as a whole has adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child into law. Children’s lives are not really online or offline anymore. And it’s a digital life now.
How digital technology and innovation can help protect the planet
As a thick haze descended over New Delhi last month, air quality monitors across the Indian capital began to paint a grim picture.
The smoke, fed by the seasonal burning of crops in northern India, was causing levels of the toxic particle PM 2.5 to spike, a trend residents could track in real time on the Global Environment Monitoring System for Air (GEMS Air) website.
By early November, GEMS Air showed that concentrations of PM 2.5 outside New Delhi’s iconic India Gate were ‘hazardous’ to human health. In an industrial area north of the Indian capital, the air was 50 times more polluted.
GEMS Air is one of several new digital tools used by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to track the state of the environment in real time at the global, national and local levels. In the years to come, a digital ecosystem of data platforms will be crucial to helping the world understand and combat a host of environmental hazards, from air pollution to methane emissions, say experts.
“Various private and public sector actors are harnessing data and digital technologies to accelerate global environmental action and fundamentally disrupt business as usual,” says David Jensen, the coordinator of UNEP’s digital transformation task force.
“These partnerships warrant the attention of the international community as they can contribute to systemic change at an unprecedented speed and scale.”
The world is facing what United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has called a triple planetary crisis of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss. Experts say averting those catastrophes and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals will require fundamentally transforming the global economy within a decade. It’s a task that would normally take generations. But a range of data and digital technologies are sweeping the planet with the potential to promote major structural transformations that will enhance environmental sustainability, climate action, nature protection and pollution prevention.
A new age
UNEP is contributing to that charge through a new programme on Digital Transformation and by co-championing the Coalition for Digital Environmental Sustainability as part of the Secretary-General’s Digital Cooperation Roadmap.
UNEP studies show that for 68 per cent of the environment-related Sustainable Development Goal indicators, there is not enough data to assess progress. The digital initiatives leverage technology to halt the decline of the planet and accelerate sustainable finance, products, services, and lifestyles.
GEMS air was among the first of those programmes. Run by UNEP and Swiss technology company IQAir, it is the largest air pollution network in the world, covering some 5,000 cities. In 2020, over 50 million users accessed the platform and its data is being streamed into digital billboards to alert people about air quality risks in real time. In the future, the program aims to extend this capability directly into mobile phone health applications.
Building on lessons learned from GEMS Air, UNEP has developed three other lighthouse digital platforms to showcase the power of data and digital technologies, including cloud computing, earth observation and artificial intelligence.
One is the Freshwater Ecosystem Explorer, which provides a detailed look at the state of lakes and rivers in every country on Earth.
The fruit of a partnership between UNEP, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and Google Earth Engine, it provides free and open data on permanent and seasonal surface waters, reservoirs, wetlands and mangroves.
“It is presented in a policy-friendly way so that citizens and governments can easily assess what is actually happening to the world’s freshwater resources,” says Stuart Crane, a UNEP freshwater expert. “That helps countries track their progress towards the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal Target 6.6.”
Data can be visualized using geospatial maps with accompanying informational graphics and downloaded at national, sub-national and river basin scales. Data are updated annually and depict long-term trends as well as annual and monthly records on freshwater coverage.
Combating climate change
UNEP is also using data-driven decision making to drive deep reductions in methane emissions through the International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO). Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, responsible for at least a quarter of today’s global warming.
The observatory is designed to shine a light on the origins of methane emissions by collecting data from various sources, including satellites, ground-based sensors, corporate reporting and scientific studies.
The Global Methane Assessment published by UNEP and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) found that cutting human-caused methane by 45 per cent this decade would avoid nearly 0.3°C of global warming by the 2040s, and help prevent 255,000 premature deaths, 775,000 asthma-related hospital visits, and 26 million tonnes of crop losses globally.
“The International Methane Emissions Observatory supports partners and institutions working on methane emissions reduction to scale-up action to the levels needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change,” says Manfredi Caltagirone, a UNEP methane emissions expert.
Through the Oil and Gas Methane Partnership 2.0, the methane observatory works with petroleum companies to improve the accuracy and transparency of methane emissions reporting. Current member companies report assets covering over 30 per cent of oil and gas production globally. It also works with the scientific community to fund studies that provide robust, publicly available data.
UNEP is also backing the United Nations Biodiversity Lab 2.0, a free, open-source platform that features data and more than 400 maps highlighting the extent of nature, the effects of climate change, and the scale of human development. Such spatial data help decision-makers put nature at the heart of sustainable development by allowing them to visualize the natural systems that hold back natural disasters, store planet-warming gasses, like carbon dioxide, and provide food and water to billions.
More than 61 countries have accessed data on the UN Biodiversity Lab as part of their national reporting to the Convention on Biological Diversity, an international accord designed to safeguard wildlife and nature. Version 2.0 of the lab was launched in October 2021 as a partnership between UNDP, UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre, the Convention on Biodiversity Secretariat and Impact Observatory.
All of UNEP’s digital platforms are being federated into UNEP’s World Environment Situation Room, a digital ecosystem of data and analytics allowing users to monitor progress against key environmental Sustainable Development Goals and multi-lateral agreements at the global, regional and national levels.
“The technical ability to measure global environmental change—almost in real time—is essential for effective decision making,” says Jensen.
“It will have game-changing implications if this data can be streamed into the algorithms and platforms of the digital economy, where it can prompt users to make the personal changes so necessary to preserving the natural world and achieving net zero.”
Housing needs, the Internet and cyberspace at the forefront in the UK and Italy
Modern construction methods and smart technology can revolutionise the building process and the way we live.
Population growth and demographic changes have led to a global housing shortage. According to research carried out by the Heriot-Watt University National Housing Federation and by the Homeless Charity Crisis Organisation, the UK will face a shortage of four million housing units by the end of 2031. This means that approximately 340,000 new housing units will need to be built each year. The houses built shall meet the demands of home automation and increasing environmental constraints.
Traditional building technology is unlikely to meet this demand. It is relatively expensive and too slow in fulfilling the necessary procedures and complying with all rules and regulations. Furthermore, the quality and capabilities of traditional construction methods are also limited. The only solution is modular production based on the principles of factory automation. This solution uses cordless and battery-free controls and sensors to perfectly integrate with home automation.
Modular buildings are based on a combination of construction methods called Modern Method of Construction (MMC). They include the use of panelling systems and components, such as roof and floor boxes, precast concrete foundation components, prefabricated wiring, mechanical engineering composites and innovative technologies.
With the opening of several factories, the UK has started to use the MMC to build prefabricated and fully equipped houses in modular form, which can be loaded onto trucks for transport across the country. This type of on-site assembly enables the house to be completed in days rather than months, thus reducing costs significantly. Modular buildings have become popular in Europe. In Italy, a pioneering company is the RI Group of Trepuzzi (Lecce), which is also operating in the fields of logistics and services and building health care facilities, field hospitals and public offices, which are cost-effective and quick to construct.
The impact of modular construction is expected to be significant and factories producing up to five thousand houses per year could become the best builders in the sector.
The construction standards of these new technology houses are higher than those of traditional houses. Thanks to better insulation, the electricity bill could be only half that of a traditional house.
Modular houses have kitchens and bathrooms, and are equipped with power and lighting via power cables, which are also modular, and wireless controls, in addition to the increasingly important network and telecommunications infrastructure.
Structural and modular wiring are derived from commercial electrical and industrial installations to ensure efficient and minimal electrical installation work. As technology changes, this standard installation is adaptable and offers a high degree of flexibility.
Experience in industrial and commercial construction shows that traditional fixtures are labour-intensive, rather rigid and still expensive. In contrast, on-site prefabricated modular cabling and the IDC system combined with wireless controllers and sensors can be fully installed at low cost. These are proven technologies and are moving from commercial to domestic use scenarios.
With the help of CAD support for modular cabling, all power cables are laid in the ceiling or wall space. The installation of wireless energy harvesting equipment simplifies the installation process as no switches and duct installation are required. For the first electrical fixing through the wall, the cable takes less time because there is no need to coordinate the position of the switch with the wall bolts. The level of dependency of on-site installation activities has also been reduced. Sensors, switches and wireless energy harvesting controls can be installed anywhere in the building, even in hard-to-reach areas.
After installation, the principle of energy harvesting will be used. Switches and sensors are powered by the surrounding environment and there is no need to replace old batteries and other maintenance equipment. Moreover, this flexibility and this reliability enable the system to be expanded at any time.
The modular construction technology enables it to adapt to various types of houses and meet the needs of today’s life through flexible shapes and various exterior decorations. This is not exactly the same as the old prefabricated houses, “granted” in Italy to earthquake victims who have been waiting for years for a decent, civilised home.
By providing a range of traditional and modern exterior decorative panels, the roofline can also be customised to suit local customs and architecture.
Through the combination of innovative product technology and good design, the aim of the smart home is to provide security and comfort. The usual requirement is to place the light switch and dimmer (or potentiometer) in the most convenient place. Driven by the kinetic energy collected by the switch itself, they can be placed anywhere.
They do not require wiring, but can send wireless signals to the receiver inside or near lights or DIN-rail mounts (German Institute for Standardisation). In addition, there is no need to use batteries and no need to replace them. This saves all the inconvenience and environmental risks that can be caused by replacing batteries.
Since this type of equipment has reached a wide range of applications, lighting and home entertainment will choose battery-free products. Besides controlling brightness and colour, self-powered switches can also be used to control sound systems or blinds. A key application of the smart home is the switch that can turn off/on devices that do not use traditional electricity when leaving or coming back home.
Energy harvesting technology also supports other sensor-based applications. For example, self-powered sensors can be wirelessly connected to an intruder alarm. Furthermore, by installing light-activated touch sensors on windows, lighting and heating can be turned off when no one is at home.
Another source of energy is the temperature difference between the heating radiator and the surrounding environment. For example, this energy harvesting enables a self-powered heating valve to perform heating control via a room temperature controller according to specific conditions.
From factories to offices, from multifunctional buildings to smart homes, wireless energy harvesting technology has been tested in approximately one million buildings worldwide. Most sensors, switches and other self-powered energy-harvesting devices can communicate at a distance of up to 30 metres in a building and meet the EnOcean international wireless standard, which encrypts messages below 1 GHz by sending a short message.
There are also some self-powered devices that integrate EnOcean energy harvesting technology and can communicate directly with the lights via the well-known Bluetooth or Zigbee (wireless communication standard based on the IEEE 802.15.4 specification, maintained by the ZigBee Alliance). This makes it possible to use green, battery-free switches and solar sensors to flexibly control other applications, such as LED lights or speakers.
Now that wireless sensors for energy harvesting can frame data at home, it will be a huge step forward to aggregate information and perform useful analysis. They process data through the Internet of Things (IoT), which refers to the path in technological development whereby, through the Internet, potentially every object of everyday life can acquire its own identity in cyberspace. As mentioned above, the IoT is based on the idea of “smart” items which are interconnected to exchange the information they possess, collect and/or process.
It also uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to keep track of living patterns and activities in modular homes. Energy analysis is an application that can currently help homeowners further reduce energy consumption through AI.
Looking to the future, the combination of the IoT and AI will bring many benefits. Geographical data, weather and climate information, as well as activities, water and energy consumption and other factors will be very useful for planners, building organisations, builders and landlords.
Perceived architecture represents the next generation of sustainable building systems. Smart buildings will soon be able to integrate the IoT devices on their own, as well as generate large amounts of information and use it to optimise buildings. This provides a whole new dimension to the service and to the business and home economics model.
This is particularly relevant for the ageing population, as these smart technologies can radically change the lifestyles of the elderly people and their families. They are expected to bring transformative benefits in terms of health and well-being.
The key elements of such a home include smart, non-invasive and safe and secure connections with friends, family members, general practitioners, nurses and health care professionals, involving the care of residents. Technology based on battery-free sensors connected to the IoT will help prevent accidents at home, resulting from kitchens utensils and overflowing toilets, etc., and keep up with residents’ interactions with healthcare professionals.
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