Alexandre Fasel: we must prepare for technological upheaval

Swiss ambassador for science diplomacy, Alexandre Fasel. (Credit: DFAE)

War, famine and Covid are not the last of Geneva’s preoccupations as AI, quantum and other fields of innovation bring both opportunities and challenges for the international city.

Science and technology are advancing at the speed of light, with the potential to transform the world. For Alexandre Fasel, Swiss ambassador for science diplomacy, the international community must get ahead of these changes and steer the technological upheaval towards the greater good, and the Swiss-backed Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA) is the way to do it. 

Geneva Solutions: What will be the role of science diplomacy in the next 20 years?

Alexandre Fasel: The age of science disciplines of physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, and so on, is gone. They’re all intertwined in what we call the convergence of science. Think of bioscience, neuroscience, nanoscience, infoscience: they are now part of an integrated science system. That opens a huge field of scientific endeavour and discovery, which drives an acceleration of technology. Artificial intelligence, human augmentation, geoengineering and other advances are already impacting us and will ultimately change our societies, hence, the way they’re governed. As an international community we must be able to see what’s coming, understand its impact and address it in the best possible way by coming together and creating a shared sense of purpose. That's the logic behind anticipatory science diplomacy.

How will GESDA help us prepare for such a future?

We asked GESDA to develop a methodology based on anticipation by bringing all of the international community’s stakeholders together, from scientists and technologists to diplomats and policymakers, from the private sector and philanthropy to citizens. We need to know what is cooking in the labs, what will be the next scientific breakthroughs and what technologies will flow out of them. Then we must look at how the acceleration of those advances will play out and impact us, and how we must deal with them.

Diplomatic relations are at an all-time-low due to the war in Ukraine, which could hinder future cooperation between states. Does GESDA factor in such events too?

Yes, but at a later stage. Anticipatory science diplomacy always starts with anticipation of scientific breakthroughs. That in itself is a fact of life and is one of the driving factors of international governance. The geopolitical element is another factor but does not stop humanity from advancing. It’s going to happen one way or another. So, how do we create a shared sense of purpose without being prisoners of geostrategic interests? In the conversations curated by GESDA it may be easier to build convergence than in the setting of formal negotiations.

Can anticipatory science diplomacy see past current divides?

This convergence of science and acceleration of technology is embedded in the evolution of the geopolitical landscape and science and technology are indeed being used by individual states as tools for projection of power and strategic autonomy. At the same time, we will not attain all the Sustainable Development Goals without science and technology, so we must harness the upsides, while understanding their impacts in order to contain, control and regulate the difficult aspects.

When Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web as a shared repository of information for scientists at CERN, it led to the democratisation of the internet, which is a wonderful thing. But did we imagine in 1989 how it would impact democracy, did we anticipate that social media would not only facilitate democratic developments but also fragilise democratic processes in liberal states?

CERN froze Russia out due to the war. Was it the right approach?

At CERN we saw the tensions between the approach that science must remain open for the benefit of all and the attitude that science can also be an instrument in the geopolitical toolbox. Switzerland’s policy is based on open science, driven by scientists and not the government. But we are not naive. We need to protect our scientific capital and intellectual property. The stance we took at CERN led to the compromise of allowing the Russian scientists that are already in Geneva to continue to work here.

Isn’t it hard to convince countries to get on board with GESDA?

Diplomats are mainly driven by the issues of the day. GESDA won’t solve the situation in the Donbas. Its role is to alert the diplomatic community about what is coming down the road, but to which we must pay attention without delay.

This article was published as part of a special 2nd anniversary print edition of Geneva Solutions, published in collaboration with Le Temps.