Thank you to the World Leadership Alliance-Club de Madrid and Boston Global Forum for inviting me to deliver some introductory remarks to this timely and important event on the theme – Transatlantic Approaches on Digital Governance: A New Social Contract in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
I’m speaking to you from my home city of Melbourne, where more than 5 million people are living under a strict lockdown as we grapple with an outbreak of the COVID-19 infection.
At the moment we have a 9pm to 5am curfew.
We cannot go outdoors for more than one hour a day to exercise, one trip to do essential shopping, nor can we travel more than 5 kilometers from our homes.
Nearly all businesses and community facilities are closed.
I know many of you have had similar experiences in your home cities over the course of this extraordinary year.
The impact of this global pandemic has been felt by all of us, and all of our lives have been changed by it.
We have learned some very important lessons this year.
We have learned that community still matters.
We have learned that solidarity still matters.
We have learned, or been reminded, that individual freedom has to be balanced against the common good.
We have learned that government still matters, and that competent government matters a great deal.
We have learned that transparency is better than concealment.
We have learned to value our health-care workers, and that cutting spending on public health is a false economy.
Most of all, we have learned that facts matter; that truth matters; that accurate and timely information matters.
More concretely, we have learned that science matters.
Science holds the key to understanding the multiple challenges posed by COVID-19, to responding effectively to those challenges – and ultimately – to defeating COVID-19 and saving the lives of millions of people.
That’s why it’s so timely that you are meeting – thanks to the wonders of contact-free global conversation – to discuss the role of science and technology in responding to the challenges of our century, of which the COVID-19 pandemic will not be the last.
We have had transnational and even global pandemics before.
We had plague, smallpox and cholera.
A hundred years ago we had the so-called Spanish Flu.
Nearly forty years ago we saw the advent of HIV/AIDS.
But while this is not the first global pandemic, it is the first pandemic in a globalised world.
It is the first pandemic in the era of the smartphone, of social media, of instantaneous global information and disinformation.
When Mark Twain wrote that “a lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots” he could not have known how true that would be in the year 2020.
Perhaps the most important challenge we face is how to prevent the wonderful technologies we now possess being misused; being put at the service of lies and propaganda and the promotion of hate-filled conspiracy theories.
The pandemic will elicit an examination of the social contract – what is the volonté générale, or the mens una, or have the inputs for utilitarian outcomes shifted?
We may need to examine whether the freedoms and rights that the citizenry of a western liberal democracy has traditionally enjoyed and that have been given up by the citizenry during the last few months will be altered, and whether there will be a ceding of those rights and freedoms to governments, given the course of this pandemic and the fact that no society can guarantee that we can be free of another wave, or indeed, another pandemic.
And in this century we may also face an examination of innate human morality and the foundation that that provides in a society, balanced against an artificial intelligence.
But the post-COVID world will not be the pre-COVID world.
We can never go back to life as it was in 2019, as individuals, as communities or as nations.
The challenge facing all of us, as leaders, as legislators, as policy-makers, as shapers of public opinion, is to see that all these lessons are learned, that truth prevails over propaganda and science over mythology.
Science has given us the technology we need to defeat not only COVID-19, but all of the multiple challenges we face.
What we need now is the political will to use it effectively.
Thank you, and all the best for your discussion over the next two days.