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PM speech to the UN General Assembly: 24 September 2019


On September 24, 2019, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson presented a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

This is what he said:

'Mr President, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, faithful late night audience.

It is customary for the British Prime Minister to come to this United Nations and pledge to advance our values and defend our rules, the rules of a peaceful world.

From protecting freedom of navigation in the Gulf

To persevering in the vital task of achieving a two-state solution to the conflict in the Middle East.

And of course I am proud to do all of these things.

But no-one can ignore a gathering force that is reshaping the future of every member of this Assembly.

There has been nothing like it in history

When I think of the great scientific revolutions of the past - print, the steam engine, aviation, the atomic age - I think of new tools that we acquired but over which we - the human race - had the advantage,

Which we controlled.

That is not necessarily the case in the digital age.

You may keep secrets from your friends, from your parents, your children, your doctor – even your personal trainer – but it takes real effort to conceal your thoughts from Google.

And if that is true today, in future there may be nowhere to hide.

Smart cities will pullulate with sensors, all joined together by the “internet of things”, bollards communing invisibly with lamp posts

So there is always a parking space for your electric car,

so that no bin goes unemptied, no street unswept,

and the urban environment is as antiseptic as a Zurich pharmacy.

But this technology could also be used to keep every citizen under round-the-clock surveillance.

A future Alexa will pretend to take orders.

But this Alexa will be watching you,

Clucking her tongue and stamping her foot

In the future, voice connectivity will be in every room and almost every object:

your mattress will monitor your nightmares; your fridge will beep for more cheese,

your front door will sweep wide the moment you approach, like some silent butler; your smart meter will go hustling - if its accord - for the cheapest electricity.

And every one of them minutely transcribing your every habit in tiny electronic shorthand,

Stored not in their chips or their innards - nowhere you can find it,

But in some great cloud of data that lours ever more oppressively over the human race

A giant dark thundercloud

waiting to burst

And we have no control over how or when the precipitation will take place

And every day that we tap on our phones or work on our ipads - as I see some of you doing now -

We not only leave our indelible spoor in the ether

But we are ourselves becoming a resource

Click by click, tap by tap.

Just as the carboniferous period created the indescribable wealth - leaf by decaying leaf - of hydrocarbons.

Data is the crude oil of the modern economy

And we are now in an environment where

We don’t know who should own these new oil fields

We don’t always know who should have the rights or the title to these gushers of cash

And we don’t know who decides how to use that data

Can these algorithms be trusted with our lives and hopes?

Should the machines - and only the machines - decide whether or not we are eligible for a mortgage or insurance

Or what surgery or medicines we should receive?

Are we doomed to a cold and heartless future in which computer says yes - or computer says no

With the grim finality of an emperor in the arena?

How do you plead with an algorithm? How do you get it to see the extenuating circumstances

And how do we know that the machines have not been insidiously programmed to fool us or even to cheat us?

We already use all kinds of messaging services that offer instant communication at minimal cost.

The same programmes, platforms, could also be designed for real-time censorship of every conversation, with offending words automatically deleted, indeed in some countries this happens today.

Digital authoritarianism is not, alas, the stuff of dystopian fantasy but of an emerging reality.

The reason I am giving this speech today is that the UK is one of the world’s tech leaders - and I believe governments have been simply caught unawares by the unintended consequences of the internet;

A scientific breakthrough more far-reaching in its everyday psychological impact than any other invention since Gutenberg

And when you consider how long it took for books to come into widespread circulation

The arrival of the internet is far bigger than print

It is bigger than the atomic age -

But it is like nuclear power in that it is capable of both good and harm - but of course it is not alone

As new technologies seem to race towards us from the far hor